Operation Overlord and Surrey: Uncovering Kingston’s role in the 1944 D-Day landings

It is no exaggeration to say that D-Day, the 6th June, 1944, is a day that changed history. With the recent anniversary of the D-Day landings, a day which began ‘Operation Overlord’ and the invasion of German-occupied France by the Allies, it is important to recall the essential role that Kingston-on-Thames and the surrounding area played in those momentous events.

Many people are unaware of the extent to which the Borough of Kingston and its districts helped contribute to the tremendous success of D-Day. Here are six interesting facts about the Kingston area and its role in D-Day:

D-Day Diver

One: Kingston’s main public swimming pool in the 1930s, the Coronation Baths, was located in Denmark Road, just a short walk from what is now the University’s Penrhyn Road and Knights Park campuses. One of the closest-kept local secrets of the Second World War was that the pool, which had underwater lights, was taken over by the Admiralty in January, 1944, and was used for training many of the frogmen who carried out a particularly hazardous mission in the very early hours of the D-Day invasion morning. Wearing specially-designed rubber diving suits, some 120 divers were trained to swim underwater to enemy defence obstacles and plant special explosives, which helped clear a path for Allied landing-craft to safely reach the Normandy beaches.

Two: The complex military and logistical planning for Operation Overlord and D-Day was one of the most secret Allied operations of the Second World War. It was overseen by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion forces. Intriguingly, ‘Ike’ Eisenhower lived and worked in Kingston from 1942-1944.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

With his main headquarters located in Bushy Park, near Teddington and Hampton Court, Eisenhower (see photo) rented Telegraph Cottage in Warren Road, at the top of Kingston Hill, where he would snatch time to relax and go for occasional horse-rides in Richmond Park. Eisenhower’s presence in Kingston was a closely-guarded secret, as it was feared that the Germans would attempt an assassination had the news leaked out.

Three: The Bushy Park camp was known as ‘Camp Griffiss’, named after Lieut-Col. Townsend Griffiss, who had been first U.S. airman to die in Europe after America’s entry into the war in 1941. The camp was a major military base for both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force from July, 1942 to December, 1944. Much of Eisenhower’s detailed planning for D-Day took place at the camp which, at its peak, had some 4,000 personnel working there. Although many service personnel lived in the grounds of Bushy Park in huts, numerous officers were billeted with local families in the Kingston area. Interestingly, most of the camp’s huts remained standing until as late as 1963.

Four: Although much of the press in Britain could not go into detail about the actual military events of D-Day, or reveal which areas of the country had contributed to Operation Overlord and precisely how, newspapers were nevertheless allowed to carry very general reports on the landings over the next 3-4 days after D-Day. In Kingston, the local Surrey Comet published an editorial on 10th June recognising the enormity of the landings and their significance: ‘This lodgement on a broad front has constituted a unique operation of war, an immense venture which has been years in planning and which is of an intricacy so vast that only very few can have the least realisation of its amazing complexity’.

D-Day -British_Forces_during_the_Invasion_of_Normandy_6_June_1944

And, by July, 1944, the Comet was able to report that the Queen’s Royal regiment, the West Surreys (which had local Kingston men in its ranks) had arrived in France a few days after D-Day and ‘were almost immediately engaged in very heavy fighting near Tilly sur Seulles’. For several days they took part in resisting powerful German counter-attacks in the Tilly area, an action that was vital to the overall success of the Allied invasion.

Five: A huge armada of many vessels and landing craft were used on D-Day, a key one being the L.C.T. (‘Landing Craft Tank’). This was an amphibious assault craft for landing tanks or heavy guns on beachheads, and many of the L.C.T.s went in just before the main landings took place to lay down covering fire. One such L.C.T. on the early morning of D-Day was commanded by Sub-Lieut. Richard Offer, R.N.V.R., a former pupil of Tiffins School in Kingston. He gave a vivid account of what he experienced to the local Surrey Comet. Mines were dodged successfully, he said, but the craft came under heavy fire and two shells hit his vessel. Yet, despite a ‘whacking hole’ in its side, the craft managed to get back successfully to England. Another L.C.T. was under the command of Lieut. W.E. Fairiey, RNVR who, prior to the war, had himself been a Surrey Comet reporter. He commented to the paper: ‘The number of ships off the beachheads and going backwards and forwards across the Channel was simply staggering’.

Six: It is estimated that about 130,000 men bravely swept onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, with many men killed or seriously wounded in the first waves of the assault. One of these was the son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Harper of Surbiton. In early July, 1944, they were officially notified that their son, private Robert Harper, a commando, had been killed in action with the first wave of assault troops on D-Day. Born in 1915, he had been educated at Christ Church School in Surbiton, and became a brickmaker at Tolworth brick fields before he was called up in 1940. Before he was killed, he had been stationed in Iceland and in the Shetlands.

Regrettably, the recent anniversary of D-Day, and its associated commemorative events, was curtailed by the Coronavirus emergency. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of media coverage and profiles of the remaining D-Day veterans. It all helped remind us how the bravery and sacrifice of such local heroes enabled the eventual liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey 

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here on June 4th, 2019.

Posted in American history, British history, European History, Events, Fascism, French History, German History, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Launching the League: The foundation of a branch of the League of Nations Union in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey

There are times in history when the global will very much influence the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.

Woodrow Wilson-1920

The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision, drive and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War. He said he looked forward to a new world of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the League and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.

In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.

The League in South-West London

In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston-on-Thames. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer to organise a branch. Thus, according to the local Surrey Comet, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’. This comment received a round of applause from the audience.

Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. Moreover, children ‘were still suffering from malnutrition and starvation’. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.

Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.

Sidney Pocock

Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons).

Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.

The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’.

According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU. Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.

LNU Growth

League of Nations cartoon image

It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the Kingston LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Moreover, the Surrey Comet reported that, at the meeting that evening, Mr. Raymond, the local secretary, and his assistants, ‘enrolled a good many new members during the evening’.

Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.

The speakers at the meeting included Mr. W. Llewellyn Williams, who apparently spoke for nearly an hour and a half. He insisted that the League of Nations was ‘not a mere dream or ideal but an accomplished fact’ and it was ‘the greatest political fact in the world today’. He added that America’s aloofness from the League was ‘very regrettable’, but he argued that Christian public opinion ‘of all shades and all churches’ in America ‘was more enthusiastic, better organised and more outspoken’ than in Britain or any country of Europe.

Looking back on the League 

The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period was, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of the 1920s, as illustrated in stark form in Kingston – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939. There were many complex reasons for this, not least – as the historian Ian Kershaw put it recently – the fact that the legacy of the First World War had made another world war more likely.

Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War. It would be easy to dismiss this as naive idealism or an impractical understanding of how nations operate, but the early activists of the LNU sincerely believed that they could build enthusiasm in Britain for an international machine that would help to outlaw war in human affairs.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

(Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in November, 2017)

Posted in American history, British history, European History, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifth Column Fears in Kingston-on-Thames, 1939-1940: A Brief Survey

Eighty-two years ago, in May-June, 1940, parts of south-west London experienced the same degree of paranoia that gripped other parts of the capital and elsewhere across England. This was fear of possible sabotage or other similar acts, as a prelude to possible German invasion. All sorts of claims emerged that German agents or British pro-Nazi sympathisers were at work, seeking to sow confusion and chaos, or to undermine Britain’s defensive capabilities.

A few years ago I carried out some research on wartime fears about ‘Fifth Column’ activities in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, and the extraordinary degree of paranoia that gripped some of the local townspeople at the time about the possible activities of the ‘enemy within’. More recently, and keeping the focus on the Thames Valley area, I have conducted some similar research into how such fears about potential collaborators, spies and saboteurs had an impact on Kingston-on-Thames and the surrounding area in 1940.

Defining the term

The term ‘Fifth Column’ had its origins in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when the fascist General Emile Mola, during his march on the besieged Spanish capital Madrid, boasted that he had not only four columns of troops under his command, but also a ‘fifth’ secret column of Francoist supporters already in the city, a body of pro-fascists who would work to undermine the Republican defenders from within, through acts of sabotage and spreading defeatist rumours.

British soldier on beach 1940

Many scholars now feel this was exaggerated and more a product of skilled pro-Franco propaganda than real historical fact. However, the notion of a ‘Fifth Column’ still caught the popular imagination of the public across Europe at the time, including in the UK, especially when people were faced with the rapid occupation of Norway and Denmark by the Nazis, and then the shocking collapse of Belgium, France and the Netherlands under a German onslaught soon after. Many commentators in 1940 put these huge defeats down to the work of spies, saboteurs, ‘Quislings’, traitors, and pro-Nazi elements working behind Allied lines. ‘Spies’ and ‘subversion’ also made good copy for newspapers, who helped fan the growing atmosphere of distrust.

The case of Kingston

How did all this have an impact on Kingston in Surrey and the surrounding area? One can certainly see evidence of such fears building up about the so-called ‘Fifth Column’ in the spring and summer of 1940, especially as news began to filter through about the defeat and evacuation from France of the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force).

Tragically, many of the refugees who escaped to this country became a focus for suspicion, with some people suggesting that ‘enemy spies’ could easily have smuggled themselves in among those who had fled Nazi tyranny, including among the Jewish refugees. Fortunately, more sane voices prevailed (for a while, at least).

Jewish chidren arrive in Britain 1938

The Surrey Comet, for example, did its best to encourage people to trust the authorities on this issue. In April, 1940, an editorial in the newspaper assured its readers that they could safely rely upon ‘the police and other competent authorities to tighten their grip upon the insidious evil known as the Nazi “Fifth Column”, and find time to give help and friendship particularly to the thousands of young people, Germans, Austrians and Czechs, who have lost their countries and have even better reason than we to hate old enemies’.

On the other hand, as May turned into June, 1940, and news from the continent (in so far as it passed tight censorship restrictions) became more grim, even the calm ‘reasonableness’ of the Surrey Comet began to crack somewhat under pressure. In an editorial in late May, 1940, on ‘Spies and Saboteurs’, the newspaper welcomed the new Treachery Bill that was quickly going through the House of Commons that week, and added: ‘Experience in other lands has brought home to the Britisher that stricter measures must be taken against espionage, sabotage and “Fifth Column” activities. The Germans’ easy success in occupying the Norwegian ports is known to have been largely due to the activities of traitors like… Quisling and German agents…’.

If the Invader Comes

The newspaper claimed that other countries, notably Holland, had since found that their public services had been ‘corrupted’ in the same way by agents of Berlin, and thus ‘a wholesale clearance of Nazi sympathisers has become necessary’. The Comet argued that the law in the UK should now be strengthened against ‘anti-war agitators and those who are covertly assisting the enemy’. Similarly, a week later, the same newspaper used another editorial to warn people about ‘Mischievous Gossip’ and the repetition of rumour – ‘the chatter of the man in the street and club’, which ‘may easily result in demoralisation and, indeed, the defeat of the Allied cause’. It was the duty of the ‘patriotic citizen’ to ignore and discourage such ‘vapourings’.

Clearly, fears about ‘Fifth Columnists’ and enemy spies could have serious implications for innocent people visiting Kingston and the area at the time, even serving members of the Armed Forces. In May, 1940, it was reported that three young uniformed Naval ratings were taken from the upper deck of a trolley bus on the Hampton Wick side of Kingston Bridge and arrested by police officers, and detained for about an hour on suspicion of being ‘Fifth Columnists’. It emerged that the innocent men had been stopped by police who were acting on information provided to them by a local woman.

In another example of the tense atmosphere that descended on the area in light of ‘Fifth Column’ fever, in early June it was reported that alarms had been raised at Teddington Weir about a man who had ‘been seen photographing the weir’. A police car had been sent to detain the ‘Fifth Columnist’, but when they arrived and closely quizzed the man, they had found his ‘camera’ was in fact a gas mask (of the kind issued to all civilians).

Further fears


Even the Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V.) (later the ‘Home Guard’) could be subject to ‘Fifth Column’ suspicions. As the scale of the disaster in France became apparent and fears of German invasion of Britain grew, thousands of volunteers responded to a radio appeal by the government and flocked to join the L.D.V. in the Kingston and general Thames Valley area, but local authorities remained keen to root out anybody ‘suspicious’. In the Twickenham and Teddington area, for example, the newly appointed L.D.V. commandant, making a speech to his new force on Twickenham Green, said that, in view of the ‘danger of Fifth Column activities, selection of the men for the unit was being done very carefully’.

In the same way, local elected Councillors in the area began to show signs of paranoia about ‘Fifth Column’ spies. In early July, a debate at a meeting of Surbiton Town Council saw a Councillor ask whether Surbiton’s Mayor would consider setting up an ‘Espionage Corps’ to report ‘anything of a subversive character that they hear’. The Mayor promised to see that the matter was brought before the local Emergency Committee, but probably privately agreed with another Councillor who asked pointedly: ‘Are we to have a Gestapo in this country before Hitler gets here?’

The presence of conscientious objectors (who were labelled as ‘conchies’) also became the focus of ‘Fifth Column’ suspicion within local authorities in Kingston and the surrounding areas. A major row broke out within Twickenham Council, for example, in July about a plan to root out all ‘conchies’, as such men, it was claimed, ‘might be a pernicious influence on their colleagues’. Some Councillors wanted a special test to be introduced for every Council employee to ask whether they were an ‘objector’, and to also ask about their nationality and even the nationality of their parents. In the heated debate over the issue, some members of the Council argued it was a naive effort to find ‘Fifth Columnists’, which would be doomed to failure and only serve to imperil liberty, the very thing the country was fighting to protect.

Shockingly, at one stage in the debate, one of the Councillors referred to conscientious objectors as ‘worms’ and said they should be ‘put in the lethal chamber’. No further comment is required.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

(Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in June, 2017)

Iconic WW2 poster
Posted in Anti-fascism, British history, European History, Fascism, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under a ‘Rain of Bombs’: How the Dunkirk evacuation was reported in Kingston-on-Thames

On 26th May, 1940, Churchill ordered the implementation of ‘Opration Dynamo’, a plan to save the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). In 2020, Britain marked the 80th anniversary of what one war correspondent called at the time the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk, the dramatic rescue of the BEF from the beaches of the small Belgian seaside town, which took place between 27th May and 4th June, 1940. Today, in this 81st year since those dramatic events, here’s some research from local level.

Troops returning from Dunkirk

Weary troops disembark at a British port

Looking back, many historians now have mixed feelings about how this humiliating and near-disastrous defeat was turned into a ‘victory’ in Britain’s received national mythology concerning those dark days.

What cannot be denied, though, is the incredible bravery shown by men involved in the operation, including civilian non-combatants who volunteered to sail to the beaches in small boats and rescue hundreds of soldiers under enemy fire.

How did news of Dunkirk’s events filter through to Kingston-on-Thames at the time? What details were the Royal Borough’s residents provided with about the evacuation?

Kingston and wartime news

During May, 1940, local residents in the small Thames Valley town and surrounding districts had already been made aware that all was not going well for British land-forces and their Allies across the English Channel. The local Surrey Comet newspaper, in an editorial on 18th May, had warned that the ‘tragedy of Norway has been repeated in Holland’ and that ‘Quislings’ and Fifth Columnists ‘within the gates’ were preparing the way for invasion.

The so-called ‘Phoney War’ of the past few months had well and truly come to a crashing end, and there were now growing fears that the ‘island’ of Britain could very well be next on Hitler’s shopping list of conquests.

Despite official censorship of what precisely was happening abroad militarily, awareness among local townspeople began to emerge in early June that something major and traumatic was occurring in the conflict. Local citizens, especially those residing along the River Thames and near the main bridge in Kingston, had already seen the commandeering by the Navy of plenty of various ‘small ships’, and witnessed them being taken up the River towards central London, for eventual despatch to a south-east coast port. Some local boatmen had also volunteered as pilots in this task.

JB Priestley

Indeed, on Wednesday, 5th June, the famous author J.B. Priestley (pictured), in a national broadcast on BBC Radio, coined the phrase the ‘Little Ships’ and told his listeners that Britain had turned a page in its history and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’. It is interesting to note that none other than Winston Churchill became a big fan of Priestley’s radio talks.

A ‘Little Ship’ in action

Moreover, on the very same day, the local Surrey Comet newspaper carried its first report on the ‘Dunkirk Epic’. The paper reported that three young Kingston watermen, in a small pleasure boat that in peacetime normally plied its trade on the Thames between Hampton Court and Richmond, had been ‘Bombed and machine gunned for close on 48 hours’, but had still managed to take off nearly 800 British and French soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches ‘during the heroic evacuation of the B.E.F.’, thus serving to link Kingston (as the paper put it) ‘with one of the most glorious epics in our history’.

According to the Comet, the skipper of the small boat, which was (perhaps appropriately) named the Tigress, was Mr. Henry George Hastings, a 27-year old lighterman of the Gloucester Arms in Kingston. His brother, Warren, had acted as engineer and deckhand on the boat, while Bill Clarke, of Richmond Road in Kingston, had completed the small crew. The boat had been part of a convoy of about 20 beats ‘of all shapes and sizes’, and had made its way to the beachhead by looking out for the ‘great fires’ burning at Dunkirk, as the crew did not have a chart or compass.

Dunkirk troops waiting in line

Apart from a moment when Henry Hastings was thrown overboard by the concussion of a bomb, the three men came through unharmed. However, after it had completed its job of rescue from the dangerous Dunkirk beaches, the Tigress had been holed by a German bomb and sunk.

Hastings explained to the Comet: ‘When we arrived hundreds of troops were marching along the beaches being shelled and bombed mercilessly all the time. I got the boat as near to the shore as I could. The troops clambered into her, some of them actually riding in to the sea on horses, and others clung to the sides of the boat’. He said his boat could accommodate about 150 at a time, and they made four journeys to and from the beaches to naval ships lying further out to sea.

Hastings also commented: ‘The machine-gunning and bombing of the ships was continuous but I never saw the slightest sign of panic either by the troops or the crews. We were picked up by another boat and brought back to England. We reached Kingston on Saturday morning. I had never taken the Tigress farther than Tilbury before’.

More revelations

Another fascinating report on Dunkirk appeared in the Surrey Comet three days later under the heading: ‘Braved Dunkirk’s Terrors – Thames Watermen Under Rain of Bombs’. It revealed, in perhaps surprising detail, how more stories had emerged concerning the ‘heroic part’ played in the evacuation by local Thames Valley watermen.

One such story involved a 15-year old Teddington boy who had wept when told he was too young to make the dangerous trip; Anthony Nash, of Clarence Road in Teddington, had been part of the crew of one of four petrol-driven boats that had been requisitioned and taken down to the south-east coast, but his boat had developed engine trouble and permission had been refused for it to go across the Channel. The other three boats had been used, however, and made several rescue trips, transferring French, Belgian and British troops from the shore to waiting larger ships.


Other stories came from local soldiers from the East Surrey regiment, who had managed to escape from the beaches and be evacuated. Private George Edgar Apps, a 23-year old army transport driver from Kingston, for example, was cited in the Comet as saying: ‘We lived for a week on anything we could find’. He, along with nine other men, had abandoned their lorry and had become separated from their unit, eventually tramping their way to the coast.

Similarly, Pvt. Joseph Cox, wounded in the side and ankle, had walked the last nine miles to Dunkirk without boots. Other details were also set out in the Comet on the survival experiences of local men who had managed to be rescued.

A few days later, on 12th June, the Surrey Comet also carried some tantalising details for readers on the ‘gallant fleet of Thames pleasure craft’ that had cooperated in the Dunkirk evacuation and returned to their local moorings on Sunday, 9th June. As the paper observed: ‘Some of them that set out on the perilous undertaking did not return; others came back bearing the scars of battle’.

Dunkirk little-ships on Thames

In addition, the Comet noted: ‘The boats came home without ceremony. There were occasional outbursts of enthusiasm as they passed under London bridges, but when they arrived at the higher reaches of the Thames their coming had been unheralded and there were few to see them draw into their moorings’. Yet, gratifyingly: ‘Later in the day their presence was discovered and crowds of people spent hours inspecting them’.

At the time, British senior officers estimated that the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, code-named ‘Operation Dynamo’, would only save about 30,000 men, about a tenth of the entire BEF. In the end, an astonishing 338,226 men were rescued, including 139,997 Belgian, Dutch, French and Polish troops.

In its own way, as with a good number of other local towns in the Thames Valley area, Kingston had played a key part in this daring and vital endeavour.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in British Empire, British history, European History, French History, German History, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All Quiet on the Western Front: a research note on a major movie

Ninety one years ago, on 29th April, 1930, the New York premiere took place of a 138-minute black-and-white war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, which has come to be seen by historians and other commentators as one of the most powerful and moving anti-war movies of the early 20th century.

Erich Maria Remarque

Directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring Lew Ayres as a young German soldier named Paul Baumer, the film was based on the 1928 novel of the same name published by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), which became an international bestseller. The author had written the book to break free from his traumatic memories of being a soldier in the First World War (he had been wounded five times in the conflict) and from ‘my thoughts and those of my companions’.

Indeed, the prologue to the movie, taken directly from the novel, said that ‘death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it’.

As with the main character in his novel, Erich Maria Remarque (pictured) had been in a class of 18-year olds who had been drafted into the German infantry, initially seduced by what they had seen as the call of patriotic duty to their Fatherland and by what seemed to be, at the time, the ‘romantic’ appeal of nationalism.

The narrowness of ‘nation

Although the boys had enlisted in the German army with optimism and enthusiasm, they had soon discovered the physical deprivations and brutality of life in the trenches, and what Erich and his comrades increasingly saw as the senseless slaughter of the Western Front. In the novel, the schoolfriends had been inspired by seeing German soldiers marching by in the streets, and also by the nationalist rhetoric of their schoolteacher. This is reproduced in the movie, where the nationalistic schoolteacher exhorts his pupils that: ‘You are the life blood of the Fatherland’. But the message of the book and the film was that this was all illusory. In the film, as the boys rush off to enlist in the army, the director Lewis Milestone skilfully provides a shot of an empty classroom, upon which the camera lingers for a while; it is a kind of prediction of what will be left of the class of 1914 after a few years of war.

This tapped effectively into the growing anti-war feelings of many people in Europe in the interwar period. It is also interesting to note that the German Nazi party organised boycotts of the movie when it was shown in Germany in 1930-31, and Hitler’s thuggish Brownshirts made ugly threats to any cinema-managers who screened what the National Socialist stormtroopers regarded as a ‘pacifist’ film. The novel was, predictably, banned in Germany after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933.

When it was published in 1928-29 the book had soon become available in numerous languages and, not long after it had appeared in the USA, the rights to All Quiet were quickly purchased by Carl Laemmie, the head of the film studio Universal Pictures. Laemmie’s original plan had apparently been to release the movie as a silent movie, but it became one of the very first ‘talkies’, with some impressive use of early sound effects, including loud explosions and gunfire, but also periods of silence to capture the tension of waiting in the trenches for the next attack. This left an indelible mark on cinema audiences, many of whom had never heard the actual sounds of battle before.

A movie to remember

In fact, the production values were high, and a huge amount of effort was put by director Lewis Milestone into reproducing the gritty realism and stark horrors of the original novel, especially in the battle scenes. The latter were shot on almost 1,000 acres of land located on Irvine Ranch, about 69 miles to the south-east of Los Angeles.

The first general cinema poster for the movie

It is estimated that 2 miles of road were laid for the operation of Universal’s new camera crane, and over 5 miles of water-pipes were also put down to create the appearance of water-logged trenches. Milestone also made very imaginative use of freely-tracked camera shots, with long tracking shots which sometimes panned right over the battlefields from above, as if the viewer was seeing things from an aeroplane. It all reinforced the sheer power of the images and the dramatic storyline.

Surprisingly, though, for the battlefield scenes, Milestone only made use of about 150 extras, as he was confident he could egt the right shots with a minimum of men. As he commented later: ‘The front office was always sitting there waiting for me to say “Tomorrow I want 10,000 men”. I made the whole battle scene with 150 fellows…’.

In some early scenes in the film, there is still enthusiasm among the former schoolfriends for the glory of war, but then there is a process whereby they harden into soldiers. Moreover, the gradual realisation dawns that war is actually cruel, brutal and unforgiving. Boredom, fear and cynicism become everyday features of trenchlife, where each soldier is determined to survive but knows the odds are stacked against him.

Lew Ayres as Paul Bauer

In a key stage in the film, the story famously focused on Paul Baumer and his first direct experience of killing another man, a French soldier, face-to-face – a man who was just like him and, in other circumstances, could have been a friend rather than an enemy. As Baumer lays in a shellhole with the body of the French soldier nearby, he decides to go through the dead man’s pockets, and finds the Frenchman’s personal papers. He discovers the man he has killed is a family man. The shock of what war does to humanity is captured in Baumer’s disgust with himself and his regret at what he has become.

When Baumer is sent home on leave after being wounded, he discovers a world which is very different from the world he left behind just months earlier to serve his country. However, he is also shocked to find that what he now regards as the old false, militaristic and romantic ideas about the glory of war are still being promoted in his old school and also by an older generation of men in the beer cellars of his town.

When he returns back to the German frontline, Paul Baumer discovers that many of his former schoolfriends and comrades in his unit have been killed and replaced with new recruits, fresh soldiers who are just like he was when he first joined up: young and naive and not quite attuned to what they are about to face in the never-ending struggles of trench warfare, with its occasional deadly excursions into No Man’s Land, or the dreaded order for every man to ‘go over the top’ in a new all-out assault on the enemy.

Messages and meanings

In a now iconic and still very moving scene at the end of the movie, Paul is seen peering through a small viewing-point in his trench and spots a butterfly. When he reaches out to catch it in his hand, the shots of his hand are intercut by the director with an enemy sniper. The French sniper takes aim and fires, and Paul’s hand becomes limp. This must have been a stunning moment for cineam audiences in 1930. It is arguably a message about youth being cut down before its time: the butterfly is a brief glimpse of the beauty and innocence of nature amid the truly unnatural conditions of violence and destruction wrought by men and machines.

Director Lewis Milestone then provides a final rather ghostly scene of the battlefields of France dotted with hundreds of white crosses on the makeshift graves of fallen men, with a column of soldiers – members of Paul Baumer’s own platoon, all now dead – marching across the landscape into the distance. A last image of two soldiers has them glancing back over their shoulders as they march, looking accusingly and directly into the camera (and straight into the viewer’s eyes) as they depart. It was early film-making at its very best, a haunting and clever use of cinefilm.

The day after its New York premiere, Mordaunt Hall, reviewing the new film for the New York Times, argued that Universal Pictures had ‘produced a trenchant and imaginative audible picture, in which the producers adhere with remarkable fidelity to the spirit and events of the original stirring novel’.

Over time, a number of historians have argued that the movie, which was in many ways an American film with a pacifist message, was also a very American interwar interpretation of the politics of the time: Jay Winter, for example, in his writings on the Great War in cultural history, has written that the message of All Quiet, ‘proclaimed in a self-consciously American accent’, seemed to be that the old national barriers between former European enemies should no longer apply in a modern peaceful and civilized world.

It is worth noting that Lewis Milestone (1895-1980), who received an Academy Award for Best Director for All Quiet, returned to the theme of war in a number of his subsequent films during a long Hollywood career. At one point he summed up his career in the following way: ‘Throughout my career I’ve tried not so much to express a philosophy as to restate in filmic terms my agreement with whatever the author of a story I like is trying to say. I’ve probably had my greatest successes with war films because I’ve always tried to expose war for what it is and not glorify it’.

That last comment certainly sums up All Quiet on the Western Front, which still warrants viewing today.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and the BFI)

Posted in American history, European History, German History, History of war, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Silent but Golden: Early film production in the Kingston area

Work by film historians in the last 20 years has thrown exciting new perspectives on the development and impact of early cinema and film-making on the cultural evolution of British society in the first quarter of the 20th century. Sarah Street, for example, in British National Cinema (1997), successfully explored the relationship between British cinema and society, and raised important questions about the influence of American films and what we might mean by ‘national’ cinema. As she also observed at one point, British cinema has been ‘characterised by a curious mix of studios, directors and genres’ (p.28).

Similarly, new research frontiers were carved out in Kenton Bamford’s Distorted Images: British National Identity and Film in the 1920s (1999), where it was noted that British cinema ‘lived perpetually in the shade of Hollywood and the cinemagoing public opted in their millions for the Hollywood product rather than its native counterpart’ (p.ix). I have been pondering many of these points while conducting some of my own research on early British film-making in the south-west London area.

There was a complex mix of ‘Hollywood’ influences and home-grown enthusiasm at work across the area in the early 20th century. Pleasingly, film industry historians and researchers have been increasingly turning their interest in recent years to the extent to which there was a thriving network of small film studios and early film production in the outer suburbs of London in the first decades of the century. From my perspective, this has been a welcome refocusing of the research lens (so to speak) from concentration on the ‘national’ level (which is still, of course, vital) to the more ‘local’ level.

A ‘mosaic’ of activity

British film making and studios came in all shapes and sizes in the first decades of the century, and such patterns of activity can be seen in south-west London, including in the Kingston, Surbiton, Teddington, Twickenham, and Richmond areas and the surrounding nearby locations. The River Thames itself also proved popular with early film-makers.

Twickenham Studios in the 1930s

Film studios ranged from the larger Twickenham Studios, opened in 1913, to the medium-scale Teddington Studios, and a variety of smaller and perhaps less well-known studios and film-making facilities. There was a kind of cottage-industry of film-making activities in the area.

Twickenham Studios and its history, of course, has been covered in quite some detail by film historians. In 1912, Dr. Ralph Tennyson Jupp acquired an old skating rink at St. Margaret’s, Twickenham, and converted the site into a film studio to make his own productions. Jupp owned a chain of cinema-houses, which were later absorbed into what became the Gaumont-British Group. Jupp, along with two others, found The London Film Company in 1913. Many of the films made at Twickenham were aimed at the American market, as the British film industry tried to compete with the more popular Hollywood productions that were tending to dominate in the British market.

Interestingly, in 1931, a company called Sound Services Limited took over some industrial premises in Kingston Road, Merton Park, not too far away from Twickenham, and converted the site into a film and sound-recording facility, more commonly known as Merton Park Studios. It was partly used as an overflow studio for some of the larger productions being made at Twickenham.

But perhaps less well-known are some of the stories behind other film-making activities in the local suburbs.

As early as 1912, for example, in Broome Road in Teddington, a company called ‘Ec-Ko’ began to make films in the grounds of a rather secluded riverside mansion called Weir House. Most of the filming was carried out in the greenhose of the mansion, at the rate of about one movie per week. Prints were made of the films and these were then sold by film renter agents and exhibitors to early picture-houses and cinema halls.

Charles Urban

Significantly, in 1914, the famous U.S.-born film pioneer Charles Urban (1867-1942), arguably one of the most important figures in the British cinema prior to World War One, based himself at Bushey Lodge in Teddington and purchased Weir House for his Kinemacolor Company. As well as making fiction films, Urban pioneered documentary-style productions and educational and scientific films. In the same year, Urban moved his operations to the Boathouse Inn Studio at Kew Bridge, where he made comedies. During the Great War, he offered his services to the British government and made a series of propaganda films.

In 1918, Weir House was leased and then purchased by a company called Master Films Limited, which specialised in historical movies. The company converted the mansion’s greenhouse into what became a more estalshed film studio, with dressing-rooms, workshops and a small theatre for previewing rushes of films. In the late 1920s, two film industry businessmen, Henry Edwards and E.G. Norman, purchased what had then become the Weir House Studios for the princely sum of £15,000 (a huge sum at the time) and the studio was extended further. Another studio was also added, which housed the new RCA ‘Sound on Film’ system. Henry Edwards began making ‘talking pictures’ under the name Teddington Film Studios Limited.

In 1931, Warner Brothers purchased the site, which became the famous Teddington Studios, and was the location of some major movie productions in the 1930s.

The role of the Thames

Other film-making activity took place not far from Kingston, beside the River Thames. In Portsmouth Road, in Thames Ditton, a glass-roofed one-stage studio was utilised during World War One by the Comedy Combine Company, followed next by the silent film director and actor Harry Lorraine (1886-1934), who made some of his popular Detective Daring film series there (and also acted in the role of Lieutenant Daring, who had joined the navy during the war). Then the studio was taken over by the Climax Film Company, and the site eventually became a film-processing and printing laboratory.

Early film-making also took place on Eel Pie Island in the River Thames. As early as 1912, an old boat builder’s shed was converted into a part-glass one-stage small studio, and a company called the Phoenix Film Company made some Naval comedies there. A series of comedies were also made at the studio during the Great War, but by 1919 film-making had ceased at the site. Revealingly, there does appear to have been a bit of local rivalry in film-making: the comedies made in the war on Eel Pie Island mainly starred an actor named Fred Evans, who played a comedy character called ‘Lieutenant Pimple’, who was clearly a send-up of Harry Lorraine’s Lieutenant Daring character!

Local stretches of the River Thames itself also proved very popular with film-makers. In 1927, for example, the Richmond and Twickenham Times carried some detailed coverage of the making of The Further Adventures the Flag Lieutenant, which had utilised sections of the river and had included a Chinese ‘Junk’ being set on fire on the Thames for filming. Naturally, this attracted crowds of excited onlookers to the banks of the river.

A Surbiton version of ‘Hollywood’?

Surbiton proved to be another key local site for film production, with activities at the Regent House film studio, in Park Road, at the top of Surbiton Hill. Regent House had originally been owned by Daniel Nicols, the famous owner of the Cafe Royal in Regent Street in central London. Daniels had built a mansion, Regent House, with substantial grounds, on Berrylands Farm in Surbiton in the 1870s, as a kind of country retreat away from London. Numerous lavish weekend parties and dances were held there for the rich and famous, and it boasted a very large ballroom. Nicols had died at the mansion in 1897, and when his wife, Celestine, died in 1916, much of the estate was sold off for new housing.

Sir Oswald Stoll

However, at some point in 1918, the large mansion, still with some very large grounds (about 100 acres) and ornamental gardens attached, was taken over by the famous Stoll Film Company Limited, which converted the mansion into a one-stage film studio.

Founded by the famous theatre owner and business entrepreneur Sir Oswald Stoll (1866-1942), the company made a major silent film at the site, Comradeship, starring the famous stage actor Gerald Ames and Lily Elsie. In 1920, Stoll moved his company to the larger Cricklewood Studio, but he allowed new film companies, such as the Garrick Film Company, to continue to use the Regent House site until 1923, when he sold it to British Instructional Films (BIF).

During the course of the 1920s, BIF produced a series of educational and entertainment films at the busy studio, including some major silent war films. Founded in 1919 by Harry Bruce-Woolfe (1880-1965), after he had served in the army in the Great War, BIF went on to produce some of the biggest British movies of the 1920s, and made its reputation largely because many of the films paid strong jingoistic tribute to British heroism and the Empire.

As Bamford noted in Distorted Images, a good example of this was the BIF-produced movie Armageddon, which was a reproduction of the events of General Allenby’s wartime campaign in Palestine in the Middle East. An extensive publicity campaign mounted for the new film included an advertisment which read ‘don’t miss it if you are a patriot’, and the claim was made that ‘of all peoples we English are possibly the most patriotic’ (p.94).

(BFI’s restoration)

BIF had already made two ‘factual’ war films to great success, The Battle of Jutland (1921) and Armaggedon (1923), when it took over Regent House. There followed about four years of very active film production, with films such as Zeebrugge (1924), Ypres (1925), Nelson (1926) (with Cedric Hardwicke in the title role), Mons (1926), and The Battles of the Coronel and Falklands (1927). The latter film was recently restored and re-released by the British Film Institute (BFI) and is now regarded by some experts as something of a lost masterpiece.

There was also a very successful documentary-style series produced by BIF called the Secrets of Nature, which made use of early time-lapse photography techniques, and were released as single-reel educational films. Much of the intricate work for this took place in special rooms at Regent House, together with much model-work for BIF’s war films.

In 1927-28, BIF moved its operations to a new purpose-built studio at Welwyn Garden City, but during the mid-1920s it is no exaggeration to describe the Regent House studio as a thriving hub of film-making activity in Surbiton, and Harry Bruce Woolfe appeared determined, for a while at least, to mould the studio into a very British version of Hollywood. Many of the military-themed movies made by BIF were quite propagandistic in nature and designed to encourage a greater sense of patriotism, and I have found some intriguing evidence of cooperation between BIF and rightwing middle-class lobby groups such as the National Citizens Union, which spied opportunities to ‘educate’ children in the right ‘patriotic’ values via special screening shows.

Controversially, BIF was able to mount large battle re-enactments for its war films in the extensive grounds of Regent House because of close collaboration from the War Office. At one stage, for example, for the movie Ypres, the company was allowed to use troops from the Kingston barracks of the East Surrey regiment as film extras, together with some other troops based at Aldershot. All the trench scenes in the film were shot in the grounds of Regent House, including a re-enactment of a gas attack.

This led to critics complaining that BIF were receiving too favourable treatment from the War Office, and even led to questions being raised about this in Parliament. At local level in Surbiton, the presence of a film studio was also not necessarily welcomed by nearby residents, who often had to put up with the sound of guns and explosions coming from the grounds of the studio. In turn, Bruce-Woolfe himself complained bitterly at one point about what he saw as the overpriced local electricity charges in Surbiton, criticising the local Surbiton Town Council.

A number of BIF’s films were previewed and ‘tested’ at the Coronation Cinema (now the present-day Coronation Hall pub) in Surbiton in order to gauge the reaction of audiences. There is also evidence that some of the scientific, nature and ‘factual’ Empire films produced by BIF were given special screenings to invited schoolchildren at the Surbiton Assembly Rooms.

However, Surbiton’s brief tase of it’s very own version of ‘Hollywood’ came to a close in 1927. BIF vacated the premises and moved its film-making operations to a new studio at Welwyn Garden City. Thus, in July, 1927, Regent House and its grounds were put up for auction, and the whole area was quickly used for the construction of large new housing estates.

Although much further research needs to be conducted, it is already evident that the Kingston area and surrounding locations saw considerable film studio and general film-making activities in the first quarter of the 20th century. This aspect of local community history and culture, and its contribution to the wider ‘national’ film-making story, is ripe for more investigation.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikipedia Commons and the BFI, London)

Posted in British Empire, British history, Historiography, History of war, History skills, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Richmond history, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fighting Franco: Commemorating the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

Eighty-three years ago, on 28th October, 1938, the volunteers of the ‘British Battalion’ joined the other volunteer Battalions of the International Brigades (IB) in Spain and held a poignant farewell parade, which included the transfer of their flags and weapons over to the main army of the Republic.

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Republic’s premier, Juan Negrin, had reluctantly decided to repatriate all the foreign volunteers in the remaining territory still under his control, in the hope that the League of Nations would be able to persuade the opposing nationalists to do the same (his gamble failed).

The IB had been formed to help defend the leftwing Spanish Republic against the nationalist and fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. General Franco, along with a number of other rightwing Spanish army generals, had – in July, 1936 – launched an illegal uprising against the leftwing Popular Front coalition government, which had won a narrow election victory in Spain earlier that year. Franco’s nationalist ‘rebels’ (backed by substantial aid from Mussolini and Hitler) plunged the country into a brutal and bloody civil war, which lasted until March, 1939, when Franco was finally able to parade his troops through Madrid and declare victory. It was the beginning of a dictatorship that would last until Franco’s death in 1975.

The Volunteers

It has been estimated by historians that some 35,000 volunteers, mainly drawn from Europe, the United States and Canada, volunteered to serve in the IB during the Spanish Civil War.  This month will see a number of commemorative events held in Spain to celebrate the IB and their contribution to the defence of the Republic, and the efforts of the British IB volunteers will feature as part of this.

But who were the British volunteers? Although there have been memoirs and plenty of eyewitness accounts from Britons who served in the IB, together with various detailed studies from historians over the years, reliable and precise information on the British volunteers and their backgrounds has proved more problematic for scholars and surprisingly difficult to find.

The National Archives

However, declassified MI5 (Security Service) files have been helpful in recent years. The files, which became available at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, in 2011, contain the names of 4,000 British and Irish IB volunteers, although this figure appears to have included sympathisers as well as combatants.

Experts and historians of the Spanish Civil War, such as Christopher Farman and Antony Beevor, have calculated that a more likely figure is around 2,500. Interestingly, additional research work by historians, using the MI5 files and a number of other important sources (including from Spain), has also thrown further valuable light on the social background and nature of the British IB volunteers. The vast majority of volunteers in the British IB Battalion were from the working-classes, who were joined by a smaller number of middle-class intellectuals. Most of the men came from either London or the heavily industrialised areas of Britain, and many of the men were aged in their 20s.

British Volunteers in Spanish Civil War

A very large percentage were motivated by strong anti-fascist idealism and a conviction that, if Spain was not defended from fascism, then the rest of democratic Europe would succumb, and the ‘virus’ of rightwing authoritarianism would inevitably spread across the globe.

This is illustrated well from my own research with the case of local volunteer Mr. C.E. Palmer, a 29-year old from Thames Ditton, who had joined the IB in March, 1937. Palmer served for months of fighting round Madrid and returned home wounded when the volunteers were withdrawn. Speaking to the Surrey Comet in January, 1939, Palmer said he had held ‘tremendous admiration’ for members of the IB, which was made up of 57 nationalities and, he said, ‘Almost to a man, they were idealists…’.

CPGB Input

Unsurprisingly, well over half of the British volunteers were members of the British Communist Party (CPGB), which had been founded in this country in 1920. By the late 1930s, the CPGB were pursuing a new ‘moderate’ line, which sought to build broader progressive alliances and popular ‘Fronts’. To this end, the CPGB presented the Spanish Civil War as part of a wider conflict between democracy and fascism, and this message clearly appealed to some of the younger members of the party, who were prepared to say goodbye to their families and loved ones to take the plunge.

After volunteers had been vetted at the CPGB’s headquarters in King Street, near Covent Garden in central London, the recruits then had to make a long journey by train, sea and bus to actually get into Spain, and this became even more difficult when, in January, 1937 (as part of their ‘non-intervention’ policy stance towards Spain) the British government made it an offence for Britons to fight on either side in the Spanish War. Moreover, when the French government also began to apply their own ‘non-intervention’ stance more rigorously, many of the British volunteers had to be smuggled across the border from France into Spain, often through rough mountain areas, which could be exhausting and highly dangerous.

Brit Volunteers in Spanish Civ War

Historians have also found that many of the British IB volunteers had very little or no direct military experience. When they finally arrived in Spain, they were often given very little time for proper military training before they were rushed off to the front-lines and put directly into battle. Furthermore, when facing the enemy, the IB volunteers were regularly dogged by severe shortages of weapons and ammunition (although Stalin’s Russia did eventually begin to supply arms to the Republican side, much of this military equipment could not match the modern weaponry supplied to Franco by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, countries which saw the Spanish arena as a useful ‘testing ground’ for their new armaments). The situation was also made worse by some poor military decision-making by the leaders of the Republic.

In fact, in the near two years of fighting that was undertaken by the British Battalion of the IB, the best estimates are that about 500 men were killed and 1,200 wounded. When the British volunteers finally left Spain, most of them officially leaving on 6th December, 1938, there were only about 305 still alive.

The Non-Communists

It would be a mistake to think that all the British volunteers were Communists. A number of men held other leftwing loyalties (most famously George Orwell), and some of the volunteers became fed up with the rigid and unquestioning allegiance to Moscow displayed by some of the men in the British Battalion. Significantly, there were also a sprinkling of Liberals and Conservatives in the Battalion.

Spanish Civil War, c 1936-39

In my own research, for example, I came across a fascinating letter published in the local Richmond Herald from May, 1937, written by a volunteer while he was temporarily at home on leave from Madrid. Calling himself a ‘Conservative Democrat’, the East Sheen resident said he was both a Conservative and a member of the IB, and he told readers: ‘The war is solely a struggle between Democracy and Fascism, and the overwhelming majority of the people supporting the Government are Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives and Catholics, who are not connected with any political party’. A ‘generous estimate’, he observed, ‘of the proportion of the Government Forces who are Socialists, Communists and Anarchists would be 25 per cent’.

Mixed Feelings?

Some of the men who were repatriated from Spain to Britain in 1938 had become very disillusioned by what they had seen and experienced in the conflict, particularly in relation to the orthodox Communist line and the political factionalism and infighting within the IB. On the other hand, others (whether Communist or not) strongly retained their anti-fascist idealism and remained keen to offer their services in defence of liberal democracy in the future. When Britain declared war against Germany in September, 1939, a number of former IB volunteers were eager to join the British Forces, but found that their applications to do so were blocked by His Majesty’s Government (usually on advice from MI5) due to ‘security’ concerns, with British officials still very wary of employing anybody who had shown sympathy for Communism.

British soldier on beach 1940

This situation had been made even more complex by the fact that, in August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet agreement had been announced to an astonished world, and Stalin’s forces had been allowed by the Nazis in September to occupy half of Poland.

A number of members of the CPGB itself, having previously fought fascism in Spain, now found it very difficult to remain loyal to the latest propaganda line coming out of Moscow and left the party in disgust. However, as the war evolved, and especially after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, the party changed its line yet again, and ‘Uncle Stalin’ was now portrayed as a full anti-fascist and as a completely reliable partner in the Allied sttruggle.

Moreover, the British Government appears to have relaxed its rules on recruitment to the armed services, and a number of former IB Britons, provided they passed strict vetting procedures, were allowed to join up and serve their country in the World War against fascism.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was first published here in October, 2018.

Posted in Anti-fascism, Archives, British history, European History, Fascism, Historiography, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Richmond history, Surrey, The National Archives, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fleshing out the Fuhrers: New study explores the history of Britain’s Extreme Right through six key ideologues

The last ninety or so years have seen a number of would-be ‘Fuhrers‘ attempt to strut across and dominate the far right political stage in Britain. In Failed Fuhrers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right (Routledge, 2020), which is an important, fresh and highly informative contribution to the historiography on the topic, expert scholar Graham Macklin takes the reader on a very satisfying and thoroughly-mapped biographical journey, one which covers a large part of the UK’s racist and fascist political fringe scene in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

This erudite new book is another very impressive study from Routledge publishers and their excellent ‘Studies in Fascism and the Far Right’ series. It is a contribution in which Macklin explores the history, ideology and strategic evolution of Britain’s Extreme Right (ER) and its foremost leaders. This is achieved through a close biographical analysis of the lives and political careers of six key figures in post-1918 fascism in this country.

The book thus considers in detail the ER activities and ideas of Arnold Leese, Sir Oswald Mosley, A.K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin. Five of those would-be Fuhrers are, of course, now dead, but Griffin (discussed in chapter 6) is very much alive and appears to be involved yet again in extremist electoral politics. After he was ousted as chair of the British National Party (BNP) in 2014, a party he had led since 1999, Griffin had a brief period wandering around Europe and elsewhere on a kind of transnational crusade, seeking to forge close ideological and personal links with a diverse range of extreme racist and nationalist groups and movements, especially in eastern Europe. He appears to have made little progress. He is now editing a far right publication and is engaging in homegrown ER networking again. As Macklin observes, Griffin has an almost chameleon-like ability to periodically reinvent himself when new political opportunities arise, but always in pursuit of certain core ‘racial’ themes. Racial obsessions inevitably return like a bad penny in Griffin’s worldview, including a notably conspiratorial form of anti-Semitism. By 2017, for example, after carefully downplaying his anti-Semitism during his BNP years, the ex-leader clearly reverted back to overtly anti-Semitic ideas, ones which were characteristic of his earlier career (p.511). This included a disturbing return to Holocaust denial.

Indeed, if there is one overriding idea or theme that binds all the six men discussed in this book firmly together in a common cause, and provides a kind of ideological continuity over a long period of time, it is the claim that ‘race’ and national identity is the fundamental key that shapes all history and politics, whether race or nationality is defined in ‘biological’, ‘cultural’, or ‘spiritual’ terms. In their ideological worldviews (and, one suspects, deep in their hearts), all the men covered here in this new study viewed (and, in Griffin’s case, continue to view) race, nation or ‘racial nationalism’ – in various ideological gradations – as the elementary fountain from which everything else flows, not just politics but also the very building blocks of society, such as the family unit and even human nature itself. Even Sir Oswald Mosley, who is often portrayed as a kind of ‘mild’ fascist by his revisionist apologists when it comes to his views on race, was still ultimately (as Macklin so ably demonstrates) a firm believer in ‘racial science’ and the genetic ‘integrity’ of the white race (p.131).

Moreover, in a sense, although five of these men are no longer around, their malignant ghosts live on, exerting a worrying influence over a new and younger generation of ER activists who continue to pursue the dangerous delusion that racial purity is possible across the British Isles, if only the ‘indigenous’ people were allowed to see this ‘truth’. At one point Macklin notes, for example, how annual ‘memorial’ meetings held by John Tyndall’s zealous acolytes to celebrate their deceased hero act as a forum to bring together a whole range of existing far right groups and individuals (p.408), temporarily uniting ER activists who otherwise have often been at each other’s throats in many other ways. Similarly, in relation to Colin Jordan, several individuals who were associated with the now-banned ‘National Action’ terror group in the UK appear to have been inspired by the vision of violent ‘race war’ regularly espoused by the late neo-Nazi ‘godfather’ from his home in Yorkshire (pp.310-315).


At the outset of this important new book, Macklin provides a very useful overview of the purpose and methodological approach he adopts in the study. As he notes in his introduction, the new book ‘details the ideological and strategic evolution of British fascism from its roots in the extreme rightwing and anti-Semitic demi-monde in the aftermath of the First World War, through a range of political parties and movements, to its present-day incarnations’ (p.1).

According to Macklin, the six biographical chapters can be read individually, or collectively, ‘to illuminate the multi-faceted nature of British fascism as it has evolved since the 1920s’, and – in particular – to grasp the ‘transnational perspective’ that these six individuals took in both their ideological visions and also in their political organising (p.1). Furthermore, although Macklin acknowledges that his study has excavated plenty of unexplored areas of the British fascist tradition, ‘drawing upon a raft of previously unseen archival sources’, he cautions that the book makes no claim to being a comprehensive history: ‘Instead of adopting the synoptic overview of previous classic historical accounts in the field’, he writes, ‘the present study traces continuity and change within the British fascist tradition through a collective biographical approach…’ (p.1).

Interestingly, Macklin notes that historians once regarded the biographical approach as ‘somewhat unfashionable’ (p.2), but he goes on to mount (in my view) a persuasive defence of this methodological tool. Biography can serve, he argues, as an ‘analytical prism’ through which the broader ideological and organisational contours of the British fascist tradition have been refracted. As Macklin rightly observes: ‘Focusing on the role of these individuals within the broader racial nationalist milieu can help illuminate the broader historical processes which they helped to shape and which shaped them’ (p.3). This objective is more than met during the following six richly detailed chapters.

Each chapter could easily have formed the basis for a separate and book-length biography of each of the ER leaders under discussion. There are numerous supporting references, many of which develop and enhance the key findings, and which must have taken many hours and days of careful assembling, checking and rechecking. The attention to detail and scholarly precision is formidable. Macklin leaves no stone unturned in his concise unpacking and forensic scrutiny of the lives and ideas of all the would-be Fuhrers and their often obsessional attempts to bring about what might be termed the racial ‘rebirth’ of their country. In the process, Macklin offers plenty of new primary source evidence (a huge strength to all the chapters), and has managed to explore some fascinating and previously untapped archival material when seeking to explain the behaviour, motivations and ER ideological mindset of the six men in question.

Arnold Leese

Take Arnold Leese, for example, who lived by the maxim ‘Race is the basis of all politics’, or Sir Oswald Mosley, who thrived on the idea that a ‘crisis’ of Britain was always imminent but a strong decisive leader could save the day, a recurrent feature of both his interwar and post-1945 philosophy. Macklin has managed to dig out some important new detail on Leese’s early fascist career, including on the influence of Arthur Kitson and Henry Hamilton Beamish (pp.26-28), two men who succeeded in furnishing the former camel vet with a more systematic and vociferous anti-Semitic version of racism, a prejudice that was already present in embryonic form in Leese’s early 1920s outlook.

Leese’s mid-1920s local fascist career is also carefully traced, in a welcome corrective to some of the claims made in previous studies. Similarly, in relation to Mosley, Macklin has endeavoured to refocus the scholarly lens employed in many previous studies and draw out new information and insights on the ‘imported’ and ‘foreign’ components of the BUF’s ideology (pp.94-102). Moreover, in relation to both Leese and Mosley, Macklin has made extensive use of Home Office, Security Service (MI5) and other files in The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, together with a whole range of sources held elsewhere, either in University archives or specialist libraries or, in some cases, papers held in private collections.

New Perspectives

Not only are the 1930s revisited with fresh eyes on Leese’s activities and Mosley’s campaigns, but there is welcome new discussion of Leese’s post-1945 career and Mosley’s own attempts in the same period to make a ‘heroic’ return to Britain’s politics, all based on extensive new research. In particular, Macklin offers intriguing new information on the extent to which Leese, operating mainly from his home in Guildford in Surrey and via copious amounts of letter-writing, engaged in building a wide network of like-minded anti-Semites at international level in the last decade of his life (pp.60-66), not always with success. In fact, as Macklin notes, when Leese died in 1956, he was ‘soon forgotten outside the cloistered confines of the extreme right milieu’ (p.68). Yet Leese’s brand of anti-Semitism continued to endure and, if anything, there has been something of a revival of interest in Leese more recently; disturbingly, his crudely racist writings have been regularly reprinted or made available on the internet. Importantly, as Macklin shows in chapter 4, there is no doubt that Colin Jordan saw himself as taking up Leese’s racial baton in the name of further racial ‘struggle’, and there was much crossover between Leesite ‘racial fascism’ and the version of neo-Nazism that Jordan attempted to espouse and promote during his own ER career. Again, Jordan’s attempts to run a fully-fledged neo-Nazi movement attracted little support, and he often fell out badly with those who did not live up to his high expectations or had the audacity to question his leadership. But his writings have remained in circulation, and there is no doubt that certain present-day hardline ER activists have drawn on his ideas for their inspiration.


Likewise, Macklin is able to make new points about Mosley and his increased courtship of the Third Reich in the mid-to-late 1930s, and how these connections with leading former Nazis were renewed in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Oswald Mosley

In truth, there has probably been far more written about Sir Oswald Mosley in the available historiography than any of the other ER leaders under discussion here. Historians have devoted considerable research and focus on Mosley’s political career, his ego and ambitions, his impatience and constant calls for ‘action’, and his embrace of fascism in 1931-32. Macklin wisely avoids retelling this now very familiar interwar story in detail, opting instead for a new emphasis on the ‘transnational’ dimensions to Mosley’s fascism. Mosley’s ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) itself has also received considerable academic attention, especially in relation to why it failed to make serious political headway. Again, while he engages with these important debates, Macklin sticks mostly to the theme of ‘race’ and Mosley’s complex attitudes, ideas and evasions on the topic, and on how the BUF supremo tended to engage in highly selective post-war revisionism over his own fascist record. There has been hot controversy at times over Mosley’s relationship to racism, and on the extent to which his adoption of anti-Semitism in the 1930s was ‘genuine’ or not, driven by ideological conviction or merely manipulative political expediency. Macklin’s chapter 2 revisits this debate, again drawing on many of the files that have become available in recent years, especially Security Service files. Mosley does not emerge well, and Macklin’s findings serve as an important rebuke to the version of the ‘old man’ espoused in recent years by his diminishing band of loyal former supporters and a new generation of unquestioning super-fans.

But where chapter 2 really shines and pushes into new research territory is in the new perspectives offered by Macklin on Mosley’s post-1945 activities and ideas, and on the former BUF leader’s numerous attempts to network across Europe and the wider globe in an effort to build a new ER ‘international’. Mosley evidently ploughed much energy and time into this post-war transnational project, but to little gain. Trying to persuade extreme nationalists to work together on, for example, a new National Party of Europe (NPE) was a challenge that even Mosley’s charisma, putative charm and seeming powers of persuasion could not overcome. Of particular note is welcome new discussion of those who acted as arms-length intellectual fellow-travellers in Mosley’s ideological vision and schemes, such as the writer Colin Wilson (pp.123-125) and the historian A. James Gregor (pp.128-130). Similarly, another real strength to chapter 2 is that there is pleasingly fresh detail on the ‘street’ activities of Mosley’s ‘Union Movement’ (UM), and his attempts to find new avenues of political traction through mobilising his UM supporters against non-white immigration to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s (pp.112-126). Mosley’s belief that he could somehow return back to mainstream parliamentary politics by playing the ‘race card’, and save Britain from ‘doom’ in the process, was nasty, naive and deluded. However, as Macklin convincingly points out, the UM were trailblazers in this type of grubby racist campaigning, as a focus on ‘coloured immigration’ soon became a mainstay of the wider ER in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s (p.112).

‘Respectable’ Racism

The chapters on A.K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan and John Tyndall then illustrate in further enlightening detail the extent to which these new forms of anti-black racism were exploited and pushed to even further heights by British ER leaders. Anti-Semitism did not go away, of course (particularly in the case of Colin Jordan, who remained bitterly anti-Semitic to the very end of his life), but tended to be increasingly pushed into the background or became more ‘conspiratorial’ in tone, especially as the ER sought to adopt a more ‘respectable’ and populist form of electoral politics and to move away (in public, at least) from direct association with old-style fascism and the jackboot versions of neo-Nazism that often appeared in Trafalgar Square meetings in the early 1960s. This appears to be especially the case with Chesterton, the first chair of the new ‘National Front’, who warned his colleagues about the need to moderate their language and even issued a ‘code of conduct’ to maintain discipline among the more enthusiastic younger NF members (p.229).

Indeed, a considerable part of the story of the later stages of the careers of Chesterton, Tyndall and, in particular, Nick Griffin, concerned how each leader could persuade the British electorate that ‘nationalism’ had changed and could be respectable and worthy of support, while at the same time retain the vision of a reinvigorated British (and white) racial identity. There is an especially telling comment from Tyndall, cited at one juncture in chapter 5 by Macklin. Tyndall, writing to the U.S. neo-Nazi William Pierce in the late 1960s, stated: ‘To be frank, I do not believe that a movement with an open Nazi label has a hope of winning national power either in Britain or the UK in the foreseeable future. I have therefore sought to modify the form of our programme though not of course the essence of our ideology’ (p.361). Predictably, when the letter emerged in the 1970s and was cited by anti-fascists, Tyndall dismissed its significance and claimed he had changed his views. Yet, in hindsight, the comment about the ‘essence’ of the ideology was highly significant, and was a key to much of Tyndall’s career and core ideas in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and up to his death in 2005. Although Tyndall was reluctant to admit it in public, it seems abundantly clear that the pompous founder of the BNP remained firmly wedded to the conviction that ‘race’ was at the heart of all politics, an idea that echoed Arnold Leese’s worldview.

Nick Griffin

Finally, and last but not least, in chapter 6 of this well-researched study, Macklin turns his incisive and critical attention to the Cambridge-educated ER ideologue and long-term activist Nick Griffin. Having joined a branch of the National Front (NF) when aged just 15, the young student, whose father Edgar Griffin was clearly sympathetic to the NF himself, cut his political teeth in the Young National Front (YNF) and, as Macklin notes, came to see himself as being in the vanguard of the development of a racial nationalist ‘intellectual’ form of the far right. This conviction arguably remained at the heart of Griffin’s ER career.

After graduating from Cambridge with a Law Degree, Griffin went through membership of a quite dizzying number of ER groups and factions, and was evidently attracted to the ‘transnational’ dimension to extreme nationalism, drawing inspiration at various stages from the writings of the Romanian interwar thinker Corneliu Codreanu and post-war neo-fascists such as the Italian thinker Julius Evola. Any researcher who has had the misfortune to encounter issues of The Rune, a publication edited by Griffin in the 1990s, will also know that he had an evident admiration of Mosleyite Blackshirts, the elitism of the Nazi SS, and the infamous ’14 words’ derived from the former American Ku Klux Klansman David Lane (p.478). He also took a close interest in the ways in which the French ‘Front National’ under Jean-Marie Le Pen had used not just a more professional form of political campaigning to reinvent itself and widen its appeal, but had also adopted a Gramsci-style ‘war of position’ approach to society, with a big emphasis on winning the ‘cultural’ struggle as well as the electoral one (pp.486-487).

When he won the leadership of the BNP from John Tyndall in 1999, Griffin began to put this political and cultural strategy into action in the British context, forcing the party to adopt a new emphasis on ‘modernisation’ and the curtailment of what Griffin called the BNP’s preoccupations with ‘Hard talk, Hobbyism and Hitler’ (p.491-492). A new emphasis on ‘identity’, culture and family festivals were the order of the day. And yet, as Macklin so convincingly demonstrates, while Griffin sought to equip the BNP with an image of what he called ‘moderate reasonableness’ (p.486), at the same time he firmly held on to the essence of racial nationalism. Revealingly, at one stage, Griffin wrote in a BNP journal: ‘Of course we must teach the truth to the hardcore, for like you, I do not intend to allow this movement to lose its way’ (p.486).

Chapter 6 also contains an interesting, if speculative, section on Griffin’s ‘legacy’. As Macklin notes, given Griffin’s continued political activity, it is perhaps premature to talk about Griffin’s legacy. However, and unsurprisingly, Macklin still manages to deftly trace Griffin’s recent activities and travels in a helpful fashion, concluding that Griffin clearly continues to envision a role for himself ‘within the racial nationalist milieu’ (p.512). Will Griffin ever retire from racist activism? It is doubtful. One suspects he still sees himself as a man of ‘destiny’ who, one day, will be able to rally the troops again and have another push at reversing Britain’s multicultural direction. In this sense, he shares much in common with Mosley, who remained convinced that his ‘big day’ would still come and he would be called upon to rescue Britain from disaster, despite all evidence to the contrary. The problem for Griffin is that, over the course of the decades, he has alienated so many others on the far right, and burnt so many bridges with his former comrades, that he will find it near-impossible to overcome the intense distrust with which many on the ER now regard him.

All in all, this is a superbly executed study. Macklin has more than fulfilled his promise to illuminate the ideological and strategic evolution of Britain’s fascist tradition, and has also skilfully utilised a transnational lens with which to open up new areas for future scholarship. Although the book is a long read and not for the faint-hearted, enormous research benefits are on offer to the reader in every chapter and on nearly every page, with plenty of new insights and trenchant points about all of ‘the sad six’ (so to speak). The book will speedily take its place as a ‘classic’ and must-read study in the main historiography on the topic of Britain’s ER, and deservedly so.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

Posted in British history, Conspiracy theory, European History, Fascism, Historiography, Public History, The National Archives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Global Britain: Brave New World or Deja Vu?

A special ‘long read’ blog by Tim Hodgson

Whatever we think about our current government one thing we can all, I’m sure, agree is that for boundless optimism and snappy populist slogans it is in a world beating class of its own. We have consumed, if not yet digested, our ‘Oven Ready Brexit’, we look forward hopefully in the post-Covid world to ‘Building Back Better’ and, having ‘taken Back Control’, we are invited to readjust our horizons from Europe to the wider world and embrace the mantra of ‘Global Britain’.

Like all slogans ‘Global Britain’ is a rhetorical construct which, thus far, has lacked definition or detail. If it means negotiating trade deals to replace what we have left behind in Europe, then that is clearly important. However, the recently published ‘Integrated Review’ of defence, security, foreign policy and overseas aid, suggests the government is thinking more widely than trade.

The document, which covers the period to 2030, includes an ambitious ’tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, an amorphous region extending over the Indian and Pacific Oceans from the east coast of Africa to East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, where, the review claims, Britain ‘will have a greater and more persistent presence than any European country’. This suggests a reversal of what the Prime Minister has previously described as the Wilson government’s ‘mistake’ in 1968 in withdrawing from what it deemed Britain’s unacceptably expensive defence commitments east of the Suez Canal – a decision which many historians believe signalled the end of the British Empire. Boris Johnson’s appreciation of modern British history tends to be fairly selective, so it is time perhaps to revisit that decision and the events of the first half of the twentieth century which ultimately left Wilson with little or no alternative.

Eurasia and Africa: Geopolitics and the World Island

In the history of the British Empire Halford Mackinder is not a name that readily comes to mind, but in April, 1904, when the Edwardian ruling classes were already becoming twitchy about the sustainability of the imperial and economic dominance which Britain had enjoyed for the best part of a hundred years, he gave them further cause for concern. In a paper to the Royal Geographical Society entitled Geographical Pivot of History, Mackinder, a geographer by trade and sometime Director of the London School of Economics, integrated the disciplines of history, geography and politics into what was the then novel concept of ‘geopolitics’.

Halford Mackinder

The core of this theory was that the recently constructed trans-continental railways would so transform twentieth century logistics and communications that proximity and access to the sea, and sea power itself, would cease to be the primary determinant of political and economic strength; the empires of the future would be based on continental land mass, natural resources and large populations.

Mackinder went on to emphasise what should have been the blindingly obvious geographical fact that Europe, Asia and Africa were not separate continents but parts of a single contiguous land mass, in effect a ‘World Island’. This was the perspective from which history, geography and politics should be observed rather than through the prevailing nineteenth century Anglo-centric lens. He identified as a ‘Pivot’ or ‘Heartland’ area the expanse of land stretching from Eastern Europe to central Asia, arguing that whoever controlled this ‘Heartland’ would control the ‘World Island’.

Mackinder’s theory is a fascinating study in itself. His ‘Heartland’ was, at the time, ruled largely by the Russian Empire and subsequently, and for most of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union, and it was tested more or less to destruction forty years later in the conflict between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Hitler’s primary war aim was the colonisation of Eastern Europe to secure lebensraum, literally ‘living space’ for Germany’s expanding population, its industry and its agriculture, and the brutal battle of Stalingrad was, in many ways, the pivot point of World War Two. Closer to home, at the start of the twentieth century, Mackinder’s ideas pointed to some disturbing realities for Britain, a small island nation whose far flung empire had been constructed and sustained on relatively unchallenged sea power.

The period of world domination by the Western European maritime powers, which had lasted since the sixteenth century, was drawing to a close. Naval strength, Britain’s trump card, would diminish in value compared with land-based military power. Finally, and contrary to firmly held Edwardian belief, the British Isles did not sit at the centre of the world but were merely an archipelago off the North West coast of the European peninsula of Eurasia, on the periphery of the evolving geopolitical ‘World Island’. Mackinder was not so unwise as to predict the impending dissolution of the British Empire, but the implications for its future were clear and alarming.

The ‘Weary Titan

Britain probably peaked as the world’s dominant commercial, industrial, economic and imperial power around 1870 when Germany came into existence as a unified sovereign state. Around the same time, the United States emerged from its Civil War and, living proof of Mackinder’s theory, began its rapid westward expansion towards the Pacific with the construction of the railroads. This is not to say Britain went backwards, but it suffered an inevitable ‘relative’ decline as the competitive advantage of the world’s first industrial economy was eroded by new competitors with access to land, people, natural resources and technological innovation.

Joseph Chamberlain in 1900

By the turn of the twentieth centiury the strain of military and economic ‘overstretch’ was already apparent, with even the arch-colonialist Joseph Chamberlain describing Britain as ‘The Weary Titan’ staggering ‘under the too vast orb of its fate’.

By the early 1900s Britain was already struggling to reconcile three hugely expensive projects which competed for limited financial resources and with which it continues to struggle today. First, it needed to modernise its industrial base, which had been left trailing in the wake of its more technologically savvy rivals. Second, over twenty percent of its population was living in abject poverty; the ‘Condition of England’ was becoming a serious political issue and the growing demand for spending on social welfare could no longer be ignored. Finally, in the face of growing competition, it needed to maintain the security of its global empire, which actually increased in size after the First World War.

That it was falling short of all three objectives became painfully apparent during and after the Second World War. By 1941, Britain was effectively bankrupt and dependent on support from the USA whose primary, if unstated, war aim was the dissolution of the British Empire and its replacement with its own cultural and economic hegemony. The fall of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese in 1941-42 was proof positive of the unsustainability of a Far Eastern empire for Britain.

When the war ended in 1945, the cost of reconstructing Britain’s shattered cities and infrastructure was added to the still pressing need for industrial modernisation and the new commitment to the establishment of a welfare state. Although the process of decolonisation gathered pace, still the country persisted in maintaining the appearance of a ‘world power’, an illusion shattered in 1956 when the USA effectively forced Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from its attempt to retake control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. Britain was living beyond its means, trying to maintain a ‘great power’ role with an overvalued currency while its economic and geopolitical influence was rapidly diminisihing. In December, 1962, the former U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, suggested, woundingly but not inaccurately, that Britain had ‘lost an empire and not yet found a role’.

Harold Wilson

Undaunted, shortly after becoming Prime Minister in October, 1964, Harold Wilson boldly declared ‘We are a world power and world influence, or we are nothing’. In reality, the end was nigh. A series of financial crises, culminating in an embarrassing devaluation of the pound in late 1967, meant the game was up. Britain could no longer afford to compete at the top table of world powers and, the following year, Wilson announced that it would retrench, withdraw from commitments ‘East of Suez’ and, in future, focus on the European theatre of global politics and security.

This is the ‘mistake’ which Boris Johnson now plans to correct. Ironically, Britain by the early 1970s had, in fact, stumbled over an elegant riposte to Acheson’s jibe as, following accession to the then European Common Market in 1973, it did find a world role, albeit in a subordinate capacity as the USA’s effective gatekeeper and most trusted ally in what became the European Union.

The demise of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’ – Vladimir Putin (2005)

The period between 1945-1989, when the USA and USSR carved up the globe into a bipolar world, was followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and then by twenty years of unipolar American domination. The USA is now itself experiencing a period of relative decline, primarily as a consequence of China’s emergence as a global competitor. Unlike twentieth century Britain, however, the sheer size of the USA, and its military and economic capacity, guarantees its continuing status as a world power.

The geopolitical world is now transitioning to a new phase, when Mackinder’s world island of Eurasia is likely to segment into four regional power blocs, including three large powerful sovereign states, Russia, China and India, who are increasingly likely to compete politically, economically and militarily for resources and influence in and over Central Asia. The fourth Eurasian power is not a sovereign state but a loose confederation, the European Union. In essence a geopolitical project, it was designed in the aftermath of two world wars to bind together the nations of Western Europe, particularly France, Germany and, for a period, Britain in an economic and political alliance to pre-empt another European war and provide a more effective buffer against Soviet aggression.

Vladimir Putin

It is indicative of the complacency and ineptitude of the leadership of the ‘Remain’ campaign that the importance of the European Union in maintaining peace and security was scarcely mentioned and certainly gained no traction during the 2016 Referendum debates. Britain’s withdrawal has undoubtedly weakened the European Union, but those who celebrate Brexit as a major step towards its dissolution should keep an eye on the bigger picture and be careful what they wish for.

They are on the same side of that argument as Vladimir Putin, for whom European disintegration is an important part of his own geopolitical plan to re-establish the Russian/Soviet Empire in Central and Eastern Europe. So, despite the fragility of the European project, as the world moves towards the second quarter of the twenty-first century, the potential geopolitical premier league is shaking down to, at most, five contenders, none of which is Britain.

‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ – Theodore Roosevelt (1900)

Britain is now some 150 years past its peak as the pre-eminent world power. During the course of the twentieth century, it ‘lost an empire’ but subsequently found a geopolitical role. It has now relinquished a major part of that role through withdrawal from the European Union. So where does it go from here? The harsh reality, particularly for the Flat Earth fundamentalists on the Conservative right, is that Britain has been punching above its weight for most of the last century and certainly since the end of World War Two. It remains one of the top six economies and the City of London continues to be a major financial centre, but these factors alone are insufficient to earn it a seat at the ‘top table’. It can still carve out a role for itself in the world, but it is fanciful to suggest that, in isolation, it can compete as a world power. Realistically, it can be no more than a niche player and to exercise real influence it will have to act in concert with other more powerful competitors.

The ‘Integrated Review’ identifies the main threats, particularly in relation to cyber warfare, which the country will face between now and 2030. As to ‘Global Britain’, however, it is not much more than a set of ideas and a wish-list which raises more questions than it provides answers.

To facilitate the ’tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, it suggests the development and expansion of bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Oman, Singapore and Kenya, in addition to ongoing commitments through the NATO alliance in the European and Atlantic theatres. It also recognises the need to maintain UK coastal security and reaffirms commitments to Antarctica and to overseas territories in the Caribbean and the Falkland Islands.

Britain still has the world’s sixth largest naval fleet, but it is only a tenth of the size of the USA’s and there are only so many places two aircraft carriers and eleven submarines can be at any given time. It does feel uncomfortably like we’re trying to revisit the overstretch of the 1960s.

There is an overwhelming sense that Britain’s best option remains the one it has just walked away from. Time will tell whether Johnson can turn the ‘Global Britain’ slogan into some kind of tangible reality. To do so, and if he means ‘power’ rather than just trade, he has to create and work through a strategic alliance with at least one of the five key power blocs; there are plentiful references to the importance of the relationship with the United States. But acting in alliance is a double-edged sword. It can enhance power but, at the same time, place significant limits over control as Britain learned to its cost at Suez in 1956, exposed as a paper tiger when our ‘senior’ alliance partner, the USA, had a conflicting agenda.

Alignment with a more powerful economic or military ally in pursuit of geopolitical power has consequences. Do we compromise our moral values and turn a blind eye to the denial of human rights, religious or political oppression; do we appease odious regimes; do we accept limitations on our own independent rights of self-determination? Judgements must be made about whether ends justify means; to what extent will the lives of our citizens be enhanced by maintaining a veneer of world power; or are we really just talking about a macho national vanity project?

It is a time to reflect on the lessons from history, not to repeat its mistakes. We cannot, as Mackinder said in 1904, change our geography; we remain peripheral, an island nation on an archipelago off the North Western coast of Eurasia. We spent much of the twentieth century defying gravity in a state of economic and military overstretch. We now have choices to make but we can’t have it all ways. As a nation, post-Brexit, we are at a crossroads and, in setting a course for the future, there is a pressing need for realism, sensitivity and pragmatism. It is not a time for delusions of grandeur, misplaced patriotism, nationalism or undiluted optimism. Theodore Roosevelt’s prescription for U.S. foreign policy was to ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’. No one could ever accuse Boris Johnson of speaking softly. It remains to be seen how big a stick he is carrying and how skillfully and to what purpose he wields it.

Post Script

We now live in a binary political world where any kind of dissent from a glowing, hyper optimistic assessment of our country’s past, present and future, however nuanced, is denounced as unpatriotic, if not treasonable, by large swathes of the media, deranged tabloid headline writers and a worrying number of flag-festooned UK government ministers. It is a short step from unrealistic patriotism to manipulated populism, then to delusional, jungoistic nationalism and, ultimately, to a whole range of even more unpleasant ‘isms’. Patriotism and realism are two sides of the same emotional coin. It is perfectly feasible to demonstrate both simultaneously; the two words are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Just a thought.

Tim Hodgson is a History PhD research student at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

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Posted in American history, British Empire, British history, European History, Public History, Research, Russian History, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingston’s War Memorial: A brief history

Remembrance Sunday, created to recall the end of the First World War and now also a day when we commemorate all those who died in subsequent wars, created much debate in Britain over what form memorials to the fallen should take.

In fact, it is important to note that, in many towns and villages across the country, quite a vigorous debate broke out about whether such memorials should be traditional carved statues, crosses or other types of monument, or whether the act of memory would be served better by the construction of memorial halls, public housing projects, new hospitals, or new educational centres.

Interestingly, in the immediate aftermath of the end of hostilities in November, 1918, Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw its own version of such a debate. Residents in the town, elected councillors and other local dignitaries soon began consideration of what might be a suitable memorial to the many local men who had been killed over the previous four years. But it is clear that there was, at first, very little agreement.

When the Mayor of Kingston, Alderman Sir Charles Burge, convened a special meeting on the subject at the town hall, his view that Kingston needed a ‘monument of artistic beauty, worthy of the grand traditions of the Royal Borough’, did not please everyone present. Alderman Burge, who took the view that ‘a mean or poor memorial would be an insult to the men who will never return’, revealed that he had already invited suggestions for a suitable memorial and had asked an artist to prepare a sketch. But, much to his consternation, he found himself being challenged by others. Indeed, he was accused of trying to force his own preferred pet scheme on Kingston’s townspeople.

Some residents wanted, instead, the construction of a memorial hall or a new centre for education. One person also called for the ‘erection of cottages with a memorial in the centre’, while another argued that Kingston could take inspiration from the town of Slough, where the proposed memorial was to be a maternity and child welfare centre.

To add another layer of complexity, there was also disagreement about the precise location for Kingston’s proposed memorial, whatever form it would eventually take. Some suggested it should be located in Canbury gardens, by the River Thames, while others called for it to be sited on the Queen’s Promenade, further down the riverside. Others seemed to favour it being placed prominently in Clarence Street, the main shopping street.

Disagreement and Compromise

According to the local Surrey Comet newspaper, the Mayor’s special meeting became so heated that it degenerated into ‘irrelevant argument’, and was only brought to order when a motion was passed which said ‘that this meeting of the inhabitants of the Borough requests the Mayor to raise a fund worthily to commemorate the sacrifices of the men of Kingston upon Thames who have given their lives for their country, and that this meeting agrees to support the Mayor in the attainment of this object’.

This motion appeared to take some of the heat out of the strong disagreements apparent at the meeting, but the subsequent efforts of Sir Charles Burge to persuade people and businesses to donate to the fund proved very difficult. This was because the economic situation in Britain in the aftermath of the Great War was very poor, including in the so-called leafy Boroughs of south-west London. The war had drained the financial resources of the nation, and local residents were very reluctant to make donations to charities or to use monies from their depleted savings.

Nevertheless, by 1920, the Mayor’s memorial fund had enough money in it to commission a sculpture by Richard Goulden, a former Royal Engineer. He had been invalided out of the army and had turned his attention to creating sculptures, commemorative plaques and other forms of memorial. In fact, he had built up a national reputation for his skills and had helped other towns across the country to construct war memorials of all types.

The Mayor, it seems, was determined to still have a ‘traditional’ kind of memorial in the town, but was open to this being a beautiful sculpture of some kind, not necessarily in the form of a soldier, the form of memorial that so many other towns had chosen.

Goulden’s Vision

Significantly, the selection committee sought a sculpture which would show ‘the spirit of youth pressing forward’ and helping two little ones ‘who look to him in trust to clear from the path the evil that threatens mankind’. And Goulden certainly fulfilled this objective; he designed some striking bronze figures, which were cast at the famous Burton’s foundry in nearby Thames Ditton, and which created some interesting discussions about their meaning. The sculpture can be interpreted and read in a number of ways: on the one hand, it is a ‘traditional’ war memorial; on the other hand, one can arguably see a Christian message about the need to protect the innocent from evil. Some observers have also detected a message of optimism and peace in the symbolism of the sculpture.

As the months ticked by, the disagreements of the immediate aftermath of the war also seemed to dissipate with the passage of time. In February, 1922, the Surrey Comet published an urgent appeal for donations so that the project could be completed, and two months later the newspaper revealed that the money had been raised ‘at last’.

Moreover, a suitable location had also been settled on: in what was then known as the ‘old burial ground’, and what we now know today as the memorial gardens in Union Street in Kingston. Five long years after it had first been argued about at a meeting in the town, the new memorial was officially unveiled by Kingston’s MP, Frederick Penny, on Armistice Day, 1923.

The memorial itself was most impressive, consisting of a granite plinth surmounted by a bronze statue of a man shielding two children with a sword in one hand and holding a flame aloft in his other hand. The plinth now displays several bronze plates bearing the names of Kingston’s military personnel who have died in warfare over the years.

The sculpture, unsurprisingly, became the gathering place for large Remembrance Sunday ceremonies for many years, and this remained the case until – sadly – the Corona-19 virus intervened this year (all public gatherings have had to be cancelled during the latest lockdown regulations). The memorial today is protected by Grade II listing and was refurbished in 2005, and will no doubt remain a key feature of all future Remembrance Sunday events held in the town for generations to come.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in British history, Events, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When the Bombs fell: The impact of wartime air raids on Kingston

The recent discovery of an unexploded Second World War bomb on a building site near Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus was a good reminder of how the local area suffered some considerable attention from the German Luftwaffe during the years 1939-1941.

Kingston University’s History Department has compiled five brief facts about the frightening and damaging consequences of air raids on Kingston and the surrounding district during the first three years of the War, some of which may be familiar to people but others less so.

London Blitz

The reason why researchers have sometimes found it difficult to put together accurate information is that newspapers were often subject to censorship during wartime, as the government naturally did not want news of casualties and damage to residential areas to have a negative impact on civilian morale. Newspapers could only report in very general ways on air raids, and not give precise details on locations.

Similarly, official files at the National Archives at Kew sometimes only offer patchy information, as central government were often very dependent on reports from local authorities, and some of this information was sometimes lost in the disruptive fog of war.

But here’s five interesting local items:

One: Kingston experienced its first serious bombing raid by the Germans on the night of August 24th, 1940, when houses in Avenue Road, Orchard Road, and Eden Street, together with various shops in Clarence Street, suffered serious damage.

Two: From 7th September, 1940, for 57 consecutive days, London and its suburbs were subjected to what became known as the ‘Blitz’, an attempt by Hitler’s air force to weaken the British population’s will to continue fighting. It has been reliably estimated that, in the period 7th October, 1940, to 6th June, 1941, alone, approximately 447 High Explosive bombs fell in the Kingston area.

County Hall 1940 bomb damage

Three: One building that suffered major bomb damage was the Surrey County Hall (see photo), the home of Surrey County Council (which is located just opposite Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus today). Many of the Council staff had been evacuated two weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939 to a disused college in Guildford, and the building had been taken over by the Ministry of Health.

Four: As the recent unexpected discovery of an unexploded bomb (UXB) near the University illustrated, we tend to forget that not all bombs dropped in wartime detonated, or sometimes they fell but exploded after a short while. In the Surbiton Borough area, for example,  it is estimated that 45 bombs failed to detonate on impact, and had to be detonated or made safe by brave members of the Army bomb disposal squad. It was highly dangerous work. On 3rd November, 1940, a bomb that had smashed into No. 78 Ewell Road, Surbiton, and lay unexploded for eight hours, suddenly exploded.

Five: Key local factories, communication links and public utilities, such as railway lines and water and sewage works, were also targeted by enemy planes. It is known that the Hawkers Aircraft production factory in Canbury Park Road, Kingston, was hit by German bombs early on in the Blitz, with several people killed. Similarly, the sewage works in Lower Marsh Lane (located near the University’s current-day Clayhill student hostel) was hit by High Explosive devices at least twice during 1940, but fortunately with minimal damage.

Interestingly, later in the War, the sewage works in Lower Marsh Lane was hit by a V-1 Flying Bomb (known as a ‘doodlebug’), but there was only minor damage to the filter beds.

All in all, Kingston and the surrounding areas of Surbiton, Tolworth, Hook and Chessington suffered some considerable damage and casualties from Hitler’s bombs during the War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in British history, European History, German History, History of war, Kingston, Kingston University, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, The National Archives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Talk by Kingston University Professor Marisa Linton on Emotions, Terror and Politics in the French Revolution

On Tuesday, 27th April, 2021, at 5.00pm CET time, Kingston University History Professor Marisa Linton will be giving an online talk at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

The talk is entitled:

‘On Emotions, Terror and Politics in the French Revolution’

All welcome to attend

Professor Linton is the author of the critically-acclaimed study Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (2013), and recently co-authored with Professor Michel Biard Terreur! La Revolution francaise face a ses demons (2020).

She is currently working on a new study of the key personalities of the French Revolution for Oxford University Press.

Posted in European History, Events, French History, Historiography, Kingston University, Oxford University Press, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A ‘bond of mutual help’: The Comrades of the Great War organisation in Kingston and Surbiton

Christmas arrived early for some former soldiers in the suburbs of south-west London in late 1918. One hundred and three years ago, on Christmas Day, 1918, the Surrey Comet newspaper carried a report about the opening of a new clubhouse for discharged servicemen in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey.

IWM WW1 image

The new clubhouse had been officially opened at 48, London Road, Kingston, a few days earlier, on the evening of Saturday, 21st December, in a formal opening ceremony conducted by Mrs. Cooper Turner, accompanied by her husband, Lieutenant F. Cooper Turner. The latter was President of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ organisation, and the Comet noted that its members now had a place where they could ‘meet and discuss matters of interest and enjoy a little social intercourse’ at centrally located premises.


Although there has been some brief coverage by historians of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ (CGW) at national level, very little is available on the evolution of branches of the organisation at local level in towns and cities across the British Isles. A brief exploration of the Kingston and Surbiton branch can partly help to address this gap in our knowledge, although much further research needs to be carried out.

First of all, however, what was the purpose and aims of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ organisation? CGW had been formed in late 1917 at an event held at the Mansion House in London, in order to lobby for, and protect, the rights of ex-servicemen and women who had served in His Majesty’s armed forces and been discharged. It was founded by Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, who sought a rightwing alternative to the recently formed ‘National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers’ (founded in 1916, and affiliated to the Trade Union movement), and also to the ‘National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers’ (which had been founded in April, 1917).

Wilfrid Ashley

The President and leader of CGW was the Conservative MP Colonel Wilfred Ashley (1867-1939) (see photo), who was also secretary of the Anti-Socialist Union (ASU), a group which feared the spread of Socialism and Bolshevism in Britain. Ashley felt CGW could help steer ex-soldiers away from being seduced by the ‘radical’ propaganda of the other rival ex-service organisations.

He was aware that unemployment was high among veterans, especially those who had been left disabled through war injuries. The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, in particular, was calling for better pensions for those who had served. Similarly, the rapidly rising Labour Party was also beginning to campaign on such issues. Many veterans had also expressed disappointment over the seemingly unfulfilled promises made by the wartime Government concerning how many more houses would be built and made available for ex-servicemen and their families. Ashley was worried that ex-servicemen’s groups on the Left would try and exploit such discontent and, indeed, were already ‘politicising’ veterans. He wished to ensure that CGW would be more neutral in such matters.

Ironically, after a number of years of fairly intense competition between CGW and the other two ex-servicemen’s groups, CGW eventually combined with those same organisations, together with the Officers’ Association (which had been formed in 1920), and the four organisations formally became one single veterans movement in May, 1921, entitled the ‘British Legion’, which, of course, still exists today.

The CGW at local level

The first indications of CGW activity in the Kingston and Surbiton area came in mid-December, 1917, when it was reported that, ‘with the object of inaugurating a local branch of this new organisation’, a meeting had been held at the Gables Theatre in Surbiton (now the site of Hillcroft College, behind Surbiton Station). Mr. G. Pegram presided at the meeting, and a local branch committee was formed. Just a few weeks later, in January, 1918, it was reported in the Surrey Comet that a ‘well attended’ general meeting of the new Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW had been held at the Gables Theatre, with Canon F.B. Macnutt, former Senior Chaplain to the British Forces in France, presiding. The honorary secretary, Mr. Herbert Frost, reported, ‘amid applause’, that during the six weeks the branch had been in existence its membership had increased from 22 to 230.


Significantly, at the same meeting, Captain Towse, V.C., of the central organisation of the CGW, spoke to the local members and ’emphasised the fact that the “Comrades” were a strictly non-political body’. According to Towse, the main object of each branch was to unite discharged and demobilised soldiers in ‘a bond of mutual help’ and ‘comradeship’, and ‘to assist the dependents of men and women of all grades of the Services’ who had given their lives for King and Country. Capt. Towse also explained that the organisation ‘must not be confused with Trade Unions’. The ‘Comrades’, he claimed, ‘were out for the sole purpose of helping ex-servicemen, and in so doing they were not working against any other organisation, association or union’.

The following month, the Surrey Comet carried an interesting report about the wider activities and evolution of the CGW across Surrey. According to the newspaper, a meeting had been held in London in early February, 1918, ‘with the object of ventilating the aims and objects of the Comrades of the Great War, and with the view of adopting the scheme for the County of Surrey’. Lord Middleton presided, and ‘a considerable number of important people in the County were present’. Lord Middleton had explained the aims and objects of the CGW organisation, together with Capt. Towse (again representing the CGW national executive), while Colonel Young explained what had been done in Surrey. A resolution put to the meeting was unanimously adopted to appoint a special committee to increase CGW activity in Surrey, and it was noted that: ‘A branch for Kingston and Surbiton was established at the Gables Theatre, Surbiton, a few weeks ago, and there is also a branch at East Molesey’.


Disabled WW1 servicemen

A sense of urgency can also be detected in CGW developments at local level in Surrey, including in the Kingston and district area. This was undoubtedly due to the emergence of rivals. In February, 1918, for example, a branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers had been formed for Surbiton and Kingston, and any ‘discharged servicemen desiring to enrol’ were invited to communicate with W.R.G. Tucker, at Orchard Cottage, South Place, Surbiton Hill. Also known as the ‘Silver Badge Men’ (from September, 1916, a silver badge was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to serious wounds or sickness), the organisation tended to be more outspoken concerning what they saw as the unfair treatment of ex-servicemen, especially those men who had lost limbs.

Tucker became Hon. Secretary of the group, which held its first general meeting in early March at the Surbiton Lecture Hall in Maple Road, Surbiton. Reliable figures on local membership and support are difficult to find, although in November, 1918, it was reported that, at a monthly meeting of the Silver Badge Men held in the Fife Hall, Kingston, ‘about 100 members were present’ to hear addresses by two parliamentary candidates for the Kingston Parliamentary Division, who were subjected to ‘a good deal of good-humoured heckling’. The same account of the meeting stated that the local National Federation branch now had a membership of nearly 400, which was about fifty or so more than the CGW by that stage.

WW1 British soldier returning home

Meanwhile, the CGW had followed its own ‘non-political’ path. In early March, 1918, it was announced that Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, J.P., had accepted the position of ‘Commandant’ of the Kingston and Surbiton branch of the CGW, and the branch appears to have made some further progress over the next few months. The ‘social’ side to the branch certainly seemed healthy. Indeed, it appears that the social and cultural activities were viewed as more important than any dabbling in ‘politics’. In May, 1918, the CGW were able to hold their second ‘smoking concert’ at the Gables Theatre, with an ‘excellent programme’ of acts arranged for the occasion by Mr. Herbert Frost, the local branch secretary.

Clearly, however, a more permanent base for the local CGW branch was urgently needed if it was to grow yet more and provide regular support and social ‘comradeship’ for members, particularly given the local emergence of the rival National Federation. In June, 1918, it was reported that there had only been ‘a fair attendance’ at a general meeting of the branch of the CGW held at the Gables Theatre. Lieut.-Colonel F. Cooper Turner, presiding at the meeting, and speaking in his capacity as Commandant, said ‘every effort’ was being made to find suitable premises for club purposes ‘where the comrades could spend a comfortable hour of recreation’. Interestingly, though, branch secretary Frost was still able to report that the branch had over 300 members and was ‘still enrolling’.

Kingston on Thames

But the search for a headquarters and club-room appears to have dragged on for a number of months. It was not until well into the autumn that a property was found. In early November, the Surrey Comet revealed that the CGW were making an appeal for funds to provide a club-room for the branch, as ‘suitable quarters’ had now been obtained in Kingston. The estimated expense of furnishing the premises (at 48, London Road), plus rental and lighting, for a period of three years, was ‘about £600’.

Ideological themes

Publicity material for the appeal provides further interesting insights into what the CGW stood for. Again, it was stated that the aims and objects of the organisation were to ‘bring together’ the discharged and demobilised sailors and soldiers of the district ‘in a bond of mutual help’, and to ‘continue that spirit of Comradeship so predominant in the Trenches’, while also safeguarding the interests of all naval and military men and the widows and orphans of these who had fallen.

In the appeal for funds, the CGW branch Hon. Secretary Herbert Frost also called for gifts of furniture, including a Billiard Table: ‘Will any lady or gentleman kindly present one as a memorial to a Fallen Hero? An inscribed plate will be affixed denoting the donor and in whose memory it is given’.

It is also evident that, as a more conservative type of veterans organisation, the CGW could rely on support from Establishment notables. In early December, 1918, in a report on a meeting at Kingston Congregational Hall to celebrate both the first anniversary of the branch and the fact that it would be opening premises shortly, a message from Lady Haig, wishing success to the branch, was read out by the Commandant, F. Cooper Turner. The first Annual Report of the branch, presented by Hon. Secretary Frost, stated that membership was now at 359.

Coverage of the opening of the new CGW premises in Kingston is also worth noting. A tone of optimism was in evidence. The Surrey Comet observed to its readers that the Comrades of the Great War organisation was ‘one of the products of the War which bids fair to play an important part in national affairs in coming days’, and was ‘making great headway’ in many parts of the country. Moreover, the Comet suggested that nothing had been more marked during the War ‘than the spirit of comradeship which has been evoked by the sense of  a common danger and a common patriotism’.

Reflecting on the new post-war peace, the newspaper also argued that: ‘Men of all classes have served side by side in the ranks, and have manifested an equality of self-sacrifice in the interests of their country, and it is of the greatest importance that the feelings of mutual confidence should be maintained and deepened in the time of peace when so many perplexing problems have to be faced’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in December, 2018.

Posted in British history, Disability History, European History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winston and the Witch: The strange case of alleged wartime witchcraft

The Second World War threw up some strange episodes on the domestic front in Britain, including – astonishingly – a lengthy and controversial trial held at the Old Bailey under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. It was a trial which an exasperated Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately called ‘tomfoolery’.

Helen Duncan

Churchill’s reaction was spurred by the trial under the Witchcraft Act of spiritualist Helen Duncan (1897-1956), who was hauled before a Judge at the Old Bailey in 1944 and tried for creating a possible danger to domestic civilian morale and internal security.

Mrs. Duncan was the Scots-born wife of a disabled World War One veteran, Henry Duncan, a man who was an unemployed cabinet-maker but also a committed spiritualist. Helen Duncan was also a mother of six children, and money was naturally tight for the family. She had already shown an interest in reading tea-leaves and earning a few pennies from making predictions. Her husband encouraged her to hold seances and to charge attendees, and she eventually became a kind of travelling medium.

In fact, this proved to be a tremendous success, for both Helen and Henry. In the aftermath of the horrors of the Great War, there were clearly plenty of people in Britain who were only too willing to pay to be put into ‘contact’ with their lost loved ones who had ‘passed over’ into the afterlife. Spiritualism was a growth industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite often families had only been given a brief War Office telegram about a fallen soldier, could not travel to France or Belgium to mourn, and had been denied a proper family funeral for their lost one. Numerous widows and grieving mothers thus attended seances and sought out spiritual healers or clairvoyants, who were able to offer what the historian David Cannadine has aptly described as ‘the private denial of death’.

The Wages of War

By the 1940s, Duncan had presented herself as a successful psychic and medium and had given numerous seances all over the country, both in peacetime during the 1930s and also after the outbreak of war in 1939. Indeed, in many ways, and rather distastefully, the outbreak of the second war in twenty years had served a similar function to Duncan as the earlier Great War: it had been good for her business, as more and more bereaved and distraught families flocked to her seances to try to contact their deceased loved ones.

Naturally, Duncan was only too happy to oblige. Moreover, Duncan often claimed to be able to produce ectoplasm, which (with the lights conveniently dimmed) would appear to emanate from her mouth and was, she said, a ‘materialisation’ which took on the form of the spirits of the dead.

Seen by some as a woman with a genuine ability to open a link to the afterlife, and by others as a fraudulent and rather pathetic con-artist (she had previously been charged with fraud in 1933), Duncan suddenly found herself under urgent investigation by the authorities in 1941, after she had claimed at a seance held in Portsmouth that a dead sailor had told her his ship had sunk. The curious (and to the authorities, alarming) aspect of this claim was that, among Duncan’s props at the time was a sailor’s hatband with the words HMS Barham on it. This was noted by local police and the information was passed up to the Home Office in London, flagged up as a possible security breach.

Sinking of HMS Barham

This caught the attention of the Admiralty and set alarm bells ringing in Naval Intelligence in Whitehall because, at the time Duncan had made this revelation about the comment from the supposed dead spirit of the sailor, the Admiralty was still suppressing news of HMS Barham‘s sinking off the Island of Malta.

This was because Admiralty officials felt that to release the dramatic news of the sinking would shake wartime public morale (only the very close relatives of those on board the ship had been told of the disaster, and it was not announced publicly until late January, 1942).

The ship had exploded after being torpedoed three times by a German submarine, U-331, and 859 (some accounts say 861) British lives had been lost (see photo).

Witch Watch

Duncan was placed under fairly close surveillance for the next two years until, in 1944 – as D-Day and the Allied invasion of France were being planned and prepared for – the authorities decided to finally act, as they apparently feared she might ‘see’ the proposed Normandy landing sites and somehow give the game away prematurely, which would have been a disastrous breach of security and a possible major gift to the Nazi enemy.

The sequence of events leading up to this started at the beginning of 1944, on 14th January. On that day, Duncan had held another of her regular seances in Portsmouth. Two Lieutenants were present at this, including a Lieutenant Worth, who was told that a figure who appeared during the session was his deceased aunt. However, Worth had no deceased aunt and, angry over the incident, he decided to report the seance to the local police.

The local authorities, already familiar with Duncan’s activities, must have decided enough was enough. On 19th January, at another seance, two plainsclothes policemen were present. Duncan was arrested, transported to London and was forced to endure a seven-day trial in the British capital. She was charged under section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act with ‘attempting to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons’. At first, the prosecution had tried to charhe her with ‘vagrancy’ and then conspiracy, but then fell back on using Witchcraft legislation that was two centuries old. To critics, it seemed this was heavy-handed and rather desperate behaviour on the part of the State.

Interestingly, more than 40 witnesses gave evidence in support of Duncan, claiming she had genuine ‘powers’. Nevertheless, the Crown Prosecutor argued that Duncan was a fraud – she was ‘an unmitigated humbug’, who could only be regarded as ‘a pest to a certain section of society’. She was found guilty under the Witchcraft Act for ‘conjuration’ – pretending to raise the spirits of the dead – and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison in London.

Churchill’s Exasperation

The bizarre case did not go unnoticed, even in a nation still at war and subject to press censorship. Duncan was nicknamed ‘Hellish Nell’, and various rather sensational claims appeared in some parts of the media about her life and activities. Ironically, as a result of all this, she arguably became the most famous spiritualist in the country, and her most loyal supporters referred to her as their ‘goddess’. The case even caught the attention of the Prime Minister. After the verdict, Churchill penned a memorandum to his Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, during which he complained about the misuse of court resources on the ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ of the charge.

Thus, on 3rd April, 1944, Churchill wrote: ‘Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice’. He asked Morrison what the cost had been to the State, noting that witnesses had been brought up from Portsmouth and put up for two weeks in a ‘crowded London’, and that the Recorder had been kept busy ‘with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts’.

Churchill was a complex figure. Although deeply interested in science, he also held a curiosity about strange phenomena (spiritualism, UFOs, secret societies, etc) and could himself be prone to irrational or prejudiced thought, such as a belief in White racial supremacy, imperialism, and a sympathy for eugenics. But even Churchill could see how morally misguided and financially wasteful it was to devote time and valuable resources to prosecuting individuals under such archaic legislation.

Did his Home Secretary or Home Office civil servants more generally take this on board? Only partly, it seems. It is worth noting that, although Duncan became the last person in Britain to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act, she was not the last person to be charged: Jane Rebecca Yorke, from East London, was charged a few months later under the same legislation. But, in Yorke’s case, she was simply bound over for the sum of £5 to be of good behaviour for three years.

It is important to remember that Duncan was not charged with being a ‘Witch’, as some people appear to believe. She was, in truth, found guilty of ‘fraud’, and was taken out of wartime circulation in a case that was shaped by the intense paranoia of the time about security and possible subversion of the State.

The wisdom of employing such aging legislation led legal experts to increasingly challenge its continued existence. Churchill was certainly open to those arguments. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, shortly after Churchill returned to Downing Street, and it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimeda Commons)

Posted in British history, Gender History, Historiography, History of war, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Secret State, Teaching, Uncategorized, Women's history | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lord Haw-Haw in Kingston: When fascist orator William Joyce came to town

Not many people in Kingston-upon-Thames realise that William Joyce (1906-1946), otherwise known by his critics as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, once spoke at a fascist meeting in the town in the 1930s. The outspoken rightwing extremist later became notorious as an English-language broadcaster for Nazi Germany during World War Two, and was subsequently executed as a traitor shortly after the War.

Academic and more general interest in William Joyce (pictured) remains as strong as ever. A new biography of Joyce by Professor Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw, was published in August, 2016, and has become in many ways the definitive biography of this highly controversial fascist ideologue and obsessive anti-Semite.

Among the many fascinating and interesting revelations contained in the new biography was some very useful background context to Joyce’s regular speaking tours around the country during the 1930s, including references to his visits to parts of inner and outer London, such as the South-West suburbs.

I have conducted some research of my own on local fascism in Kingston and Surbiton, and can provide some brief detail on Kingston’s encounter with both Joyce and fascism. There had already been some fascist activity in the area during the 1920s, when the first official fascist organisation in this country, the ‘British Fascists’ (BF), had held meetings outside the War Memorial in Kingston Market Place.

BUF activities

During the 1930s, however, fascism became a more regular feature of Kingston’s local political scene, with the formation of one of the earliest branches of the new ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF). The BUF had been created by Sir Oswald Mosley in October, 1932. During 1933, the local Kingston BUF operated from a basement in the centre of the town but, by 1934, had seen sufficient growth in membership to enable it to open a new HQ in a large four-story house located at 16, Surbiton Road (just around the corner from present-day Kingston University’s main Penrhyn Road campus). The Blackshirts stayed there for two years, before relocating in 1936 to an HQ in Crown Passage in the Apple Market, Kingston, and then (in 1939) to 66, London Road, Kingston.

BUF members made their first local appearance in public at a debate held by the Conservative Association at Thames Ditton in April, 1934, when a group of seven Blackshirted activists sat on benches at the back of the hall.

The first major public meeting held by the local BUF branch itself took place on a Friday evening in January, 1935, at Surbiton Assembly Rooms (see modern photo). James Gueroult, the movement’s Area Officer for South-West London, spoke to an interested audience about the policies of his organisation. Based on a report carried in the local Surrey Comet, the meeting apparently lasted until nearly midnight. In his main speech, Gueroult claimed that the BUF would ‘bring an end’ to political parties in the country and would, instead, create a ‘corporate state’, organised like a ‘great business’. During both the main talk and in the questions and answers session afterwards,  there were a number of interruptions from anti-fascists in the hall.

Joyce in the town

A more controversial and dramatic BUF public meeting, however, followed in the autumn of 1936, with William Joyce as the ‘star’ speaker. This took place at the old Baths Hall in Wood Street, Kingston, one Tuesday evening in early December. Joyce, who had built up considerable notoriety as a sarcastic and very racist orator, was subjected to various lively interruptions at the Kingston meeting, which saw 250 people in attendance. During both his talk and in the questions and answers session afterwards, there were some significant interruptions from people strongly opposed to Joyce and the BUF.

At one point, acting on orders from Joyce, some fascist stewards physically removed a vocal critic from the meeting, followed shortly afterwards by the removal of another ‘youthful interrupter’. Female BUF stewards also threatened at one stage to remove a female protester, but she decided to leave of her own accord. She had earlier tried to interject a number of remarks, but Joyce had retorted: ‘If you looked a little more British I would listen to you’. This remark had led to a number of angry interruptions.

According to reports in local newspapers from the time, Joyce – or the ‘Professor’ as he was known to his keen supporters – proclaimed to the Baths Hall meeting that the BUF was opposed to ‘all the old political parties’ and also to ‘international finance’ (which was BUF code for Jews), and he also made a defence of the fascist ‘corporate’ method of government. In addition, Joyce made what he called the case for peace, and asserted: ‘I feel the ex-Servicemen here will support me and back this movement up when I say we want no more war with Germany. We must extend the hand of friendship to her’.

Mosley’s visit

Two years later, in October, 1938, another BUF ‘big beast’ made an appearance in Kingston. The movement’s leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, spoke to a crowded audience at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. This was the first and only time the fascist leader appeared in the Kingston area, although he made a number of appearances at Princes Hall in nearby Richmond. Members of Kingston Communist Party protested outside the Surbiton Assembly Rooms, watched over closely by the local police. However, inside the building – where both sides of the hall were lined with fascist stewards ready to deal with any ‘disorder’ – the evening’s meeting was reported by the Surrey Comet as a ‘quiet and uneventful’ gathering.

As for Joyce, after he was expelled from the BUF in 1937, he set up his own ‘National Socialist League’. In late August, 1939, sensing war was imminent, Joyce and his wife quickly left for Nazi Germany. Interestingly, after the outbreak of war in 1939, many people appear to have secretly tuned into the radio broadcasts of ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, more for entertainment value than for serious news. Yet, as Colin Holmes’s new biography has pointed out, we should not forget that Joyce was able at times to terrorise and traumatize some listeners through his radio broadcasts.

Indeed, there was clearly much concern at times among Kingston’s local authorities about these radio broadcasts. In July, 1940, for example, the Surrey Comet reported how Bruce Tomkins, a Kingston BUF member, had been sentenced at the Old Bailey to six month’s imprisonment for doing acts ‘likely to prejudice’ the efficient prosecution of the war. This had included him being found in possession of ‘sticky-back slips’ on which were printed the radio wave-length of a German English-language propaganda station.

According to one witness at the trial, Tomkins had told her that he knew Sir Oswald Mosley, had been on holidays to Germany, and knew ‘Lord Haw-Haw’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons and Routledge Publishers)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in April, 2017.

Posted in British history, European History, Fascism, German History, Historiography, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Richmond history, Surbiton, Surrey, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring the African Congo: The brief but dramatic career of Joseph Moloney (1858-1896)

Being a historian is rather like being a detective. A simple inscription on an old broken memorial led me to piece together a fascinating story about human endurance. The main cemetery in Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey contains the grave of a relatively young Irish explorer, now largely forgotten, who helped save a major expedition to the African Congo in the nineteenth century and guide it back to safety.

Dr Joseph Moloney

Joseph August Moloney (1858-1896) died at the early age of 38 of a heart problem, which his close friends and others believed was due to his experiences in Africa. Moloney (see photo) had recently returned to Kingston, after leading an expedition in 1895 to plant the British flag in territories to the west of Lake Nyassa, on behalf of the British South Africa Company.

In its story on the surprise death of Moloney, the local Surrey Comet newspaper reported that Moloney’s illness was ‘no doubt’ brought on by the privation he suffered when he was engaged as a Medical Officer (MO) on an earlier expedition to the Congo in 1891. It was this expedition, known as the ‘Stairs Expedition’, which provided me with some fascinating insights into a tale of adventure and high risk.

The Stairs Expedition

Moloney, who was born in Newry, Ireland, and studied medicine at Dublin University, practiced as a doctor for several years in south London. However, perhaps in search of something more challenging, he offered his services as an MO to the Stairs Expedition, which was led by a British Army Officer, William Stairs, and sponsored by Belgium. Moloney’s account of the expedition was later published in in his book With Captain Stairs to Katanga (1893), and was also outlined in a paper he gave to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in 1893.

It is evident from this material and other archive sources that Moloney was instrumental in saving the Stairs Expedition from disaster. Captain Stairs, who had been involved in several expeditions to Africa, had obtained permission from the British War Office to command the Belgian Katanga Company Expedition (the ‘Stairs Expedition’) which, backed by the Belgian Government, left for ‘Katangaland’ in May, 1891. The Katanga territories lay at the heart of the Congo and were rich in copper deposits; as part of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ the area had seen some intense rivalry between European states but also, at certain junctures, some cooperation as well, especially between Britain and Belgium. State-sanctioned companies often employed soldiers to ruthlessly wipe out any local tribal opposition. The Katanga Company, an international syndicate, was a good example of this.

The Stairs Expedition, with Stairs as leader, Captain Bodson as second-in-command and the Marquis de Bonchamps as the third officer, also included Thomas Robinson as the carpenter and Joseph Moloney as the MO. The five Europeans were supported by a native caravan of 336. The column set off in June, 1891, marching through various territories and, on October 9th, encamped at a French mission station. From that point onwards, the Expedition took on a much more dangerous nature, passing into largely unmapped areas of mountains, tropical rain forests and crocodile-infested rivers.

Dr Moloney

At one stage, the Expedition ran out of food, while violent thunderstorms often put out the camp fires at night. After five months of marching, the Expedition encamped near Bunkeia, which was the capital of the tribal Kingdom of King Msiri. Stairs hoisted the Belgian flag to claim the area for King Leopold’s Congo Free State. However, a bungled attempt to capture King Msiri ended in the native chief being killed, while the Expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Bodson, died from wounds inflicted by Msiri’s slaves. Moloney took a major risk to retrieve Bodson’s body under fire.

Further misfortune occurred. Stairs became very ill, so it fell to Moloney to start negotiating with the local tribes and buy time, which he did successfully by concluding fifteen separate treaties. Christmas, 1891, though, brought further misery. The native porters had scoured the countryside for food but it became very clear that none was available. For the next three weeks, the Stairs Expedition had to exist on a diet (to use Moloney’s own words) of ‘leaves and grass, varied by fired locusts and ants’. Fever, hunger and desertion reduced the caravan down to 200 people. The Marquis de Bonchamps caught fever and, according to Moloney, both Stairs and Thomas Robinson also ‘lay at death’s door’.

Moloney’s Key Role

In early February, 1892, Stairs decided that the Expedition would have to retrace their steps and try to return to the coast and to safety. This was extremely difficult because the rains had dramatically altered much of the landscape, making much of it swamp water, which they reluctantly had to wade through while the sun above took its toll. Many of the native porters died, and the four remaining Europeans were all sick with fever.

It was largely down to Moloney, who effectively took command, that the Expedition finally made it back to a Portuguese port (‘Vincenti’) on June 3rd, 1892. Shortly after this, on June 9th, Stairs died. In his memoirs, the ever-loyal Moloney was generous in his praise of Stairs, but later critics suggested that Stairs had been too brutal in his conduct towards the natives and incompetent in some of his decision-making. Moreover, when the Royal Geographical Society met in June, 1893, to hear an account of the Expedition, they decided that Moloney had been ‘the backbone of the expedition’, acting bravely under fire, using his diplomatic skills wisely and, against tremendous odds, he had managed to lead the dying men back to safety.

While care must be taken not to convert Moloney’s career into a ‘Boy’s Own’ style romantic adventure, the historical evidence suggests (to me, at least) that the modest Dr. Moloney was an astute and brave individual, who managed to show leadership in circumstances that would have defeated many other people.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: Much of the above was also discussed in my article for Ancestors, no. 73 (2008).

Posted in African History, British Empire, British history, European History, History of Medicine, Irish History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Medical History, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen of Spies: The fascinating life of Daphne Park

As part of International Women’s Day it is important to remember the crucial part played by women in the world of espionage and intelligence-gathering, a largely male-dominated occupation in the 20th century. A number of strong-minded and hardworking women managed to break through the glass ceiling they often faced at managerial level in the intelligence services, and one such woman was Daphne Park.

In 2016, a new book was published by author Paddy Hayes which lifted the lid on some of the hidden aspects of the life of Park (1921-2010), who was born in Surrey and became arguably one of Britain’s most successful female spies in the post-1945 period.

Entitled Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War spy master, the new book was part biography and part history of the role of women in espionage during both the Second World War and the Cold War, a topic in gender history that still remains relatively under-researched by scholars even today.

Daphne Park in her younger days

Park, who eventually became Baroness Park of Monmouth and also (in 1980) Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, was – as one reviewer put it – ‘a child of Empire who became a Cold War Warrior’.

Taken to Africa by her mother when only six months old (her father worked as a tobacco farmer there), Daphne was raised in the southern highlands of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where she lived a notably tough life in a mud-brick house that had no electricity or running water. This made the young Daphne very independent and hardy, ready to grab every opportunity that came her way.

Her mother pawned the last of her jewellery to send the eleven-year old Daphne back to England to attend a state school in south London, and Daphne did so well that she ended up studying at Somerville College, Oxford. During the Second World War, keen to serve her country after graduating in 1943, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, but during the selection process she came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was a secret sabotage and intelligence organisation that worked behind enemy lines. It had been the brain-child of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had instructed SOE to set Nazi-occupied Europe ‘ablaze’.

Daphne trained as a briefing officer for SOE, giving instructions to the brave individuals, or sometimes teams of individuals, who were dropped by parachute into Occupied France to organize the resistance and to conduct high-risk sabotage operations.

Entry into SIS

When SOE disbanded at the end of the War, Daphne decided that she wanted to carry on in the world of intelligence, and set her sights on joining the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), or ‘MI6’ as it is more commonly known. However, as Hayes pointed out, in contrast to the relatively egalitarian ethos that had existed in SOE, the Secret Intelligence Service was still a very enclosed male-dominated world of bowler-hatted former Army officers and public schoolboys, who tended to inhabit the same London Clubs on the Mall and viewed women with great suspicion, seeing them as useful only as secretaries or filing-clerks.

Nevertheless, although something of an ‘outsider’, Daphne Park was stubborn and determined. By 1948, she was ‘attached to the Foreign Office’, but in reality was working for MI6. And she was so good at the work that she steadily made her way up through the ranks, carving out a highly successful career as an Intelligence Officer. On the other hand, she had to sacrifice her private life. She was not allowed to marry (it was a rule within MI6 that female officers could not marry, a ruling that apparently remained in place until at least the 1980s).

Hayes described Daphne Park’s MI6 postings to Moscow, Leopoldville, and Hanoi, and in each posting she demonstrated great gifts for playing the dual roles of both diplomat and spy (MI6 officers often operated under diplomatic cover from British Embassies). Some of the other MI6 officers likened her to Agatha Christie’s matronly detective Miss Marple, but many of them developed a great respect for her work, while her enemies in this highly secret world noted her ‘tough and uncompromising view of life’. It could be highly dangerous work when out in ‘the field’. In the Congo in 1959-1960, for example, she came close to losing her life on at least two occasions.

Daphne Park after her retirement

In many ways, Park remained very much a daughter of Empire, with all the attitudes that came with this. She developed a lifelong hatred of the Russians, was suspicious of the French, and placed a great deal of emphasis on loyalty, trust and service to the British nation and its interests.

Indeed, she admired the ‘Bulldog Drummond’ version of the Gentleman Spy, as portrayed in the intensely patriotic and markedly righwing novels of Sapper, and she strongly disliked the gritty spy fiction of former MI6 spy-turned-author John le Carre (who died in December, 2020), who she criticised for portraying the spy world as essentially nasty and treacherous.

Senior Rank

In 1975 Park became the first woman to be made an Area Controller, which was MI6’s most senior operational rank. However, the details of what she actually did during her time in this role remain largely (and frustratingly!) unknown. And this is where Paddy Hayes in his biography of Park hit something of an information brickwall, a problem that is often faced by other historians who write about Britain’s secret world of spying: in contrast to MI5 (the domestic Security Service), which has slowly opened up and released many of its ‘historical’ files to public access (via the National Archives at Kew), MI6 files remain unavailable.

In fact, the Secret Service has made it very clear that they are unwilling to match MI5 and adopt any kind of ‘openness’ policy concerning their ‘historical’ files. The only concession in this direction was an ‘official’ history of MI6, written by Keith Jeffery, which appeared in 2010. This official history only covered the years 1909-1949.

This meant that Hayes, in his biography of Park, had to rely on newspapers or former colleagues or members of Park’s family to fill in some of the gaps in her later career. All in all, though, Hayes still managed to write a fascinating study of an intriguing woman. If you are interested in the secret and shadowy world of spying, and also in how a woman broke down discriminatory and other barriers to carve out a remarkably successful career as a spy-master, then the book is still worth tracking down.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in April, 2016.

Posted in African History, Archives, Blogging, British Empire, British history, Gender History, Historiography, Media history, Public History, Secret State, Uncategorized, Women's history, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Women versus Women: The anti-Suffragists in South-West London

As part of Women’s History Month, I thought I would share again some research I conducted in 2014-2015 on a still relatively under-researched aspect of women’s history, the anti-Suffrage groups that had emerged in Edwardian Britain.

Back in 2015, the new movie Suffragette, which had just gone on general release in UK cinemas, had sought to tell the story of what the film-makers called the ‘footsoldiers’ of the women’s suffrage movement in the years before the First World War.

Naturally, as a historian, I was keen to see the movie, and was glad I did. Directed by Sarah Gavon and written by Abi Morgan, the film tried to break and explore new ground in relation to the struggle by British women to gain the vote in the early twentieth century. Significantly, instead of telling the more familiar story of the Pankhurst family and the other (mainly) middle-class women who were active with the Women’s Social and Political Union, Suffragette shifted the focus on to the working-class female militants and the (arguably much tougher) problems they faced when trying to become active campaigners.

SuffragetteIt was (and remains) a good and moving film, well worth a viewing by anybody with an interest in British social and political history. While some historians of the period might have reservations about certain aspects of the movie, it still captured the atmosphere of the times very accurately, especially the awful industrial conditions in which women worked in parts of East London.

By sheer coincidence, I had recently been carrying out some research on middle-class ‘defence’ and protest movements in south-west London and – when I was exploring some pre-1914 local sources – I increasingly encountered newspaper reports on suffragette activities.

In 1913, for example, two suffragettes set fire to the Tea Pavilion situated at the famous Pagoda in Kew Gardens, completely burning it out. Just a short while later, another suffragette was arrested for setting fire to the letters in the main letters-box of the Post Office in George Street in Richmond.


sufragette2But what I was less prepared for was the extent to which there was also activity by women who opposed the whole idea of votes for women. Indeed, although it might appear a very odd trend when considered now, we tend to forget that – before 1918 – not all women wanted the vote, and some were even prepared to voice their antipathy and mobilise other like-minded women through organised public campaigns. As far as I can tell, although more research and scholarship is now available on the topic (especially after we celebrated the 100th Anniversary of women gaining the vote), there has still been surprisingly little research conducted on this type of ‘anti-Suffrage’ politics.

The main group involved in this backlash against the suffragettes in the London area was the ‘National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage’, which appears to have been organised and sustained by some very middle-class women. In south-west London, a branch of this organisation was quite active in the leafy middle-class suburbs of Chiswick and the surrounding areas, with other groups at Kew and Richmond.

The Chiswick branch of the National League started life in mid-1909 under the title of the ‘Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League’. In October, 1909, the League held its first general meeting and reported a membership of 56. The following month, a public meeting was organised by the League at Chiswick Town Hall, where one of the women speakers, Miss Kathleen Howieson, warned gravely that the granting of suffrage to women would mean ‘class war’ and ‘Socialism’, and that – in turn – would mean ‘revolution and anarchy’.

Using a combination of further occasional public meetings, letters written to the local press, and drawing-room meetings held at private houses, together with some campaigning outside polling stations during elections, the League continued its anti-suffrage activities. At the 3rd AGM of the Chiswick branch, held in late 1911, their Annual Report claimed that there was ‘steady growth’ in the membership.

Debating Women’s Rights in Chiswick

In 1912, a ‘well-attended’ social gathering of the League held in the Hogarth Room of Chiswick Town Hall saw a number of speeches being made, all expressing notably conservative and sceptical attitudes to the whole idea of giving women greater rights. Miss Norma Maunder, for example, in her speech, asserted that man ‘was the backbone of the country and women the backbone of the homes of the country’. She said that women were ‘absolutely unfitted’ for governing a nation.

In November, 1913, the League scored quite a publicity coup when they organised a public event at Chiswick Town Hall to debate the following resolution: ‘That it is contrary to the best interests of the State and the Empire that women should have the Parliamentary vote’. Mrs. Norris, the President of the local branch, speaking for the resolution, argued in her address that the ‘whole mentality’ of man was better able to cope with the question of Empire than women, and women’s ‘first duty’ was to the future generation. Miss Coombs, speaking against the resolution, said she did so because she believed that women had ‘the right to be free’. When the audience was invited to vote, 253 supported the League, and 189 were against the resolution, giving the League a majority of 64. Needless to say, the League were evidently very satisfied with this result.

After the outbreak of war in 1914, the Chiswick branch of the National League sent a letter to the local press saying that, given the outbreak of hostilities, they would now ‘drop all outside propaganda work’ for the duration. However, at their 6th AGM held in November that year, Mrs. Norris warned that, while they had ceased political propaganda for the time being, ‘the political aspect was only one side’, and it was still necessary that ‘the cause’ should not be allowed to suffer.

Compared to the suffragette movement, the available evidence suggests that the National League remained very much a small-scale and minority organisation. However, it would be fascinating to find out more about the anti-suffrage activists, and the extent to which they may have been organising similar local campaigns in other parts of the country. My research on this remains ongoing.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in October, 2015.

Posted in Archives, British Empire, British history, Gender History, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Richmond history, Surrey, Uncategorized, Women's history | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Breaking Free? John Major’s tensions with Margaret Thatcher

Recent tensions between former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and current Conservative PM Boris Johnson, exemplified in Johnson walking out of the chamber of the Commons while May was speaking from the back-benches, reminded me of a previous time when a former PM and a serving PM, both from the same party, ended up disliking each other for both personal and ideological reasons: Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Historians of British Conservative Party history in the 1980s and early 1990s were given interesting new insights into this relationship by The National Archives (TNA) back in 2018, with the release of formerly secret government files, which provided fascinating new evidence on the tensions between Thatcher and her successor as Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. I made some careful study of this material in the TNA.

Thatcher’s Final Years as PM

The National Archives

Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister (PM) from 1979-1990, and, towards the end of her time in office, had alarmed her Cabinet by stating in an interview with the press that she intended to ‘go on and on’.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a significant number of the Cabinet had decided that Thatcher had developed something of a ‘bunker mentality’ in 10 Downing Street, with her refusing to acknowledge the unpopularity of some of her own cherished policies, especially the controversial Poll Tax.

Some of her Cabinet Ministers had concluded that, far from being an election ‘winner’ (she had won three General Elections: 1979; 1983; and 1987), Mrs. Thatcher was now a potential election ‘loser’. They effectively engineered her removal as Conservative leader and PM in late 1990 (she resigned in November, 1990), and a new leadership contest was held to find a fresh head for the Conservative Party and a new PM (under Britain’s unwritten constitution, power can be handed over from one PM to another without the need for a General Election). Much to the surprise of many commentators, John Major, at that point still seen as a Thatcherite loyalist (a ‘dry’ in Thatcher’s terminology), but not as very charismatic or forceful, inherited the former PM’s crown and became the new Premier.

Breaking the Chains?

John Major

However, Major, who had served periods as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also as Foreign Secretary under Thatcher, was determined not to be seen as just another Thatcherite free-market clone. He wanted to ‘break free’ from Mrs. Thatcher’s long shadow and imprint his own brand of Conservatism on the Party and country. Indeed, in private, he resented any attempt by his predecessor to be a ‘back seat driver’ (so to speak) of his new Premiership.

On the other hand, Major was still somewhat limited in how he could go about building his own distinctive version of Conservatism, as Thatcher still had notably strong support both on the Conservative back-benches in Parliament and among the wider grass-roots members of the Party.

As many historians are aware, Margaret Thatcher, who relished her reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’, never really recovered from her loss of the Premiership, and what she clearly regarded as a ‘betrayal’ by members of her own Cabinet. She found it very difficult to adjust to her new life as an ex-Premier.

Files newly released by The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, in 2018, appeared to provide further confirmation of this. One file in particular included a record of a private meeting held between Mrs. Thatcher’s anointed successor, Major, and Thatcher herself, just weeks after her loss of power, where she sought to lecture the new PM on his economic policy.

Although Thatcher had regarded Major as a loyalist and as somebody who would carry on the Thatcherite ‘revolution’, she soon became disillusioned with his leadership. As the new PM, Major had quickly announced that he intended to scrap the Poll Tax and also voiced the need for a more ‘compassionate’ version of Conservatism.

Cold War?

margretthatcherDismayed by this, Thatcher’s relationship with Major soon became frosty. In fact, the new evidence seemed to show how rapidly relations soured between the two. In a bid to clear the air, and to reassure her that he was not changing what he called the main ‘drift of policy’, Major invited his predecessor to a meeting in his rooms in the House of Commons in January, 1991. However, this did not go too well and there was evident tension in the room. Mrs. Thatcher, perhaps predictably, sought to offer advice on what she saw as ‘excessively high’ interests rates which, she said, were risking a recession.

She also compared Major’s economic policy to Winston Churchill’s controversial decision as Chancellor in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, which had resulted in deflation and mass unemployment. As an official Minute in the file noted: ‘Mrs. Thatcher said conditions on the economy were very tough. She believed there was a danger of repeating Churchill’s historic error’.

Major clearly resented this comment. He responded that the situation was ‘not remotely comparable’. Mrs. Thatcher, though, refusing to back down, then went on to criticise Major’s decision to abandon her flagship policy, the Poll Tax. Major appears to have hit back, telling Thatcher that the tax was not ‘politically sustainable’.

Thatcher with Major 1992

Although the meeting seems to have ended in a cordial way, Major apparently remained determined to show Mrs. Thatcher that he was now very much the main driver of policy and power in the country, and that she needed to accept her retirement with grace.

As the 1992 General Election loomed, secret plans were drawn up by the Conservative Party Chairman, Chris Patten (a close ally of Major), to ensure that Thatcher did not have a big presence in the upcoming Conservative campaign, including in the final rally of the campaign. However, according to the new files, Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters, when they found out about this, let it be known to Patten that she would be ‘hurt’ about this.

In the end, Major and Patten compromised, and Thatcher was invited to a large rally at the beginning of the campaign instead. Major could still not quite break free from the wishes of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in January, 2018.

Posted in Archives, British history, Public History, Research, Teaching, The National Archives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lawrence of Arabia in Surbiton and the first ‘multi-media’ show

Many people with an interest in British imperial history are familiar with the life and wartime career of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), mainly through the famous epic feature film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The smash-hit and critically acclaimed movie starred the late Peter O’Toole as the enigmatic British officer who helped create and organise the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War One. Character actor Jack Hawkins was equally memorable as his tough but fair-minded commanding officer, General Allenby, who had strongly supported Lawrence’s campaign, despite initial reservations.


Although wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly accurate in some key ways, the film – directed by David Lean and with a screenplay by the famous playwright Robert Bolt – inevitably cut corners and embellished aspects of T.E. Lawrence’s wartime story, mainly in order to synthesise and convey the main events of the Arab revolt on the big screen for the entertainment of 1960s cinemagoers.

Importantly, one can argue that the 1962 movie in turn was clearly influenced by the powerful image of Lawrence (see photo) that had been developed during the 1920s and 1930s by the American journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981), who had spent some time with the quiet and mysterious Englishman in the desert, and had witnessed some of the daring ‘hit and run’ guerilla warfare employed behind Turkish lines by Lawrence and his small army of Arab fighters.

The role played by Thomas

In fact, in many ways, Thomas was instrumental in crafting all the eye-catching and glamorous iconography that came to be associated with Lawrence: indeed, the American helped launch and build the Lawrence ‘legend’ when he personally presented a post-war show called With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which some commentators have termed the first ‘multi-media’ show. This show was seen by many thousands of people in New York and London in 1919-20 and, when it went ‘on the road’, it was estimated that the show was eventually seen by up to 3 million people in the English-speaking world between 1919-1924. According to his biographers, it was also seen by Lawrence himself at least five times, who sat in anonymously with London audiences, unrecognised by the public in the dark auditorium. Lawrence grew increasingly uneasy about the show, however, and began to complain to his friends that Thomas had ‘made me a kind of matinee idol’.

Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

Thomas (pictured here with Lawrence in a post-war pose) combined cinefilm with photos and orchestral music, and his personal narrative was expertly synchronised with the imagery and live music. He started the show with the words ‘Come with me to the lands of mystery, history and romance’, and audiences were evidently entranced by the ‘glamour’ and sheer scale of the Lawrence story, especially compared to the bleak imagery that had emerged from the recent bloody fighting on the Western Front.

In a Britain thirsty for individual heroes, Lawrence appeared to meet all the criteria. The show made Thomas almost as famous as Lawrence; it also made Thomas large sums of money, and versions of the multi-media show, hosted by other speakers and using the cinefilm Thomas had shot of Lawrence during the wartime desert campaign, were taken on tour around Britain in the early 1920s, including in the Thames Valley area.

Kingston and Surbiton

Interestingly, Kingston had already had a taste of the Lawrence ‘legend’ when, in February, 1921, Captain Laurence M. Gotch, who had served as a Topographical Officer on General Allenby’s staff in Egypt and Palestine (and had met Lawrence in the war), gave what the local press called ‘a thrilling narrative’ of the achievements of Lawrence in an illustrated lecture given to members of the Kingston Congregational Church Guild. According to the Surrey Comet, Captain Gotch ‘painted a fine picture’ of Lawrence as ‘a man of exceptional abilities’.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

This enthusiastic version of Lawrence as the great ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ was reinforced a few months later, in October, 1921, when a version of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia ran for three days at Surbiton Assembly Rooms at the bottom of Surbiton Hill (see recent photo). Lowell Thomas’s cinefilm was combined with a special travel talk, called ‘The Lowell Thomas Travelogues’, presented by William A. Courtney, who had served in the war with the RAF in the Middle East.

This event at the Assembly Rooms proved to be very popular with local people in Surbiton and Kingston, and the show was taken to other parts of south-west London, where it also attracted large numbers of people and saw high ticket sales. The local newspapers in the suburbs of London were extremely complimentary about the show and about the details of the life of Lawrence, who was presented as a great ‘imperial’ hero. Ironically, this greatly troubled Lawrence himself, who felt that both Britain and France had actually reneged on the original promises Lawrence had made to the Arabs in 1917.

Thomas also allowed versions of his show to be put on in many other towns and cities across Britain. For Lawrence himself, however, this was more and more of a problem, to the point where he simply wanted to retreat from public life and ‘disappear’ into the background.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was first published here in October, 2017

Posted in American history, British Empire, British history, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evil and banality: Reflections on Himmler’s lost office diaries

The historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase ‘banality of evil’ in her study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the men appointed by SS boss Heinrich Himmler to plan and carry out the Final Solution. Eichmann seemed ‘ordinary’ and unoriginal, rather like a bland civil servant, yet his dedicated attention to bureaucratic detail helped in the brutally efficient murder of millions of people.

It is clear that the same phrase could also be applied to Himmler himself, who remains a figure of great interest to historians. In 2016, for example, there was considerable interest when news emerged from Germany that the lost office diaries of the Nazi SS chief had been discovered in a Russian archive. Himmler’s service diaries for the years 1938, 1943 and 1944 were discovered in the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defence in Podolsk, near Moscow.

A Significant Find

HimmlerAstonishingly, they had been placed there and then forgotten about after being seized by the Russian Red Army in the last days of the Second World War. Filed under the single word ‘Dnewnik’ (meaning ‘Diary’ in Russian), there were apparently more than 1,000 pages of entries in the diaries. Historians have been particularly interested in the diaries for 1943 and 1944, two crucial years when Hitler’s Germany was at war and the Nazi state was engaged in systematic mass murder in the territories it had conquered, and on a scale never seen before in modern times.

As many historians know, used carefully, diaries – whether personal or just everyday work ‘service’ ones – can be invaluable primary sources. Thus, researchers from the German Historical Institute in Moscow spent months sifting through the Himmler diaries, and extracts were published for the first time in the German newspaper Bild. The British press also carried some detailed coverage of the diaries on August 2nd, 2016, although some of this media coverage appeared to assume that these were very ‘personal’ diaries that would reveal lots of new and sensational insights into Himmler’s life.

The truth was rather different. These were typed appointments calenders for 1938, 1943 and 1945, known more generally as ‘desk’ diaries, designed to help Himmler plan his workday and evening activities. Nevertheless, these ‘service’ diaries have still proved to be of great value to scholars.

The Two Faces of Himmler

The service diaries revealed a level of detail about Himmler’s everyday routine that arguably provide some genuine insights into the life he had carved out as head of the SS and architect of the Holocaust. His average working day often found him concerned about what he was going to have for lunch or where he would eat, or with when he would find time to ring his wife and daughter (the diaries have frequent references to ‘Puppi’, his nickname for his daughter Gudrun); at the same time, he recorded details about the regular execution orders he issued and the increasingly frequent meetings he had with Hitler, especially in 1943 and 1944, the highpoint of the Holocaust.

His diaries also show that he engaged in rather incongruous activities in the evenings, such as watching a film, or playing cards, or gazing at the stars, while taking a close bureaucratic interest in the Nazi institutional machine’s industrial-scale murder during the day. There are also more obscure references in his diaries to him being ‘in transit’, which historians have suggested was a code for him secretly visiting his mistress, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a long affair.

Himmler 2The journalist who helped track down the diaries for Bild, Damian Imoehl, commented to one British newspaper in 2016: ‘The most interesting thing for me is this combination of doting father and cold-bloodied killer. He was very careful about his wife and daughter, as well as his affair with his secretary. He takes care of his comrades and friends. Then there is the man of horror. One day he starts with breakfast and a massage from his personal doctor, then he rings up his wife and daughter in the south of Germany and, after that, he decides to have ten men killed or visits a concentration camp’.

In the same year, the head of the German Institute in Moscow, Nikolaus Katzer, explained to the British media that the authenticity of the Himmler diaries had been verified by checking them with other records and service diaries, and he commented: ‘The importance of these documents is that we get a better structural understanding of the last phase of the war. It provides insight into the changing role of Himmler and insight into the SS elite, and overall into the entire German leadership’.

It’s all very chilling, of course, but it remains vital for scholars to continue to analyse such material if we are to better understand the nature of the individuals who carried out such horrific crimes. And it is clear that, since they first emerged in 2016, the service diaries have helped push forward academic research into Himmler’s role and functions in the Third Reich.

This has been helped considerably by the publication in April, 2020, of a German-language edited edition of Himmler’s diaries, edited by Matthias Uhl and Dieter Pohl, under the title Die Organisation Des Terrors – Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1943-1945. It is to be hoped that this will eventually be made more widely available in an English-language edition.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in 2016.

Posted in Archives, Blogging, European History, Fascism, German History, Historiography, History of war, Media history, Public History, Research, Russian History, Teaching, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amazons against the Nazis: Women’s Home Defence in Wartime Britain

At the height of invasion fears in the summer of 1940, the British government asked for civilian volunteers ‘to go on duty against airborne invasion’ and be ‘entrusted with certain vital duties’ for which a knowledge of firearms would be necessary.

Many people in Britain expected some kind of attempt by the Nazis to land in the country, either by an invasion from the sea or mass parachute landings, or both, but responded in various ways, depending upon their age, class, occupation, and gender.

If the Invader ComesThere were certainly serious concerns on the part of key British intellectuals that they were on Nazi target lists, and would be some of the first individuals to be rounded up and incarcerated. The writer Vita Sackville-West and the politician Harold Nicolson, for example, apparently talked about the ‘bare bodkin’ – a lethal dose – which they intended to use to avoid the possibility of torture in the event of capture by the Germans.

Both were members of the ‘Bloomsbury set’, a rather incestuous elite circle of artists, writers and thinkers. There were mixed responses by intellectuals to the possibility of German occupation in that long, hot summer of 1940, ranging from (in some cases) fairly open enthusiasm, through to resigned apathy and, in other cases, outright defiance.

Suicide as an option was not just an idea voiced by members of privileged circles, however. There is also interesting evidence from the ground-breaking Mass Observation studies (set up for the collection of information on everyday life in Britain) that some female factory workers were thinking of taking their own lives (and those of their children) if Hitler’s troops had appeared on the streets.

Women and the War

Another response, of course, was for people to express their open defiance of the enemy by joining the newly-formed Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), known later as the ‘Home Guard’. But did you know that women were not allowed to join the LDV? In fact, officially, women in Britain were unable to sign up to the Home Guard until 1943.

In 1940, however, despite the official government rules, and especially with widespread fears about sabotage by ‘Fifth Columnists’ and some quite wild rumours about German parachutists dropping out of the skies, many women were still determined to defend their homes and workplaces, using violence if necessary. One strategy to subvert the official discrimination against women was to form Women’s Home Defence groups. In essence, these groups were female private armies, often with their own uniforms. Members of such groups would train in unarmed combat and receive arms-training from experienced markswomen.

In 2013, the British press ran some rare vintage photos of life on the Home Front in the War, including this one of female volunteers receiving arms training:

Women's Home Defence Volunteers

Despite some important work by the historian and writer Midge Gillies (Waiting for Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)*, and research by one or two other academic authors, the topic remains surprisingly under-researched by historians.

In my own investigations of ‘Fifth Column’ fears at local level in London, I sometimes came across intriguing indications of the unofficial extent of women’s participation in particular defence activities or as part of the general women’s defence network. There was, for example, an Upper Thames Patrol established in June, 1940, where the male officers, experiencing shortages of male volunteers, started to recruit women to provide water-borne and shore patrols along key stretches of the River Thames.

But there were also what can only be described as female combat groups, led by women and consisting largely of female volunteers who were prepared to engage, if it came to an invasion, in full physical and military confrontation with the enemy.

Defending Britain

British soldier on beach 1940One such group – one of the earliest to be established – was the ‘Amazon Defence Corps’, which was set up in London. The title was clearly chosen to tap into cultural myths about the strong fighting women of ancient legend. Very little research has been conducted on the group, but one member in 1940 was Marjorie Foster who, ten years previously, had become the first woman to win the King’s prize for shooting.

Another similar group, called the ‘Much Marcle Watchers’, was set up by Lady Helene Gleichen (a grand-niece of Queen Victoria), on her country estate near Much Marcle, in Herefordshire. According to Gillies and some other available but limited information, the ‘Much Marcle Watchers’ were mainly recruited from Lady Gleichen’s staff and tenants at her large stately home, and the 80 or so members wore armbands with the words ‘Much Marcle Watcher’ displayed on them. Gleichen, who had served in the Red Cross in Italy and France during the First World War, also played an active part in training her small ‘army’, with evening lectures on military tactics and shooting. There is also some tantalising evidence of other women’s home defence activities occurring elsewhere in England, sometimes through the (still male-dominated) Parish Invasion Committees.

Women's Home DefenceSome while later, a more organised – but still unofficial – strategy was adopted by women, when Dr. Edith Summerskill, Labour MP for Fulham West, founded the ‘Women’s Home Defence Force’ (WHD) in December, 1941, and various WHD groups formed across the country. No uniform was worn, but an enamel WHD badge was issued and women members underwent weapons training. Indeed, Summerskill was nicknamed ‘Flossie Bang Bang’ by some bemused observers. Interestingly, the Imperial War Museum in London has some examples of the badge worn by this network of groups.

It is estimated that, by late 1942, up to 50,000 women were unofficially serving within the Home Guard itself. In April, 1943, when the government finally relented and allowed female enrolment in the Home Guard, it was still on the understanding that women’s participation would be confined to ‘traditional’ female support roles, and not as combatants.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in August, 2015

*You can also read an article on this fascinating topic by Midge Gillies at:


(Images: Wikimedia Commons and Getty Images)

Posted in Archives, British history, Gender History, History of war, Local History, London history, Museums, Public History, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When Food was Scarce: Memories of a Female Control Officer in World War One

While there has been a growing amount of scholarly and other research on the lives of women in Britain during the Great War, there is still much to investigate, especially in relation to particular types of occupation held by women on the Home Front. One rather neglected profession remains that of food distribution, and one woman’s career in Surrey offers a fascinating case study in relation to this.

In January, 1921, the Surrey Comet newspaper published a profile and interview with Mrs. Bumstead of Surbiton, in which she recalled her experiences as the local Executive Food Officer in Kingston-on-Thames during the First World War.

According to the newspaper, Mrs. Bumstead, who worked as the Executive Officer for food distribution for just over three and a half years in Kingston, was the only female in Britain to hold a post of this kind, and she undertook her duties ‘with remarkable efficiency’.

Background Context


Mrs. Bumstead had moved to wartime Surbiton in 1916, and felt she must ‘take up some public work’. She was appointed chief clerk to the Executive Food Officer at Kingston, Dr. H. Beale Collins. On his retirement after six months, Mrs. Bumstead was appointed as his successor and, as the Surrey Comet put it, she ‘found herself in a unique position as the only woman Food Officer in the country’.

In the interview, Bumstead told the Comet that, prior to taking up her duties, she had accumulated wide experience of public official work, having been appointed as the Superintendent of the Scattered Homes for children under the Reading Board of Guardians, a position she had held for five years. She said she was the first woman to be appointed to such a post. She had also worked in a similar capacity for Willesden Board of Guardians. She thus brought a wealth of organisational experience to her new Kingston position.

Food poster WW1

As the newspaper argued, Mrs. Bumstead rendered ‘very effective service to the community’ during a very difficult period, both during and just after the war. The British government had been forced to introduce quite stringent food rationing in the later stages of the war, and the impact of the German U-Boat submarine campaign had made the availability of certain food-stuffs in the British Isles even more difficult in 1917-18. There were a number of occasions when Mrs. Bumstead had to personally intervene and sort out certain situations and placate discontented members of the local community concerning food matters.

Her responsibilities included, for example, the supply of margarine to retailers in Kingston, but things did not always go to plan during wartime. She recalled that, on one occasion, just before Christmas, 1917, ‘a great crowd of women’ came into the town from surrounding districts and, having failed to to obtain their usual supply from Kingston’s retailers, the angry women had gone ‘as a body’ to the local Food Office and confronted Mrs. Bumstead, saying they were going to ‘help themselves’ to the several tons of margarine being stored there in readiness for distribution the next day.

Mrs. Bumstead, however, quickly took action: she dispatched one of her assistants to fetch the local police and, in the meantime, met the enraged crowd at the door of the depot, blocking their way and daring them to proceed further. Faced by such an unexpected ‘outburst of passion’ by Mrs. Bumstead, the crowd apparently fell back, and the arrival of the local police ‘prevented any further danger of violence’.

The Pressures of Wartime

Breadline in World War One

According to the Comet, the pressure on Mrs. Bumstead during these difficult wartime months was so great that, for six weeks on end, she never left the depot office for a minute from morning to night, and it was often 10.00pm at night before the day’s work was completed. As well as margarine, restrictions were also placed on jam, sugar, tea, lard, cheese, bacon, tinned meats of all kinds, and butcher’s meat, the control and distribution of which all came under the overall responsibility of Mrs. Bumstead. Queues for bread also became a regular sight in wartime (see the photo above of a typical breadline), adding to the tensions.

Yet, using tact and skill, Bumstead was able to gradually build up good relations with many retailers in Kingston and, she said, she managed to work ‘in harmony’ with traders and win their confidence. She spoke in the highest terms about Kingston’s shopkeepers, who were ‘always loyal’ and ‘most helpful’. As she recalled, it was only on a very few occasions that she had found it necessary to ‘take proceedings’ against any of them.

Looking back on her wartime experiences as Food  Control Officer, Mrs. Bumstead said she had ‘nothing to regret’. While it had been a strenuous time, on the whole she had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ her work. Shortly after the war, she had been offered, and had accepted, the position of Food Controller for a much wider area, embracing large parts of Surrey and Middlesex. But, when it was decided to close all the Food Offices in the aftermath of the conflict, her new position came to an end.

For historians, however, the case of Mrs. Bumstead offers some great insights into both the topic of gender on the Home Front in the Great War and the huge challenges involved in maintaining a fair distribution of food under very trying wartime circumstances.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was first published here in November, 2017

Posted in British history, Gender History, History of war, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Holocaust and Hate: Zigi Shipper Recalls Auschwitz

To help mark 76 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we republish this blog first published here on 18th March, 2015.

Why do people hate? This was one of the central questions asked by Holocaust survivor Zigi Shipper when he spoke to students and staff at Kingston University about his early childhood in Poland and experiences of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ during World War Two.

Zigi Speaking to the Crowd (Photo: Kate Stevens)

Zigi Speaking to the Crowd (Photo: Kate Stevens)

The talk, held on Thursday, 12th March, 2015, was arranged through the Kingston University History Society in conjunction with the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was given to a packed audience in one of the best-attended history events held at Kingston for many years. At one point there was standing room only, and one could hear a pin drop in the room.

Zigi’s powerful and very moving talk was particularly poignant for me as I had just given a lecture to my 3rd year Undergraduate History students on ‘Holocaust Denial’ and the strategies pursued by those on the extreme right today who seek to destroy the memory of Nazi crimes for ideological purposes. Direct witness testimony provided by those who survived the Holocaust remains one of the most effective barriers against the revival of extreme right ideas, but contemporary neo-Nazis remain determined to ‘break down’ or destroy such memories, or even deny the Holocaust ever took place.

As I pointed out to my students, as recently as November, 2014, for example, a section of the wrought-iron gate at the former Dachau concentration camp, bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Work Sets You Free”, was stolen. In 2009, a similar sign spanning the main gate at Auschwitz was also stolen at the behest of extreme right activists. Physical evidence of the camps remains a target for neo-Nazis today, who somehow believe that removing it will help rehabilitate the old interwar racist ideas.

Zigi Shipper with organisers Kate Stevens and Josh Whatsize (Photo: Kate Stevens)

Zigi Shipper with organisers Kate Stevens and Josh Whatsize (Photo: Kate Stevens)

This makes the oral testimony of survivors such as Zigi Shipper even more important in today’s world. Zigi’s determination to talk about his experiences to a new generation of young people is part of the powerful response that all citizens should surely adopt when faced with such acts. Keeping the memory alive is one of the most important things that both the surviving victims and professional historians can help to do to educate people about what ‘civilised’ individuals are capable of doing given certain circumstances.

Significantly, at one point, Mr. Shipper, who is now 85-years old,  said he was often asked how he could still recall his memories of those horrrific times in such vivid detail. He said his response is always, ‘How could I forget?’

Zigi was introduced to his Kingston University audience by Josh Whatsize, a 2nd year Drama and International Relations student here at Kingston, who also serves as a national youth ambassador for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

Born on 18th January, 1930, to a Jewish family in Lodz, Poland, Zigi attended a Jewish school. When he was 5 years old, his parents divorced but, because his family were Orthodox Jews, Zigi was told his mother had died. Following his parents divorce, Zigi lived with his father (briefly) and with his grandparents. He had a very happy childhood.

In 1939, however, after the German invasion of Poland, and the entry of the Nazis into his home city, ‘everything changed’. No Jewish child was allowed to attend school anymore, no Jewish teachers were allowed to teach, and no Jews were allowed to travel on public transport. As with other Jews, the 9-year old Zigi was also required to wear a yellow Star of David. Zigi recalled that new anti-Jewish decrees were issued nearly every day. The worst thing for Zigi, though, was the terrible shortage of food and the constant pain of hunger.

In 1940, Zigi and his grandparents were forced to live in a ghetto. In 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated, Zigi and his grandparents were then ordered to ‘relocate’ to the east by rail, transported in cattle trucks under terrible conditions. And, upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, people were brutally divided up (known as ‘Selektion’) into those who were to be taken to the ‘showers’ (gas chambers) for extermination, and those who were ‘fit for work’ and would carry out hard physical labour until they died (usually within just 3 months). As Zigi pointed out, many of those he arrived with at Auschwitz were dead within just one hour of arriving at the camp.

Train tracks leading to Auschwitz (Photo: Stanislaw Mucha, German Federal Archives/WikiCommons)

Train tracks leading to Auschwitz (Photo: Stanislaw Mucha, German Federal Archives/WikiCommons)

Zigi, now all alone, said he lost all sense of his own identity, and merely became prisoner number 84,303. Above all, he asked himself over and over, and still asks himself even today, ‘what kind of people could do this to other people?’ How could educated and apparently civilized German officers carry out such crimes during the day, and then go home and play with their children and listen to classical music in the evening?

Zigi saw truly horrific things in Auschwitz, experienced regular beatings and suffered extreme hunger. But he was determined to survive and, after further transportation and forced marches, he was finally liberated by the British Army. Incredibly, when he was in a ‘Displaced Persons Camp’, he discovered his mother was alive and well and living in Britain, to where Zigi moved in 1947 to build a whole new life.

It was a real privilege and honour to listen to Zigi’s life-story, and to witness his drive to keep the memories of the Holocaust fully alive for a new generation. Long may he continue in his work.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

Posted in European History, Events, Fascism, German History, History of war, Kingston, Kingston University, Public History, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wake Up! Invasion fears in Surrey during early World War One

By late 1914, it had become very apparent to people in Britain that the ‘great war’ would not be ‘over by Christmas’, as many had initially predicted and hoped. Moreover, as 1914 gave way to the new year of 1915, an increasingly pessimistic and, frankly, alarmist atmosphere began to develop on the Home Front in Britain concerning enemy intentions.

British anti spy poster WW1

One sign of this was increased paranoia about German spies in the country (see, for example, the poster image). Another, and related, sign of the new pessimism was growing talk about the possibility of German military invasion. The most likely place for this, it was claimed, would be on the south coast of England.

Historians are familiar with the fear of enemy invasion that gripped many in Britain in the summer of 1940, during the Second World War. Much less research has been conducted by scholars, though, on the paranoia about invasion of the British Isles that had also developed within just six months of the start of the earlier world war. Yet there are quite noticeable similarities.

Interesting evidence of this can be found at local level in Surrey in early 1915. As a large County situated next to some key southern coastal Counties, the authorities in Surrey had to develop detailed contingency plans for how the whole area would deal with the impact of fighting on the south coast, and the potential mass movement of people and livestock this might entail. The plan appeared to give priority to ensuring successful evacuation of livestock (thus securing valuable food supplies), but minimising the movement of ordinary civilians, thereby avoiding clogging up major County roads or the main Surrey railway stations.

Defending the Realm

On January 20th, 1915, for example, the local Surrey Comet newspaper, based in Kingston-on-Thames, published a lengthy article on ‘The Defence of the Realm’, which described for readers (as the paper put it) ‘How Surrey Would be Affected by Invasion’.

The Comet noted that a ‘preliminary notice regarding prospective measures to be taken under the Defence of the Realm Act in case of emergency’ had been issued and published in the press in the previous month. Moreover, said the newspaper, the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey was now of the opinion ‘that further information as to the measures being taken should now be communicated to the public’.

The measures, as the Comet summarised them, involved possible interference with ‘the normal routine of the population, the vehicular traffic, and the live stock of the County’, and this necessitated ‘careful preparation beforehand’, with ‘precautionary measures’ taken in advance. As the newspaper explained: ‘The County of Surrey can only be affected by a raid on the Kentish or Sussex coasts accompanied by a landing of the enemy’s troops. Even then it will not be immediately affected, but the first probable result might be a movement of population, vehicles and live stock from the Coast Counties into Surrey’.

The prospective measures would also involve an important role for the police: ‘Should it be necessary at any time to clear any portion of the County for military operations, notices will be sent through the police to individual owners in regard to various types of vehicles or live stock, etc., giving them orders for removal or destruction’.

Readers were also informed that ‘special routes’ had been laid out in these plans, ‘avoiding main roads for the removal of cattle’, and arrangements had been made for ‘local guides’, with ‘billeting stations fixed, and areas into which live stock will be removed selected’. Owners of animals, it was added, ‘would furnish their own herdsmen’.

As for the County’s civilian population more generally, a firm but also reassuring tone was struck in the official guidance, possibly designed to avoid creating mass panic in the event of nearby fighting: ‘The public are not required or advised to leave their homes when an emergency arises, but if any person contemplates doing so, it will not be wise to leave it to the last moment, as the railways may not be available for the movement of civilians and road traffic may be interfered with owing to military requirements’. The guidance added: ‘A general exodus of the population of Surrey would appear to be impracticable’.

Civilians were also warned that the actual defence of the County was to be in the hands of authorised forces only: ‘The civil population will not be allowed to bear arms unless duly enlisted in a Volunteer Corps which has been recognised by the War Office. A register of affiliated Volunteer Corps is being made’.

New Forms of Warfare

British recruitment poster 1915 It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bullets

The First World War, of course, also saw a brand new development in warfare between the nations, where the Island of Britain itself became more difficult to defend and no longer felt ‘safe’: bombardment by German aeroplanes or Zeppelins (see the recruitment poster from 1915). The guidance for Surrey thus also noted that ‘precautions should be observed by the inhabitants of towns in the possible event of bombardment by aircraft’. It was advised: ‘Inhabitants of houses should go into the cellars or lower rooms’ and, if an aircraft was seen or heard overhead, ‘crowds should disperse, and all persons should, if possible, take cover’.

Unsurprisingly, the same issue of the Surrey Comet which carried this official guidance also devoted it’s editorial column to commenting on the advice: ‘However unwilling most people are to contemplate invasion or an air raid as imminent, and however we may hope the event will prove that such confidence is well-placed, prudence suggests preparations and adequate arrangements beforehand, less the unexpected happens’.

The Comet editorial argued that, just for that reason, the public ‘are advised to study carefully’ the official notice issued by the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey and also by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

It is difficult to know or to measure to what extent local people in Surrey did indeed study such advice, but it is also worth noting that, just a few weeks later, the possibility of invasion by the Germans was still being raised by local officials in the County in order to keep people fully alert. In March, 1915, for example, the Mayor of Kingston, Alderman C.H. Burge, appearing alongside Mr. George Cave (Kingston’s Member of Parliament) at a special screening of the War Office recruitment film Wake Up! in Kingston, commented that the film dealt with ‘the question of invasion’.

Burge said that the purpose of the film was ‘to bring home to the minds of a certain section of the community the very real danger that would follow invasion of this country’. He said that ‘those who thought everything would be all right’, and who thought that there was no need for special preparation, were ‘the dreamers upon whom ruin might descend’, and: ‘He wanted them to realise that the German armies were as near to them as the town of Bristol…’.

Keen to see as many local men as possible sign up for military service, both Burge and Cave echoed the title of the film being shown, and evidently wanted (as they saw it) to shake people out of their slumber and complacency and awaken them to their patriotic duty. The war, proclaimed Burge, ‘was a national work, and each one could do something to the best of his power and ability for the motherland’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earler version of this blog was published here in May, 2018.

Posted in British history, European History, History of war, Local History, Media history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Scare in a leafy suburb: Fears of Bolshevism in Surbiton

Just over one hundred years ago, in October, 1917 (depending upon which version of the calendar one uses) the Bolshevik party under Lenin achieved a dramatic seizure of power in Russia, a coup d’etat which sent a chill of fear across the ruling elites in much of Europe, including in Britain.

In the immediate years following 1917, numerous anti-Bolshevik meetings were held across the country (including in the south-west London area), where Russian refugees or other speakers gave gloomy accounts of what had happened in the former Czarist Empire, and offered dire warnings about what could befall Britain and its Empire if people did not ‘wake up’ to the growing Communist menace, and to the possibility of a Russian-style revolution occurring here.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

A typical example of this occurred in Surbiton in February, 1920, and careful exploration of local newspaper coverage can help piece the full details together. Held under the auspices of the new ‘Middle Classes Union’ (MCU), an organisation founded in 1919 to protect the middle classes from Socialism, strikes and general working-class agitation, a lecture on ‘The Bolshevik Terror’ was given in the large hall of the Surbiton Assembly Rooms (see recent photo) by Mr. George Curnock, who was described in the local press as a ‘well-known London journalist’.

Soviet Surbiton?

Presided over by Mr. G.C. Hodson, a ‘large and deeply interested audience’ listened to Curnock for an hour and a half while he described the ‘men and forces’ which, he claimed, were trying to bring Bolshevism to England, and also dealt with various aspects of life in Russia under the new Soviet regime. In what was called a series of ‘vivid pictures’, the lecturer showed to the audience the ‘type of men’ who advocated Bolshevism in Russia and the methods they had adopted to deal ‘with those who do not agree with them’.

Curnock also dwelt upon what he alleged was the strong relationship between the Bolshevists in Russia and their ‘admirers and would-be imitators’ in Britain. The revolutionary Socialism of today, he argued, was the Communism of Karl Marx, who had taught the working-man to look upon his employer as an ‘active enemy’ instead of a friend. Moreover, in Curnock’s estimation, all Communists were confirmed students of Karl Marx, whether they were found in Russia as Bolshevists, or in England ‘as alleged leaders of British labour’.


London, said Curnock, had in recent years shielded several men, including Peter the Painter, one of the Sydney Street anarchists from a well-known siege in 1911, and other men who had since gone on to directly join Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. Revolution, Curnock told his Surbiton Assembly Room audience,  had not yet been stirred up in England, ‘but it behoved all who loved their country to be prepared to defend it against the vile forces of revolution and anarchy’, forces which, ‘in the the name of Bolshevism or Communism or in some other guise’, would – if they were not watchful – ‘throw Britain into the abyss in which Russia was already sinking…’.

Bariatinsky and Her Fears

Princess Bariatinsky

A few months later, the local Middle Classes Union organised another anti-Bolshevik event in the form of an open air fete, held at Raven’s Ait on the River Thames (‘by kind permission of Kingston Rowing Club’), which is just a ten-minute walk away from the site of the Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Guest of honour at the event was Princess Bariatinsky (1871-1921), an aristocratic refugee from Russia.

Bariatinsky (see photo) had been a famous theatre actress and socialite in Czarist Russia, who had taken the stage-name of Lydia Yavorska, and eventually became a staunch critic of the Bolsheviks and their revolution. The new Communist regime had issued an arrest warrant for her, but the Princess had made a daring escape from Russia before they could detain her.

After music from a band heralded her arrival at the Raiven’s Ait event, and she was introduced to local members of the MCU, the Princess spoke of her experiences in Soviet Russia. She read a letter which she said she had just received from her brother, which had informed her of his wife’s death of typhus in a Russian prison. The condition of the people in Russia, the Princess said, ‘under Lenin’s savage and inhuman rule was simply appalling’, it being the ‘most merciless tyranny ever recorded in history’, a situation which she had personally escaped from. An account of her escape, she said, was about to appear in a journal.

Local members of the MCU continued to highlight their concerns about Socialism and Bolshevism for the rest of 1920, often seeking to link the new Labour Party in Surbiton and Kingston with the ‘Red Peril’ posed by Bolshevik Russia and its agents. In October, 1920, Mr. A. P. Crouch, the Hon. Secretary of the Kingston Branch of the MCU, penned a letter to the Surrey Comet newspaper in which he claimed that the Labour Socialists were ‘out for the nationalisation of everything’. Nationalisation in Russia, he warned, had ‘spelt absolute chaos’. He added: ‘We do not want the same result in England’.

In fact, the Bolshevik Revolution remained a useful ideological weapon for organisations such as the MCU, whose activists in Surrey and elsewhere remained markedly keen to always link the Soviet regime to all industrial unrest, or indeed any other signs of discontent, in the Britain of the 1920s.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in October, 2017.

Posted in Archives, British history, European History, Gender History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, Russian History, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Christmas Truce of 1914: not unique?

Speaking in 1963 for a BBC series on the Great War, the late author Henry Williamson, whose best-known work probably remains Tarka the Otter, gave some fascinating details about what he witnessed in December, 1914, when he was serving as a private in the British Army on the Western Front.

Williamson recalled that, starting late on Christmas Eve, 1914, the guns fell silent and a strange calm fell over the battlefield. Williamson was also surprised to see a Christmas tree go up on the German trenches, and to then hear the enemy soldiers singing Christmas carols. British soldiers sang carols in return. Moreover, at first light the very next day, on a cold Christmas Day morning, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches and went out into the frozen areas of ‘No-Man’s Land’, which became, he said, ‘khaki and grey as far as the eye could see’.


Christmas Day, 1914 (photo: WikiMedia Commons)

According to Williamson, this Christmas truce actually lasted for four days, until strict orders to stop such ‘fraternisation’ were issued by exasperated Generals on the High Commands of both sides.

Christmas Truce 1914 Daily Mirror

The ‘Christmas Truce of 1914’, as it is now usually called, where British and German soldiers left their trenches and went into ‘No-Man’s Land’ to meet, chat, exchange gifts, swop addresses and even play football, did receive some newspaper coverage at the time (see, for example, the image from the Daily Mirror), but it has often been seen as a unique moment amid all the terrible bloodshed of the First World War, never to be repeated. It has certainly become an iconic and startling image in modern popular culture when used as an anti-war message in various war films, and has featured in some pop ballads and also, at one stage, was seen in a large UK retailer’s Christmas advert.

However, in 2016, new research for a book by the historian Thomas Weber suggested that the truce may not have been as unique as we thought. The British media, including The Times and the Daily Telegraph, together with a number of news websites, gave extensive coverage in December, 2016, to intriguing evidence uncovered by Professor Weber which indicated that smaller-scale truces of the same nature as the 1914 one in fact occurred at other points in the Great War, despite the growing brutality and enormous loss of life on both sides.

Professor Weber is a historian at the University of Aberdeen and is also the author of some ground-breaking work on the early military career of Hitler, which helped to puncture and de-mythologize the Nazi leader’s own highly-selective autobiographical version of his time in the trenches.

Weber’s new research retained its focus on the Western Front and raised some important points about the official records of the army regiments and also those of senior officers. Using a range of private correspondence and soldiers’ letters to their families, Weber’s careful investigation of the testimony of ordinary soldiers found that ‘fraternisation’ (i.e. peaceful and friendly interactions) between the rival sides did not just occur in 1914, but also during other key moments in the conflict, a pattern that was ‘purged’ from the official military records. Weber said that, as he worked through the large number of private letters, he came across ‘a surprising number’ of references to truces beyond 1914.

British troops in Trenches

According to Prof. Weber: ‘When officers failed to prevent fraternisation from happening, they rarely reported those cases up the chain of command for fear of being court-marshalled. In the few cases that were officially reported, they tended to be written out of the story after the event. There is strong evidence that instances of fraternisation were purged from the official regimental war diaries before they were published in book form in the interwar years’.

Examples of further Christmas truces occurred in 1915, and also at Vimy Ridge and on the Somme in 1916. At Vimy Ridge, for example, Weber found evidence of a truce struck between Canadian and German troops. The official version of events as recorded by the Canadian regiment stated that the Germans tried to reach out and interact, but that no Canadian troops responded to this. However, Weber found that letters written by soldiers contradict this. In one letter by a Scottish soldier who witnessed such events, he wrote: ‘We had a truce on Xmas day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good’. Weber also found other similar letters written by soldiers.

Christmas in trenches

Weber said: ‘The general view is that after the first Christmas there was no repeat because of the circle of violence and its ensuing bitterness that then set in. In fact, what we see is that despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising’. Indeed, the top-brass in the British military became so determined to stamp such behaviour out that officers were instructed to start using snipers against any friendly German soldiers when men met between the lines of trenches during any locally-arranged truces. Soldiers in the lower ranks of the British Army, however, were not happy about this and sometimes recorded their disgust at such ‘un-British’ tactics.

Interestingly, when he heard of Weber’s latest findings, Dan Snow, the BBC broadcaster and historian – who has himself become something of an expert on the First World War – commented to the UK’s media that he thought this topic was clearly one of the big ‘untold stories’ of the Great War. It is difficult to disagree.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and Press Association)

Note: A slightly shorter version of this blog was first published here on December 21st, 2016


Posted in British history, Canadian History, European History, German History, Historiography, History of war, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Land and Home: The campaign to encourage more land cultivation in the County of Surrey in 1917-18

During the course of 1917, in a determined attempt to cut down on the amount of food imports and to alleviate pressure on Allied ships sailing across the Atlantic, the British government initiated a national campaign to encourage as much cultivation of land as possible, and evidence of this can be seen at local level in Surrey, including in the Kingston area and surrounding districts.

David Lloyd George

In late December, 1917, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (pictured), made what the local Surrey Comet called an ‘eloquent address’ to the various chairmen of the County War Agricultural Committees across the nation, many of them large-scale farmers themselves. The War Agricultural Committees (including the Committee for Surrey) had been established in 1915, and many of them had sub-branches at district level across their respective counties, an organisational structure also seen in Surrey. The Prime Minister announced that the government aimed to get 3,000,000 acres of land under cultivation, and this would free more ships from carrying corn, making them available instead for carrying men, guns and ammunition from the United States (which had entered the war earlier in 1917).

Cultivation Large and Small

The campaign was not just aimed at large-scale farmers, however. The government also emphasised how small-scale land owners, allotment holders and individual gardeners could play a vital role in the effort to cultivate more home-grown food. Similarly, pockets of public and private land, such as in parks and on golf courses, could also be identified and put into cultivation. Potatoes and general root-vegetables were especially seen as important (potato was increasingly in demand as a wheat-substitute in bread and cakes).

In Kingston-on-Thames, for example, the local branch of the ‘Land and Home League’ was active in encouraging more cultivation of all types of spare land. In early December, 1917, it was reported that the League had secured another seven acres of land for local allotments, and there had already been more applicants than the number of allotments available. The message was put out that more such land was required to meet the demand and to make full use of the enthusiasm of the applicants.

On the other hand, the League was clearly keen to ensure that any ‘amateurs’ new to land cultivation did not make mistakes, and that they had the correct type of training and advice. The League announced that, naturally, ‘first consideration’ would be given to members of the League, and all intending allotment holders who were not members of the League should join the Society: ‘Indeed, all those who cultivate land in the borough will benefit by so doing, as they will be able to obtain their seeds and tools at better prices than by individual effort’.

Save Bread WW1 poster

It was also announced by the League in the local press that: ‘All cultivators of land should be very careful in the use of seeds for the coming year. Many sorts will be scarce, and some unobtainable. A general fault, especially with those new to the work, is to sow too lavishly and too closely. This fault must be overcome. It wastes seeds and does not give the best results’.

The League added: ‘All possible food must be grown, and it is unpatriotic not to get the uttermost yield from every rod cultivated’. Evidence of ‘training’ and advice for those keen to cultivate more land and aid the home-grown food effort can also be seen in newspaper reports from mid-December, 1917.

In one such report, readers were told that: ‘The War Food Society for the Urban District of Surbiton is arranging for a course of lectures to be given at St. Matthew’s Church hall, Tolworth, on subjects of interest to gardeners and allotment holders’. The first of these lectures took place on the evening of 20th December, when Mr. G.P. Berry, the General Inspector for Horticulture to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, gave a talk on ‘The Management and Manuring of Allotments’. A report of the evening’s proceedings in the Surrey Comet also told readers that during the summer of 1917 the War Food Society in Surbiton had distributed, ‘under very great difficulties’, about 6,000 fruit-bottling jars, ‘the chance of obtaining which at small cost seems to have been much appreciated’.

Importance of Allotments

Another lecture in this educational series at St. Matthew’s Church hall was reported on in the Surrey Comet in late December, 1917. Chaired by Mr. R.S. Bond, ‘who called attention to the great need for production of every possible pound of food’, the main talk of the evening was again delivered by Mr. G.P. Berry, who gave ‘a most interesting address’ on the manuring of allotments, especially on the need for lime, as many soils in the local area were ‘lacking in this essential ingredient of fertile soils’.

Food poster WW1

It is perhaps worth noting that skilled allotment cultivation, in addition to appropriation of any possible spare land, became a very important part of the local home-front war effort in Kingston, Surbiton and Tolworth during the Great War. Interestingly, the Surbiton and Tolworth areas in particular also played a very similar role just 20 years later, in the Second World War, when 96 extra acres of allotments were created along the local Hogsmill river and in the Fishponds area.

Elsewhere in Surrey, the First World War saw some notably successful efforts to cultivate more land for food production purposes. Indeed, a fascinating report from the County War Agricultural Committee in May, 1918, proudly recorded that an estimated 24,000 additional acres of land had been brought into cultivation, which was, in hindsight, a truly major achievement.

An Over-rosy Vision?

As the war dragged on, and food distribution remained hugely problematic, the ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ areas of Surrey came in for particular praise in relation to greater food production. Significantly, in August, 1918, the Surrey Comet reported details of an address by the new national Director-General of Food Production, Sir Charles Fielding, who had spoken to a number of London journalists and asked them to convey ‘his kindliest good wishes’ to the allotment holders all around London and other urban areas. Fielding said that 800,000-9,000,000 new allotments had been created since 1916, and the total number of allotments in the whole country was now about a million and a half.

He also commented that an allotment was ‘more than a bit of waste ground upon which amateur labour that might otherwise be wasted was employed. It was part of a vast and vastly important national movement’. He argued that this ‘linked the townsman with the countryman, the city with the village’ and that it would ‘help towards a better understanding the one of the other’, together with ‘increased health and friendlier social relations between various classes of town dwellers’.

Sir Charles also claimed that the yields of many of the allotments ‘were very remarkable, and reflected great credit on their cultivators’.

This address led to an editorial in the same issue of the Surrey Comet, which argued: ‘Among other lessons the war is intensifying for us is the value of the allotment and the cottage garden’. There had also been, the Comet asserted, ‘a significant change of attitude towards allotment-holders among farming and land-holding classes’.

Quite whether this latter observation was borne out in the immediate post-1918 years has been a topic of controversy among historians, but – for a while at least – the value of land cultivation by small-holders in all forms had been recognised as an essential part of Britain’s national war effort.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and the Imperial War Museum)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in 2018.

Posted in British history, Kingston, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

History restored: How new technology recreated JFK’s ‘unspoken speech’ from 1963

In November, 1963, John F. Kennedy (‘JFK’) was tragically assassinated in Dallas, an event which shocked not just the USA but the entire world. Many people had seemingly invested their hopes and dreams in the new youthful president, and suddenly that optimism had been cruelly crushed.

I have recently given lectures on the nature of U.S. foreign policy during the all-too brief presidency of Kennedy, who was in the White House 1961-63. Kennedy, of course, was particularly skilled at oratory, and the 35th president of the USA arguably left us with some of the most memorable speeches ever made by an American leader during the course of the late 20th century. One could never imagine the current out-going president, Donald Trump, being able to match such oratory.


In 2018, it was revealed that, thanks to an impressive breakthrough using modern technology, scholars of American history were now able to hear the final speech of president J.F. Kennedy, an address he was due to make in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, had he not been brutally assassinated beforehand by the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (despite all the conspiracy theories to the contrary over the years).

As part of an initiative by the London Times newspaper (entitled the JFK: Unsilenced project), sound engineers had used new technology to recreate the voice of the 46-year old president. The newspaper had teamed up with CereProc, a British audio technology company, and Rothco, an Irish creative agency, to construct a database that had been employed to deliver JFK’s ‘unspoken’ speech in the U.S. president’s own voice.

JFK’s ‘Final’ Speech

The team had recreated JFK’s voice by analysing recordings of his speeches and radio addresses. Sound engineers then took 116,777 sound units from clips of Kennedy speaking in order to create an audio track of him delivering the ‘final’ speech in his unique cadence. Chris Pidcock, co-founder and chief voice engineer at CereProc in Edinburgh, told The Times (March 16th, 2018) that it was the first time that the company’s technology had been employed in this particular way. Pidcock’s company specialised in ‘text-to-voice’ technology, and had previously helped people who have lost their voice through degenerative disease or other such problems.

The Kennedy project was especially challenging, but also highly satisfying. The best-quality recordings of JFK’s voice were cross-referenced with the text of Kennedy’s undelivered 1963 speech, and a new computer system was then employed to recognise and recreate JFK’s oratorical ‘style’. Data from JFK’s speeches was then fed into a computer until it learnt the patterns of his delivery, and then the sounds were tweaked to make them sound more natural (as far as possible). It took eight weeks to bring to life the 2,590 words that Kennedy was never able to deliver to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart.

JFK assassination heading

Despite the confusion, shock and panic that surrounded that November day’s dramatic events back in Dallas in 1963, and the tragic death of JFK, the text of his speech was preserved and was given to a local businessman by Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s vice-president who was quickly sworn in as the 36th president.

What kinds of ideas and assertions were present in JFK’s undelivered speech? According to commentators and historians, it can be partly interpreted as a rebuke to the growing ‘populist’ politics of the time, voices on the right of politics who were sceptical about the new liberalism of the 1960s. It is a speech that warned about the ‘dissident voices’ in U.S. society, voices that played only to people’s fears, ‘finding fault but never favour’, and rejecting the progress of the period. Kennedy warned: ‘In a world of complex problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason – or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly simple solutions’.

He added: ‘There will always be dissident voices in the land expressing opposition without alternative…’.

America and the Globe

In relation to America’s wider position in the world, some familiar ‘Kennedy-esque’ themes can also be detected. His message seemed to be that America’s role and status in the world would be shaped more by its role as a ‘beacon of freedom’ than on its military might. At one point, he referred to his generation as being ‘the watchmen on the walls of world freedom’, and explained: ‘I have spoken of strength largely in terms of deterrence and resistance of aggression and attack. But freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. Our success is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles; on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny’.

JFK looking presidential

While we should always be wary about the claims made by politicians, the opportunity to actually hear JFK’s voice deliver such words in a speech he never made has been a real bonus for the historian.

However, the use of such technology does raise some tricky ethical and other issues for historians. As one writer in The Times (Libby Purves) put it a few days later, on March 19th, 2018, the JFK voice software, she felt, should be ‘handled with care’. Purves wrote that she was unsurprised ‘but slightly alarmed’ by the technological brilliance of CereProc and Rothco on the JFK project. On the one hand, such new technology is evidently a real boon for those who lose speech through illness, but could be a potential tool for worse-intentioned users. She warned: ‘The lying creators of “fake news” will be on it soon’. Familiar voices could be harvested, analysed, and reproduced ‘to say words they never uttered’. In an age of ‘post-truth’ and alt-facts, this could be potentially dangerous.

These were powerful points. In the hands of Trumpian-style populists, such technology could be ‘weaponised’ by the more unscrupulous and manipulative in society, especially those with extreme ideological agendas. There does need to be a serious debate about all this, similar to the one that has taken place about the ‘colourisation’ of old black-and-white newsreel footage.

Nevertheless, from a historian’s perspective, as we near the end of 2020 – if used responsibly – such technology can surely remain very helpful in making certain aspects of the past ‘come alive’ once again for a modern audience.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in 2018.

Posted in American history, Archives, Conspiracy theory, History skills, Media history, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A ‘Fun’ Fad or the Future? Files show how British government officials remained ambivalent about the internet in the 1990s

It was the dawn of a new age of electronic communication, but British government officials had mixed feelings about the new world wide web when it emerged in the 1990s. Files made available at the UK’s National Archives at Kew in south-west London in 2018 show how British politicians and their advisers in the mid-1990s saw certain advantages to the internet, but also remained somewhat ambivalent about some aspects of the new invention.

The National Archives

In a tradition that occurs annually, Thursday 27th December, 2018, saw the release of a new batch of British Government records from the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) and the Cabinet Office (CAB), this time relating to the year 1994.

They shed new light for historians on some of the key topics under discussion during John Major’s premiership. In addition to the 1994 material, the file releases to the National Archives (TNA) in 2018 also included some files from the later years in Downing Street of Major’s predecessor as PM, the late Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher, Major and e-comms

Not much is known by her biographers about Margaret Thatcher’s personal attitudes to new technology. What is quite striking about one of the files (TNA PREM 19/4621), however, is the extent to which, in retrospect, the then relatively new internet placed some members of the Major government in a dilemma about the possible potential, or not, of the new technology, including e-mails.

Thatcher with Major 1992

File no. PREM 19/4621 covers the period from July, 1986, to November, 1994, a period when Margaret Thatcher was still in office (she was Conservative PM 1979-1990), and John Major unexpectedly succeeded her (Major was Conservative PM 1990-1997).

The file mainly concerns the development of a new IT system for Number 10 Downing Street, but it also includes some fascinating discussion by officials of the importance of Britain’s Conservatives keeping up with wider technological developments by embracing the growing popularity of the internet, especially as the new Bill Clinton/Al Gore Democrat administration in the USA had already made notable use of it as an effective new tool to engage with voters and the public.

The main Opposition party in Britain also appeared to be ready to adopt the same communications strategy developed by the Democrats, something which evidently worried Conservative policy advisers.

In particular, government officials in the UK clearly realised that they needed to put the British government online or they would look increasingly outdated and out of touch, and possibly hand an advantage to their rivals. Advisers to Major’s administration became especially concerned that the new Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, who was now head of the main Opposition party in Parliament (and had adopted a language of change and ‘modernisation’), would show how he belonged ‘to a new generation by signing up’ as an internet user.

Conservative modernisation?

Cartoon of pencil

The file in question reveals how Damian Green, who was a member of the policy unit at the heart of the Conservative government, wrote a memorandum in August, 1994, to Alex Allan, John Major’s principal private secretary, in which he pointed out to Allan that ‘Internet users will be a growing group of opinion-formers’. Green also noted that various MPs ‘who are computer literate have made the point to me that it would be advantageous for No. 10 to be seen to be up with developments in this area. Specifically, connecting No. 10 with the Internet would keep us up with the White House, which has made a big thing of the modern way the Clinton/Gore administration deals with communications’.

Perhaps realising the need for greater urgency on the matter, Alex Allan in turn wrote his own memorandum in September, 1994, on the advantages of the government going fully online, including how it would ‘allow members of the public linked to the Internet to send E-mail to the Prime Minister/Number 10, largely as an alternative to writing/faxing/phoning their views’,  and also facilitate the creation of new government websites that could help enhance the way the government engaged with the British public.

On the other hand, Allan was less convinced about the merits of e-mails. He commented at one stage: ‘One particular issue is whether we should advertise that it is possible to send messages to the Prime Minister, and – presumably – get a reply’. He added: ‘I am sure we should offer this in time, but I am cautious about rushing into it. I do not believe that we would get a huge volume of E-mail in the long run, but we could expect an initial flood as people around the world tried it out for fun’.

It’s an interesting piece of evidence about how officials were struggling to come to terms with the rise of new technologies in the last decade of the 20th century. There is an irony, however. Historians now know that Blair’s New Labour (and especially Mr. Blair himself) were not as advanced when it came to IT as the Conservatives had privately feared. Indeed, looking back on the period and, in particular, on the 1997 General Election, and given New Labour’s growing reputation for professional marketing techniques and better communications during the election campaign, it is surprising how both the Conservatives and Labour parties still appeared rather ‘conservative’ towards the new technology. This would soon change, though, as we now know in hindsight.

In fact, the internet and e-mails arguably revolutionised the way subsequent political campaigning and all future British governments operated.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here in January, 2019.

Posted in Archives, British history, Historiography, Media history, Public History, Research, The National Archives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Kingston historian shares expertise on French Revolution in new broadcasts

Marisa Linton, who is Professor Emerita in History at Kingston University, has been sharing her extensive expertise on the French Revolution in two new broadcasts, one a podcast for the very popular History Extra site, and the other as part of the BBC-2 series on Royal History’s Biggest Fibs, presented by Lucy Worsley.

Marisa has recently recorded a podcast for the BBC’s History Extra site which is available for scholars, students and the general public. It is part of the latest series on the site tackling big questions on major historical events, and Professor Linton has responded to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the dramatic events that engulfed France in the late 18th century.

Go to:


In addition, in another exciting do-not-miss event, on Friday, 6th November, 2020, Marisa will be one of the experts contributing to the latest episode of historian Lucy Worsley’s highly entertaining Royal History’s Biggest Fibs series.

The episode, which starts series 2 of the very popular TV series, concentrates on the French Revolution and some of the myths swirling around the events of 1789 – an uprising which brought down France’s Royal family. Marisa talks about Maximilien Robespierre and changing interpretations of his character and role.

The episode, the first of three programmes in the new series 2, can be viewed at 9.00pm (UK time) on BBC-2, on Friday, 6th November.

Prof. Marisa Linton, Kingston University

Posted in European History, Events, French History, Gender History, Historiography, Kingston University, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Rejoicing and Mourning: Responses in Kingston-on-Thames to news of the Armistice in 1918

As we approach another Remembrance Day and communities across Britain seek to hold poppy day events under the difficult circumstances created by Covid-19, it is worth looking back on how the nation breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when news broke that the Great War was over.

The end of the First World War brought great joy to many people in cities, towns, villages and numerous other communities across the British Isles, but at the same time there was also sadness and some poignant scenes for the thousands who had lost loved ones and close family members in the brutal conflict.

Events in Kingston-on-Thames

Daily Mirror Armistice celebrations

How did the people of Kingston-on-Thames and district respond to the news that an Armistice had been signed on November 11th, 1918, exactly 100 years ago? As we commemorate the end of the ‘Great War’, it is interesting to look back at the coverage of the Armistice offered by the local Surrey Comet newspaper in Kingston-on-Thames, which was the town’s main source of news at the time, and explore the details the paper gave to its readers about the events of that special Monday.

As the nation entered into the early days of the new month of November, 1918, the Surrey Comet had noted how the ‘rhythm’ of the war at the front appeared to be changing, but the paper also seemed to sense the sheer exhaustion now felt by local people at home. In an editorial in the November 2nd edition, entitled ‘A Month’s Victories’, the paper had pointed to the ‘tremendously dramatic events’ that were transpiring in the war zones, events which had left people ‘nearly breathless with interest; and yet, it must be added, that never did a great people who have waged war for upwards of four years, and in their hearts intensely desire peace, appear to be so little moved and exulted by it all’. The paper argued victory was in sight, but there could be no relaxation of effort.

Kingston on Thames

The Surrey Comet’s coverage of Monday, November 11th, 1918 (the day of the Armistice), was published on Wednesday, November 13th, in its mid-week edition, and the sense of relief at the dramatic news about the Armistice was palpable. The mid-week edition included an editorial which proclaimed: ‘The people of our country and Empire can lift up their hearts today, for the most awful war in the world’s history has come to a close…’.

A triumphalist tone

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

Reflecting on the previous four years, a note of triumphalism could be detected in the Comet’s stance; the paper’s editorial argued that Germany ‘had listened to false prophets who declared her people to be the Blonde Race destined to rule the world; and in pursuit of the world ambitions which thus infected the blood, has met the fate she so justly deserved’. The editorial added: ‘Marching through blood, rapine, lust and murder, she has over-reached herself and now tastes the galling bitterness of humiliation and defeat’. The Comet then praised ‘the dauntless valour and self-sacrifice’ of Naval and Military forces: ‘The Mighty Dead will live ever in the Nation’s memory…’.

On the next page, under the heading ‘Victory At Last!’, the paper then offered the Comet’s readers some fascinating detail on how the news of the Armistice was received in Kingston and the surrounding area. According to the paper, November 11th was ‘a day that dawned with new-found hope for a European peace…’.

Monday was a ‘a day of national rejoicing’, and within a few minutes of the confirmation of the official news, ‘Kingston and the surrounding neighbourhood presented quite a blaze of bunting. Flags appeared as if by magic’. Flags were put out on all public buildings in the town, and: ‘Cottage and mansion vied with each other in making the best show’, while there was also a ‘tremendous run on all the available stocks of flags at the shops’.

Kingston All Saints Church

Soon the streets ‘became thronged with people’, who were ‘bent on making holiday’. The bells of All Saint’s Church in Kingston ‘rang out merry peals, and everyone was radiant with smiles. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders with one another in the crowds which surged through the streets…’.

Interestingly, the Comet revealed that a number of operatives from Sopwith’s Aviation factory (which was a large wartime employer in the town), who ‘had downed tools in ebullient glee when the glad tidings were received’, then passed through the streets in a motor-van, with a ‘conspicuous figure’ decorating the van – an effigy of the German Kaiser.

Sorrow and Mourning

Simultaneously, however, the Surrey Comet’s report of the events of that day also recognised that ‘it was not all rejoicing. There was a ghost at the feast. The mourning attire and the sad, set faces of many women told their own sorrowful stories, and the hearts of all who are near and dear to them went out in deep sympathy to those who have experienced the tragedy of the war in its bitterest form by being robbed of their loved ones’.

During the afternoon of November 11th, the rain set in. In the words of the Comet: ‘It was a nasty drizzle which clung to one’s clothes, but it failed to damp the ardour of the revellers, although it appreciably thinned their ranks’. Indeed, as darkness fell, many people in the town and district apparently went home, ‘preferring the comfort of their homes to the damp streets…’.

People celebrating the end of WW1

Yet, the next day (Tuesday) saw the rejoicing continue. A prominent lead was given by the employees of the Sopwith Aviation Works again, who had been given a holiday until Wednesday.

As the Surrey Comet described it: ‘A long procession was formed of motor-lorries and motor-cars crammed with men and women, with a considerable number on foot bringing up the rear’. Moreover, the ‘foremost lorry’ in the procession carried effigies of ‘the butcher of Berlin’ (the Kaiser) and his eldest son, both adorned with German Iron Crosses. Led by a big drum, with bugles blaring and flags flying from every car, the procession made its way slowly through the streets of Kingston, ‘and was greeted everywhere with vociferous cheering’.

In Kingston Market Place, in the heart of the town, the ‘processionists’ were joined by an Army motor-lorry, ‘crowded with men in Khaki’, and the effigies of the Kaiser and his son were then burnt ‘amidst tumultuous cheering’. Significantly, the Surrey Comet also noted that Kingston Barracks (near Richmond Park), the depot of the East Surrey Regiment which had trained and provided so many local men for military service in France and Belgium, also saw ‘lusty cheering’ and ‘vociferous expression of satisfaction at the cessation of hostilities’.

It was clear that, for some soldiers, sheer relief at the end of the conflict was more important than some of the triumphalism of their comrades.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published here on 11th November, 2018.

Posted in British history, European History, Kingston, Local History, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Launching the League: The foundation of the League of Nations Union in Kingston-on-Thames

One hundred years ago, in January, 1920, the League of Nations was officially launched, and the first meeting of the new League’s Council took place on 16th January. There have been times in history when the global has very much influenced the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.

Woodrow Wilson 2The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War.

President Wilson said he looked forward to a ‘new world’ of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the new League of Nations and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.

In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to recent research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.

The League at Local Level

League of Nations symbol

In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer. Thus, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’.

This comment received a round of applause from the audience. Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.

Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.

Sidney Pocock

Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons). Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.

The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the local Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’. According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU.

Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.

Early Growth

League of Nations cartoon image

It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.

The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period is, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of its supporters during the 1920s – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939.

Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog that was first published here on 8th November, 2017

Posted in American history, British history, European History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Black History Month in Britain

This month is Black History Month (BHM) in Britain. BHM is a month of events in October which takes place annually and celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s African, Asian and Caribbean communities in the country.

Although the event had its origins in the United States, the British version has become more and more attuned to what is unique to Black history in this country. It has taken place every October since 1987 and, importantly, helps us remember that the United Kingdom has a long history of contributions from people with African and Caribbean heritage, together with those of Asian ancestry, and that Britain thus enjoys a vibrant and diverse cultural heritage, including here in south-west London.

Kingston and Black History

In recent years, Kingston University’s History teaching team has used BHM to help celebrate the life of Cesar Picton, a local resident.

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton (1755-1836) was brought to England from Senegal as a gift for a local family in 1761. He went on to become a coal merchant and a wealthy and respected gentleman. He remains Kingston-on-Thames’ most famous eighteenth-century Black businessman, and his previous homes in Kingston and Thames Ditton are marked by commemorative plaques.

He has also been commemorated at Kingston University’s main campus through the Picton Room, which was named after him. However, as recent scholars have shown, Picton was just one of a growing community of Black Africans in Georgian London.

Other well known black contemporaries included people such as Dido Belle, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, and – via new avenues of important research on Black British history – it has been estimated that some 10-15,000 Africans lived in Georgian London alone. BHM has been instrumental in raising more awareness of this fascinating and relatively neglected dimension to our national history.

Indeed, BHM has helped contribute much more research on general Black British history, an approach to the past which explores how Black history is part of national, local and community histories, as well as identifying and celebrating the many ways in which black individuals have impacted on economic, social, political and cultural histories across the UK.

World War One

Black soldiers fighting for Britain

This was especially the case when we recently commemorated the end of the First World War, when exciting pieces of new research appeared on the contribution of the African and Caribbean communities to Britain’s war effort in 1914-1918, including from those in London. BHM has been instrumental in raising public awareness of this fresh academic scholarship.

In fact, recent research is now beginning to show that there were many people of African descent who fought for ‘their’ country and empire during the Great War. One of these people, for example, was Walter Tull (1888-1918), a professional footballer for Tottenham and also a war hero. Both he and his brother served in the military. Tull fought in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed in the second Battle of the Somme on 25 March, 1918, near Favreuil, France.

Walter Tull

By then, Tull had become an officer in command. Moreover, not only was he the British army’s first Black officer, but he had been the first Black officer to lead white troops into battle. Pleasingly, in 2018, the Royal Mail issued a striking postage stamp with Tull’s image on it (see photo), which helped create even more interest in his life and times.

This month has already seen special events to celebrate BHM across the country, with lots more still to come. What originally started as an event in the USA to help celebrate the history and cultural heritage of the Black community in the New World has now very much become an established event in Britain and has grown in popularity with each passing year.

As one commentator (on www.history.co.uk) has so aptly pointed out, perhaps one day ‘the need for an annual celebration will no longer be required, when Black British history is universally accepted as British history and is studied and celebrated year long around the country’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Hayward and Wikimedia Commons)


Posted in African History, American history, Black History, British history, European History, Events, Kingston, Kingston University, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Nazi in Guildford: The activities of Arnold Leese in Surrey in the 1930s

Not many people in Surrey know that the town of Guildford in the heart of the county was home to one of Britain’s most notorious anti-Semites of the interwar period. During the 1930s, the fascist ideologue and racist activist Arnold Spencer Leese (1878-1956), a former camel vet, lived in what he named the ‘White House’ on Pewley Hill, a quiet and steep road not far from the centre of the town.

Arnold Leese

Leese (pictured), along with two others, had founded the Imperial Fascist League (IFL) in 1928, an organisation that he came to dominate by 1930, and which eventually took a very pro-Hitler stance, proudly displaying the Nazi swastika on all its publications, flags and insignia.

In 1932, when Sir Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a much larger fascist party, Leese refused all offers to join the BUF, believing that Mosley’s movement was not serious about the ‘Jewish Menace’. Leese was adamant that the IFL should remain pure in its adherence to what he called ‘real’ fascism. This doctrine placed ‘race’ at the centre of all politics, and was very much modeled on the German National Socialist creed, which was markedly anti-Semitic and obsessed with biological racism.

Tellingly, Leese even advocated mass extermination of Jews by ‘lethal’ chambers as early as 1934, and he was certainly viewed with favour by some of the leading racists in the Nazi regime.

Leese and Surrey

After he retired from running a small private practice as a veterinary surgeon in Lincolnshire in the 1920s, Leese had moved down to Guildford and set up home. However, far from settling down to enjoy retirement, Leese began to devote all his time to extreme fascist politics and to his Imperial Fascist League, with his house doubling-up as the local HQ of the IFL, with a main office in central London. He also used the White House as a place to print, store and distribute many of the organisation’s leaflets and pamphlets, and it served as a base of operations when he ventured into local political activity in Guildford.

In fact, as well as targeting Guildford with his propaganda, Leese was eager to make use of various small towns and their localities across Surrey, organising a number of debates under the auspices of the IFL. Such meetings had the added benefit for Leese of generating news coverage and publicity in the local Surrey press. A good example of this occurred in the Surrey village of Great Bookham in November, 1930, when Leese engaged in a debate with representatives of the League of Nations Union (LNU). Leese loathed the League of Nations, claiming at the meeting that it was under ‘Jewish control’.

Similarly, Leese and his IFL activists made sure they attended meetings of local organisations they especially disliked, where they could try to hi-jack the Questions and Answers session that often concluded such public meetings. A typical example of this occurred in September, 1931, when a new branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union was launched in Guildford and held its first meeting. This was like a red rag to a bull as far as Leese was concerned. As one Guildford newspaper reported, there was ‘a good deal of opposition from an anti-Jewish element in the audience’, and – at one point – Leese declared to the attendees that ‘Jewish international finance’ was running not only Russia, but also Britain.

Union Jack and Swastika


In March, 1934, Leese’s organisation gained considerable local publicity when it held its first full public meeting in the town, at the Ward Street hall in Guildford. According to one report, the ‘hall was crowded, and around the walls stood uniformed stewards of the organisation’. An arm-band consisting of a Union Jack with a swastika in the centre was worn by every IFL member who attended the meeting, and throughout the evening a fascist stood on the platform with the League’s flag – the Union Jack and swastika – while Leese spoke. Leese delivered a lengthy speech on the history of ‘Jewish money power’. Interestingly, he also caused controversy by suggesting that the majority of people in Guildford were ‘a comfortable crowd’ and were ‘slow to wake up’, but he appealed to them for ‘a little unselfishness’ so that they might come forward and become involved with fascism.

Leese added that ‘Finance’ had, in his view, ‘been used as a Jewish tool to bring the country down to where it was now’. Towards the end of the meeting, Leese also told the audience that he was ‘perfectly prepared’ to open and shut the lethal chamber door ‘all day if they could get rid of the Jews that way’, but he did not think the people of England would stand for it.

Possibly the high-point of publicity for Leese in Guildford occurred during the 1935 General Election. Leese temporarily lit up the election campaign in the town when he made the surprise announcement that he would stand as a fascist parliamentary candidate in the Guildford parliamentary division. This gained him a rare full interview in the local press, which he used to argue that, if he was elected, it would ‘at least give a chance for Fascism to be thoroughly examined, whereas at the present it is simply the subject of hostile criticism from alien sources which control much of our daily press’.

Leese portrait from his autobiography

He also used the interview as an opportunity to take swipes at democracy and assert that the hope of the world depended on the ‘Aryan’ race. Predictably, just one week later, Leese announced his withdrawal from the election, alleging that it was an ‘unfair contest’ and it would be a waste of his cash resources if he carried on with his campaign.

When war broke out in September, 1939, Leese’s IFL (as with Mosley’s BUF and other fascist groups), continued to function, pursuing an anti-war line. Leese published a pamphlet entitled Leese for Peace, in which he claimed that the war was being fought by Britain at the behest of ‘Jewish Interests’. In May, 1940, with growing fears that Britain might be invaded by the Nazis, the government decided to arrest many leading fascists under new Defence Regulations.

To avoid detention, Leese went on the run, staying in a series of hideouts. He also made occasional secret visits back to Pewley Hill, where his equally racist wife, Mrs. May Leese, would supply him with food and fresh provisions. However, the police Special Branch kept a close watch on the house, and Leese was finally caught and arrested in November, 1940.

Post-war Obsessions

One suspects that nearby residents in Guildford must have been very pleased to hear the news of his capture. On the other hand, they must have been very disappointed when Leese was released from prison in 1944 and immediately returned back to Guildford. Shockingly, within just weeks of the end of the war, Leese was quickly back to his former activities.

He used his Pewley Hill home to launch a new anti-Semitic monthly entitled Gothic Ripples, and to self-publish and distribute a book called The Jewish War of Survival, a racist diatribe which defended Hitler’s wartime actions. The latter book claimed that ‘Jewish Money Power’ had been behind the war. Leese even managed to send a copy of the book to the Defence Counsel for Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials (which they accepted).

Significantly, the White House also received visits from a number of early post-war British neo-Nazis, who were eager to seek out their ‘hero’ and gain his approval (his circle of fans included a young Colin Jordan), and it remained Arnold Leese’s main base of propaganda operations right up to his death in 1956.

Jordan, a rising ‘star’ of the neo-Nazi scene in Britain, was later given a London house by Mrs. Leese, not long after her husband’s death. An excellent new academic study, Failed Fuhrers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right (Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Extreme Right, 2020), by Graham Macklin, throws some invaluable new light on this and on Leese’s general career as a leading racist.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: A shorter version of this blog was first published here in October, 2017.


Posted in British history, Conspiracy theory, Fascism, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments