Not many people in Kingston 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. As I have noted in a previous blog on Joyce (22nd September, 2016), 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 it is already becoming in many ways the definitive biography of this highly controversial fascist ideologue and obsessive anti-Semite.
Among the many fascinating and interesting revelations contained within the new biography is 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 recently 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. 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 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.
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’.
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 Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons and Routledge Publishers)