The maximum sentence for disaffection of the forces under regulation 1AA was fifteen years. We didn’t know what to expect.
Anarchist During the war the anarchist movement was pretty well a closed shop, as of course it had to be. There was the overt activity – the open, public activity, and there was the underground stuff going on. There was the whole business of having to protect deserters and people on the run. There had to be security. And so the Anarchist Federation, as it was then called, was something that you were only invited to join. You couldn’t just bowl up, or write in and say “I want to join you.”
When I first went to Belsize Road, where the Freedom Press was, I was fascinated and I was interested. (1) I felt I had come home, inasmuch I had found people of similar attitudes. The overt activity of the Freedom group was things like public speaking at Hyde Park and publishing War Commentary, which had an uninterrupted run through the war.
All papers had an uninterrupted run through the war, with the exception of the Daily Worker that was banned for a year after 1940. Because of the invasion of France Herbert Morrison (2) decided that freedom couldn’t be extended to the Communist Party any longer, and their paper was banned until Germany attacked Russia and the Communists changed their line overnight from opposition to support of the war. They started publishing again and became the most outrageous patriots of the lot. Anyone who opposed the war was denounced as an agent of Hitler and the Trotskyists. (3) They were absolute bastards. They used to hassle sellers at Hyde Park. You’d be jostled and papers would be knocked out of your hands.
We sold the bulk of what we printed. We had good sales here in London and a very, very good and active group in Glasgow at that time. Best working class orators I’ve ever heard speaking every Sunday at Maxwell Street, in the heart of Glasgow. In the summer outdoors, and in the winter they took St. Enoch’s Hall and had big meetings there. It was the most influential working class group in Glasgow at the time amongst anti-war people.
The ILP were very strong too. It was still the time when people talked about “The Red Clyde”, and that period of the strong ILP. Besides us and the ILP, the SPGB was the other political group totally opposed to the war. (4)
In fact, they were one of the few organisations where you pretty well only had to go before a Conscientious Objectors Tribunal and say “I’m a member of the SPGB” and you’d get off automatically. They had a splendid record of getting people off and a lot of it stemmed from Tony Turner, because he would go and speak for somebody.
Stepney, London Teenager I became a socialist when I was fifteen. I was a member of the SPGB. My Father, who’d been a docker, had died so there was no political influence on me at home. I met this bloke at work who was in the SPGB, and he introduced me to them. He took me to a meeting by a man called Tony Turner, and he’s probably the greatest speaker I’ve heard in my life. He was fucking Moses.
Anarchist Tony Turner was often on Christian name terms with the Chairman of the Tribunal – “Well, Tony, what you’ve got to say about this one?” The two groups that were usually recognised were the SPGB and the Friends – the Quakers. The Jehovah Witnesses were continually turned down. I never quite understood that, except they’re a pretty intolerant bunch, and never really recognised as a proper religious body. But Tony Turner was a brilliant speaker. The story goes that on the day war broke out he spoke for about nine hours continuously in Hyde Park. One report said there were thousands of people listening to him.
We had a problem of where to put a rather special deserter who had just come out of the army to join us
As I said earlier, one couldn’t simply bowl up and join the Anarchist Federation. They sized you up for a long time. I’d been selling newspapers in Hyde Park and doing drawings and sign-writing posters, for a whole year, and I’d just started writing articles for them, before they finally decided I was a fit person to be invited to join, and then I was right in the bloody thick of it.
I had a nice little studio then, in Camden Town, in Camden Street, which was a very nice secluded place behind a church, with an alleyway leading to it. We had a problem of where to put a rather special deserter who had just come out of the army to join us. He was a chap called John Olday. He was of German origins who’d been in the German anarchist movement before the war and had come over here just before the war. He’d been drafted into the Pioneer Corps and was in it for a couple of years. He was a cartoonist and had been sending his cartoons to War Commentary – very, very sharp, acid and funny cartoons.
The time came when he decided he could no longer stand it and wanted to pull out. So we had to give him some place to live and this little studio of mine was just right. He came and lived with me in that studio for quite a few months. He established a network of communication with dissident soldiers. He started a regular monthly newsletter – soldier’s newsletter – which was duplicated. He sent this out to a list of about two hundred soldiers. His special knowledge of the army gave him the opportunity to talk in their terms and establish rapport with soldiers which us conches didn’t have.
Besides publishing War Commentary we also turned out an unending stream of little penny pamphlets and sixpenny booklets.
In the autumn of 1944, when the State decided to attack us, I was off on a book-selling tour. We’d drawn up a big itinerary starting from London up to Bristol, up the west country, up to Glasgow, across to Edinburgh and right the way down, covering every major town. I did a sort of whistle stop tour with my little bag of samples of all our pamphlets. It was an absolute joy. I sold £500 worth of literature in six weeks! I was sending orders down and they were having to get some things back on the press because they were right out.
It was at this time that John Olday got picked up. He was carrying a typewriter home late at night and a policeman stopped him and asked him what he was doing, and where he was going, and where his card – his ID card was. He had to go down to the station and he got nabbed. He kept stumm for a long time – wouldn’t say who he was, but eventually they found out and it coincided with some things we were saying in the paper that they were objecting to.
They raided my studio and found all his stuff – the duplicating machine and discovered that letters had been circulating among soldiers. As a result of this they raided Freedom Press and because I was on this book-selling tour they found my Ration Book and they said “What’s this?” You could stay one night in a hotel without a ration book and so I was living for the six weeks without the thing and I’d left it behind for other people to pick up their rations. They also found in my studio a lovely great big sheepskin coat which I’d bought from a soldier when I had been working on the land, and had a motorbike. It was something left over from the Norwegian campaign.
As a result of them raiding my place and Freedom Press, as a consequence of picking up John Olday, the whole bloody balloon went up. By the time I got back to London I had to go into hiding. They’d nabbed three of the others. They’d picked up Vernon Richards, who nominally was the owner of Express Printers, the movement’s printing press, and John Hewetson, who was a doctor, and he was nominally the owner of Freedom Press. The third was Marie-Louise, Vernon Richard’s wife, and an activist in her own right.
When we were attacked the amount of support we got from all sorts of directions, including people like Orwell, was astonishing
So there were the four of us. John Olday was already in nick. The maximum sentence for disaffection of the forces under Regulation 1AA was fifteen years. The Disaffection Act of 1934 had laid down two years maximum but the wartime regulations upped that to fifteen years. We didn’t know what to expect.
A few months before us, four trotskyists had been done for inciting a strike in Newcastle – the famous Apprentices’ Strike, and they’d got six months, I think, just for that. (6) And our thing seemed to be getting a hell of a lot more attention. We were anticipating two, maybe three years. Not so long before us a chap called T.W.Brown had got eighteen months on a similar charge. He lived out at Kingston and he’d produced his own anti-war leaflets. He’d actually gone around handing leaflets out to soldiers and members of the Wrens and the Women’s Airforce, and things like that. He’d given one to a Waaf who immediately went straight to the police, had been picked up and had got eighteen months. We thought: surely we won’t get less than that.
We didn’t feel at all isolated. For one thing, if you’re a member of a group, or a movement, you get this little cocoon around you and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It’s like living in London – you have your own community and the rest of London is like a desert as far as you’re concerned. When we were attacked the amount of support we got from all sorts of directions, including people like Orwell, was astonishing. They rallied around in an absolutely marvellous way.
Freedom Press had an enormous amount of prestige at that time and a lot of affection going for it, and a lot of respect. It had grown out of the Spanish war, which was still not all that far behind, and so a lot people rallied round. I’m never going to hear anything against old Herbert Read, on account of what he did at the time. (7) He roped in all the bloody intellectuals, with his name behind us, and Ethel Manning and old pacifists with prestige like Reginald Reynolds, and a few other people like that. And he got M.Ps on the Defence Committee – Michael Foot, Fenner Brockway, Sidney Silverman – I think. The Left M.P’s joined up – Bevan joined us as a patron of the Freedom Press Defence Committee, and people like Orwell wrote, and the whole thing began to thunder. (8)
We set up a Defence Fund and we raised £2000 in a very short time, with the result that we were able to buy the services of top flight barristers. We had John Maude, who afterwards became Recorder of Exeter; Derek Curtis Bennett, as he was then. He afterwards became Sir Derek; a chap called John Burge, who seems to have sunk without trace, but was a very, very able guy. He was my bloke and spoke very well. We were also able to hire the services of someone called Seaton, who became a real right bastard of a Recorder later on. He was a right wing sod and we retained him simply to stop him being used by the other side. He just sat there looking glum and not saying a word all the time. And as a junior – nice little twist – a chap was assigned as a junior to Curtis Bennett. He’s now a Labour councillor and lives just up the road. A short while ago he advised me on some rent trouble – a little battle I was having with my landlord.
We put it forward, and it was accepted as a Freedom of Speech thing. This was Orwell’s attitude
He made it perfectly clear he didn’t agree with us about the war, but he was concerned about the freedom of speech issue. He spoke on our platforms, both before and afterwards. The Freedom Committee was kept going after the trial as a sort of alternative to the NCCL which at the time was heavily CP dominated. (9)
When I was arrested the police found that I hadn’t notified my last change of address on my Identity Card. Because I didn’t seem to have an address they wanted to hold me and I was charged on two accounts, besides the Disaffection charge. One, for not notifying my change of address and two, for being in possession of government property – the army sheepskin coat I’d bought off this soldier. I was given a month on each account, just to keep me in while they were cooking up the main charges.
I was in nick when the first hearings began in the magistrates’ court for the general charges against Freedom Press. There was quite a battle to get me bail. They fixed bail at £1000. They were prepared to accept two people at £500. I actually had three or four people in court prepared to do that, but none of them would swear on the Bible! The bloody old judge wouldn’t accept them! They were prepared to affirm, but not take the oath. There had to be an application to a Judge in chambers, who declared that it was quite illegal for the judge to have refused to accept affirmation, so I was finally let out. I was out when the main trial started.
I had already done a little bit of prison sentence in Brixton, which was a first-timers’, remand prison then. When we finally got weighed off at the Old Bailey and got nine months each we were highly delighted! We’d been expecting a lot more. After the sentencing we went in different directions. Hewetson had been in jail before, as a conscientious objector, but that doesn’t count as a criminal offence, so he was able to go to the Scrubs, which is a first-timers’prison. It was also Richards first time, and he went to the Scrubs. But I, as a second-timer, I was sent to bloody Wandsworth, which was a hell of a jail. Marie-Louise was found not guilty on a technicality.
They put me to work in the print shop. Here was I, having been done for making propaganda to disaffect the forces, actually being taught how to print
After a few weeks at Wandsworth I applied for a transfer to the Scrubs, where the others were, but instead they sent me to Maidstone, which was a lovely little nick. I had no complaints at Maidstone at all. It was mid-summer by this time. They put me to work in the print shop. Here was I, having been done for making propaganda to disaffect the forces, actually being taught how to print. I thought it was marvellous! Unfortunately I was stupid enough to write out and say this in my letters and the Special Branch were of course reading them, so after a week at Maidstone I was hurriedly sent back to Wandsworth.
I applied again for a transfer and eventually they did send me to the Scrubs. There we had a great time. There was this chap T.W.Brown, there were us three and there were about two others sympathetic to us. One was an ex-Communist.
Apart from the criminals in there, who were not a great lot, most of the chaps were deserters
There wasn’t a hostile atmosphere in there. We set ourselves up very quickly to become a kind of advisory body, and Hewetson, as a doctor, always had his ear bent to various complaints. We became quite a nice little influence.
The Deputy Governor was a young keen Rhodes scholar from South Africa, who obviously had ideas on rehabilitation of prisoners. He thought he was going to set up a sort of educational thing, for one thing, to show us up for the idiots we were. First he started off discussion groups where we’d read the daily papers and he’d pick out items and say “We’ll talk about this.” There’d be a polite discussion, but because our ideas came through it got up his nose. So he said “Right, we’ll have debates about this.” They set up debates on all sorts of issues and we wiped the floor. Hewetson was a very good speaker and the ex-communist – a little round-faced man – turned out to be a great speaker. There’d be about a hundred prisoners coming to these debates, and we won every time, hands down. The people they were putting up against us were toffee-nosed officers who’d been cashiered out of the army for fiddling funds, and this sort of thing! After about three of these debates the deputy Governor decided he’d had enough, and so he stopped them.
At the time of the trial the print order for War Commentary went up five and six thousand. The comrades in Glasgow really went to town. They had enormous meetings up there and stirred things like hell. They took a thousand, two thousand copies and sold them at their meetings. The trial happened at a time when the war was obviously coming to an end and the Allies obviously winning. Had it happened in the atmosphere of 1940 it might have been quite a different story. But by 1945 people were pissed off by the war.
1. Belsize Road, north west London. The anarchist Freedom Press was founded in 1886 by, amongst others, Charlotte Wilson, and the Russian Prince Kropotkin. It remains an anarchist publishing house.
2. Herbert Morrison, 1930s leader of the Labour controlled London County Council, and Home Secretary in the wartime Coalition Government.
3. Trotskyists. Followers of the theories of Leon Trotsky, prominent Bolshevik at the time of the Russian Revolution and founder and leader of the Red Army. Ousted during internal power struggles in the 1920’s, expelled from the USSR, and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940.
4. ILP: Independent Labour Party, a British democratic socialist party founded in 1893. It was affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906 – 1932, and had several prominent MP’s, including Ramsay Macdonald, Manny Shinwell and James Maxton. Its parliamentary significance declined, with its three remaining MP’s going over to the Labour Party in the 1940’s. SPGB: Socialist Party of Great Britain. A Marxist party critical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Revolution, and continuing to be critical since, of Trotsky, Stalin, etc. Still in existence.
5. CPers: Members of the Communist Party.
6. The Apprentices Strike of 1944 was led by the Tyneside Engineering Apprentices Guild, resisting apprentices being drafted into coal mines as part of the Bevin Boys. Trotskyist members of the Revolutionary Communist Party were charged for aiding them. Their role has been described as ‘advising and supporting’ the strike leaders.
7. Herbert Read, an anarchist and writer on Art, sullied his name among many anarchists when he accepted a Knighthood in 1953 for “Services to Literature”.
8. Ethel Mannin: novelist, essayist, feminist and left libertarian; Reginald Reynolds: Quaker, active pacifist, married Ethel Mannin in 1938; Michael Foot: co-author of Guilty Men (1940) and Labour leader in opposition, 1980 -1983; Fenner Brockway, active pacifist First World War, member of ILP, co-founder of War on Want and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Labour MP from 1950; Sidney Silverman: active pacifist First World War, Labour Party activist and MP, campaigning for the abolition of capital punishment, often in dispute with his own party; Nye Bevan: Labour MP from 1929 and Minister of Health 1945 – 1951 in the post-war Labour Government.
George Orwell, in 1944 was, outside of the Left, not generally known. He had completed Animal Farm in February, 1944. It was rejected by his publisher Victor Gollancz, and also by publishers Jonathan Cape and Faber and Faber, on political grounds. It was published by Secker and Warburg in August, 1945.
9. NCCL: National Council for Civil Liberties. The Freedom Defence Committee continued to take up other cases until it folded in 1949. In the summer of 1945 the Freedom Defence Committee was as below: