Cambridge May Day protests in 1939


Town and gown united to protest against Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement – and of conscription in the run up to the Second World War

I took these screenshots from a video in the Central Library, Cambridge in their 3rd floor media unit. One of the things that strikes me about the images, as well as from the audio commentary was how women were at the forefront of the campaigns, and also were prominent in breaking not just the town/gown barrier but also the class barriers – Newnham and Girton students picked out as reaching out to working class men to support the anti-fascist cause.

The incredibly strong peace movement of the 1930s

It’s hard for us to imagine what the social impact of the world wars was, comparing before and after. I sometimes wonder why the UK didn’t have far more military defensive measures in place – such as strong points, towns and cities absolutely ringed with anti-aircraft batteries. Cambridge certainly didn’t sit still when war broke out. I found in the Cambridgeshire County Archives the original defence plans for the city in the event of an invasion. The map is fascinating.

Cambridge defence plan in WWII

Defence map: Cambridge 1940 – courtesy Cambridgeshire County Archives

The position of the various left wing groups active in Cambridge was to pressure the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to sign a collective security agreement with the USA, France and the USSR – modern day Russia and the states of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union. It’s striking how the Labour movement never lost its faith in the principle of collective security against aggression. What they opposed strongly was conscription – not least because under 21s in those days could not vote, yet it was under 21s who were being conscripted in the Military Training Act 1939. Furthermore the reasons given by the Cambridge Trades Council and Labour Party are stated below in the Cambridge Independent Press from the British Newspaper Archive.

390505 CambTradesCouncilConscriptionMotion

Anti-war: Opposing conscription as a doctrine of totalitarian states

In those days – perhaps not surprisingly given the story of the Cambridge Spies, the Cambridge Communists were also prominent in anti-war protests.

390512 May day protest participants CamIndyPress

Opposition – from the Co-operative party through to the Young Communists

In the speeches at the rally, the representative from the co-op movement in Cambridge demanded that the first regiment of new soldiers be not made up of young working class men, but of the landlords and the wealthy who he said were agitating for war with Germany separate from an anti-fascist alliance. Cambridge councillor Clara Rackham, one of the earliest women councillors elected in Cambridge, demanded that the Government extract more from the wealthy ‘conscript wealth if you are going to conscript human lives’. Remember that the ‘war profiteers’ of the First World War were still strong in the minds of people.

May Queens, pageants and long marches

One of the things that’s striking is how the traditions of working class protests alongside some of the more rural traditions of May Queens and dancing round maypoles seemed to take place side by side. As the Cambridge Independent Press writes above, the pageant procession alone was a quarter of a mile long. This was followed by the anti-war demonstrations

Cambridge Peace Protests 1939

Anti-war protest organised by Cambridge Labour Party

When war broke out, Cambridge’s working classes and left-wing leaders were absolutely scathing of the conduct of Chamberlain’s Government – not just in terms of its policies but also because it was a cabinet of old men.

391114 PeaceAims

Councillor David Hardman – ward councillor in ‘Red Romsey’, Cambridge, from the Cambridge Daily News in the British Newspaper Archive.

Cllr Hardman’s appeal chimes with those in liberal/left circles today regarding the fragmentation of politically progressive forces – something that makes for interesting reading given how in various parts of the country some candidates are standing down in order to support a politician with a strong position (Leave or Remain) on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Recreating lost traditions

Depending on what’s happening in national politics, trade unionists in Cambridge have gatherings or marches on May Day. This year it was a small gathering of about 40 people – a mix of trade unionists, anti-war activists, anti-racism activists and community workers, on Christ’s Pieces. They were addressed by Cllr Kevin Price, Labour’s candidate for the county mayoral elections.

Cllr Kevin Price (Lab – King’s Hedges) on the historical importance of trade unions

Given that the Museum of Cambridge is re-introducing lost traditions back into Cambridge life, what could refreshed May Day celebrations look like?

I was talking about this with some friends later that day, making it a community event, a celebration of our folk and civic history and a reminder of past struggles local, national and international.

Mindful that not everyone can participate in the traditional cycle-ride from Cambridge to the Reach Fair, we came up with the idea of people dressing up as a demonstrator from a time and a place relevant to them as individuals, families and/or communities – ones pushing for peace, civil rights and social justice. And not just dressing up but researching and ‘role playing’ the protestor of the time (but without the smashing up stuff!) The point being that it’s not just about dressing up but also about learning the stories of the people who went before us fighting for a better future, whether it was the townsfolk protesting against the Cambridge University authorities locking up young women they suspected of being sex workers, all the way through to the anti-tuition-fees protestors of 2010 that occupied Senate House.

Essentially, have fun, dress up, have a dance and a sing-song, have some nice food and find out a bit about how we collectively got to ‘here’.

Can you see risks with trying to organise something like this?

Oh loads – which is why I could never organise something like it.

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