Frida – the woman who dared to fight…

Summary

Transcript of what must have been Frida Knight’s last ever interview from February 1995. She died in October 1996, just over a year and a half later. Merrilyn Thomas interviewed her – some 23 years ago.

950215 Frida Knight Headline.jpeg

The article is from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive, as are the screenshots.

950215 Frida Stewart France Photo

“Frida Knight, the daughter of a former Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge [This being Hugh Fraser Stewart], has spend most of her 85 years fighting for the oppressed. Her politics were coloured by her early childhood. Although she had a privileged childhood, as the daughter of a Cambridge academic and a pupil at the Perse School for Girls, she was influenced by the depression of the 1930s and the poverty she saw around her.

“In her twenties, she worked in a deprived area of Manchester. She also studied music in Germany and saw the rise of the Nazis. These experiences persuaded her to join the Communist Party.

“I thought capitalism was a great mistake but now I do not expect to see anything better in my time.” she says.

“With the start of the Spanish Civil War, Frida became actively involved in the fight between Left and Right. She joined a committee in England which provided support for Franco’s opponents and helped to rescue 4,000 Basque children from Nazi bombing, bringing them to England. About 30 stayed in Cambridge and Frida organised fundraising concerts for them.

“Then she was asked to drive an ambulance to war-torn Spain. Leaving the vehicle at a hospital behind the lines, she made her way to Madrid where she met writer Ernest Hemingway and other left wingers who had flocked to Spain to fight fascism.

“She was taken right to the front line which ran right through the middle of the University. The image she particularly remembers is of a man stirring a huge pot on a fire – it was full of sparrows.

“At the outbreak of the Second World War, when she was 29, Frida went to France to help her left-wing colleagues and enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne.

“When the Germans invaded, Frida, along with other British women, was arrested and imprisoned in a camp on the French/German border. Conditions were very poor until the women were moved to a former hotel from which Frida and a friend [Rosie Say] managed to escape.

“Despite the fact that she remembers France crawling with Germans, the pair managed to make their way to a dentist who had once promised to help if they should ever need it.

“Unfortunately it was a Sunday and the dentist was closed, so we passed the time going to church and seeing a performance of La Traviata at the Opera House.”

“Eventually, they reached the dentist who put them in touch with the French Resistance which gave them forged papers and they escaped to the unoccupied part of France.

950215 Frida Stewart Wartime Card

“This was the only time that Frida admits to being frightened. They had to cross a ‘death strip’.

“It was terrifying”

“She brought back to England a message hidden in a cigarette for Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French in London. For the rest of the war she worked for the Free French in London.

“She met her microbiologist husband around this time. After the war, he started the department of microbiology at Reading University, where, says Frida, she settled to the ‘boring life of an academic wife.’

“Frida had four children and devoted her energies to nuclear disarmament, becoming one of the leading lights in the Aldermaston marches.

“In 1970, when her husband retired, Frida returned to Cambridge and was one of the co-founders of the Cambridge Peace Council. She is still its vice-president. Last month, members of the council held a candlelight vigil outside Cambridge’s Guildhall in protest at the bombing of Grozny [capital of Chechnya, this being at the time of the civil war in the Caucasus of the late 1990s].

“Frida has written books on the topics ranging from the French Resistance to the English radical peacemakers of the 18th Century.

950215 Frida Knight in 1995

Frida admits that looking at the state of the world at the moment, she does not feel she has achieved much.

“But I am glad I tried,” she says.

“She would liked to have had three lives. One to write books, one to bring up her family, and one to campaign for peace. The most important of these is peace, she says.”

950215 Frida Knights campaign badges

Note the badges she wore including:

  • “No VAT on fuel”
  • “I Love the NHS”
  • “Make Peace, Not War”
  • “Stop Cruise Missiles”

As for whether she achieved much, I’d like to think this is still work in progress, and that she will go on to inspire a new generation of social justice campaigners not just in Cambridge but elsewhere.


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