John Cornford and the fight against the Fascists in the 1930s.

Summary: The first Englishman to die in Spain fighting the fascists at the start of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39.

Although it consistently returned Conservative MPs throughout much of the 20th Century, there was a persistent hotbed of radical politics in Cambridge that refused to go away. We take some of it for granted today, but the work of Florence Ada Keynes and her fellow heroes of Lost Cambridge were radicals for their time. Today’s activists in Cambridge are standing on the shoulders of such civic giants too easily forgotten.

John Cornford – great grandson of Charles Darwin

John was the son of Professor Francis Cornford and Frances Darwin, daughter of Sir Francis and Ellen Darwin, Frances thus being a cousin of Gwen Raverat the artist, and Margaret Darwin (later Keynes) the Code Breaker and later the wife of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, younger son of Florence Ada Keynes.

John was born on West Road, Cambridge, not far from Caroline Jebb’s House on Sidgwick Avenue (now a nursery) and Newnham Grange, where Maud and Sir George Darwin lived – today the site of Darwin College. Born in 1915, John Cornford would live a tragically short life, being killed in action the day before his 21st Birthday. But his name would go down in legend in anti-fascist circles in a similar way that Rupert Brooke became legendary after his untimely death en route to Gallipoli in 1915.

Public School then back to Cambridge to enrol/matriculate at Trinity College. 

John Cornford went to Stowe, and it was in his final year there that according to his brother Christopher, that he started reading Marx. (p44 of Pat Sloan’s edited memoir). What’s striking about their correspondence is how they discussed the politics of the day with their parents, similar to the relationship between Maynard Keynes the economist and his mother, Florence.

One of the things to remember at the time was that local councils had scholarships to cover private school fees for children with academic potential. In Cambridge a number of these were for The Perse, The Perse Girls and The Leys. We know this from the local government accounts that were published in local newspapers in the interwar era. The large scale expansion of state secondary schools was as yet still to happen, although establishments that today are Parkside, Hills Road Sixth Form College and Long Road Sixth Form College had been established by the end of the First World War.

Cornford’s was not the only generation that produced young students at public school that wanted to smash the very institutions they attended. This from last year by the chief executive of Ipsos Mori, the polling organisation:

Just as Maynard Keynes was an Etonian who didn’t follow the Conservative line, neither did one of his younger brother’s best friends at Cambridge University: Hugh Dalton, who was a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery fighting on the Italian front in WWI would later become only the second person to contest the Cambridge Borough parliamentary seat (unsuccessfully) before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945. Dalton would remain a regular visitor to Cambridge throughout his life – unlike many past students he made and kept in contact with his friends from Cambridge the town, who he wrote glowingly of in his memoirs.

#LostCambridge in the 1930s

By 1925, Cambridge was organising annual anti-war/pro-League of Nations marches.

250807 annual anti-war demo parkers piece 1925

07 August 1925 – Cambridge Independent from the Cambridgeshire Collection

What’s significant about this is that it shows there was opposition to the Conservative-dominated coalitions of the 1920s and 1930s that undermined the League of Nations. Essentially the issue was Imperialism, and the British Empire sat uneasily with the principles of self-determination which President Woodrow Wilson pushed for at the end of the war – even though the USA ultimately failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and thus did not join the League of Nations.

Anti-war protesters attacked on a Remembrance Day march, 1933

Pat Sloan’s edited memoirs of John Cornford has an interesting chapter on socialism in Cambridge in the early 1930s – in particular the splits between the various left wing groups including the Cambridge Labour Party and Cambridge Labour students. I still haven’t got my head around the splits and factions.- it’s on my ‘to do’ list.  Yet by the mid-1930s, three wards in Cambridge had become Labour strongholds – St Matthew’s (just off East Road), Cherry Hinton (then a village, now in East Cambridge), and the People’s Republic of Red Romsey. The election results demonstrate this, collated by the late Colin Rosenstiel here.

On Remembrance Sunday 1933, fights broke out as the main anti-war movement in town tried to lay a wreathe at the borough war memorial on the corner of Station Road. Abour a decade before, the Duke of York (later King George VI) had unveiled the war memorial. The Mayor of Cambridge that year was a certain Florence Ada Keynes.

331113 antiwar remembrance demo communists derryjournal

331113 antiwar remembrance demo communists yorksp

From the British Newspaper Archive. 

Earlier that weekend, there had been a punch up between students and anti-war protesters following the showing of the film ‘Our Fighting Navy’ at the old Tivoli Cinema on Chesterton Road.

331110 our fighting navy tivoli student fight

From the British Newspaper Archive.

Poet, political activist, student and soldier – all by his 21st birthday

I’m not going to go into the detail of his political or poetical writings, nor of his time fighting in Spain. The reason being that my main interest is in his impact on Cambridge the town. Furthermore, there is an incredible wealth of information already out there written by people who have studied his life in depth, or even contemporaries who knew him at the time. I also don’t have the academic training to interrogate his works whether as a poet or as a political theorist and activist. The BBC Radio series Great Lives featured Cornford which is worth listening to, irrespective of the presenters, because it features an archive recording of Margot Heinemann reading Heart of the Heartless World, written by Cornford for her – Heinemann reading it a year before her death in the early 1990s.

Margot is fondly remembered by her daughter, Jane Bernal, as her reply below shows.

The remaining Cornfords in Cambridge

This is a lovely photo from Sandra Mendez Cornford from earlier in the Twitterstream.

It’s taken in New Square, Cambridge. In the late 1990s I had a friend at college who lived in one of the houses on the opposite side of the road where the buses are. In the background is the building where the old Iceland supermarket used to be – although this photo was taken before or around the time the Grafton Centre was built in the early 1980s. I’m dating it through the banner – protests against the nuclear missile bases which were huge in the 1960s and 1980s, and the presence of #LostCambridge hero Frida Knight, who moved back home to Cambridge in 1970, and was a co-founder of the Cambridge Peace Council having herself been an anti-fascist activist in Spain during the 1930s.

Like parents, like children?

In late 1938, the parents of John Cornford and Frida Stewart signed a letter to the Cambridge Daily News expressing serious concerns about the Munich agreement, the situation in Spain, and worries about the lack of involvement of the USSR. (Scroll down to “The Peace Settlement” here to see the names of the local great and the good who counter-signed the letter – including the Rackhams and Needhams).

John’s younger brother, Hugh Wordsworth Cornford qualified as a medical doctor and would ultimately return to Cambridge in the 1950s to set up a medical practice in the house he moved to in what became my childhood neighbourhood on Cherry Hinton Road. I’ve always known it as Cornford House. Dr Cornford would become a leading supporter of the National Health Service, and a campaigner against nuclear weapons – a contemporary of Frida Knight in the late 1970s and 1980s while continuing to be a local GP. In the late 1970s, my grandparents moved from Australia to Cambridge (having lived, travelled and worked across the world) and settled in a house a few minutes walk from the surgery – turns out that Dr Cornford was their local GP until his retirement.


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