Book Review: The Memoirs of Frida Stewart, published 01 July 2020.

  • Title: Firing a Shot for Freedom: The Memoirs of Frida Stewart
  • Author/Editor: Angela Jackson
  • Publisher: The Clapton Press
  • ISBN-10: 1913693007
    ISBN-13: 978-1913693008
  • Order from: Direct from the publishers – The Clapton Press (or your local independent bookshop).

This is the first of what I intend to be a series of book reviews covering the history of Cambridge the town. I’ve yet to find a comprehensive guide to books about Cambridge that builds up the collective history of our city.

I won’t pretend to write objective book reviews. It’s almost impossible to when the content it tied up in the town I grew up in and returned to after university and my time in the civil service.

Frida Stewart (later Knight): Communist, anti-fascist, social reformer, peace campaigner, humanitarian, but first and foremost…a musician.

Above – Frida Stewart from her memoirs.

Just as with Jack Overhill who kept a diary during WW2 in Cambridge, one of the things that defines Frida is the passion for something beyond any day job or any political campaigning. With Jack Overhill, he defined himself as a swimmer. With Frida, it was music. Her final publication was in 1980 and is titled simply as Cambridge Music. It’s a history of music in Cambridge the town. For someone who travelled all over the world, and who fought against the most brutal of dictators, she came home to ensure an importance piece of civic history was properly documented – all the way down to the Cambridgeshire Holiday Orchestra (which her brother Ludovic was involved in forming), and the Cambridge Folk Festival, founded by Fire fighter, Labour activist and former WW2 Signaller Ken Woollard. Which means both Frida and Ken were shot at by nazis and fascists at various points in their lives, and survived.

Frida Stewart and Gwen Darwin (later Raverat) – separated by a shared road

Newnham Road to be precise. Frida’s early childhood was spent at The Malting House, while Gwen, granddaughter of Charles the Botanist spent her childhood at Newnham Grange some years earlier. Gwen’s big contribution to Cambridge was as a woodcut printer and cartographer – she supported Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb in her survey of poverty in Cambridge town in the early 1900s with Margaret, daughter of Florence Ada Keynes & sister of Maynard the economist and Geoffrey the surgeon & literary trustee of Rupert Brooke. It was Frida’s father, Dr Hugh Fraser Stewart, Dean of Trinity College Chapel who officiated the marriage ceremony of Gwen’s sister Margaret, to Geoffrey Keynes. Frida’s mother, Jessie Stewart was also in the same campaigning league as the likes of Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes – and deserves a biography of her life and achievements in her own right. She just needs an author!

The above-paragraph is a snapshot of just how connected the social reformers of Cambridge were. It was a network that would serve Cambridge well from the 1880s through to the end of the Second World War.

Wrestling with religion

One striking similarity shared by Gwen and Frida were their childhood struggles to understand the concept of God – in the face of church-going parents. (Frida’s father was ordained in holy orders).

Above – Gwen Darwin’s interpretation of God, from her autobiography on her childhood, ‘Period Piece.

Both Frida’s memoirs and Gwen’s childhood memoirs Period Piece are worth reading as parallel texts.

One of the reasons this resonates with me is my experience was similar – only in my case my experience was far more destructive and damaging to my mental health. Both women had their own compelling reasons to dislike organised religion. At the same time I never got any sense of resentment from Frida towards her parents who, by other accounts had a very liberal outlook on life given the positions at and in Cambridge gown and town respectively.

Dark clouds across continental Europe

One of the things that makes the history of Cambridge such a fascinating yet difficult topic to research are the anecdotes so easily dropped into books, biographies and memoirs that can transform how historians and readers interpret historical events. Furthermore this was a time when people from all over the world would visit Cambridge, staying with friends and relatives for weeks at a time. One who stayed over with Frida’s family was Wolfgang, the son of German statesman Gustav Stresemann. From GCSE history we learnt how Stresemann got Weimar Germany out of its immediate economic troubles in the early 1920s. We were not told about the family visits. Tragically Gustav died just before the turmoil of the Great Depression. Frida describes Wolfgang as follows:

“Wolfgang…stayed with us for several weeks, and I liked him very much though he was not the gayest of guests; he was tall, deathly pale and painfully thin”.

Frida Stewart, memoirs p50

Now look at the photo of Wolfgang Stresemann on his WikiPage. An incredible likeness. Eventually Stresemann had to flee Germany due to persecution by the Nazis.

Tories break their own arms embargo on Benito Mussolini

One of the political themes of the 20th Century that has been written out of popular history is the assessment of the British Government’s policies throughout the 1930s. Even more so when one compares it to the hopes and dreams that the people had at the end of the First World War. Again, coming back to GCSE history during my school days in South Cambridge in the mid-1990s we learnt about Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, today Ethiopia. The British Government was forced by popular opinion to impose sanctions, but didn’t impose oil sanctions which a number of politicians and commentators at the time said would have put an end to the action.

Frida Stewart’s memoirs, p81.

Turns out the British arms industry was supplying the fascists with war material after all.

Fighting the fascists whether locally or abroad

Two of the most prominent young anti-fascist fighters in Cambridge in the 1930s were the Cornford brothers, Christopher and John. Their mother was Frances Darwin – a first cousin of both Gwen and Margaret Darwin. Both Frida and Christopher gatecrashed fascist meetings, Frida keeping a low profile in Manchester, Christopher doing the opposite at The Olympia.

Poet John Cornford was the first Englishman to be killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. Pat Sloan’s memoir of him is an incredible read, and gives a vivid picture of anti-fascist action in Cambridge in the early 1930s – which included being attacked on a peace march on Remembrance Day 1933. Christopher’s son Adam describes the void left by John’s untimely death, a day before his 21st birthday.

The youngest of the Cornford children, Hugh, qualified in medicine and became a general practitioner. He returned to Cambridge to set up a surgery on the edge of a new housing development on Cherry Hinton Road. This is Cornford House. When my grandparents arrived from Australia in the late 1970s, they bought a house just up the road from the surgery. “Mr Cornford” became their GP until his retirement.

The war years

I’ve covered this in other blogposts so won’t go into detail of Frida’s time in Spain or France. I also bought one of the few surviving copies of her account of escaping from a war time prison camp in France – Dawn Escape, which I’ve digitised here, and deposited the hard copy in the Cambridgeshire Collection. I’ve also donated two of Frida’s sheet music compilations of songs by the Basque children. Their story is being documented by Anglia Ruskin University in New Roots, Old Roots.

The Peace campaigning years

Angela Jackson wrote a lovely chapter at the end of the book which covered Frida’s years in Cambridge following the retirement of her husband from the University of Reading. Frida’s peace campaigns and her later years in Cambridge deserve a book of their own. I dare say that now we know of the existence of Frida’s papers, it’s only a matter of time before such a book is written. It’s something I would like to see an early career researcher take on and tell Frida’s story but not restricted it to the printed word, instead using the various digital media that a new generation of historians are using to bring forgotten histories to new audiences. Because the contribution of the anti-fascist fighters – those that saw the dangers very early on, has inevitably been overshadowed by what we call World War 2 of 1939-45, even though a browse through of local newspapers of the 1930s will tell you that the fighting started several years before. It’s just that the battlefields on the ground and in the air had not reached British shores.

Personal tragedy

I had no idea that Frida lost a son in his infancy, nor did I know that mental health illness resulted in the untimely death of her beloved daughter Sophie Katherine – known as Sofka. Sofka’s papers were deposited by Frida at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. They cover Sofka’s period in China during the 1960s & 1970s.

Frida’s interpretation of historical events

If you are looking for an objective assessment of the events Frida lived through during the 20th Century, you won’t find it here. The same with Jack Overhill’s diaries of life in Cambridge during WWII. But then that’s not why the book is such a compelling read. It’s the human story, the friendships and relationships, the emotions, the love and rage that come through for me. Perhaps even more strongly because I’m familiar with the town, familiar with the wider historical context more than a general reader (I did A-level history and also a PGDip in post-war Europe at Anglia Ruskin before joining the civil service), and am familiar with the names of many of the individuals Frida’s memoirs mention.

Is there a naivety in some of what Frida wrote at the time? Undoubtedly – but she goes onto acknowledge this herself in particular when commenting on Stalin’s atrocities on the back of the disappearance of a musical acquaintance in the mid-1930s who she met on a visit to the USSR. This is in stark contrast to another Cambridge communist, Rajani Palme Dutt, who defended the regime as many turned away in the face of the crushing of uprisings in Hungary 1956 & the Prague Spring of 1968.

The Frida I never met but like to remember

Angela Jackson wrote movingly of one of Frida’s final protests in the early-mid 1990s outside Cambridge Guildhall. It was an all-night protest against homelessness in Cambridge in the years I was doing my paper round.

Frida Stewart’s Memoirs – p264
Frida Stewart in ‘Rosies War’ by Say & Holland, Michael O’Mara, 2011.

By sheer luck I stumbled across the account of Frida’s prison break by the woman she escaped with – Rosie Say. (Rosie’s War by Say & Holland for purchase here.). Possibly the most strikingly beautiful of photographs I’ve seen of Frida, it also fits a theme I often use with local history presentations of showing the Cambridge social reformers and campaigners in their younger days. This is because to younger audiences I want them to see how similar to them these great local historical figures were before they went on to achieve the things that they did.


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