Communists for the Borough Council? The policies of the Cambridge Communist Party 1945

I have scanned and uploaded the booklet to the Internet Archive here.

It may surprise some of you that they are still around, but they are. For those of you too young to remember the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the tales of communism are something for the history books and the documentaries. But for more than a few families in Cambridge, communism had a very real impact on their lives.

I discovered the policy pamphlet of the Cambridge Communist Party almost by accident. It was a case of going through yet another seemingly endless list of publications to find something I’d not seen before. With “Cambridge University Press” and many an academic paper published from inside the academic world, along with the presence of William and Kate (Duke & Duchess), trying to separate the academic world and the royal fandom world from local history is not nearly as straight forward as it should be.

“How big were the communists in Cambridge?”

Just after WW2, Pearl Lilley polled over 400 votes in Trumpington Ward in the Cambridge Borough Council elections of 1946. A reasonable number in what was a safe Conservative seat won by a future Mayor of Cambridge, Cyril Elliot Ridgeon, son of the founder of the well-known builders merchants that was only sold off a couple of years ago.

In the run up to WW2 arriving on these shores, forty people turned up to the Mill Road Library to try and make sense of what their official line would be following the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

For a year and a half, communists would denounce the UK entry into the war as an imperialist action, only to reverse this position as soon as the Nazis reneged on the pact they had signed with the Soviet Union – the former Russian Empire of The Tsars being known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, and/or the Soviet Union, depending on what TV channel you were watching. (Here’s the USSR taking an under-strength England side apart in 1984 at Wembley)

One of the musical visitors to Cambridge was the Black Civil Rights Activist, Musician and Actor Paul Robeson, who gave a very popular concert at the newly-built Regal.

A decade later, he gave a concert in Scotland for coal miners.

It’s worth listening to the clip just to hear Robeson’s incredibly powerful and deep voice. Robeson became incredibly popular in working class communities across the world – including this in Moscow in 1958. This article from 2017 describes how he became a legend in the Welsh mining towns.

The Spanish Civil War

One of the first groups of people to see the danger of the rise of fascism across Europe in the 1930s were the communists – not least because they were the opponents they came for first. By the early 1930s there were open fights in the streets of Cambridge between communists and fascists, and more broadly socialists vs imperialists. Things got particularly violent during the remembrance commemorations of 1933. One of the young activists to get involved in anti-fascism in Cambridge was the poet John Cornford, who along with his brother Christopher would gatecrash fascist meetings. Seeing what was happening in Spain, he volunteered to go out and fight the fascists there. Tragically for his family he was killed in action just before his 21st birthday, the first Englishman to be killed in the Spanish Civil War. Not surprisingly, Cambridge was one of the towns that raised significant funds and resources for Spain in the fight against the fascists, one that they would tragically be defeated in.

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambs Collection, 16 July 1938: Activists from a united front of organisations with a lorry for Spain. On the bottom-right of the photo in the pale outfit is Mrs Jessie Stewart, wife of Hugh Fraser Stewart, the Dean of Trinity College Chapel, and mother of another of Cambridge’s anti-fascist heroes, Frida Stewart – whose memoirs have just been published. Like John Cornford, Frida was also a communist.

“What does the Cambridge Communist Manifesto say?”

It is far more detailed than perhaps a general reader might expect. But then One of the stereotypes of the far left is the length of their political writings and the complexity of language in those writings. This publication does not fall into that trap of becoming the lengthy political polemic.

For a start, Labour has just won the general election and quite unexpectedly Cambridge Borough and Cambridge County have both returned Labour MPs – Major Leslie Symons and Ald Albert Stubbs respectively.

So no need to waste time complaining about the Tories when they have been swept from power and former Labour candidate and now Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton MP is just about to nationalise the Bank of England for the first time in its 300+ year history. Instead, this document gets stuck into local issues.

Whoever wrote this publication knew Cambridge town very well. This was not written by/for parachuted candidates.

They covered the housing crisis – highlight the wards that needed slums cleared.

They covered public health (Below).

They covered education and schools.

Note the comparison between the schools build in Victorian times (Brunswick – since demolished) and St Matthew’s (since relocated) with what were the new buildings of Coleridge and Homerton Nursery in Coleridge Ward and what is now Queen Edith’s Ward respectively.

Town planning also comes up

Again there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly – the last being the hovel that was the windowless East Road Reading Room that the borough council wanted to close several decades before but were stopped from doing so by the angry residents of Barnwell – still one of the most economically deprived wards in town. You can read the full document by clicking on the PDF link here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s