Capt Geoffrey Theodore Garratt M.B.E. of Cambridge County Labour – author, journalist, anti-fascist.

I’m not entirely sure how the life and times of Geoffrey Theodore Garratt M.B.E. has been over-looked, because in the grand scheme of things his Establishment credentials were excellent. Had he not been killed in a munitions accident en route to see Sir Stafford Cripps in 1942, chances are he would have stood for Parliament and would have been elected as well.

Geoffrey Theobald Garratt – from the British Newspaper Archive here.

I only found out about Garratt’s existence from this social media post by the RSPCA’s bookshop on Mill Road in Cambridge. (Go there, buy books, then sit in/outside one of the independent cafes to read what you’ve bought).

The epitaph on his Commonwealth War Grave in Wales only hints at what a varied and extraordinary life he led – one where he found himself standing by his principles ahead of career progression on more than one occasion.

Above – G.T. Garratt’s Grave at FindAGrave by Pixturmn

Interestingly, the gravestone gives Garratt’s rank as Major, although the contemporary newspaper reports of his death (The full circumstances of which were censored by the military authorities) rank him as Captain. The text below the cross state as follows:

“Indian civil servant, author, farmer, beloved friend of humanity in many lands.”

The British Newspaper Archive has a number of newspapers that recorded his death. This one is from the Hull Daily Mail.

There’s also a one year difference in their ages.

Summaries of Garratt’s life

The village of Bishopsteighnton hosts this biography of him – the village being his home from 1939 to his untimely death in 1942. His page on WikiPedia is here – though there is so much more that could be included on here. I don’t intend to repeat what both of these have said about his upbringing or key moments as a journalist and in wartime. What I am going to spend this article on are his party political activities in 1920s Cambridgeshire – where he was an active member of Cambridge County Labour – today what would be a combination of South East, and South Cambridgeshire constituencies.

Similarities to Eglantyne Jebb

Any excuse to mention the founder of Save the Children eh? But there are a number of indirect similarities between the two. For a start, both studied at Oxford. Both found themselves in or around Cambridge in their years after graduating. Both were known at the peak of their public profiles as internationalists and humanitarians, and both had books published. And finally, both were rebels against the prevailing political attitudes of their own social class and wrote scathing pieces tearing strips out of the governments of the day. In the case of Eglantyne Jebb she moved away from pre-WWI Liberalism (where she campaigned for Stanley Buckmaster KC against the later-to-become fascist sympathiser Almeric Paget/Baron Queenborough) towards the Co-operative movement of which she predicted the post-war future would be on that model in this piece for the Welsh Review.

Both Jebb and Garratt saw the flaws in UK foreign policy – Garratt tearing into the British Government at the end of the book pictured at the top with a chapter titled “England’s Betrayal”. Eglantyne for her part went after Lloyd George’s wartime coalition over the Treaty of Versailles and the devastating impact of the wartime blockade that was continued even after the guns fell silent. In an article for Labour Leader, which I transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive, Eglantyne rips into ministers over presiding over a humanitarian catastrophe, one largely forgotten today yet paradoxically one that also directly led to the founding of Save the Children.

Garrett in Cambridgeshire

Garrett stood for the Labour Party in the old Cambridgeshire constituency in three general elections – 1924, 1929, and 1931. He took the place of the working class rock of Cambridge Labour, Ald Albert Stubbs, who had stood previously in what would become a safe-as-castles Conservative seat. Until the Labour landslide of 1945 that was so huge that Stubbs, having stood again in 1945 unexpectedly found himself elected as the MP for Cambridgeshire. Had Garratt survived WW2, chances are he would have been found a safer seat than Cambridgeshire – but it looks like even if he hadn’t, he’d have gotten elected for the old county seat which in those days was based on what is now South Cambridgeshire and South-East Cambridgeshire.

Above – from Wikipedia here, Garratt’s electoral record against Richard Briscoe of the Conservatives.

Although the above-mentioned online mini-biographies mention that Garratt was elected to Cambridgeshire County Council as was, (it was then based on Hobson Street in Cambridge at County Hall), he was also sworn in as a magistrate for Cambridge County – as the Daily Herald recorded in 1927.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive.

Campaigning with Clara Rackham

One of the things both Clara Rackham and Garratt had in common was that they were selected as candidates for seats that they had no hope of winning at the time. Rackham was originally the candidate for Labour in Huntingdonshire but it looks like as a result of this accident that happened to her husband, the Cambridge classicist Harris, she stood down.

It speaks volumes that she was able to persuade Garratt to head off to St Neots to stand in for her.

Working as an author and journalist in the face of the rise of fascism

Again the online biographies go into more detail, but it’s worth recalling that on all things colonialism, he grew to become incredibly critical of the civil service that he worked in. The Indian Civil Service is a study in itself and was essentially an institution developed by the British as a means to run that part of the British Empire. The development of that institution had a huge impact on the development of the UK Civil Service – I had a look at some of the original source documents from the Internet Archive not so long ago.

Garratt resigned from the Indian Civil Service – dissatisfied at its inability to deal with a range of issues from grinding poverty through to the injustices of colonialism. His commentary on India, originally published in 1927 has been digitised by the Internet Archive in the published third (1930) edition.

Nazi death list in the event of a successful invasion

The infamous ‘Black Book of wanted persons’ (digitised and searchable here) was put together by the nazis to identify who were the people they wanted to detain as a matter of priority in the event of a successful invasion. Given the fate of those on similar lists in occupied countries, those on the list would not have lasted much longer in the event of such an invasion. Inevitably there were a number of Cambridge names on there – many who were refugees who had fled the nazis and found a save haven here. But there were others.

Above – one of the Cambridge names listed was that of Rajani Palme Dutt – British Communist writer and activist. (He was the eldest son of Dr Upendra and Anne Palme Dutt who founded the Petersfield Medical Practice on Mill Road, Cambridge to serve the working class community of Mill Road. The surgery is still there today.) Further down the list, another name is mentioned.

Above – G.T. Garratt – which corresponds with the entry in the online database of the original source.

Tragedy cuts short Garratt’s life

I’m going to quote directly from the Bishopsteignton website below on how Garratt’s life ended.

“Major Garratt was taking part in a training demonstration in a cellar at Pembrokeshire Barracks. During the assembly of nineteen Pioneers and Engineers, there was an explosion of two mines that killed him and seventeen other people immediately, the nineteenth person died of their injuries the next day. 

Because of the censorship during the war, it was not reported in the press because of concern about the negative effects that the public would have on the war morale. Although it was one of the worst non-operational military disasters to occur in wartime Britain, it became one of the forgotten stories and tragedies of the Second World War for almost seventy years due to this censorship.”

You can find out more about his written works in his published books from the time – mainly secondhand but still worth reading. Not least because of the times we are currently going through – where we risk having to re-learn the hard way what previous generations taught us and warned us about with threats to democracy. And if you are wondering what you would have done in the early-mid 1930s in the face of threats to democracy and the rule of law, it might not be too dissimilar to what you are doing now. A sobering thought to end on.

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