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NOSTALGIA

Hawick and the Spanish Civil War

Friday, October 20th, 2017 - Written by Alastair Redpath
Hawick Workers’ Mill in Mansfield Road, 1936-39. PICTURE: SCOTTISH LABOUR HISTORY SOCIETY

NO PASARÁN!

Hawick and the Spanish Civil War

Duringthe 1930s, Spain was a deeply divided country that was politically torn between right-wing Nationalist and left-wing Republican parties. The Nationalists were made up of monarchists, landowners, employers, the Catholic church and the army. The Republicans largely consisted of workers, trade unions, socialists and peasants.

In the wake of the Great Depression, the military dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1923 collapsed. Two years later, the king abdicated as the Republicans came to power. There followed a period where the two ideologies ruled in government.

On July 18, 1936, Spanish military officers in Morocco revolted against the Republicans. From the Canary Islands, General Francisco Franco broadcast a message calling for all army officers to join the uprising and overthrow the government.

Teries doing their bit to defeat General Franco.
PICTURE: STUART WALSH

Within three days, rebels had captured Morocco, much of northern Spain, and several key cities in the south. The Republicans succeeded in putting down the uprising in areas such as Madrid. Both sides proceeded to secure their respective territories by executing thousands of suspected political opponents. A bloody civil war ensued.

The war threatened to tip the balance of power in Europe. If the Nationalists succeeded with their military coup, France would be surrounded by Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Spain also had strategic naval bases on the Mediterranean that could be used to control shipping and to put military and economic pressure on other European nations.

Hitler and Mussolini sent thousands of troops and weapons to aid the Nationalist forces. They both had a common desire to see Spanish democracy fail, and did not want a near neighbour to become a Soviet-backed stronghold.

France and Britain were in an awkward position. They wished for neither outcome and set up a mutual non-intervention committee that effectively blocked international aid from reaching Spain. The Republicans had to rely solely on the dubious charity and benevolence of Stalin’s USSR.

The fight against fascism drew young men and women from all over Europe and the USA to Spain. Fighting for the Republicans, these idealists, socialists and communists formed a ragtag army determined to uphold democracy against the right-wing threat. At any one time up to 15,000 people were fighting in these international brigades.

Meanwhile, back in Hawick, the spectre of mass unemployment loomed large over a town that had seen its population increase to 17,000 people since the turn of the decade.

With its long and distinguished history of trade unionism, locals saw merit in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), set up by the Communist Party of Great Britain to combat the post-First World War economic slump, the 1926 General Strike and later the Great Depression.

A local branch was formed in June 1936, its first task being to mobilise against the benefit cuts imposed by the transfer of the means test administration to newlyformed unemployment assistance boards. In July 1936 a rally of 2,500 people was held at the Common Haugh to protest the cuts. The branch also packed out the town hall to question the local Tory MP about his support for them.

In the autumn of that year the NUWM persuaded the town council to offer free use of the town hall as overnight accommodation for its East of Scotland contingent on their way to London for the 1936 hunger march. The branch also organised food, a mass meeting, and a concert of local musicians to raise funds for the marchers.

It failed, however, to persuade the council to rent out the Buccleuch Memorial for branch training, which included “self-discipline, physical training, public speaking, social evenings, and general discussion of any question relating to working class conditions”.

The NUWM continued to find difficulty in securing suitable premises until a sympathetic ‘doctor of science’, the owner of a recently closed mill in Mansfield Road, agreed to let them use part of his premises.

Publicity in the press outlining the Spanish Democratic Forces’ need for woollen goods soon caught their imagination. In December 1936, members recognised an opportunity to use the mill’s idle machinery (which included large looms for weaving tweeds, four hand looms, and winding machines) and approached the owner to negotiate a very low rent.

They secured a supply of cheap wool and created samples of scarves, socks and jumpers to send on to the NUWM headquarters and Spanish Aid Committee in Bishopgate, London.

The branch organiser in Hawick was Willie Stoddart, an unemployed mill worker who, as a teenager, had worked in Canada on farms, logging camps and railway yards prior to serving in the First World War. In October 1937 he was elected as Hawick’s first and only Communist councillor, leaving the party the following March to join Labour. His introduction to politics came from the Industrial Workers of the World – ‘the Wobblies’ – a revolutionary force in the North American labour movement.

Councillor Stoddart and his Labour colleagues on the council also gallantly fought on local issues such as free ambulance transport for hospital patients (in a time before the NHS), low pay, unionisation for burgh employees, and inadequate spending on school books and council housing.

It was Willie who first proposed the idea of bringing Hawick’s empty mills back into use to relieve unemployment and in his own words “reclaim those who had begun to lose faith in themselves”. It was therefore fitting that he be sent to London to formulate a plan.

There it was agreed that a co-operative productive society, managed by a factory committee, would be created in Hawick. A non-party Woollen Products Committee for Spanish Democrats was also formed in London to manage the finances of the scheme, the type of goods required, and their despatch to Spain.

Sitting on this committee were Jean Beauchamp, Vera Brittain, Sir Stafford Crips, Charlotte Haldane, Rev. Donald O. Soper, Councillor Elsie Boltz, Wal Hannington, Harold Laski, Rev. John Grosser and others.

The names of the Teries who volunteered to work in the mill have sadly been lost through time (perhaps sitting in one of our reader’s lofts?). However, thanks to a fund-raising pamphlet that survives in the People’s History Museum in Manchester, we know that they were skilled unemployed workers, both men and women, who offered voluntary output for Spain.

The mill was refurbished by these volunteers, who cleaned and renovated the power looms, while some old knitting machines were salvaged from scrap. Workers also created a communal kitchen and canteen facilities. Production commenced in January 1937, and as private orders flooded in the mill expanded further, creating full-time jobs at trade union rates.

An appeal was made in The Daily Worker on December 31, 1936, which prompted a heartfelt response from the people of Scotland. In the first three days, £40 was raised, and further donations came in from Edinburgh doctors, Dover Co-operative Society, Kent miners and bus workers, as well as prominent individuals such as the composer Alan Bush.

Large quantities of balaclavas, gloves and scarves were produced and shipped to Republican forces in Spain. Fund-raisers aimed to secure a minimum of £50 per week to buy wool and pay workers’ wages.

Though initially subsidised by the Labour movement throughout Britain, Hawick Workers’ Mill became self-sufficient as private orders were taken. The aim was to produce highquality knitwear at a much lower price than commercial competitors, to sustain the mill as an independent concern in the long term.

Within two months the local press had declared it a “sound commercial success” which had 20 full-time employees. The commercial wing was overseen by Labour and Co-operative councillor Gordon McQueen (himself an unemployed mill worker who was skilled in textile design). It produced tweed fashionwear for the London market.

A public meeting was held in Hawick on January 20, 1937, addressed by Edinburgh International Brigade volunteer David McKenzie, who described the casualities on the Jarma front in Spain that winter. He outlined the urgent need for blankets and warm clothing. The Workers’ Mill had produced £50 worth of mittens, scarves and blankets for the war in the preceding ten days.

According to McKenzie, Hawick was “now known not only throughout Britain but also throughout Spain as the place where workers have given material evidence of their support for the fight against fascism”.

Although there was widespread support for the Republicans in Hawick, there were also people who favoured the Nationalists.

The guest speaker at the Callants’ Club dinner in 1937 was Major-General Sir Walter J. Maxwell Scott of Abbotsford, a descendent of Sir Walter Scott. He was prominent in promoting General Franco’s cause in Scotland. The club shamefully toasted Franco for being “the saviour of Christian civilisation”. The Duke of Buccleuch also had a hand in persuading Roxburgh County Council to support appeasement.

In October 1938 the King’s Theatre attracted an audience of more than 1,000 people for a fund-raising concert by local musicians for the Spanish Relief Fund.

Later that month, Hawick Left Book Club filled the town hall for a Spanish Medical Aid meeting addressed by Communist MP and prominent ‘Red Clydesider’ Willie Gallacher. There was community support for both the Workers’ Mill and its practical action to relieve unemployment.

However, the mill could not escape the economic climate of Britain in 1939 and as the Spanish Republican cause melted in defeat, Hawick’s mills sought to win contracts in the newlylucrative war preparation market, with the Workers’ Mill absorbed into the private sector.

The better organised and better equipped Nationalist forces won the war after Madrid was captured in March 1939. Hitler’s position in Europe was strengthened with the rise to power of General Franco’s dictatorship. Participation and co-operation in the Spanish Civil War also strengthened the bond between Italy and Germany, and as a result the RomeBerlin Axis was formed. The unforgiving fires of the fascist movement raged across Europe resulting in the outbreak of the Second World War just months later.

Today there are few reminders of Scotland’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and none of Hawick’s valued role in the fight against Franco. In his book, Homage to Caledonia, Daniel Gray sums up Hawick Workers’ Mill as “a New Lanark for the highlypoliticised Scotland of the 1930s”.

La Pasionaria’ statue on Clydeside, Glasgow.
PICTURE: PROJECT GLASGOW

A lone statue on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow – La Pasionaria (the Passionate Flower) – stands testament to Dolores Ibárruri, an influential leader of the Republican and Communist movements, and more than 550 Scottish and 2,100 British volunteers of the International Brigades who left their homeland to defend democracy.

Dolores gained a reputation as an impassioned orator during the war, coining the Republican battle cry – No Pasarán! (they shall not pass!) – something we should be mindful of today as the fascist movement once more threatens to rear its ugly head.

Credit: Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War (2008), Daniel Gray; The Hawick Workers’ Mill 1936-39, Don Watson; John Aitkin.

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