In January of last year I read an article in The Morning Star about a memorial garden to British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War in London. However it wasn’t till this May that I decided to visit my native ‘old smoke’ from Spain to try and find it.
Google was no great help but did point me to another memorial by County Hall, the former GLC council chamber on the Thames opposite Westminster. I did eventually track down the memorial garden, or patio to be more correct, but I will come to that later.
To go back in history the memorials are to the British volunteers who joined the International Brigades. These were made up largely of socialist, communist and anarchist volunteers from numerous countries to went to Spain to defend the Second Spanish Republic in the 1936 – 1939 Spanish Civil War.
It is claimed people from 53 nations took part. The total number of volunteer combatants could have been as high as 35,000 although it is estimated that only around 20,000 were on the battle front at any one time. In addition up to 5,000 were engaged in non-combatant activities. They fought against the Spanish Nationalist forces under Franco which in turn were supported by German and Italian forces.
Some 2,000 people from Britain joined the International Brigades plus another 250 from what was then the Irish Free State. The Irish were in the main divided between the British Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Britons also served in both as well as the Tom Mann Centuria – a small group who operated as part of the largely German Thälmann Battalion.
It is well known that the English writers Laurie Lee and George Orwell served in the International Brigades alongside the trade union leader Jack Jones. However I was intrigued to find the name of the actor James Robertson Justice also listed amongst the combatants plus an “English upper-class communist” Esmond Romilly.
There are actually a number of memorials to the International Brigade volunteers throughout Britain. However the main one is without a doubt in Jubilee Gardens by the London Eye and County Hall – or rather it normally is. It consists of a bronze statue by Ian Walters that was unveiled by the former Labour Party leader Michael Foot in 1985. Unfortunately you cannot visit it to next year. The gardens are being revamped, the statue is in storage and when they re-open the memorial will have a new location away from the Eye’s queue.
Every year the International Brigades Memorial Trust holds a ceremony to commemorate those who felt compelled between 1936 and 1939 to travel to Spain to fight against fascism. As I stated previously around 2,000 made that journey with 500 paying the ultimate sacrifice and dying in Spain.
The 2010 commemoration ceremony in Jubilee Gardens was the first held by the IBMT at which no veterans of the conflict were present but needless to say their children and grandchildren were.
Now to the second London memorial. Whilst Jubilee Gardens is visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year the memorial garden has to be viewed by appointment. The reason for this it proudly stands at the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell.
I made the short walk from Farringdon Station along streets I hadn’t trod for over 45 years. I presumed the library would have a garden at the front in which would be placed the memorial. I found myself standing outside a building in Clerkenwell Green and noticed there was an exhibition inside dedicated to the Wapping Newspaper Strike. It soon occurred to me this was Marx House, a former 1738 Welsh Charity school, but garden there was none.
I had pre-arranged my visit and went up to the library which apart from holding Marx’s own library also houses the definitive archives related to the International Brigades. I was then led back through the building and out through a door which led to a small patio at the rear of the building. I was in the International Brigade Memorial Garden.
The official inauguration took place in January of last year and was presided over by Les Baylis and Tony Burke, the assistant general secretaries of Unite the Union. It was they who unveiled the striking statue of an International Brigade volunteer which had previously been at the Unite training centre in Quorn in Leicestershire.
At that ceremony Les Baylis had said: “It is entirely fitting that Unite Graphical Paper and Media Sector has sponsored this garden and chosen to relocate the magnificent bronze statue of an international Brigade fighter within these walls.”
The reason is that by trade more printers went to fight in Spain than any other. Three of that number George Hardy, Leslie Maughan and Walter Tapsell gave their lives for democracy and are honoured by a commemoration plaque on the patio’s wall which also includes the name of journalist Ralph Fox.
Bill Alexander, the commander of the British battalion and a member of the union, was the president of the Marx Memorial Library up till his death. The brigade veterans left their archives to the library in perpetuity in 1975. Today they are the finest source for the conflict in the British Isles and can be viewed by researchers and historians along with the numerous other important document collections at the library.
Perhaps this memorial garden is best summed up by Tony Burke who said at the ceremony: “We would want Unite members, and trade unionists and printers, to visit the archive and also spend a few moments at the memorial to remember those brave printers who risked and gave their lives as members of the International Brigades and fought against fascism. We well always recall that ‘freedom was never held, without a fight, without struggle there can be no victory’!”
(A version of the above article appeared in The Morning Star on July 14 2011)