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Kath Duncan was a legendary Communist in Deptford in the 1930s. A teacher, she became a redoubtable organiser of the unemployed. A remarkable orator, she was a woman of obvious personal magnetism, with an attractive demeanour. The local Deptford press felt unable to refer to her with mentioning her “blazing red hair”!
Katherine Duncan was born about 1889 in Tarbert, Argyllshire, in Scotland, a descendent, she claimed of Rob Roy who she stated “would never steal from the poor”. In her youth she was much influenced by the Suffragette movement and joined her village Independent Labour Party.
A teacher and member of the NUT, she moved with her husband Sandy, also a teacher, in 1923 to
Kath was elected to the Party’s Central Committee in 1929 for one term.
Kath and Sandy moved to Deptford, in
Kath herself headed one such mammoth local deputation, which specifically demanded action to clear the slums and provide work. Children on the march held posters saying: “Daddy’s on the Dole”. Such was the size of the deputation that the Council was forced to suspend its standing orders.
In 1931, Kath Duncan stood as a Communist in the parliamentary elections for the
During May and June of 1932, hundreds of workers frequently marched to the docks (often through the Blackwell tunnel) to urge dockers not to load “murder ships” ships with military equipment destined for Japan, which was then in the process of invading mainland China.
On one Sunday in June 1932 a group of marchers returning back from a 3,000 strong meeting in Woolwich, at which Kath and Sandy had spoken, were informed by a police inspector that they must stop singing the `Red Flag’. When they refused, a large number of police appeared and laid into the crowd with batons, making numerous arrests including Alf Lucas. Sandy Duncan was hospitalised and the events became known locally as the “
The news of the unprovoked attack was met with great indignation in Deptford. The next day, as a direct result of the Police attack, unemployed men at the Unemployed Training centre went on strike. An eight thousand strong crowd gathered in the Deptford Broadway. Kath demanded the dismissal of the Inspector and the police responded with a mounted police charge, batons raining down on the crowd.
On Tuesday the Daily Worker reported “groups of police patrolling about and the place is liked an armed camp”. Later, pictures of those arrested were sold to raise money for the “defence fund”. Some were released in early October. Two of those jailed, Albert Crane, a 24-year old hosiery worker, and George Childs, a 24-year old clerk, were met by “a small band of Deptford Communists” on their release from Brixton prison, going on to address a meeting of 400 people in Deptford Broadway where they “said they would not be afraid to go back if there was any chance of it doing any good to the working classes of Deptford”.
Six months after the main events, on 19th December 1932 Kath appeared in court under laws originally used against the leaders of the 14th century peasant revolt on a charge of being “ a disturber of the Peace of our Lord the King”. She refused to be bound over or stay out of politics and was sentenced to six months in Holloway Prison. (Coincidentally, the 76 year old Tom Mann was also in Brixton Prison at the same time for the very same reason!) While in prison, Kath was forced to make shirts, she herself was “convinced no one would wear”.
On her release the people of Deptford flocked to greet her in the Broadway. However the LCC Education Committee wrote to her a few days after her release to inform her they were going to remove her from the list of approved
By 1932, Kath was now the acknowledged leader of unemployed in Deptford and her open air meetings had become feature of political life in South
Kath stood along with NUWM South
In 1935 Kath, now living at Ommaney Road, New Cross was once again arrested for refusing to move her meeting from outside the local Unemployment training centre at Nynehead Street, New Cross, when asked to do so by Police Inspector William Jones. The case provided what is now known as
Not only was
What had happened was that Kath was about to make a public address in a situation in which the year before a disturbance had been incited by her speaking, when she was stopped by the police on the grounds that she would destabilise civil peace by the strength of her words. Even though Kath was arrested while peacefully speaking to a small crowd, she was charged with police obstruction. This raised the question not directly of the quality of her conduct but of the reasonableness of the constable's understanding of it. What the constable had to evaluate was the reality of the risk of a breach of the peace.
The Chief Justice's judgment at the end of the trial made clear that the much vaunted British democracy, in the absence of a written constitution guaranteeing the right of free speech, is a construct of propaganda. His view was that: “English law does not recognise any special right of public meeting for political or other purposes. The right of assembly is nothing more than a view taken by the court of the individual liberty of the subject.” In other words – it all depends! Even so, for much of the rest of the last century the practical effect of
Kath’s ready reliance on direct action methods were in sharp relief to the image conveyed by Beatrice Drapper, Deptford’s Labour Party pioneering woman councillor. First elected in 1919 and only finishing as a councillor in 1956, she was also Deptford’s first women mayor in 1927.
Kath spoke regularly of the threat of fascism and was involved in the famous
She was heavily involved in the Aid to
Sources: South London Press, June and October 1932;