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George Barnsby

George J Barnsby was born in Battersea, south London in 1919. His father, also George Barnsby, died of influenza in 1922, when his oldest son, the boy George was three years old - and his younger brother only eighteen months. Barnsby Senior worked as a railway porter at Nine Elms depot and was a member of the National Union of Railwaymen.

His widow, Eleanor Barnsby had already had a heavy dose of tragedy - she had lost two brothers during World War I and now faced life as a widow.  Eleanor was always called `Clara’ by her sons, perhaps implying a very close relationship. Certainly, she would not re-marry because she feared a risk of violence to herself and her two precious sons.

George was brought up in Battersea, a London borough then with a fierce-some reputation of working class militancy. Shapurji Saklatvala (see separate entry) was first a Labour-Communist and then a Communist MP for the area. Of course, George was completely unaware of this but later wondered if “perhaps the tradition rubbed off” on him. He has written that his “earliest political memory is of tanks trundling down Queens Road during the General Strike in 1926, but maybe this is a trick of memory”.

He left school in 1934, at the age of fifteen, and eventually obtained a job in the City with a Russian émigré fur dealer as an office and errand boy, which lasted nine months. In common with most young workers during the depression, George’s early working life was fragmented and insecure. His next job was at Dorman Long’s office and steel depot at Nine Elms, Battersea, as an office boy. A temporary job in Fleet Street, in the competitions department of the Daily Mail, followed. Then it was to a paint and varnish firm in Silvertown, as a one-fingered typist taking short-hand in a system of his own devising.

George found his own way into the Communist Party in often accidental stages in a process that occurred over the next decade or so. His first real thoughts of politics came in 1936, with the Spanish War. He acquired a copy of the massively popular `Searchlight on Spain’ by the Duchess of Atholl, one of the Penguin political specials.

He became a Daily Worker reader when he was 18 years old, after he was cycling to work, possibly along East India Dock Road, when he saw a poster for the paper. He had never seen the paper, or even heard of it at that point, but some class instinct, perhaps, urged him to stop and buy it. Its contents immediately struck him “as more relevant than any capitalist paper I had ever read and I became a regular reader”.

Later, he discovered a bookshop on Lavender Hill and bought booklets by Lenin. It was not until he was serving in Burma in the Second World War that he learnt that the managers of what had actually been a Communist bookshop had been Clive Branson, who was killed in Burma, and his wife Noreen (see separate entries for both), with whom George later enjoyed many years of friendship in the Communist Party History Group.

George’s Service and Pay book records that he was Private No 7360273, enlisted on 18th October 1939 into the Royal Army Medical Corps. This 20-year old reported to Finsbury Barracks as a conscript in the 137th Field Ambulance. (Later he was part of the 56th London Division, in the 149th Field Ambulance.)

One week of the army’s way converted him, he has written, “from an armchair Communist into an active one”. Of course, the burning issue for Communists just at this point, during the Phoney War and before the USSR had been invaded, was whether the war had an imperialist character that ought not to be supported. As George was not a Communist Party member, he took no official part in this discussion. But he saw himself as an unofficial participant in the debate and “reluctantly agreed that it was an imperialist war”. He even advocated this in his army unit, where there was, as George has recorded, “little hostility to this view … looking back at that decision more than sixty years later, it remains a knife edge judgement that I will not repudiate now”.

His mother was directed to work in the munitions sector, working 12- hour shifts at Morgan Crucible and Projectiles, an important arms factory in Battersea. Like all her neighbours, she endured the blitz every day, and was later bombed out in 1943. She then put a deposit on a house her brother Frank had built before the war at Croxley Green. George notes a strangely coincidence concerning what for him was an unknown location. When a letter telling him of the move arrived, he was in a hospital in Dacca, now in Bangladesh, but then a notorious terrorist area. Who should be in the same ward with George but a soldier from Croxley Green, which seemed a strangely remote place to this Londoner, now in south Asia!  

But before then, George’s unit had moved to Kent in 1941. This enabled him and fellow left-wing enthusiasts to seek out the then infamous Red Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, the Rev. Hewlett Johnson. He was the author of a highly successful and strongly pro-Soviet book, `The Socialist Sixth of the World’ and other progressive works. The Dean was “most amiable” when George’s progressive group contacted him. But it was with the Dean’s secretary, a man named D’Eye, with whom they actually had most contact. D’Eye ran a Workers’ Education Association course on current affairs with a left wing slant.

Even so, George was still not a member of the Communist Party, but was soon in the thick of campaigning for a Second Front in order to aid the Soviets. Much of his activity in the forces revolved round getting the Daily Worker into the unit and, when it was banned by Herbert Morrison, funding the alternative sheet that replaced it. To do this, it was necessary to contact a Communist Party branch in the vicinity of his unit and he thus met Harold Quinton (see separate entry), the branch secretary of Braintree, his wife, Gladys, who lavished food on any progressive serviceman appearing on their doorstep, and their daughter Dot, who was later, George said, “to bitterly and justly upbraid me for deceiving her as to my intentions and wasting nearly two years when she could have been looking for a husband”.

Through the winter of 1942, support for the left amongst the British people grew massively, both at home and in the forces. George felt emboldened enough to publish a soldiers’ paper. “Romantically, I called it `Red Front’ after the name of the illegal German Communist Party newspaper,” he wrote.

Discussions soon convinced him that such a title was sectarian and subsequent issues, of which there were about four, were called `Second Front’. The paper was priced at 1d and claimed on its masthead to be the only paper of its kind in the British Army. The Communist Party had, from around 1928 until about 1934, spasmodically produced such paper for the forces but George did not seem to have been aware of these and there is no reason currently to doubt ``Second Front’’s claim to be unique.

Later, during the movements that established various soldiers’ parliaments in Egypt and India, there were wall newspapers and bulletins. But, at this juncture in the war, `Second Front’ appears to be unique. His policy programme for `Second Front' was: 

  • All support for the Churchill government
  • A real and lasting friendship with the Soviet Union
  • The IMMEDIATE opening of a Second Front in Europe
  • Forward with the Socialist Soviet Union to VICTORY THIS YEAR.

 Another theme that ran throughout was that India, which had been brought into the war without formal popular consent, should be given its independence at once.

This intrigued George, since he next ended up in India and Burma. Indeed, it is probable that, when the military authorities found that he was publishing `Second Front’, they consciously exiled him to Burma and India, where he would stay for the next four years.

First, he was posted to a camp in Leeds. Here, he met, for the first time, the famed hospitality of northerners. Three was also a very lively and important Communist Party, with its ready-made meeting place on the steps of Leeds Town Hall, then presided over by Marion Jessop, later Marion Ramelson (see separate entry).

This seeking out of the local Communists would become something of a habit. On the way to India, while George was in Durban, he was able to contact the only recently legalised South African Communist Party. Then, in Bombay, he made contact with the Indian Communist Party, also only recently legalised.  He attended trade union meetings of textile, engineering and transport workers on Bombay Maidan. The Indian Party supplied George and others with a regular flow of high-class publications, ranging from their own newspaper, New Age, the writings of Palme Dutt on India, Chinese Communist Party publications, and all the Marxist classics.

Returning to army matters, nursing duties in the Bombay military hospital called upon George and he spent some time in Calcutta, where he again contacted the local CPI. He was posted to the Indian/Burma border, which was being held against the Japanese. In later years, George would publish a booklet, `The Great Indian Famine 1943-44’, which told the story through the reactions of Clive Branson.

As referred to earlier, Branson was killed in Burma - as a tank commander on the Arakan front. He also experienced the famine from the beginning and wrote a series of magnificent letters home explaining the causes of the famine, and drawing political lessons from it. His description of the sufferings of the one and a half million people who died directly from the famine, which with the indirect effects brought total deaths to 3 million people, impelled the conclusion that India must be given its freedom. The British Communist Party reprinted Branson’s letters in 1944 as “A British Soldier in India”. George first bought a copy of this remarkable book actually in India.

In the middle of 1943, George was posted to 4 Corps Headquarters at Imphal for medical treatment and rest. There was a progressive and Communist group in the hospital and, most afternoons, George and the rest of the ‘walking wounded’ were allowed, in their hospital-blue uniforms, to roam the town. Thus, they contacted the local Communist Party and eventually even met Communists from the rare units from the USA..

After this medical leave, George returned to Burma in early 1945, 4 Corps was now locayted at Pegu, about 50 miles from Rangoon. At this time, lefts and progressives in the army were working with local Burmese Communists. George first met the two main leaders of the Communist Party of Burma, Than Tun and Thein Pe, and it was these who first put the idea into his head that, after the war, he should go to the London School of Economics.

In Rangoon, George was part of a substantial Communist Party group. Led by John Angus, who had fought in Spain with the International Brigade, the Party group met regularly with the leadership of the Burmese Communists.

George was demobbed in May 1946; his Soldier’s Release Book Class A records that Corporal (Acting Sergeant) George Barnsby was demobilised and transferred to Army Reserve Class Z.  He was given a National Registration Identity Card, which gave him a new civilian registration DEN 5352497 issued on February 27th 1946, noting that he resided at 65 Oakleigh Drive, Croxley Green, Herts.

After the war, he was the first working class secretary of the ComSoc (Communist Society) at the London School of Economics and then qualified as a teacher. He and his wife Esme moved to Wolverhampton in January 1954, where George became secretary of the Wolverhampton Communist Party. He is virtually certain that a local police dossier was opened on him. He had been told this by a local councillor who was in a position to know.

When he arrived in the locality there were about 75 members in four Party branches in Wolverhampton. One, the South West, was made up largely of professional people and met regularly. The second was the North East, which was more working class, but had only a few active comrades. Then there were two Factory Branches, one of them Boulton Paul which met regularly, carried out trade union work, and was active in the factory. The second factory branch was in the North East of the city at Meadows and only had half a dozen members and was less active, although one member, Frank Ward, became the first Communist to be on the local Education Committee as a delegate from the Trades Council.

There was no overall co-ordinating Borough, or City Committee, so George put himself forward as city secretary, and regular monthly meetings at his own house, along with Daily Worker sales and the contesting of local elections ensued. Eventually, he became a delegate to the Communist Party’s Black Country Committee, which met over “a well-known tailor’s shop”, whose secretary was Don Brayford, a Walsall-based full-time organiser operating out of the Midlands district office in Birmingham. Almost immediately, George became a delegate to the Party’s Midlands District Committee.

George has written that his “relations with the District Committee were strange”. First, he was a newcomer; secondly, he wasn't a manual worker among a committee consisting largely of trade unionists and car workers, the most important being Dick Etheridge convenor of shop stewards at the Austin. “But I was useful, as a representative from the Wolverhampton area with a car who could transport Ted Jarvis and Jock Cowan, both of Boulton Paul, to meetings.”

Very soon, he was co-opted onto the Secretariat, the politically significant sub-committee of the Midlands District Committee, which met fortnightly, and sat on this for very many years in the 1960s and 1970s. In these roles, he acquired a reputation for scepticism, perhaps even cussedness!

He was also involved in the national Party Teachers' Group and active within the NUT, as well as being long associated with the Wolverhampton Race Equality Council.

During the controversies inside the Communist Party during the 1980s and 90s, George firmly supported the then Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain and entered Democratic Left on the CPGB’s dissolution. However, he maintained cordial relations, especially during more recent years after DL’s own demise, with many activists in the re-founded Communist Party. 

In the latter part of his life, George was destined to become, effectively, the historian of the labour movement in Birmingham and the Black Country. He is the author of a large number of excellent pamphlets and books, which were largely self-published by his Integrated Publishing Services. He also began a `Free Communist Library’ that George set up in late retirement at his home. His work on the 1943-44 famine was its first free offering.

   George has maintained a personal blog for some years.  In January 2009, he celebrated his 90th birthday and died aged 91 in 2010.

   PUBLICATIONS BY GEORGE J. BARNSBY

 

 “Votes for Women - The Struggle For the Vote in the Black Country, 1900-1918”

“Combating Institutional Racism in Wolverhampton

“The Great Indian Famine (1943-1944)

 “The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1750-1867 (1977)

“Social Conditions in the Black Country 1800-1900” (1980)

“Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country - 1850-1939” (1998)

 “Subversive – one third of the autobiography of a Communist” (2002)

 

Sources:

  • “SUBVERSIVE - ONE THIRD OF THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
  • OF A COMMUNIST” (2002);
  • Miscellanous blog postings on: 
  • http://gbpeopleslibrary.co.uk/
  • Stan Newens, The Guardian 19th May 2010