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Voices from the archives

Through reading archives, you can make a direct connection with individual voices, opinions and stories from the past. In this part of the website we profile four individuals whose life and work can be glimpsed, in part, through the Spanish Civil War archives put online by the Modern Records Centre.

Gertrude Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas (b. 1895)

(Also known as Mrs. Adams)

Gwendoline Adams in 1926Gwendolyn Adams was born in Ellesmere, Shropshire, the daughter of a plumber. By the age of 15, she had left school and was apprenticed to a milliner (a maker of hats). During the First World War, she worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse at the 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham, providing medical care for men wounded in action.

Between 1925-1929 she was one of several women employed by the British motorcycle industry to make long and difficult journeys across Britain and Europe. These trips were used to generate publicity for the products through press coverage and public appearances at motorcycle dealerships along the route. Gwendoline Adams specialised in solo trips through Europe, at a time when roads were poor and a battle-scarred continent was undergoing major political changes. In 1926 she travelled from Britain, across the Alps, to Venice, and in 1928 undertook a major journey to Spain - travelling from London to Gibraltar.

In 1929 she settled in Barcelona and established an English school, with the intention of improving the level of education for local children. She married José Puertas in Barcelona in 1931, three months before the UK passed a law that a woman could retain her own nationality on marrying an "alien" (a foreigner). In the eyes of the UK law, therefore, she had now taken on the nationality of her husband, and was entitled to no aid from the British government should anything go wrong abroad.

Distributing milk supplied by the International Solidarity Fund to Spanish childrenOn the outbreak of war in 1936, Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas left teaching and joined the Red Cross, one of several aid agencies that she would work with during the conflict. A major part of her work during the Spanish Civil War was acting as a liaison officer between the Asistencia Social (the Republican government department of welfare) and the International Solidarity Fund, which required regular travel between Spain, France and the UK. The International Solidarity Fund supplied tens of thousands of pounds worth of aid - medical supplies, food and clothing - paid for through contributions from national trade union organisations and political parties affiliated to the International Federation of Trade Unions and Labour and Socialist International (including the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party).

As the war ended in Spain, Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas and her husband joined the exodus of refugees crossing the French border. Once in France she continued to work to provide housing, food and clothing for the exiled Spaniards and, on the outbreak of the Second World War, helped to evacuate women and children away from Paris and the Maginot line to the south of France.

In October 1939, Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas and José Puertas were informed that property of theirs in Spain had been confiscated by the Nationalist authorities. Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas returned to Spain with a Red Cross convoy in an attempt to reclaim the property and obtain political guarantees that would allow her husband to follow. Despite having no affiliation to the Communist Party, she was arrested in early November, several days after arriving in Figueras, on the charges of having spied for the "Reds", produced Communist propaganda, and associated with leading "Red" personalities (including the equally non-Communist President of Catalonia, Lluis Companys). Pressure from leading figures in the British labour movement led to the British government overlooking the fact that Mrs Adams de Puertas was no longer legally a British citizen, and the British Ambassador was instructed to unofficially lobby the Spanish authorities for her release. Finally, after nine months in four different prisons, she was released and could leave Spain.

On her return to Britain, Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas threw herself again into the war effort - starting a War Hostel and Rest Centre for the Ministry of Health, through Hammersmith Borough Council, and working as a Detachment Commandant in the Hammersmith Division of the British Red Cross (training a Youth Detachment of nurses). Throughout most of this period she was separated from her husband, who remained in Perpignan, a key centre in the south of France for Spanish Republican exiles. Gwendolyn Adams de Puertas resumed her work with Spanish refugees once the Second World War was over, and during the first half of 1946 started to train Spanish women, based in London, in welfare work. Her teaching was interrupted in September 1946, when she returned to Perpignan to care for her husband, who was then seriously ill with tuberculosis. The last document about Spain that was sent by her to the Trades Union Congress is an appeal, dated June 1947 and sent from Perpignan, to support an investigation into the living conditions of the many exiled Spaniards (including 600 children) in the area.

Modern Records Centre online sources include: correspondence and reports relating to her work with Asistencia Social and the International Solidarity Fund; letters relating to her imprisonment in 1939, including appeals for help from her husband; curriculum vitae written in 1943, when she was applying to the Home Office for her 'Aliens Certificate' to be cancelled.

Undigitised sources at the Modern Records Centre include: press cutting, 1926, included in cuttings book of the Motor Cycle Association, 1921-1927 [document reference: MSS.204/10/1/1]; The Motor Cycle and Cycle Trader, Apr-Jun 1928 [document reference: MSS.328/NL/MOC/1928]; article on 'Milk for Spain' in The Labour Woman, vol.26, no.7, July 1938 [document reference: MSS.292/54.76/8 (file 1)]; annual report of the British Red Cross Society, Hammersmith Division, 1944-5, and small amount of correspondence, included in Trades Union Congress file on Spain, 1945-1948 [document reference: MSS.292/946/2].

Information from sources held elsewhere: 1911 census; VAD record of service - information provided by the British Red Cross Museum and Archives; Gwendolyn Adams, 'To Venice & back: A journal of a motorcycliste', (Douglas Motors Ltd, Bristol), 1926 - booklet held by private collector.

 

Claud Cockburn (1904-1981)

(Also known as Frank Pitcairn)

Claud CockburnClaud Cockburn was born in Peking, China, in 1904, the son of a British diplomat. After leaving university in the late 1920s, he spent a short time living and writing in Germany, before taking a job as a correspondent with 'The Times' in 1929. He was sent to the United States, arriving in time to cover the Wall Street Crash. Cockburn resigned after four years with 'The Times' to found his own journal - 'The Week'. 'The Week' was a weekly journal, run on a shoestring budget, which published news and rumours (substantiated and unsubstantiated) that wouldn't make the mainstream press. Cockburn developed a network of well-placed sources in Britain and abroad who leaked confidential information to the paper, and 'The Week' built up a small but influential group of subscribers and readers, ranging from Edward VIII to Charlie Chaplin. Claud Cockburn was also an active member of the Communist Party and combined work on 'The Week' with regular writing for the Communist newspaper the 'Daily Worker' under the alias of 'Frank Pitcairn'.

Through his journalistic contacts (including the Spanish politician and journalist Julio Alvarez del Vayo) Cockburn had prior warning of the impending military coup in Spain, and in early June 'The Week' warned that "a Fascist putsch by the higher ranks of the army officers" was imminent. In July 1936, Cockburn travelled to Catalonia for a holiday (a mix-up with trains in Paris resulted in a change from his intended destination of the south of France), and he was in Spain when the military rebellion took place on 17/18 July. The holidaymaker became the war correspondent of the 'Daily Worker', and, by September, a Spanish Republican militiaman fighting in the mountains north of Madrid.

After the Spanish Republican authorities suggested that he would be of more use to them as a writer, rather than a soldier, Claud Cockburn returned to Britain in late September. Shortly after his return he gave evidence to the Committee of Enquiry into Breaches of International Law relating to Intervention in Spain, an impressively titled but unofficial inquiry into breaches of the non-intervention agreement by Germany and Italy.

Claud Cockburn appears in the archives of the Trades Union Congress chiefly for his role at the international labour movement conference of March 1937, held in International labour movement conference, March 1937London. This conference of trade union and socialist organisations affiliated to the Labour and Socialist International and International Federation of Trade Unions was called at the request of Spanish representatives of the LSI and IFTU, in the hope that more militant, direct action in favour of the Spanish Republic (such as a united front with the Communist Party or symbolic strikes) might be agreed. Agreement on this was not forthcoming, and a speech by the British trade union leader Ernest Bevin, condemning the Communists and suggesting that there was no realistic alternative to a policy of non-intervention in Britain, was described by one delegate as acting like "a stream of cold water on [their] deliberations". No media reporting of the conference was officially allowed, Cockburn was however able to attend, in disguise, as an interpreter within the Spanish delegation. His 'Daily Worker' report of the conference fuelled existing dissatisfaction with the leadership of the labour movement in Britain, with some members of the rank and file regarding it as a betrayal of Republican Spain - a 'Black Friday'.

Cockburn's articles for the 'Daily Worker' on the Spanish situation were often written on the basis of what was needed by the Communist Party in terms of propaganda, rather than what was factually accurate. This ranged from inventing an eye-witness account of a non-existant revolt against Franco in Tetuan, North Africa, to give the impression of Republican military success (thus giving additional political leverage to supporters within the French government); to portraying members of rival political groups, such as the far-left Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), as fascist 'fifth columnists', and providing a justification for the "purging" (imprisoning and, in some cases, extra-judicial killing) of rivals to the Communist Party. Pitcairn's reports of the fighting between different Republican groups in Barcelona during May 1937 was identified by George Orwell in 'Homage to Catalonia' as a prime example of deliberately and destructively inaccurate reporting.

Partly as a result of growing disquiet about the actions of the Communist Party, Claud Cockburn left the 'Daily Worker' in 1946 and moved to the Republic of Ireland. He continued to write both fiction and non-fiction until his death.

Modern Records Centre online sources include: correspondence relating to the attendance of 'Frank Pitcairn' at the IFTU / LSI conference, and subsequent articles in the 'Daily Worker'; copy of 'The Week', 17 March 1937; reference to evidence in report of the the Committee of Enquiry into Breaches of International Law relating to Intervention in Spain, 1936; article on the International Brigade by 'Frank Pitcairn' in publication 'To-morrow', 1936; 'Daily Worker' cutting on the refusal of the British Foreign Office to allow 'Pitcairn' to legally travel to Spain, 24 March 1937.

Published sources include: Claud Cockburn, 'I, Claud...' (Penguin, 1967); Patricia Cockburn, 'The Years of The Week' (Macdonald & Co., 1968); George Orwell, 'Homage to Catalonia' (Penguin, 2000).

 

Dr Reginald Saxton (1911-2004) and the blood transfusion service

Dr Reginald SaxtonReginald (Reggie) Saxton was born in Cape Town and spent his childhood in India and England. He was privately educated at Repton School, Derbyshire, and studied medicine at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After qualifying as a doctor in 1935, he went briefly into general practice before leaving for Spain in 1936. He was an active member of the Communist Party.

Dr Saxton attended the founding meeting of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) on 8 August 1936, and volunteered to go to Spain as part of the first British Medical Unit sent from London on 23 August 1936. The British Medical Unit initially operated from the Grañen Hospital on the Aragon front. The first few months in Spain were difficult, as the SMAC volunteers attempted to build a top quality hospital almost from scratch, with limited resources, in a building which initially had no heating, no running water, limited lighting, poor sanitation and little furniture. Factionalism was strong amongst the first British Medical Unit, and Saxton was criticised in internal documents for his lack of medical experience. When the Grañen hospital was finally handed over to the administration of the Spanish Republican authorities in January 1937, Dr Saxton transferred to the Madrid front, where the fighting was more intense. Over the next two years he was involved in many of the key battles of the civil war, including Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel and Ebro.

Loss of blood (and the resulting shock) was a common cause of death amongst combatants. A medical procedure to prevent this by transfusing (or transferring) blood from healthy volunteers to injured patients was first used widely during the First World War. The need to store blood at a constant, low temperature (to prevent it going off) meant that blood transfusion was a procedure that could only take place where there was a continuous power supply for refrigeration - usually in a hospital.

In 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the civil war, a blood transfusion service was established in Barcelona by Dr Duran Jorda. The problem, however, was to get the blood to where it was needed most - on the front lines. In September 1937 the idea of a travelling laboratory van - to be used for blood transfusions and analysis of medical samples - was conceived, and the Spanish Medical Aid Committee paid for a converted ambulance to be fitted with furniture, bunks and medical equipment (including an autoclave, incubator, refrigerator and oven), and wired up so that it could connect to local electricity supplies. By the end of April 1938, the mobile service, headed by Dr Saxton, was in full running order. Despite the many problems caused by the war - ranging from lack of power to the targeting of medical services by Nationalist aircraft - the mobile blood transfusion service provided a crucial lifeline for many soldiers and civilians injured in the conflict. The need for improvisation caused by the war conditions led to Dr Saxton developing new methods for blood transfusion, thus saving many lives.

In 1937, personnel in Spain funded by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee were put under the control of the Sanidad de Guerra (the central authority for all medical services on the Spanish Fronts) and were regarded as being part of the International Brigade. Dr Saxton, like other members of the International Brigade, left Spain in 1938, as the Spanish Republican government withdraw all foreign volunteers from its army.

Modern Records Centre online sources include: minutes, reports and publicity material of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee.

Online obituaries: The Independent, The Guardian.

 

Bob Smillie (1917-1937)

Bob SmillieBob Smillie grew up on his parents' small farm in Lanarkshire, in the central Lowlands of Scotland. He was named after his grandfather, Robert Smillie, a pioneering Scottish trade union leader and co-founder of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). His first-hand observation of the appalling levels of poverty then existing in Glasgow led to him becoming "a rebel against Capitalist Society". Like his parents and grandfather, Bob Smillie became actively involved in socialist politics through the ILP - participating in the 1935 Great Scottish Hunger March, speaking at mass meetings and demonstrations across Britain, and becoming National Chairman of the ILP Guild of Youth.

Smillie abandoned his university course in Glasgow in October 1936, three months after the outbreak of war in Spain, and left for Barcelona. Within a few weeks he had become a member of the Executive Committee of the International Revolutionary Youth Bureau and personal secretary to the ILP representative in Spain, John McNair. When the first contingent of ILP volunteers for the army (including Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell) arrived in Spain, Bob Smillie joined them and was posted on active service to the Aragon Front in January 1937. For political reasons, the ILP volunteers joined the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), rather than the Communist Party led International Brigade. The POUM - a revolutionary socialist party which opposed the 'Stalinism' of the Soviet Union - was regarded as the "Brother Party" of the ILP in Spain, and whilst in Spain Smillie became actively involved with the POUM youth movement - Juventud Comunista Iberica (JCI).

When granted leave in April 1937, Smillie obtained permission to travel to Paris for a meeting of the International Revolutionary Youth Bureau and briefly returned to Britain, speaking at a series of meetings about the war in Spain and his service on behalf of the Republic. On crossing back into Spain, at Figueras, he was arrested by the Republican authorities for not having the appropriate papers and imprisoned in Valencia. He died in prison in June 1937. The cause of his death is disputed, it was officially stated to be appendicitis, but rumours persisted that ill-treatment had either contributed to or caused his early death.

Bob Smillie died at the time of a political crackdown against members of POUM. The 'Events of May' (between 3-8 May 1937) in Barcelona had seen street fighting between supporters of the Communist Party and supporters of the anarchists and POUM. Members of the Communist Party then accused POUM of being a "fifth column" organisation of fascist sympathisers working to sabotage the Republican war effort on behalf of General Franco. On 16 June 1937, POUM was declared illegal and its leaders arrested. Some, such as Andreas Nin and Kurt Landau, died in custody, others were later put on trial for treason.

Modern Records Centre online sources include: 'We carry on: our tribute to Bob Smillie' - ILP Guild of Youth pamphlet; references to his work in Barcelona in the POUM journal 'The Spanish Revolution'; references to his death, including tribute by John McNair, in the journal of JCI, 'Juventud Obrera' (in Spanish), and the published Spanish diary of Fenner Brockway, ILP politician.