ireland / britain |
opinion / analysis
Saturday June 24, 2006 05:25 by John Couzin - individual annarky at radicalglasgow dot me dot uk 95 Lamont Road Glasgow G21 3PP. 0141 558 5980
Life story of one of Glasgow's women anarchists that I feel very strongly is worth remembering.
ETHEL MACDONALD, 1909 1960.
Ethel MacDonald was born in Motherwell, a town just outside Glasgow on the 24 th . of February 1909.
She was part of a large Bellshill family one of nine children. Leaving home at sixteen she became active in
women’s movements and the rights of the working class. From an early age Ethel was an active socialist, still
only sixteen she joined the Bellshill, Independent Labour Party, (ILP). She worked as waitress and shop
assistant, in 1931 she came in contact with Guy Aldred who asked her to become his secretary. Ethel left the
ILP and joined Guy Aldred in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, (APCF). Three years later
in 1934 the APCF split over the issue of the nature of its opposition to Labour Parliamentarianism. Guy
Aldred lead the splinter group and Ethel MacDonald joined him. The splinter group formed a new organisation,
the Workers Open Forum. The Workers Open Forum had a very short life, months in fact, the ILP
had split from the Labour Party and its support was being sought by the Communists to create a United
Front and by Trotsky to form a Fourth International. Guy Aldred supported the Trotskyists and was
successful in getting the Glasgow, Townhead Branch of the ILP to join with him and form a new
organisation, in June 1934 the United Socialist Movement, (USM) was born. Ethel remained a member of
the USM and a close comrade of Guy Aldred until her death in 1960. Ethel MacDonald stated that her first
encounter with Guy Aldred was the moment which determined for future.
Although Ethel and Guy never achieved any form of financial security they never ceased their
intensely energetic political activity in pursuit if their political goals.
July 1936 saw the out break of the Spanish Civil War, this sparked a tremendous increase in political
activity, especially among groups of the left. The USM diverted all its energies into supporting the struggle
of the Spanish workers. Guy Aldred was invited by the French anarchist activist, Pruhommeaux to send a
Scottish anarchist to Barcelona . Ethel MacDonald was asked to go because of her work in publishing and
circulating the newsheet “Regeneration” in support of the Spanish CNT and FAI (Federacion Anarquista
Iberica), the Spanish, militant federation of anarchist groups.
There was some opposition to this from Jenny Patrick, Guy Aldred’s partner, she claimed that she had
been secretary of the Glasgow Anarchists in 1916 and her credentials were much more established that
Ethel’s. Guy Aldred then co-opted Jenny as the APCF representative. Both women set off for Spain, they
left Glasgow on the 20 th of October, 1936 with very little money, they reached Paris with one franc between
them. With the help of comrades and sympathisers and without money or papers the hitch-hiked across
France and eventually reach Spain. Ethel and Jenny were part of a vast army of workers and intellectuals
making their way to Spain to join the fight against fascism in spite of their own governments’ policy of “Nonintervention”.
Ethel was sent to Barcelona and Jenny to Madrid.
On her arrival in Barcelona in the winter of 1936, Ethel wrote her first impressions, the quote is taken
from “Ethel MacDonald, Glasgow Woman Anarchist.” by Rhona M.Hodgart.
“In the main square, the Plaza de la Republica, the white walls of the Genaralitat,the Government offices,
glistened in brilliant sunshine. Birds were singing in the trees and the sky was the most beautiful blue that I
have ever seen. Civilian soldiers dressed in their inevitable dungarees and little red and black “Glengarry”
bonnets and smoking endless cigarettes, strolled casually in Las ramblas and the Via Durruti, or chatted to
the girl soldiers in the Plaza Catalunya. We had difficulty deciding which were young men and which were
girls. They were dressed exactly alike, but as we drew nearer we saw that all the girls had beautifully
“permed” hair and were strikingly made up.”
At this time a clash between the parties of the left was on the horizon, Ethel MacDonald’s
Barcelona of 1936 was soon to be torn apart by a war within a war. By January 1937 the lines had already
been drawn, at the first conference of the newly formed Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas, (JSU , unified
socialist youth), a grouping of socialist youth and communist youth, Santiago Carrillo stated that they were
fighting for a democratic and parliamentary republic. The same month the Boletin de Informacion, the organ
of the CNT-FAI stated that they were fighting not for the republic but for the proletarian revolution, the war
and the revolution are inseparable, to say to the contrary is reformist and counter revolutionary. It was obvious
that the two points were incompatible.
From arriving in Barcelona in November 1936 until January 1937, Ethel MacDonald managed
to send back to Glasgow a bulletin every few days. They gave details of activities in Barcelona and some of
the surrounding villages, describing how villages had been organised on a communal basis, how empty
nunneries and monasteries had been turned into hospitals, offices and schools, she also told of the difficulties.
Many of these bulletins made their way into main stream press. After January 1937 she began her radio
broadcasts as the English speaking propagandist for the Barcelona Anarchist radio station and was listened
to in may countries throughout the world. The split in the left burst into flames at the beginning of May 1937,
the Civil Guards attacked and seized the Barcelona telephone exchange. The first wave of repression carried
out during the quiet siesta hour and unexpected, took the Anarchists by surprise but they soon rose to defend
their revolution. Ethel MacDonald played her part by refilling the soldiers clips with bullets, getting and
preparing food and going out to try to gather information.
After seven months in Spain, Jenny Patrick returned to Glasgow on the 24 th . of May 1937, it would
be November 1937 before Ethel MacDonald returned to her native city, Glasgow. After the May battles and
the June the 16 th . round up of POUM members and foreign activists, Ethel spent her time smuggling food
and letters in to comrades in prison and smuggling out letters and information. She put herself in considerable
danger by helping foreign anarchist to escape Spain, she done this by borrowing civilian clothes to disguise
soldiers and begging crews of foreign ships to give secret and safe passage for wanted men in danger. News
of her activities reached the British press, Ethel MacDonald became know as the “Scots Scarlet Pimpernel”.
It was obvious that sooner rather than later Ethel would be arrested and imprisoned. The inevitable
happened, but while in prison she was still a problem to the “new” Barcelona authorities. The charge against
her was, associating with prisoners during her visits to jailed comrades and conspiring with them in a foreign
tongue. While in prison she would collect letters from other prisoners and smuggled them out with her own
in cans in which her food had been brought in. Those for abroad were given to a French skipper and others
got to the British Consul. By the same means it was possible to organise a hunger strike in every prison in
Barcelona where anarchist prisoners were held.
Ethel was once again in the Glasgow press, the Evening Times on Friday the 9 th . of July 1937 ran
an article on Fenner Brockway’s visit to Spain and again on July 14 th . when it described her release after the
“trifling” charges against her were dropped. The following quote is from Rhona M. Hodgart’s book.
When Mr. Brockway met her after being released and again as he left Spain on Saturday she was
undecided whether she would come back to this country or stay in Spain . She accepted her arrest and
imprisonment very philosophically, but it is Mr Brockway’s view that she would be wise to return home.”
The Evening Times carried more news of her on August 25 th ., the following quote is again from “Ethel
MacDonald, Glasgow Woman Anarchist” by Rhone M.Hodgart.
“Miss Ethel MacDonald is back in Barcelona. Writing from there under date August 17, to Mr Guy Aldred,
of Glasgow, she says: You will have been expecting to hear from me sooner. Due to the usual, or unusual,
unforeseen accidents, that was impossible. Most of the people I knew here have left for their respective
countries, and sometimes it is pretty lonely. My financial situation is bad.....From the clothes aspect, if I am
not home soon, it will be too cold to come home at all....I am a terrible sight....All my documents and clothes
have gone beyond recall. I have lost everything. Don’t worry. Perhaps you’ll be seeing me soon. I guess you
will. And I hope so....
While still in Spain life for Ethel MacDonald was not easy after her release from prison, her attempts
to get her papers and belongings proved fruitless, she never slept twice in the same place and most certainly
suffered considerable hardship in her desire to serve her cause As Anarchists tried to tell the world of the
“white terror”, and “the purges” that were now part and parcel of Barcelona, Ethel MacDonald was only
one of a host of foreigners caught up in the terror.
During her spell in Spain, Ethel MacDonald produced regular bulletins with accurate information
that were in turn printed in several newspapers, her radio broadcasts were listened to by people in many
countries. For a brief spell, between July and November 1937, the spotlight of fame shone on Ethel
MacDonald, newspapers across the country carried articles speculating on the whereabouts of the “Scots
Scarlet Pimpernel”, articles referred to the “Bellshill Girl Anarchist”. In one newspaper report her parents
stated that they would gladly sell their furniture to raise money to bring her home if they could get in contact
with her. They appealed to the British Consulate to do everything in their power to get in touch with her. On
Friday September, 24 th . 1937, The Evening Times hit the streets with the front page headlines, “ Miss Ethel
MacDonald reaches Paris”. It was revealed that she had left Spain on the 4 th . of September 1937 “under
escort” , News of Ethel MacDonald’s activities in Spain had spread to most countries throughout the world,
many of these countries sent invitations for her to come and speak of her experiences. The organ of the French
Syndicalist movement, “L’ Espagne Nouvelle”, dedicated a full page to her arrest and imprisonment. While
in France she spoke for the “committee for the aid and succour of the victims of counter revolution
Communist Party Persecution in Spain”, and spent some time with French anarchist Andrea Prudmeaux. A visit to Amsterdam , probably arranged by Maup Stevens, a Dutch anarchist she met in
Barcelona and whom she helped get out of prison and helped escape from Spain after the “May Day”
troubles, saw her speaking to the Dutch Syndicalist movement and giving full details of the persecution of
the anarchists and the POUM in Spain.
Early November 1937 found Ethel MacDonald back in her native Glasgow, welcomed by several
hundred people. The Evening Citizen carried a report of her arrival, “There was sadness in Ethel
MacDonald’s face as she said: “I went to Spain full of hopes and dreams. It promised to be Utopia realised.
I return full of sadness, dulled by the tragedy I have seen”. Then she whispered to friends: “I’m so thrilled by
the welcome. But it ‘s terribly embarrassing. Please take me away”. Ethel MacDonald proved to as fearless
at home as she had been in Spain and would not be silenced on the truth of what happened in Barcelona. She
launched herself on a lecturing and speaking tour throughout Britain giving details of her personal experiences
while in Spain. The British press began running articles supporting the Communist actions in
Barcelona and condemning the ILP and all those who opposed the Communists actions as helping Franco.
Time and time again, Ethel MacDonald wrote articles giving precise details of what really happened in
Barcelona that May and what those actions meant for the now rapidly deteriorating situation in Spain.
January 1938 saw Franco form his first government,then Hitler occupied Austria and soon, what happened in Barcelona and the struggle to defend
the workers’ revolution slipped from the public consciousness as Europe descended into a nightmare of
Fascism and war. Ethel MacDonald after her return to Scotland continued her work in the USM and together with her comrades Guy Aldred, Jenny
Patrick and John Caldwell, helped run the Strickland Press, which was established in 1939. Together they
produced the “Word”, the organ of the USM. There were no wages, the group survived as best they could.
According to John Taylor Caldwell, “ Ethe l took a large share in running the press. She was one of those
women,....as much at home with a spanner as a sewing needle. She was also supremely proficient as a
bookkeeper and managed that side of the operation as well, covering the printing and distribution of the
“Word”. She was in a non assertive way , manager of the Strickland Press.”
In late 1940 Ethel received her call-up papers, after reading them she wrote across them in blue pencil
the words, “GET LOST”, and posted them back. Some weeks later she received further notification stating
that they had not had a satisfactory response to the first notice and must remind her of the serious
consequences of not complying with the Act, etc, etc. and she must report to the Recruiting Officer within
seven days. Her response on this occasion was to write in large blue letters, “COME AND GET ME.” this
she duly posted. She received no further notification, perhaps the authorities had no desire to give he “Scottish
Pimpernel” an opportunity to organise wholesale escapes from a women’s prison.
Near the end of February 1958, Ethel was standing on a box adjusting some piece of machinery at the
Strickland Press when she fell. From then on she needed a stick to get around, it soon became clear that Ethel
was suffering from a very serious illness. Her physical deterioration was rapid, and soon her comrades had to
nurse her at home. Ethel MacDonald died in Knightswood Hospital on the 1 st . of December 1960 of
The Glasgow newspapers were inundated with tributes to her dedication, bravery and remembering
her days of glory.
The Glasgow Evening Citizen wrote;
SCOTS “SCARLET PIMPERNAL” DIES, She became legend in Spain
The small dark-haired woman - once called Scotland’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” during the mid-1930's - is
dead. And so ends the legend of Ethel MacDonald.
Guy Aldred wrote;
“ — it would be absurd to pretend that I can console myself to her passing. As I have said I feel very keenly
that she has been cheated of life— It seems to me a pity that she cannot know what I think of her; that she
cannot realise how thoroughly I understand her, that she will never know that I wish she was here among
the living and that if someone had to die that I could be numbered among the dead—“.