Monday, November 10, 2014

Four Welshwomen in Spain

I don't think that anyone can really argue that Welsh historians are not guilty of writing women out of our country's history, and that's certainly the case with these four youthful participants in the Spanish Civil War.  Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne do make an appearance in Rob Stradling's Wales and the Spanish Civil War, but only as a footnote to explain the lack of "gender inclusiveness" in his prose.  Meanwhile Fifi Roberts, whose story is perhaps the best remembered, makes the text but not the index.  Esyllt Scott-Ellis is not mentioned at all, prossibly because the author was unaware of her Welsh links.

Margaret Powell 1913-1990 was born on a farm in Llangenny near Crickhowell.  Some reports say that her father died when she was a child and that her brothers ended up being sent to Canada as part of Barnardo's unlamented scheme to populate the Empire.  Her daughter doesn't mention this in her brief summary of Margaret's life so perhaps it isn't the case.  What is clear is that Margaret trained as a nurse and midwife in London, was anxious to go out to Spain where she worked on the frontline during the Aragon offensive - assisting in a thousand operations and eventually ending up as a document-less refugee in the French camps.  In 1950 Margaret married the Communist journalist Sam Lesser, they lived in Moscow between 1955 and 1959 where her husband was the Daily Worker correspondent.

Another Welsh Communist nurse was Thora Silverthorne 1910-1999 from Abertillery. Better remembered than Margaret Powell there's a good summary of her life here. Thora worked hard to unionise the nursing profession, setting up her Association of Nurses in opposition to the Royal College, it later merged with NUPE.  When Thora died there were obituaries in the Guardian and the Independent.

It was interesting to learn that while Thora couldn't speak Welsh her elder sister did.  This seems to have been commonplace in industrial South Wales with figures like Nye Bevan and Gwyn Thomas speaking no Welsh while their older siblings did.  I remember being amazed in the 1970s to discover that my mother's elder sister could still understand Welsh even though she had lived in Hertfordshire since the 1930s.  Why did families suddenly stop passing on the language to younger siblings around the time of the First World War?

Nowadays we are supposed to equate Communists like Margaret and Thora with the Fascists and Nazis.  Shrill East European governments with murky histories and bought-and-paid-for journalists and authors demand that we accept that the Stalinists were even worse than Hitler.  I'm increasingly suspicious of such claims, even of those crimes admitted by Khrushchev and Gorbachev.  Indeed I fear for a future which sees the likes of Margaret Powell and Thora Silverthorne as villains, rather than the heroes they certainly were.

As mentioned above, the story of Fifi Roberts, the twenty year old daughter of a Penarth sea-captain,  is fairly well-known.  Fifi accompanied her father's vessel, the Seven Sea Spray, when it broke the blockade of Bilbao in April 1937.  This made Miss Roberts something of a celebrity, both in the Basque country and in newspapers around the world.  What is less well known is that Florence also sent reports on her visit to the News Chronicle, including some from Guernica soon after the town had been bombed - you can see her photographs and hear her recollections of the visit here.

Esyllt Scott-Ellis 1916-1983, better known as Priscilla or Pip, was a daughter of the 8th Lord Howard de Walden of Chirk Castle, remembered now as a leading patron of Welsh drama and literature.  Inspired by events in Spain and with some very basic nursing training this twenty-year-old aristocrat went out to Spain and was soon witnessing the battle for Teruel and the subsequent Aragon Offensive.  During the Second World War she was evacuated - as part of a British medical team - from Dunkirk. She later married the actor and author Jose Luis de Vilallonga and lived for many years in Argentina.  Before Plaid supporters get too excited about this largely forgotten member of a family with links to pre-war Welsh nationalism, they'll need to recall that Pip was a volunteer for Franco.  Heaven knows what Tim Williams would make of that!


R Tyler said...

Brilliant stuff, as usual

Unknown said...

Fascinating. I am researching the Aid Spain movement and Fifi Roberts. Do you know what she did after 1937? Thanks!