Posts tagged ‘Red Clydeside’

February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

It was almost incredible that it could be true. We stood together in the darkened street, half delirious with joy, while tears mingled with our laughter.

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Guest post by Textor

Emotionally charged, with an echo of Wordsworth’s response to news of the French Revolution, these are the words Aberdonian John Paton on hearing that the Tsar had been overthrown. It was March 1917. It was the Russian Revolution. The thirty one year old socialist was leaving an election meeting where he’d supported the anti-war stance of Ramsay MacDonald. Since 1914 millions had been sucked into the bloody maelstrom of world war. For small bands of socialists across Europe the war was final proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism and as such had to be opposed despite lies in the press, willingly if not happily accepting threats of violence and imprisonment.

Anti-war socialists saw glimmers of hope in working class militancy which continued through these desperate years. Rent strikes, demands for 40 hour working week, the emergence of an unofficial shop steward movement all implicitly challenged political authority so much so that by 1917 “Red Clydesiders” were being harassed, sent to internal exile and gaoled. Socialists were buoyed but faced the fact that in Britain and across Europe, particularly in Germany, social democratic parties had taken up their respective national flags and helped drum men to the battle-fronts.

When John Paton left the election meeting on that fateful evening he met with a comrade who was almost choking with excitement at the news of the fall of the Tsar. Hardly surprising that local election politics were for the moment put into the shade. For John Paton events in Russia spurred him to greater political activity which eventually resulted in him becoming a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party.

In a similar fashion the cub reporter James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) was inspired by the later Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia so much so that he and a colleague could not sleep o’nights. We prowled Aberdeen . . . talking the moon into morning about jolly and heart-some and splendid things: life, death, the Revolution. Young Mitchell was then working for The Aberdeen Journal; the city’s most important newspaper. Since the 1740s the Journal had served Aberdeen with a generally conservative view of the world. In its time it had wagged a political and moral finger at the excessive demands of Chartists and seen off more radical newspaper rivals by accepting some of the liberal policies of the 19th century. Basically the Journal wanted men to be politically sensible. Political militancy, whether it was votes for women or re-division of land, was unacceptable, at least in the parliamentary “democracy” that was Britain.

James Leslie Mitchell’s enthusiasm was not shared by the Journal nor by its stable-mate The Evening Express.   However, this is not to say that the earlier phase of the Russian Revolution which had so captivated John Paton was denounced by the Aberdeen newspapers. We must remember that the British state and its mouthpieces were concerned with the prosecution of the war. Where John had seen universal hope for an end to the slaughter and the building of a more just world the Aberdeen papers believed that far from doing this the fall of the Tsarist autocracy would mean a more rational organisation of Russia’s military forces, taking power from the hands of an incompetent regime, with what they called dark and mysterious forces behind the throne, and placing it with men in the Russian parliament, the Duma; in other words a new regime with some sort of political legitimacy, consequently better able to work with Britain and her allies by marshalling workers and peasants to fight the German enemy.     

In March 1917 Aberdeen Daily Journal welcomed the “Revolution” and confidently predicted that a more democratic empire could be built with the help of Grand Duke Michael and on this solid foundation the energetic prosecution of the war [would be] their first consideration. And at the same time that it praised Russia for holding fast to the European battlefields where millions were dying the newspaper congratulated Russia for not taking the bloody path of the 1905 revolution or that mapped out in France in 1789. As the Evening Express put it the simple-hearted, generous, hospitable Russians were following a course of common sense in showing a willingness to keep the slaughter going.

On the other hand there was an enemy in Britain, conspiring to defeat the just ends being pursued by the state, personified in the person of Ramsay MacDonald: Aberdeen wants no peace bargainers, no mischief makers, in a time of national crisis. Russia, said the Journal must also beware Socialists and fanatical Revolutionaries. Ramsay MacDonald is now one of the great villains of Labour history; the man who sold out to the National Government and Conservatism. But this is to forget he and others had the courage and we might say the decency to stand against the bloodletting of 1914-18 even if this was from a pacifist stance rather than, as the young John Paton would have demanded, a revolutionary overthrow of the property owning class. 

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It just so happened that Aberdeen played its own small part in ensuring the pacifist MacDonald with his M.P. colleague Fred Jowett of Bradford were prevented in June 1917 from attending an anti-war socialist meeting in Petrograd. Aberdeen was the “certain port” from which these two men attempted to sail only to be stopped by organised labour under the leadership of Captain Edward Tupper of the seamen’s union. Pickets at the harbour threw their luggage ashore and followed them to their lodgings to keep them from sailing. Needless to say the local press was enchanted by this show of militancy, displaying a support for picketing which tended to be conspicuous by its absence in earlier industrial strikes.

When the Bolshevik Lenin was given safe passage by the Germans to the Finland Station in April unsurprisingly he was said to be an agent of the Kaiser, the editor of the Evening Express advised the Russian state now is the time for a supreme effort to trample down the internal enemy before hurling back the invader. Equally unsurprising the newspapers also saw MacDonald and his ILP comrades as doing the Kaiser’s work not to mention men and women going on strike threatening to disrupt munitions production.

Regardless of all the political guidance being given and the moral exhortations made it still looked as if the events in Russia had a dynamic beyond the control of any of the states involved in mutual destruction. The “moderate”, pro-war, Russian leader Kerensky seemed unable to guide things to the desired end. In Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk (Parish Church) on the third anniversary of the outbreak of war Colonel the Rev. James Smith preached asking God to intercede on the side of Britain: he prayed to God that a better day might speedily dawn upon distracted Russia and that the men of patriotic spirit and invincible courage be forthcoming to lead one of the greatest and most ancient of Empires to the destiny that awaited her. That destiny turned out to be not the one desired by the Rev. Smith or the local editors. Perhaps the call for God to intercede had not been heard or God (some Hegelian might say History) had set course for a future beyond their imaginations.

Come October-November 1917 and pro-war elements had their worst fear was realised: in Petrograd and beyond workers and peasants organised in councils sought peace and began to imagine a world which might be other than the one they now lived in. This was, however, more than a mental act. The councils, packed with voices from all parts of the political spectrum, were organised around degrees of holding power, making decisions which carried force and when necessary using armed militias to achieve their ends. This is what the British and other voices of “reason and common sense” could neither comprehend nor accept.   The Bolsheviks were wiser, their political programme, as much as it might have been made on the hoof at times, recognised the dynamics of class action and were able to place themselves at the head of this deeply revolutionary situation. Where revolutionaries saw liberation and new found freedoms the status-quo perceived only anarchy, an upsetting of the natural order and more immediately the loss of privilege and power. 

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One of the local editors wrote: It is incredible that the Russian people would long tolerate a system which aims at undermining the foundations of the whole fabric of society . . . But undermine it they did. The exploited across Russia and many beyond its frontiers recognised that the “foundations of the whole fabric of society” included systematic exploitation of workers and peasants, imperial adventures and colonisation which had given the world the blood drenched trenches across Europe. Who held power, and to what ends, this was one of the keys to explaining 1917 and indeed equally important to understanding the future of what became Soviet Russia and the emergence of a regime which eventually needed no lessons in how to repress and control civil society.

But this was in the future. Socialists might at times be star-gazers but they are not clairvoyants. The emergence of workers and peasant councils pointed to new social forms around which a new world might be built. One hundred years on John Paton’s words hint at how it must have been:

 Every day brought its fresh excitements and new hopes that even now something of lasting good for Socialists in Britain was to come out of the war.

July 2, 2016

Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners

Scotland’s toughest jail – Peterhead or Peterheid as it is rightly known with emphasis on the heid more than Peter has its roots in the Blue Toon’s huge whaling and fishing industries which made the town into the largest fish market in Europe.

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When, in the 1880s, the Admiralty proposed a need for a harbour of refuge in the north of Scotland Peterhead bay, stuck out into the North Sea (German Ocean), and a thriving port to boot with stone quarries nearby came top of the list as the obvious choice. One potential setback was that the industrious and wealthy folk of Peterhead had no desire to do any backbreaking quarrying themselves so the question was posed where might they find a reservoir of labour in no position to turn down what amounted to very hard labour?

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We’ll build a prison, some bright spark suggested. And build a prison they did. Scotland’s hardest jail which housed the country’s biggest criminals, thugs and heidbangers was also conveniently distant from the foci of political agitation and so came to house Sinn Feiners, socialists, communists and anarchists in the earlier twentieth century. Peterhead, Scotland’s Gulag claimed those who regarded anywhere north of Perth as close to the Arctic Circle.

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In 1889 Peterhead Prison opened in the Blue Toon and construction of the new harbour began, along with roads and a railway running between the prison, the local quarries and harbour. Seven days a week convicts were wakened around 5am, given breakfast then transported, still shackled, on their own dedicated trains. They sat in windowless compartments, around 100 at a time, for the short journey to the main quarry at Stirling Hill, along with equipment, sledgehammers and such used to smash stone. Granite, sand and gravel were transported in the opposite direction – to the harbour where other men were employed in building the new safe harbour. The Peterhead Prison railway became Britain’s first state owned passenger railway.

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Wagon from one of Peterhead prison’s railway stock

This project was unique and an immense undertaking which accounts for the seventy years it took to complete the north breakwater. By that time Peterhead jail was a fixture in the town. That original prison, or part of it, exists today as a museum – and what a fascinating place it is. There is still an active prison in the town, housing women as well as men; a modern facility with single en-suite accommodation, video-links home and gym featuring a glass wall facing the sea.   DSC02668

The old jail is well worth a visit. The buildings that have been turned into a museum retain something of the atmosphere of a prison without the stench not least because of a very good narrative provided via headphones.
Immediately striking is the size of old cells: 7 feet X 5 feet and 9 feet high – tiny spaces with a small window of reinforced opaque glass. A curious exception was made after the Great War when some English convicts were sent north for another construction venture, this time an aerodrome, and their cells were two knocked into one. Perhaps their conditions had to match English prison regulations but that’s just my speculation.

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As places within Scotland’s prisons grew scarce prisoners had to budge up and Peterhead suffered from overcrowding which must have made it difficult for inmates and warders trying to supervise out-of-cell activities such as washing and slopping out; the earliest prisoners would have been kept in manacles most of the time.
There was never a shortage of men to fill Peterhead’s cells; its initial intake arrived from Glasgow by special train called the Black Maria in 1889. The men, often violent and dangerous, soon found they were in for years of hard labour and regulars on the quarry trains, under the constant eyes of armed guards – for the men had to be unshackled to work and there was a great chance many would attempt to escape.

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The jail’s warders were at first armed with cutlasses and swords and later redundant rifles after the Great War. Prisoners were forbidden from getting any closer than an arm and cutlass distance from a warder or risk being slashed.

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Special cell to house vulnerable prisoners painted in soft colours with safety a priority

Cell doors all had ventilation flaps which must have done little to help the circulation of air in the stifling atmosphere crowded men who rarely washed.

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D-Hall

Cells were simply furnished and what was there had to be screwed down so not to become potential weapons. The first cells were lit by wee gas lights which were protected from inmates interfering with them and in early years beds were narrow hammocks.

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Doing porridge at Peterhead obviously included porridge for breakfast as well as traditional Scotch broth, a lot of bread, tatties and herring in season. We all know that when we are hungry, bored or stressed our thoughts often focus hugely on food and with so it was at Peterhead where protests often centred on what was on the menu.

Red Clydesider John MacLean described his time at Peterhead – prisoners were awakened each morning when the 5am bell was rung. They made their beds and washed then took their breakfast which consisted of a substantial bowl of porridge made from half a pound of meal and three quarters pint of skimmed milk. They were then let out of their cells and searched before boarding the quarry train or to the harbour for its construction. Back to the prison then at 11.30am for dinner of broth, beef and tatties, maybe cheese, bread and marg. After more hard labour they returned to jail at 5.30 for supper of nearly a pound hunk of loaf and pint of coffee. Lights out was at 8.30pm.

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Being incarcerated in Peterhead must have been horrific and there are always vulnerable people who slip into situations that lead to imprisonment – people who shouldn’t be jailed but treated but there are others who are just plain bad (I’m not a psychoanalyst you’ll have noticed.) For the early prisoners carrying out hard labour in the granite quarry life must have been truly horrendous. Because they could move around in the open air they were tightly guarded by armed warders. At least one prisoner was shot attempting to escape from the quarry. The work itself was backbreaking and carried on seven days a week. For some that was enough to destroy their health.

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A gang feud ends in violence

I mentioned prisoners working in the quarry were unshackled from necessity but normally prisoners were kept in chain in their cells until the 1930s. You’d have thought there was little opportunity for prisoners to cause problems for the warders but certainly they did with punishments meted out including the car o’ nine tails. Prisoners were secured to a frame and the lash applied to their backs. DSC02672

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Prisoners were secured to this frame to receive whipping from the cat o’ nine tails

Peterhead prison had became Scotland’s main convict jail because of its remoteness from its main catchment, Glasgow. The notorious gangster T. C. Campbell complained it was responsible for ruining his family life as it took such a long time to drive from Glasgow to Peterhead in the days before there was a motorway even to Aberdeen. I should point out there is still no motorway to Aberdeen from the south OR the north. Motorways in Scotland stop at Perth but that doesn’t stop criminals continuing to come north to deal drugs or commit robberies.

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Isolation cell, soundproofed and dark to deprive a prisoner on punishment of all sensory stimulus. The bed is a concrete slab.

The well-equipped laundry which existed towards the latter years of the prison provided a service very different from those early years when underwear was changed once a fortnight. Prisoners’ uniforms differed over the years but heavy moleskin featured a fair amount throughout.

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Dirty protests in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Peterhead had a number of small exercise yards all with locked doors – obviously and one of those yards was made into an aviary by Peterhead’s equivalent of the Birdman of Alcatraz. Patiently day after day he surreptitiously snipped through its chain link fence until he was able to squeeze through, climb out and up and make his way across roofs, over the perimeter wall and away under cover of darkness but he injured himself in the process and was soon recaptured.

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Another story told at the museum is of a prisoner who missed the train back from the quarry and was found making his way back to the prison along its railway line but anyone thinking of escapes from Peterheid will immediately recall Johnny Ramensky.
Ramensky was a Scottish career criminal specialised in safe-blowing and became a long-term resident of prisons. Gentle Ramensky, as he was known, spent most of his life in prison – forty out of sixty-seven years. He made five escape attempts from Peterheid, none too successful but full marks for invention and determination. A book about him is on sale at the prison.

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All kinds of drugs find their way into prison

Ramensky’s skills were put to use for the war effort during WWII when he became a Royal Fusilier -in January 1943 (straight out of Peterhead.) He was transferred to the Commandos to teach them how to handle explosives.
He was also dropped by parachute behind enemy lines to carry out sabotage operations including blowing up German command safes holding military documents. Having a Lithuanian background he was also employed as a translator during the repatriation of Lithuathians from Germany.

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Another famous episode in the life of Peterhead jail was the D-Hall riot and siege in September 1987 when prison officer Jackie Stuart was beaten up and taken prisoner by inmates, tied him with ropes and forced onto the prison roof. This was a tense time for all concerned and after 5 days Thatcher sent in the SAS to end it.

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I urge you to get yourself along to Peterhead Prison aka Admiralty Gateway and experience life behind bars, if you haven’t already, for it is a different world in there.

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