Posts tagged ‘Sparticists’

Jan 5, 2022

The Great Hair Cut Riots

While hard-nosed peace negotiations were taking place at Versailles in France at the end of the Great War. While 74 ships of the German fleet were scuttled at Scapa Flow in Scotland. While Greeks and Turks fought over territory, encouraged by Britain. While rioting by Canadian troops stationed in England and Wales resulted in brutal murder. While all this was happening in 1919, a year the world was plunged into crises – uprisings, mutinies, riots and revolution – the Spartacists in Germany, reds versus whites in Russia, rebellion against British imperialism just about everywhere – always viciously repressed – in Egypt, Malta, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, India – and closer to home tanks and military turning their firepower on civilians in Ireland and in Glasgow. 1919 while the world tottered on its axis Aberdeen was rocked by rioting over haircuts. It happened like this.

Frederick Street School with its rooftop playground

In 1919 young girls usually wore their hair long and loose, no less so in pockets of the city where desperate poverty meant large families lived cheek-by-jowl in tenement rooms with limited access to soap and water – cold water from a communal tap on a stair landing or outside. Never hot water on tap. These were the homes for heroes promised by Lloyd George during WWI. In 1919 seriously deprived families, their men-folk just returning (if they were lucky) from serving in one of the most horrific wars ever, were no doubt struggling to contend with adjusting to life, attempting to find work, trying to keep the wolf from the door and possibly one of the last things on their minds were nits (head lice.)

Nits are little insects that crawl from one head of hair to another. There they set up home and lay their eggs until another head of hair comes close, in which case they may decide to jump ship and infest a different head. Nits are blood-suckers. And they itch like mad. Getting from head A to head B is easier on long hair that effortlessly comes into contact with other long hair. In 1919 the Health Committee of Aberdeen Burgh Education Authority decided to tackle an outbreak of nits among school pupils with action taken in the case of schoolgirls whose parents persistently failed to take responsibility for the problem themselves. Dr George Rose, the schools medical officer took it upon himself to deal with verminous heads and if parents would not cut their child’s hair, he would arrange for it to be done.  

In fact incidence of head lice was not an enormous problem in Aberdeen and Dr Rose found only one girl with ‘filthy hair’ at the Middle School when he inspected children there in June 1919 and when an appeal to her parents was ignored the doctor took matters into his own hands. His insensitive handling of the case was misjudged. All hell broke loose.

Several pupils from the Middle School went on strike, their number boosted by youths already skiving (truanting) who when they heard of the hair-cutting incident readily joined the collective action. STRIKE was chalked over the school’s playgrounds to underline their protest. Word got out and pupils from schools across the east end joined the protesters or rioters as they were identified, mainly but not exclusively, teenage boys. They went from school to school drumming up support. More playgrounds were chalked to indicate strike in those schools and school buildings were pelted with stones. Windows were smashed; scarcely a pane of glass remained intact at the Middle School. Marywell Street and Ferryhill suffered similar attacks. Some rioters turned their attention on Union Terrace, gathering outside the education authority offices they booed their disapproval of the committee that sanctioned cutting girls’ hair. Loud protests carried on into the nights of the third week of July 1919 and there was consternation among the citizens of the town about where it would all end. The local authority fought back.

At the root of this Middle School fracas there seems to be the contempt for and insubordination to authority which are characteristics of the times among certain classes of the community.

I think the city fathers feared rebellion against authority affecting both Britain and the rest of the world that year had permeated through to the lower classes in Aberdeen. The haircut riots had become class riots. Working class parents complained of being given no or too little warning to have their girls’ hair cut and heads treated for lice while middle class critics sneered that –

The working-classes are all for State control of everything…glass was smashed because they dislike the medicine they themselves demand.

These were harsh times. A correspondent to Aberdeen Weekly Journal had little patience for treating children with kid gloves and on the subject of punishing school pupils for misbehaviour had this to say,

A few children may have died as the result of corporal punishment, but they were exceptional cases, and furnish not reason for its abolition. 

The school medical authorities justified their behaviour by pointing to powers under the Scottish Act of 1908 that enabled them to act if after 24 hours written notice to a parent to

…cleanse the child within 24 hours…[if] this notice is not complied with, the medical officer…may remove the children…and cause their persons and clothing to be cleansed.

The school strikes spread. Pupils from Skene Square school abandoned lessons and headed to the beach noisily shouting and cheering. At Frederick Street school the appearance of a nurse at a window led to a rumour that the vilified medical officer, Dr Rose, was about to wield his scissors there. In no time local mothers and children assembled by the school gates. The police were called and tried to assure them Dr Rose was not inside but the crowd were in no mood to be pacified. Missiles were thrown. A janitor was struck. At the end of the school day, at four o’clock, pupils were dismissed with no sign of Dr Rose. The crowd waited; certain the now notorious doctor would emerge. He did not.

Head lice

Some striking youths hanging about the nearby Links decided to seek out Dr Rose at his house in the city’s west end, at Rubislaw Terrace. They lined up outside it, shouting and waving union Jacks before pelting it with stones, breaking one window. When the police turned up a group of rioters disappeared round to the rear of the property where the police didn’t think to follow.  Stones rained down on a garage thought to belong to Dr Rose. It was his unfortunate neighbour who lost 19 panes of glass from his garage. From the west end they turned their attention again to Skene Square School which received volley after volley of rocks.   

One of the lads was dressed in soldier’s trousers and puttees and seemed to be in command. He was carrying a banner and shouting his orders to his ‘troops.’ He was considered a great hero that night, and imagined himself as such. His mother stated that he came home that night without his collar and tie; and thinking he had done a great thing.

Eventually the hair cut riots petered out. Then came the aftermath with punishments taking the form of the scud (the tawse or belt) or an appearance at the Children’s Court which resulted in 12 months probation for all the youths who appeared before it, for glass breaking.

Dr Rose was criticised for acting without tact over the few cases he had to deal with; one or two girls in a thousand had their hair cut by the school authorities. Just nine percent of the city’s girls had what was classified as dirty hair compared with forty percent found ten years earlier. So the problem was waning.

A proposed increase in Dr Rose’s salary was turned down by the Staffing, Salaries and Bursaries Committee and remained at £650. The doctor was backed by the BMA who said his salary should be £800, describing him as one of the best school medical officers not only in Scotland but ‘in the kingdom’ and called the local authority members who failed to support Dr Rose, ‘unfair and cowardly.’

It might be supposed Dr Rose would have decided to move on but in 1920 he was still in his position reporting on the usual childhood ailments: whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria – all on the increase. He also noted a resurgence in city children’s ‘fetish’ for sugar – which had been interrupted during the war years when supplies couldn’t get through. Schoolchildren’s teeth were in bad shape. Some schoolchildren were still verminous – from about 93 city families.

1919 the year of revolt and riot. Few protesters came out on top. Authority everywhere had come though four years of terrible bloody conflict and were in no mood to compromise although in a way Aberdeen’s school authorities did by rapping Dr Rose across the knuckles in denying him a promised salary increase and they did ensure that in future parents would be more courteously treated when asked to keep their children’s heads clean and clear of nits.

May 3, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 1 – What Katy did and revolution

Dusting down one of the bookcases in the spare bedroom one day I thought it might be an interesting challenge to read just 5 mins from each of the books along one of the shelves every day. There has to be a start somewhere. Many of our books I have read, some several times over, but many more I haven’t and thought it might be an exercise in discipline to force myself to pick up a volume or several I’d normally walk by.

We’ve had most of our books for a very long time, although our recent flit meant several hundreds were given away to charity shops but our new house was partly chosen on the amount of space available for books, pictures and finally us (who don’t take up much room.) We didn’t quite make it and there are several filled bookcases stored in the garage and a box or three yet unopened. We have books on just about every subject under the sun, or did until the flit clear-out, and apart from history, cooking and mountaineering most of those that have found house-room have been shelved fairly randomly.

It wasn’t more than a few days into my 5-minute reads when it struck me this might make for a blog in the way just about everything is a blog opportunity. Clearly what I pick up in 5 minutes hardly allows for much context and I had no intention of doing book reviews so these blogs will be whatever I dig up on the subjects or authors of the works, and their ideas where I can understand them.

So here we are. Blog 1 on the books on shelf three of the bookcase next to the front bedroom door.

I hadn’t read What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge since I was a child. The copy I have now belonged to my late mother, a school prize won when she was twelve years old, the same age as the novel’s protagonist, Katy Carr.

Katy was a young tomboy as girls who didn’t conform to established mores of what was deemed feminine behaviour in the near past. Nowadays she would probably be encouraged to change gender and become Keith Carr since stereotypical behaviour is again becoming rigorously applied. Katy’s life is turned upside down by an accident that has her re-appraise her behaviour and she transforms and conforms to the idyl of womanhood, obedience. Coolidge’s tale, written in 1872, is set in the American mid-west where Katy’s father, a widower doctor, secures the services of his sister, Izzie, to help bring up his six children.  

The book begins with a poem, To Five (Katy’s siblings)

Six of us once, my darlings, played together,

Beneath green boughs, which faded long ago,

Made merry in the golden summer weather,

Pelted each other with new fallen snow.

The tale proper finds Katy sitting in a meadow when she overhears a conversation between two tiny pale-green creatures wearing black goggles and each with six legs. They seem to be discussing her.

“Katy did.” “Katy didn’t.” “She did.” “She didn’t.” “She did.”  “She didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.”

Walking home Katy reflects on those words and the many wonderful things she planned to do with her life and the little she achieved but in consolation there were other things she did which proved better than those in her first dreams.

While Katy Carr was submitting to the limitations imposed on women by American society actual American women were standing up to oppression and laying their lives on the line in pursuit of women achieving equality with men. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth were both arrested for making the case for women’s right to vote.

Susan Anthony entered the fray when she discovered she and her fellow-female teachers were being paid a tiny fraction of that given to their male colleagues. So began a lifetime commitment to activism and she was instrumental in the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association in America.

At her birth in 1797 Sojourner Truth was already a slave. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree but she chose to change it to Sojourner Truth. Right from the start of her life Sojourner learnt how unfair life could be. Born into bondage, Sojourner was bought and sold like a piece of disposable property and was frequently physically attacked and beaten. In 1872 having been denied her promised freedom Sojourner one day walked away from her master,

I did not run away, I walked away by daylight…

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Sojourner Truth was active in the antislavery movement and campaign for women’s rights. I suspect the young Katy Carr would have admired both Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. As for the later Katy, she needed to listen to those little green creatures with black goggles to remind her who she really was.

*

Another radical woman is the subject of my second book, The Quiet Revolutionary by Margaret Dewar.

The year was 1904. We were travelling in a kibitka through the snow. Sitting snugly on straw in the depth of the sleigh, wrapped up to the tips of our noses in rugs, our nanny, my sister Helga and I were following the kibitka carrying my parents, on our way from the port of Arkhangelsk to Ust-Tsylma, some 300 miles further north-east, less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. Suddenly our kibitka turned over and we all tumbled into the deep snow. No harm was done except for the shock to our parents. My sister was just over a year old, I was three. These are my very first memories.

This is a biography of Margarete (Rita) Watz born in Latvia into a Latvian-Russian-German family. Her childhood was spent in Riga, Siberia, St Petersburg and Moscow during the period before the Russian revolution. Descriptions of her early life in Russia are a joy to read for they are filled with all sorts of magical details about places, children’s toys, foods eaten and the sorts of clothes people wore but this was no fairy tale.

Young Margaret lived through the terrible Tsarist period with all the uncertainties that brought and then there was the upheaval and violence of the revolution and reaction. Margaret’s family left Russia for Germany in the early 1920s and between her life in Latvia and Russia and experiences in in post-war Germany it is little wonder she became politicised. The rise of fascism in Germany was a real threat to her survival and so once more she fled, eventually reaching Britain hence her British-sounding name, Margarete anglicised to Margaret and Dewar from her Trotskyist husband, Hugo.  

*

Book three is about yet another strong woman. Unlike Margaret Dewar one whose life became dedicated to revolutionary activism from an early age. Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, around the time What Katy Did was being written, a daughter of a timber trader and his wife she was encouraged to read widely, a passion shared by Margaret Dewar. By the age of fifteen Rosa was involved with the left-wing Proletariat Party and soon active organising a general strike. Her political activities drew her to the attention of the state and she came under constant surveillance and intimidation. Dangerous times and four of Rosa’s comrades were executed for their activities.

The book Comrade and Lover, Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Leo Jogiches, translated by Elizbieta Ettinger, concentrates on personal aspects of Rosa’s life as suggested by the title.

In much the same way as Margaret Dewar, Rosa sought safety by fleeing her home. Initially she went to Switzerland where she attended the university of Zurich and left it with a Doctor of Law degree, a rare achievement for women back then.

The Leo Jogiches referred to was a fellow-Marxist and Rosa’s lover to whom Rosa wrote nearly a thousand letters. She was always an inveterate letter-writer and the  book features a small selection of them.

Here’s a flavour from my five minute read –

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1870, in Zamość, a small town in Poland under Russian rule. The youngest child of Elias Luxemburg and Lina Löwenstein, she had a sister, Anna, and three brothers, Mikolaj, Maksymilian, and Józef. Polish and German culture permeated the family’s life. The Luxemburgs had no connections with the Jewish community of Zamość, which was one of the most cultured in Poland. When they moved to Warsaw in 1873, they left nothing behind – not ties, no regrets. Elias Luxemburg, a well-educated merchant, identified himself with the Polish patriots who, in two unsuccessful insurrections (1830 and 1863) sought to overthrow the hated czarist regime. Lina Luxemburg, a cultivated descendant of a long line of rabbis, was enamored of German poetry and music. Each parent leaned toward a different way of shedding Jewishness, although neither way was mutually exclusive.

Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with Jogiches, a Latvian (Latvia was then part of the Russian empire), lasted many years but was largely secret even from her family for a long time because while they often lived together they were not formally married. Rosa and Jogiches were often apart, hence the letters, with him largely in Switzerland while Rosa lived and worked in France and Germany. Both were involved in the Spartacus League, a German Marxist organisation aimed at an international proletarian revolution (it changed its name to the German Communist Party [KPD].)

Leo Jogiches

The early letters are mainly love letters typical of any young people but Rosa and Leo Jogiches lived under constant strain of state surveillance. Germany in the early years of the twentieth century was a hostile environment for anyone daring to question the direction being taken by the state, the left being singled out for particular scrutiny and intimidation. For Marxists like them life was positively perilous, as they along with many of their comrades discovered to their cost. Later letters lack the intimacy of the early ones and tend to concentrate on aspects of the couple’s activities and Rosa’s dependency on the wealthy Jogiches for money.

Here’s a flavour of a letter sent from Rosa to Jogiches when she was in Berlin in June 1899.

You horrid monkey!

   Again you’re furious! And why? Because I must wait a few days for a letter from my father. You seem to forget that my father hasn’t seen me for 10 (ten) year. And from what I hear about his health, it’s clear that this is going to be our last meeting… As I wrote to you, I’m leaving on Wednesday, and will meet my father in July. He is very ill and I’ll have to put him up in a sanatorium. I’m on my way to K [autsky].

   Kisses, though you aren’t worth it.

Katy Carr’s fictional spinal injury that led to the transformation of her character from rebel to obedient young woman has resonance in the life of Rosa Luxemburg who really did suffer from bone disease that was badly handled by doctors and left her with a permanent limp. But Katy’s life lacked the adversities faced by Rosa for whom interrogation and prison became increasingly her reality. During one interrogation in 1919 she was very brutally beaten by the extremists from the  rightwing freikorps (German paramilitaries – the sort of people who created the fascist state in Germany within a few short years.) On 15 January 1919 Dr Rosa Luxemburg, philosopher, economist, anti-war campaigner and revolutionary socialist was beaten while held in prison, her skull smashed with a rifle butt and she was shot through the head before her frail body was dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr canal (a fate shared by her fellow-KPD comrade Karl Liebknecht.) Leo Jogiches, too, was murdered while in prison in Berlin a few weeks after Rosa.

*

The Germany Rosa Luxemburg fought to alter descended through years of terror and oppression into fascism and Nazism. Eventually Europe then the world was once more at war.

My final book for now just happens to be on the subject of the Second World War. Poems of this War by Younger Poets, edited by Patricia Ledward and Colin Strong.

Published in 1942 this anthology features verses written during the first three years of the war. As the poet, Edmund Blunden, writes in his introduction the 1914-18 war was reflected in some very great poetry and this second world war inspired a fresh set of young poets to express their feelings having to endure the fear and unknown future of the then current war.  

The first poem is by Emmanuel Litvinoff, We saw doom patterned in the ordinary sky

The Conscripts

We go to war in various ways

From farms and factories, the usual ways

Of life suddenly distorted to terrible

Experience. This fear becomes the visible

Coffin at the funeral.

Litvinoff’s recurring theme is the sky – from doom patterned in the ordinary sky to birth patterned in the deathly sky. Hope? I imagine so yet we know the killing would continue for another three years.

Litvinoff was from a Russian Jewish family that had fled pogroms in Tsarist Russia in 1914. Within three years his father would return to Russia to fight alongside the Bolsheviks in the revolution – and so he vanished from young Litvinoff’s life.

Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, Emanuel Litvinoff celebrated his Jewishness which was integrated into his writings. From an inauspicious start in life, brought up in a working class Jewish community in London’s east end, Livinoff went on to become an significant poet and novelist portraying Jewish struggles in Europe. He died in 2011.

The works of several women poets are also featured in the volume, including Margery Smith. My efforts to discover something, anything, about the life of Margery Smith have fallen on fallow ground. Her name crops up in some poetry reference books with examples of her verses but of her life, I’ve drawn a blank.

This is a fragment of her poem, Peace from Poems of this War

World-peace goes leaden-footed between the wars,

Limps wearily between the roars

Of iron days

But in among the murder-rays,

A brighter flame,

Peace, enters singly as she always came

When she desired Eternal rest:

It is her singleness impressed

Upon a soul, a soul, a soul,

That shall in time give wisdom to the whole.

One can hope. There is that word again. We all need that.

Till next time when I open up what comes next on the shelf.