I’ve interrupted my blogging recently for more urgent projects. The latest is a short piece Kajsa and I have been asked to write for the LRB about Swedish reactions to our Brexit shenanigans. We’ve not got round to that yet. (Any ideas?)
The last project was a paper I gave recently to a women’s history conference on ‘Prominent Beverley women’. (Beverley is an attractive country town, with a wonderful late mediaeval minster, a few miles to the north of Hull.) I was asked to speak on Eva Reckitt, who was born there, and who came to the attention of MI5, which was one of my old research areas. I thought I’d post my effort here, more or less as it was delivered, to compensate for the absence of regular blogs, and in case anyone’s interested.
It may surprise denizens of present-day, respectable and doubtless staunchly Conservative Beverley to learn that not so long ago it harboured a woman who was for thirty years under MI5 surveillance as a Communist, and possibly a Russian agent. Even more surprising will be the fact that she started life as the rich daughter of one of the county’s leading capitalists, Arthur B Reckitt the starch manufacturer (‘Reckitt’s Blue’), whose premises can still be seen in Dansom Lane, Hull. The fact that there is a large secret service file on her, recently opened to the public at the National Archive (and online), obviously tickled my curiosity as a historian working in this area, who had not come across her before. She must have been interesting. Perhaps she was a female spy (‘the name’s Bond. Jane Bond’), or a double agent, or a local Mata Hari, performing exotic dances and wheedling secrets out of gouty old generals as she snuggled up to them in bed.
I suppose I should have known better, having immersed myself in ‘secret’ history for so long. It’s almost never like that. MI5, during the time they were watching Eva, were a bunch of boring old soaks – read Stella Rimington’s account of her time as head of MI5 – and rather stupid to boot. Most of the people they kept a watch on as suspected foreign spies or ‘subversives’ were entirely innocent – Edward Heath told a story of how they would follow a man they spotted in Tube train for reading the Daily Mirror – or otherwise they missed them. That was usually because the real spies were upper-class, and they couldn’t believe that people they’d been to Public School with could be traitors. (That’s how they missed the ‘Cambridge Five’.) They were also professional liars (of course), which is why they couldn’t necessarily be trusted on Eva Reckitt. Unfortunately its records on her only bear out my earlier experience of MI5’s activities. They consist almost entirely of mail intercepts and phone taps; which may have told the Security Service something useful about Eva’s Communist contacts, but otherwise – these are MI5’s words – ‘little of value’ about her. I’m glad I didn’t have to rely on them for this chapter. The Hull History Centre file on her has proved of rather more use.
So, what can we find out from that? Well, she came under the eye of MI5 because she was a Communist, and Communists were regarded as tantamount to traitors at that time. (Nazis weren’t, by the way; and indeed some MI5 officers were rather that way inclined themselves.) Her early years were spent in a house called ‘Park Field’, behind York Road, close to Westwood, and then, from 1895, in St Mary’s House, Hengate, which was later badly damaged by fire and demolished. (The site is now the War Memorial garden). In 1901 however, when Eva was ten, the family moved to the south coast. (So strictly speaking she wasn’t a Beverley woman.) The Reckitts were originally a Quaker family, but Eva’s mother Helen was in fact ‘high’ Church of England; and her brother Maurice became a leading Anglo-Catholic. Both were major influences on her. Remember that many Anglo-Catholics were social reformers then. As a child Eva describes herself having been brought up in a ‘conventional conservative and religious’ family, and ‘imprisoned not by poverty but by convention and affection’ – a telling phrase – and with ‘no function’. It was at her very poor secondary school (apparently) that she began to leave her ‘Conservative’ background behind, and to take up radical reading – HG Wells, GB Shaw, Chiozza Money, Robert Blatchford – which led her to progress quite quickly though the ‘New’ Liberalism of the time – veering to socialism – and the Independent Labour Party, on to Fabianism and beyond. Initially, however, she kept her new convictions to herself, for fear of upsetting her father. After his death by suicide in 1927 she felt free-er, she later wrote, to ‘come out’ as a Communist. In the meantime she was a leading worker in the Labour Research Department.
Her social radicalism had been reinforced by a spell of war work in a munitions factory, where – as she later wrote – ‘I saw something of the conditions of work and housing in the factories… particularly for the women workers.’ She was of course (!) a suffragist, but not very actively. Living on the south coast, and moving in the same political circles as he, she must have met Robert Tressel, of Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist fame. She was friendly with the Communists there, but didn’t join the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) initially because of its sectional hostility to other ‘Left’ groups (Monty Python’s ‘Splitters’); until ‘Dimitrioff’s call for a United Front… against Fascism… broke down my resistance and I joined the Communist Party in 1934’. (Georgi Dimitrioff, a Bulgarian, was the head of the Russian Comintern, responsible for the spread of socialism beyond the USSR.) That incidentally was after MI5 began taking an interest in her.
So far as the CPGB was concerned her main value was as what one of her comrades called a ‘milch-cow’, donating generously to the Party and other Left-wing causes. She may also have been instrumental in bringing Russian money over to Britain – what was called at the time ‘Moscow gold’ – to supplement this. (She made at least three trips to Soviet Russia, under the guise of fetching out documentary films.) The CPGB always denied it was financed from Moscow, but we know now that it was. That could well have been a major reason and indeed a justification for MI5’s interest in her. She may also have acted as a channel between the KGB and its many spies in Britain. All this foreign activity is strictly guesswork on my part, as it probably was for MI5; but it seems to me to have been a reasonable suspicion. I don’t blame them for stalking her.
If her political activities had been confined to this, she wouldn’t, I think, have been of outstanding interest. In a letter to Professor John Saville, written four years before her death in 1976 – Saville was working on his entry on her for the Dictionary of Labour Biography – she wrote that in her ‘lone and rambling life’ she ‘seem[ed] to have had a very small finger in so many “progressive” pies… that I find it very hard to see what is at all relevant or interesting for publication.’ I don’t think that was false modesty. – But then came the bookshop.
I may be wrong, and I’ve not known Eva (vicariously) for very long; but it’s my strong impression that books, and especially radical literature, were her major interest and love all along. In the 1920s, feeling under-educated in this respect, she enrolled at University College London to read Philosophy, where she won a First Class degree, was appointed as a lecturing assistant, and offered a Readership. That pointed to an academic career. But she gave that up partly through illness (she had bouts of quite serious ill health throughout her life), but partly also because of her ‘realisation’, as she wrote later, ‘that my outlook on these subjects differed too markedly from that taken for granted in the faculty.’ (Why are we not surprised?) She obviously felt at a bit of a loose end – ‘with no function’, as she had complained about her earlier life. But then, as she wrote: ‘out of the blue came the chance of Collet’s.’
Collet’s was of course the famous left-wing bookshop that used to be in Charing Cross Road until quite recently. It had been a radical bookshop previously, popularly known as ‘the bomb shop’, which Eva bought up on its previous proprietor’s death, in 1934, apparently at Harry Pollitt’s request. (Pollitt was general secretary of the CPGB.) She didn’t call it Reckitt’s, for fear I think of offending her family; but instead used her middle name. So ‘Collet’s’ it became; an invaluable resource for political left-wingers who could find very few shops willing to stock their ‘subversive literature’; and in perfect time for the wave of popular political books that swept over the reading public at this time: Penguin’s sixpenny ‘Specials’ and Victor Gollancz’s ‘Left Book Club’ among them. The rest, as they say, is history. She ran Collet’s supremely well, by all accounts; and on a non-profit basis, consistent with her politics. She didn’t flinch when the Charing Cross Road shop was attacked and smashed up by Fascist gangs. Collet’s blossomed out into other cities, and other kinds of merchandise: gramophone records, for example, selling jazz and what today is called ‘world music’; and consumer goods from Russia and China – arousing yet more suspicion from MI5. Eva Reckitt had found her métier at last.
There: that’s the boring history. What can we say about her?
Well, all the accounts from people who knew her personally painted her very sympathetically. She was ‘a kindly and generous person with a streak of shrewd determination and a refreshing candour about accepted conditions’; ‘petite, with a flamboyant personality’, and with ‘gaiety and a quick wit’. Young people apparently found her particularly attractive. She was fond of music, playing the violin, and was apparently a budding composer early on, to judge from a ‘Chant’ by her preserved in the Hull History Centre file, and apparently sung in Chichester Cathedral in November 1907 – when she was 17. She travelled a great deal, mainly in politically-sensitive parts of Europe. As well as the CPGB she gave oodles of money to the Spanish Republicans, the Peace movement, the Daily Worker, and – latterly – the anti-Vietnam War movement. (Remember she lived until 1976.) Another thing that contemporary acquaintances remarked on was her continued loyalty to Moscow Communism, even after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, when many other Socialists (including I think John Saville) left in disgust. This may be because, despite her Philosophy degree, she took little interest in political theory. Which would explain why she resolutely refused to get caught up in the doctrinal rows that divided Socialists from other Socialists in the 1930s (and later), which she regarded – surely rightly – as weakening the far more vital general socialist and anti-fascist cause. But sticking to the Moscow line must say something more about her: her loyalty, perhaps; or her cussedness.
There’s something else about her. As a young girl her preferred reading – before she got into the subversive stuff – was boys’ literature: Henty, school stories, comics. She never married, which of course was expected of upper-middle class women at the time, but formed her deepest friendships with other women, including what one French account calls ‘une relation ambiguée’ with Olive Parsons, wife of a well-known communist, which lasted for 60 years. She was passionate about cricket, and once admitted that she always wished that she had been a boy, so that she could have played for Yorkshire. All this suggests to me – though I’m chary of speculating in this area – that she wasn’t entirely happy being a woman; or, at least, one who was expected to fit the normal expectations of middle-class women (wife, mother) at that time. The only female stereotype you might say she did conform to was the ‘Lady Bountiful’ one: a rich bored middle-class woman dispensing charity to the poor. Except in her case the ‘charity’ came in the form of Communist propaganda, which she clearly felt would help the poor more than the customary bowls of soup and cast-off clothing could do.
On the other hand she was, of course, as an upper-middle class ‘spinster’, privileged beyond what 99 per cent of other contemporary women could expect to be. She had no expectations to live up to, apart from the conventional womanly ones. She had independent means, which was why she could be so charitable. She could live her own life, without a man to support her. She could also have her own ideas; even quite shocking ones.In fact she wasn’t alone, even among very upper classes women, in espousing ideas that appeared to go against her class interests. (Daisy Greville, the socialist Countess of Warwick, was one.) We could do with more of her kind today.
And she still might, of course, have been a spy for the Russians, as MI5 suspected, but way too clever for those sozzled old dummies to pin down. We can’t tell for sure, in the ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ that is the Secret Service World. But I don’t think that would have made her any more interesting. I have to say that, after a very brief acquaintance, I’ve rather fallen for her.