The 1920’s

The critical period of my own imaginative life, the period of its liberation and of its  impregnation with an imagery that I cannot relinquish, was  spent in wandering  around the vast cordilleras of Spain. Those hills, in the days when I was still a factory  worker in a cramped and spectrumless town, were already in my mind. They were  legendary to me, though I had not heard their tale. 

                                                                                                                                                             Ralph Bates {1}
 Certainty itself flowered. In England I was a dolphin in a wood, wildly out of place. If I   tried to live in England I should always be fighting naval battles in a forest.

                                                                                                                                                             Ralph Bates {2}

 In the Biography I mentioned that Ralph had been influenced by E. H. Spender’s book Through the High Pyrenees, published in 1898. It seems possible that Ralph would have joined the Mechanic’s Institution when he started work in the Great Western Railway factory.
The Institution began life in 1844 to help the betterment of railway employees. It organised educational lectures and evening classes, and opened a library, which by the time of Ralph Bates’s birth contained over 20,000 books, including a copy of Spender’s Pyrenees book (under reference 19487). Sadly, today the Institution’s building, which is Grade II* listed, is in a poor state of repair. In 2012 the Victorian Society listed it as one of the ten most endangered Victorian buildings in the country.

In 1991 an American Professor of history, James K. Hopkins, interviewed Ralph Bates in New York. Ralph stressed that his experiences during the Great War were influential in his developing political beliefs. According to Ralph, “It was the humiliation, the constant humiliation, the way in which we were treated…and…the monstrous lying which was the basis of the power.” Ralph added that, “The class attitude was rigorously … (and) sharply defined as any Communist could have wished it to be. And it was sharpened from above rather than from below.” {3}

Hopkins felt that, “What the writer (Bates) wanted was to live in a society in which the kind of abuse of authority he had known in the British army did not exist…His maturing  philosophy, though powerfully felt, did not yet have a center. His belief was that human rights and the dignity of man were inherent and immutable. They could ‘not be conceded by these people.’ Moreover, he believed that any society that ignored or abused these rights was to be condemned and fought against, whether in England or Spain. In his own view, the vital power of these convictions ‘was much more revolutionary than the Communists.’ ” {4} Ralph told Hopkins that, “My imagination had become Spanish, my whole existence was a rebellion against…suppressive traditions.” {5} In Spain, “One could say, “Down with the Church!” and “Up with this!” with impunity. In a word, it was possible to be “open.” (Bates) said, “There was no need for all that mumbling hypocrisy,” which he knew so well in England. {6}

Ralph Bates also expressed similar sentiments in this passage from Lean Men.

 They were moving out towards peace, towards purity and innocence, and it filled  him  with the same quiet joy that he experienced in those rare moments of license when  he permitted himself to think of what life would eventually be like in a society  from which poverty, violence, the ceaseless battle of classes and war had been  eliminated, where the spirit might drink as deeply as it wished of knowledge, art, of  music and all things lovely that haunt the tormented spirit of man.

In the Biography I discussed Ralph’s comment about going to Spain in search of his great-grandfather’s grave in Cadiz. In the book Into the  Heart of the Fire  - The British in the Spanish Civil War James K. Hopkins writes, “Relatives on his father’s side once included merchant captains with offices in Málaga who made regular voyages carrying cargo to Spain. But the firm had gone bankrupt about ten years before Bates was born.” And, “(Bates) told an interviewer that during World War 1 his great-grandfather died and was buried in Cadiz, and that it was his photograph that first drew him to Spain. So far, I am unable to identify this man.

We know that when Ralph left the army in 1918 he returned to work in the GWR factory in Swindon, Wiltshire. According to the Guardian obituary:

By 1923 he had joined the Communist party. But the childhood lure of further places was strong, and he was soon off to Paris, where he had a job as a street-cleaner. Then he worked his passage on a ship to Spain, where he bummed around, surviving on odd jobs. {7}

The same story is also related in the introduction to the 1986 reprint of Bates’s novel The Olive Field:

Bates had gone from his native England to Spain in the Twenties with the backing of the Communist International.{8}

According to H. Gustav Klaus:

When in 1923 (Ralph Bates) chose a Continental place of residence, it was… Barcelona… From here he made regular excursions to the interior of Catalonia     and the Pyrenees, becoming a passionate and experienced mountain climber. {9}
The comment about Ralph leaving England for Spain in 1923 probably comes either from a brief note, “About the Author”, which appears in the 1966 edition of The Olive Field, or else from another note, also called “About the Author”, which appeared on the dust-jacket to the American edition of the book Lean Men, published in America in 1935. The comment in The Olive Field reads:
  “In 1923 Bates went to Spain. First living in the Pyrenees, he became an expert  mountain climber. Later settling on the Costa Brava, he worked on the docks and  as  a fisherman and organized a fisherman’s co-operative…”
The note in Lean Men is considerably longer, and is worth considering in its entirety.
 Ralph Bates was born in 1899 at Swindon, a small industrial town in England. He  entered the local factory when he was sixteen, and at eighteen he voluntarily  enlisted in the army. After demobilization, he went to Marseilles and got a job,  lodging meantime with a group of dock workers. Later he went to Barcelona. He  says: “Undeclared civil war reigned from 1920 to 1923 in Barcelona and I more  than saw it…One never knew when a bullet would get the man by one’s side, or the  man by his.” The girl Teresa in “Lean Men” is drawn from life (in Barcelona) as is  the  Texido of the book, who was Mr. Bares’ gang mate on Mallorca wharf. Later Mr.  Bates walked across Spain, working his way as a tinsmith and odd-job man.
 When he returned to England he found himself “a Latin in a grey Saxon land,”  and  he went back again to Barcelona. He says: “I worked for a year quite  contentedly, and then a few of us formed a small literary club. Towards 1930 it  became actively political: the Dictatorship was already falling. Many of the things  we did are in “Lean  Men”. I have smuggled arms across the Pyrenees; I have  helped a friend escape from  Spain: and I have taken part in most of the  revolutionary strikes of recent years. All the dated e vents in “Lean Men” are  historical, including the final tragedy. I saw it. I was in Madrid the night of April  14,  1931, and I saw the republic declared there in the capital and not in Barcelona.”
 Mr. Bates was in Spain till late in 1931. Between then and 1933 he found and held a  number of fleeting jobs, the last being that of warehouseman in an electric clock  factory. While out of work he took to writing.

Both accounts leave the reader feeling that Ralph Bates was permanently in Spain from 1920/23 onwards. But, as we will see below, this was just not the case and there is a suspicion in my mind that Ralph was not above altering the facts of his early life to strengthen his reputation as an expert on Spain and its affairs.

We know that Ralph was living in Swindon in 1927. On Thursday, 23rd June, 1927, he addressed a “factory gate meeting” somewhere in Swindon, probably the GWR factory. The meeting was witnessed by the local police and a copy of their report was forwarded to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in London, who, it seems, already held a file on Ralph (RF 301/MP/2075). {10}

We also know that on 21st July, 1928, at Kensington Registry Office, London, Ralph married Winifred Eades Spink, a teacher then living at 118, Talbot Road, London, W11. Ralph’s occupation was given as “Fitter at Railway Works” and he stated that he was then living at 66, Graham Street, Swindon.

We can definitely say that, according to extant GWR records, Ralph was still working at the GWR factory in Swindon on 3rd November, 1920. And one extant GWR document clearly shows that Ralph “resigned” on Friday, 2nd May, 1930. His weekly wage was then shown as 42/- per week.

During the period 1927 – 1929 Ralph made a number of trips to France. He arrived at the French port of Dieppe on 8.8.27 and departed, presumably for England, from the port of Boulogne on 12.11.27. He then returned to Dieppe a few weeks later, on 26.12.27, returning from that port on 9.1.28. Records also survive which show that Ralph arrived in Dieppe on 28.7.28 and 25.12.29. Presumably, he must have left France sometime during this period, or else he would not have been able to re-enter the country on Christmas Day, 1929.

Some of these trips may have been for holidays and it may be that, as an employee of the Great Western Railway Company he received free or subsidised rail travel. Some dates, 26.12.27/9.1.28 and 25.12.29 could be Christmas-time holidays taken in France, but the 3 month period 8.8.27/12.11.27 is harder to explain.

The above mentioned travel dates were taken from Ralph’s cancelled passport, number 229051, which had been issued on 23.3.26 and was valid until 31st March, 1931. When Ralph applied for a new passport in 1936 details of the immigration stamps within his old passports were forwarded to the Security Service by the Passport Office. In fact, Ralph Bates’s Security Service file begins with a note from the Service to the Passport Office, dated 28.12.26, asking if the Passport Office can identify a Ralph Bates who was then staying at Damrak 35, Amsterdam. This person was helping a Ralph Fox “with material regarding the Java uprising, which (Fox) is collecting in Holland for the Left Press”. The note adds that “there are indications that (Bates) has now moved to Germany”.

Ralph Bates did know Ralph Fox (“He was one of my best friends…he was a man I naturally delighted to be with”) and wrote a tribute to him in the book Ralph Fox – A Writer in Arms, London, 1937. Ralph Winston Fox (1900 – 1937) read history at Magdalen College, Oxford and joined the Communist Party in 1926. He wrote numerous articles for the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper, before being killed in Spain on the 2nd January, 1937.

The Passport Office correctly identified Ralph, saying that he lived at 15, Dowling Street, Swindon. They described him as “an engineer, born Swindon 3.11.1899, 5’ 9”. Brown hair and blue eyes” and added that Ralph wished to travel to Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Austria, “for the purpose of touring for pleasure”.

The Security Service then asked the Secret Intelligence Service whether or not they were able to confirm Ralph’s stay in Amsterdam, but did not receive a reply until 4.7.27 when they were told that Ralph had not stayed at the Amsterdam address during December, 1926.
I find it interesting that when Ralph applied for a passport on 18.3.26 he said that the first two countries he wished to visit were Holland and Germany. It may well be that he intended to travel to these countries with Ralph Fox, but, as there are no Dutch or German stamps reported in his passport, coupled with the fact that the Secret Intelligence Service could not find him in Amsterdam, it seems probable that Ralph did not accompany Ralph Fox on this journey. 

                                                                                                            * * * * *
 The world was too young to understand communism, perhaps; a communist might be  either honest or intelligent, it thought, but not both. The world was ashamed of the  doctrine of equality, yet it was that inescapable, undeniable ideal of all mankind  which, unsatisfied, whispered in the heart of men and kept them in sickness, a  profound malady of spirit which would last until mankind resolutely set about its  great revolutionary task, of creating Life.

                                                                                                                                           Lean Men, New York, 1935, p 542.
Before I end this section, I would like to return to the The Guardian obituary, which stated that, “By 1923 (Ralph Bates) had joined the Communist party.” Many people who knew Ralph Bates during the 1920’s and ‘30’s referred to him as being “a communist”. Others implied that he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But, in a letter, written to H. Gustav Klaus in 1989, Ralph Bates said that, “You must remember that I was not a formal card-carrying member of the British Communist Party. I was a left socialist revolutionary and a close and trusted friend of Harry Pollitt”. {11} Ralph continued, “I joined the PSUC in Catalunya and was a member of UGT workers union (in Spain)”. The PSUC was the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (The Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia) and was made up of three socialist groups and one communist group – the latter being the Catalan branch of the Spanish Communist Party. However, according to James K. Hopkins, “At the early stage of the formation of the British Battalion (of the International Brigade) Bates wrote to Harry Pollitt reminding him that he was ‘the leading English party member here now that T.W. (Tom Wintringham) has gone’.” {12} Hopkins added that, “Bates professes, however, not to have actually been a member of the (Communist) party. Yet in his public role in Spain he appeared indistinguishable from a high-ranking communist. {13}

Two things spring to mind. Firstly, when Ralph says that “T.W, has gone”, was he is referring to the time when Tom Wintringham was seriously wounded in 1937, or to the time, in 1938, when Wintringham was expelled from the CPGB? And, secondly, Ralph clearly calls himself a “party member”. Remember that this letter was addressed to Harry Pollitt, head of the CPGB, and it is most unlikely that Ralph would say such a thing to Pollitt if it was not true. Therefore, are we now to assume that Ralph Bales was, at that time, a member of the CPGB, despite what he later said to academics? Could this fact possibly now explain all those trips to France and Spain in the 1920’s and early ‘30’s. Was Ralph working, say, as a courier between the CPGB and the Spanish Communist Party? It certainly seems unlikely that he would have been going to Spain around the Christmas/New Year period to climb in the mountains. Perhaps we should end here with these words by Professor James K. Hopkins, “(Ralph Bates) was, however, in certain respects a shadowy and mysterious figure, and therefore easy to misunderstand.” (Into the Heart of the Fire, p. 236).
As a footnote to this subject, I might add the following which concerns Ralph Bates’s relationship with Tom Wintringham, mentioned above. During the Spanish Civil War Wintringham was in charge of the British troops in the International Brigade. At one point he took up with an American journalist, Kitty Bowler (whom he later married). Some members of the Brigade felt that Bowler might have been a Trotskyite spy and a number of people have tried to discredit Ralph Bates because of a letter which he wrote to Harry Pollitt at the time. Part of the letter reads:

 Everyone here was very disappointed with Comrade Wintringham. He showed levity  in taking a non-Party woman in whom neither the P.S.U.C. (the Communist Party of  Catalonia) nor the C.P.G.B. comrades have any confidence to the Aragon front. We  understand this person was entrusted with verbal messages to the Party in London.  We are asked to send messages to Wintringham through this person rather than the  Party headquarters here. The Party has punished members for far less serious  examples of levity than this. {14}
Hugh Purcell, in his biography of Tom Wintringham, calls this “a very rude report”. {15} However, considering how many people appeared to mistrust Bowler, I find that I cannot share Purcell’s opinion. Purcell, incidentally, refers to Ralph Bates as “a veteran Party member” in this same passage.
But, there may well have been other reasons for Ralph Bates to mistrust Tom Wintringham. As I say in the Biography, in 1916 Ralph tried to join the Royal Flying Corp, but was turned down, officially because of his poor eyesight. There were several other young men with Ralph on his selection course, all of whom had been pupils at various public schools. Some of these boys clearly disliked Ralph, who had attended a state school, and made it difficult for him when he was on the course. These events, I suggested, were one reason why Ralph Bates turned towards communism. By chance, Tom Wintringham, a public schoolboy, also applied to join the Royal Flying Corp and was accepted on 5th June, 1916. I suspect that this must have clearly rankled Ralph when he met Wintringham, especially as Wintringham also had poor eyesight.
1. New Theatre & Film, New York: March 1937; Volume IV (22) No 1, p. 14.
2. The Dolphin in the Wood, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1950, p. 265.
3. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire. The British in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford, California.  1998, p. 68.
4. ibid, pp. 68 – 9.
5. ibid, p. 69.
ibid, p. 69.
7. Valentine Cunningham, The Guardian newspaper, 12th December, 2000.
8. Valentine Cunningham, in the Introduction to The Olive Field, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986.
9. H. Gustav Klaus, “Homage to Catalonia: the Fiction of Ralph Bates”, London Magazine, volume 28,  issue 11 – 12, (February, 1989), 45 – 56.
10. Information regarding Security Service and Special Branch monitoring of Ralph Bates can be found in  the National Archives, Kew, under reference KV2/2175.
11. Details from this letter passed to me by email from H. Gustav Klaus on 17.10.14.
12. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire Stanford University Press, Standford, California. 1998. p.  236. The original letter is housed in the Marx Memorial Library, London, under reference:  Box C 8/3,  f. 3.
13. Hopkins, ibid.
14. Marx Memorial Library, London, Box C, file 7.
15. Hugh Purcell, The Last English Revolutionary, Sutton Publishing, Thrupp, Gloucestershire. 2004, p.113.