Andy Andrews: Centenarian political activist

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The Independent Online

Andy Andrews admonished those present at his 101st birthday party in Taunton in February for going on too much about his lifetime of political activism. After messages of congratulations from Tony Benn, the CND chair Kate Hudson and other left-wing luminaries had been read out, he rose to his feet and complained: "I want less adulation and more politics", and went on to urge the gathering of friends and fellow activists to look to the future and consider instead how to support workers and trade unionists in their struggle.

His remarks were typical of this modest man who devoted much of his life to radical causes. In the 1930s, he confronted Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts; he was the oldest surviving British veteran of the International Brigades who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War; he was a trade-union activist in the NHS during the post-war years; and as a centenarian, he could still be seen on the streets of Taunton selling the Morning Star, collecting signatures against Britain's Trident nuclear weapons or opposing the Iraq war.

At the age of 16, Andrews joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to India. "I became a red from the first time I set foot in India," he said. The poverty and injustice shocked him. At Bombay docks, he saw scores of Indian women in ragged clothes, some with babies strapped to them, loading heavy sacks of coal on the steamships. "We went over to the Indian foreman, who told us that it was not unusual for a pregnant woman to carry on working until she was due, go inside the warehouse and have the child," Andrews recalled years later. He turned to his companion and said: "If this is the jewel in the English Crown, I want nothing to do with it."

Then, with an Indian regiment, he was posted in 1926 to the British garrison in Shanghai where, in April of the following year, he witnessed the massacre of thousands of Chinese Communists by Chiang Kai-shek's government forces.

After discharge from the army in 1931, he worked at Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital, Hammersmith, became active in the local branch of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement and in Kilburn, where he lived, he held street-corner meetings in which, standing on a chair, he would denounce the iniquities of British imperialism. First he joined the Independent Labour Party, then the Communist Party, which was organising the street protests against the Fascist Blackshirts. "They used to try and come into Kilburn, but we always got enough people and saw them off," he said.

More ambitious was a plan to disrupt a Mosley rally in the Royal Albert Hall in March 1936. Andrews and other anti-Fascists infiltrated the meeting, spreading out around the auditorium with a supply of leaflets. "At a given signal, we all let go. There was immediate pandemonium. Blackshirt thugs came after us and I was given one hell of a thump in the stomach and thrown down two or three flights of stairs. When I crawled to the entrance, I was thumped again, except, this time, two policemen were standing nearby. One of them came over and kicked me himself."

When General Francisco Franco and other generals launched their Fascist-backed uprising against Spain's democratic government in July of the same year, Andrews was one of the first Britons to volunteer to help the Republic. He travelled by ambulance through France, arriving in Barcelona at the end of August, and remained in Spain until March 1938. As part of the newly formed British Medical Unit, he first served at a field hospital at Grañen on the Aragon front, then from January 1937 he worked as an operating-theatre technician at the International Brigades' main base at Albacete.

His main job was to keep all the medical equipment sterile. An American nurse, Esther Silverstein, remembered his hard work and attention to detail:

He operated five or six primus stoves at once, all filled with gasoline. On top of these sat pressure cookers, and in each lay a metal drum containing supplies being sterilised. From this unit Andrews supplied us with the laparotomy sheets, sponges, towels, dressing, gloves, gowns and masks. He had one primus stove which always had a tea kettle "on the boil", and from him I learned to drink strong tea with milk in it.

From Albacete, he was sent to Teruel during fighting in and around the city in the winter of 1937/38. Working in makeshift hospitals that came under attack from German and Italian planes, on one occasion he had to dive behind a wall to escape machine-gun fire directed at him from a plane swooping out of the air.

He was shortly to relive the experience. In 1939 he rejoined the British army and was sent to France with the Royal Artillery. At Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation in May 1940, he was once again strafed by German planes.

In 1955, Andrews settled in Taunton, Somerset. He worked as an assistant in the pharmacy department of Musgrove Park Hospital, where he met his future wife, Winifred. He became a union shop steward, helped to establish a branch of the Cohse health workers' union and was subsequently its secretary for many years.

After his retirement in 1972 came a lull, which lasted until 2005 when he was "discovered" by chance by a local trade-union historian who was astonished to find someone with such a distinguished radical past living anonymously in the area. The final years of his life saw a return to the activism of his youth. In 2006 he spoke at the annual Tolpuddle trade-union festival. That year he returned to Spain for the first time since 1938 to attend a reunion of veterans in Barcelona, which he described as "one of the finest weeks I have ever had in my life".

He declined a 100th birthday greeting from the Queen and sent her a letter protesting against the proposed replacement of Trident nuclear weapons rather than spending more money on the NHS. Last year, he was on stage at Glastonbury, imploring a younger audience to continue the anti-Fascist fight and reject the BNP.

Aged 99, he even rejoined the Communist Party, which prompted a bemused official from party HQ who was processing his application to contact the International Brigade Memorial Trust to verify Andrews's identity and remarkable background.

Jim Jump

Keith Howard "Andy" Andrews, political activist: born London 15 February 1907; married 1965 Winifred Perry (died 1996); died Taunton, Somerset 7 May 2008.