Lou Kenton: Political activist who resisted the Blackshirts and served in the Spanish Civil War


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The Independent Online

The life of the political activist Lou Kenton was linked to many of the great causes and campaigns of the British left during the last century. He resisted Oswald Mosley's men in the Battle of Cable Street and served in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

Born in East London, the eldest child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, he left school at 14 and took various factory and warehouse jobs. Joining the Young Communist League, he recalled, gave him a "totally new outlook on life". He began reading books, writing poetry and practising sports, later claiming to have had his nose broken twice, once in the ring and once in a fight with Blackshirts. The British Workers' Sports Federation, an offshoot of the YCL, chose him as one of their three competitors in the 1931 Spartakiade in Moscow, a left-wing version of the Olympics, with Kenton swimming for Britain.

The following year he started work in Fleet Street, soon founding and editing The Anti-Fascist Printer, which claimed a circulation of 10,000. In 1933 he married Lilian Artner, a Jewish-Austrian refugee. They lived in Holborn, where he became secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party.

Kenton was one of the tacticians behind the successful effort to stop the police clearing a path for the Blackshirts to march through the heart of the East End on 4 October 1936. During the Battle of Cable Street he deployed his Party branch members to occupy the area around Aldgate station. Then by motorbike he sped from section to section relaying news of police movements that were being monitored by roof-top look-outs.

Many of the demonstrators at Cable Street travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades in their fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Lou and Lilian did so in July 1937; she went on ahead and Lou rode through France on his flat-twin Douglas motorbike. He worked as a despatch rider, taking messages and mail to and from the various fronts, and was reunited with Lilian when sent to work as an ambulance driver at a hospital at Valdeganga, where she was a physiotherapist.

They returned to England in August 1938, though Lou made two further journeys to Spain. In January 1939 he drove an ambulance donated by print workers through France but, by the time he reached the border, Catalonia was falling to the fascists and he was faced with scenes of horror. He wrote years later: "Looking back on those days it was terrible: the spectacle of seeing refugees pouring over the frontier, wounded carrying wounded, mothers carrying children, some of them already dead, and the utter despair on the part of thousands of refugees who were being pursued by the advancing fascist army."

The second journey came later that year after Franco had triumphed and he was detailed to accompany a party of 30 refugee Basque children being repatriated to Spain. Seventy years afterwards he still remembered the reluctance of the children to cross the bridge at Hendaye into Spain: "Sometimes I cry when I think of it, the children hanging on to me, not wanting to go. It took all day. They all went back and we never saw any of them again."

When war broke out in 1939 he joined the crew of a whaler that sailed to the Antarctic for six months, then returned to work in a munitions factory in Chiswick, west London, where he was to settle with fellow Communist Party member Rafa Ephgrave, whom he married in 1941 as soon as his first marriage was dissolved.

After the war – his foot was left permanently injured during the Blitz – the couple threw themselves into political activism, with Lou employed full-time by the party. He was an instigator of the "Homes for Heroes" campaign of 1946 that saw demobbed soldiers and bombed-out families take over prominent empty buildings in London.

Following an over-subscribed Bastille Day trip to Paris for party activists in 1949, Lou and Rafa went on to found Progressive Tours, the money-making holiday and travel arm of the Party, which often provided the only means of visiting Eastern Europe during the Cold War. In 1952 he became full-time secretary of the British Czechoslovak Friendship League.

They became enthusiastic supporters of the reform process known as the Prague Spring in 1968, even planning to open an English pub in Prague. So the arrival of Soviet tanks in August that year was a devastating blow. Ties with the BCFL were severed; he left the party and joined Labour.

He also returned to Fleet Street, as a copy-reader at the Financial Times, and developed a passion for pottery-making. He built a kiln in his garden and applied his skills to creating ceramics to support union causes. The first was a mug for the year-long print workers' strike at The Times in 1978. Mugs were produced for the People's March for Jobs in 1981 and the 1984 miners' strike. The latter is currently on display at the V&A in London.

Two countries loomed large in Kenton's life: Czechoslovakia and Spain, and he had the satisfaction of seeing both restored to democracy. In 1992 he met the Czech president Vaclav Havel at the inauguration of a 50th anniversary memorial garden for victims of the Lidice massacre by the Nazis. Kenton was honorary secretary of the British appeal that raised money for the project.

In 2009 he was one of nine International Brigade veterans at a ceremony at the Spanish Embassy in London, where they were awarded Spanish citizenship. "Your efforts were not in vain," Ambassador Carles Casajuana told them. "Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today."

Louis Kenton, political activist, printer, businessman and potter: born Stepney, London 1 September 1908; married 1933 Lilian Artner (divorced 1941), 1941 Rafaela Ephgrave (one son, one daughter); died Ealing, London 17 September 2012.