Leo Baeck 2


Apr 2002 Journal

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Fascism in Hampstead, 1945-1949

The HONOURABLE PETITION of the undersigned inhabitants of the RESIDENTIAL Borough of Hampstead asketh for HAMPSTEAD HOMES for HAMPSTEAD PEOPLE and prayeth for the prompt repatriation of the thousands of Austrian and German refugees who have taken up residence here and have turned so many of these houses and flats into factories and workshops, which same houses and flats are now sorely needed for our returning daughters and sons and for our evacuated daughters and their children.

The starting point for this article was the discovery of the existence of the above petition, which was signed by over 2,000 Hampstead residents in October 1945 and handed to the MP for Hampstead at the House of Commons. The Hampstead Petition Movement, which urged the expulsion of German Jewish refugees, together with the anti-petition response at the end of 1945, set the scene for a series of both proto-fascist and full-blown fascist meetings that were held in Hampstead in the remaining years of the decade. The ‘story’ of fascism in Hampstead is recreated in the weekly pages of the Hampstead and Highgate Express (hereafter Ham and High), together with the many local issues arising from postwar reconstruction, and constitutes an integral part of the social and cultural history of the area.

Refugees in Hampstead population in 1945

The population of Hampstead during the war dropped from over 90,000 to 58,000 due to military service and the government’s evacuation programme. It is difficult to ascertain the precise numbers of refugees in the borough in the 1940s as sources vary. According to the then home secretary, Chuter Ede, there were 9,168 refugees of German or Austrian origin in Hampstead in 1945, occupying 3,093 dwelling places, whereas, according to Hampstead at War, published after the war by the then Hampstead Borough Council, by 1941 ‘the records show that the alien population had increased to almost 24,000.’ Certainly the proportion of refugees within the local population was extremely high.

Anti-refugee feeling

Local feeling about the influx of refugees was closely connected to the housing shortage in the area, the result of extensive bombing. In the months before the presentation of the Hampstead petition (see above), both ‘Heathman’s’ column and several letters printed in the Ham and High reflected anti-refugee feeling in Hampstead. ‘Heathman’ suggested, ‘at the risk of being dubbed a xenophobe’, that the government should prepare lists of the refugees and the ‘approximate times they will leave for their own homelands’. Then the properties vacated could be used for the returning servicemen and women. ‘Optimist NW3’ claimed that ‘There is a decided danger of political trouble if a large number of foreigners is allowed to settle here.’ Another letter expressed horror at a spate of ‘anti-semitic scrawlings’ on public buildings in Hampstead, including a swastika over a United Nations poster outside Swiss Cottage station. ‘Hampsteadian’ complained that German ‘is now a common language in the Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park district … surely it is not illogical to look forward to a time when to hear German spoken here is the exception rather than the rule.’

Hampstead petition

The main headline of the Ham and High for 12 October 1945 read ’2000 residents will send petition to Parliament’, followed by ‘Aliens should quit to make room for Servicemen.’ The petition was organised by two women in Belsize Park, Miss Sylvia Gosse and Mrs Margaret Crabtree. It was supported by Flight Lieutenant Challen, the MP for Hampstead, and was signed by over 2,000 residents, including the mayor and several councillors. The formulation and circulation of the petition were largely the result of links with various proto-fascist groups, including the Women’s Guild of Empire, the Fighting Fund for Freedom and the Face the Facts Association.

Anti-petition meeting

Within weeks the petition had sunk into disrepute, thanks to a powerful opposition lobby that organised a ‘Protest against Prejudice’ meeting and the circulation of a counter-petition. The vigorous Hampstead branch of the Left Book Club was notably active in opposing the arguments contained in the petition, and, indeed, was primarily responsible for organising the anti-petition meeting. The meeting was very well attended and received extensive coverage by the local press. Some of Hampstead’s best-known residents, including Julian Huxley, Peggy Ashcroft and Dr C E Joad, sent messages of support. A panel of well-known speakers, including Victor Gollancz, Eleanor Rathbone and Ernest Raymond, the Hampstead novelist, offered factual information, considered opinion and a moral position.

Letters in the press

The Ham and High printed extracts from a selection of letters both for and against the petition. The correspondence represents the arguments and the depth of feeling that had been engendered by the refugee issue in Hampstead. Those in support made the point that the refugees were better housed and better clad than the English and could obtain food ‘no Englishwoman could afford to buy.’ One ex-serviceman questioned why he should pity ‘foreigners who are living in ease while English families are existing in Nissen huts.’ The letters against the petition represent a more humane response to the idea of ‘throwing out the refugees’. One such letter called the petition movement ‘a replica of that Nazi bigotry whose logical conclusion was exposed at Belsen.’

This article has been adapted from the author’s MA dissertation in Modern History at Birkbeck College, University of London. The second and final part of the article will appear in the May issue of AJR Journal.
Catherine Shepherd

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next article:Identifying and recovering works of art