A short biography of Frank Leech, anarchist active in Glasgow for more than 30 years
“We who knew him personally realised that his breezy manner and sunny smile came from his generous heart, and were not assumed to cover any distasteful thoughts or actions” - Fred Ogden, Stockport anarchist
“I knew him as a worthy friend and comrade over a period of almost 30 years. He attacked opposing ideas but never the personal frailties …of an opponent. In all those years I never knew him to accept or make a mean remark about his fellows,..” - Harry T. Derrett
“His claim to our affection and respect was in his completeness and integrity as a person. He was immensely strong, he seemed able to turn his hand to anything and handle any situation., he was witty and shrewd and kind. Frank Leech wa s a revolutionary not through a grudge against life but because he loved life.” - Freedom Press Group
Frank Leech was born to Irish parents in Wigan. He joined the Navy in 1916 during World War One where he became service heavyweight champion in boxing. In 1920 he was in Glasgow after demobilisation. As he wrote: ”The last world holocaust had finished, and most of those who had survived were back home ‘demobilised’. It was International Labour day. Many were marching in the processions to the Flesher’s Haugh in Glasgow. The meetings were in progress. Speakers holding forth from their various platforms, John Maclean amongst them. Around the meetings, literature sellers were busy. One of them, a middle-aged man of somewhat smaller stature than most. He was holding up two publications, Freedom and George Barret’s The Anarchist Revolution. The earnestness of his quiet appeal, ‘Comrade, you should read these’, drew my attention - I purchased. I saw him many times at following meetings, often in the company of Willie McGill.(1) I learnt his name - Alex Howie. These two comrades were responsible for sowing the seeds of anarchy in my thoughts."
Frank Leech worked in the mines before becoming a newsagent on the Netherton Road in Glasgow with his gratuity from the Navy. He became active in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF). When Guy Aldred approached Leech in 1934 to get a pamphlet published, which seemed to endorse Trotsky’s views on the Soviet Union, Leech declined to cooperate.
In 1935-37 he sheltered some German anarchist refugees from the Nazi regime. He helped them print an underground bulletin from his shop. As Dr Thomas Robertson wrote: “Many were the men and women, mostly the outcastes of the social order, who he helped. He assisted considerable numbers who had fled from the wrath of Hitler’s Germany or Franco’s Spain. One of these men, I remember, he kept in his house for a long time and even provided a printing press from which poured out German propaganda and invective against the then regime!”
With the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution and the resurgence of anarchist propaganda in Glasgow, Leech and the APCF were heavily involved in activity., distributing much propaganda and organising street corner meetings at every opportunity. When Spain and the World was set up in 1936, Leech joined its editorial team., and the APCF circulated the paper widely in Glasgow.
The London Freedom Group began to cooperate more closely with the APCF and its secretary called upon Guy Aldred and his group the United Socialist Movement to join them in the agitation and activity, writing: “Get unity with the APCF surely it is not impossible. I am in cooperation with them and there is no earthly reason why the USM should not be.” It was decided to merge Freedom and the APCF paper Advance and bring out a new united paper called Fighting Call, edited by Leech.
In October 1936 the APCF stated “It is time that in this country all personal and party pettiness was abandoned and a real united front shown to the common enemy, international capitalism and fascism. The “Fighting Call” is a concrete example of the efficiency of such an alliance. It is the joint production of the Freedom Group, London and the APCF, Glasgow”.
However Aldred insisted that it was he who should get the CNT-FAI “franchise” as it was the USM which had first become involved in activity around Spain. Things began to deteriorate further when the USMer Jenny Patrick accused Leech of being a “capitalist” for running a newsagents. Leech replied by arguing inside the APCF against unity with the USM. “You express the desire for unity between the USM and the APCF. You might as well desire unity between the Roman Catholic Church and the Freethought movement….The APCF believes in and practices members democracy….The USM on the contrary, is in practice a congregation with Guy Aldred as high priest, the members follow like sheep, accepting his authority without question.”
When a unity meeting between the APCF and USM took place on 18th March 1937, the much-offended Leech demanded a public apology from the USM for the slurs about the way he made his living before any unity talks could continue. Leech resigned from the APCF in April or May of 1937 under obscure circumstances, whilst relations between the USM and APCF improved drastically. In May he published the pamphlet The Truth about Barcelona, based entirely on a CNT-FAI Boletin de Informacion.
In August 1937 Leech and other ex-members of the APCF formed the Glasgow Anarchist Communist Federation (ACF) working closely with Spain and the World and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union (ASU) which had been set up by Ralph Barr. When Emma Goldman undertook her tour of Scotland in March 1938 it was under the auspices of the ACF as her relations with the USM and APCF were not as cordial. It also produced the CNT-FAI Boletin de Informacion in English. In 1939 it published pamphlets by the Argyll anarchist Harry Derrett Under the Fifth Rib and Goldman’s Trotsky Protests Too Much.
In 1940 the ACF merged with the Marxian Study Group of James Kennedy to set up the Glasgow Group of the Anarchist Federation of Britain. It produced a few issues of The Anarchist, but then concentrated on writing for and circulating War Commentary, which had taken the place of Spain and the World in London in November 1939. It clearly signalled its analysis of the Soviet Union as state capitalist when it published Maximov’s Bolshevism: Promises and Reality.
The Glasgow Anarchist Federation involved itself in industrial activity around a strike by bus drivers and conductors in November 1941, and at the end of 1943 in strike action in the Lanarkshire area. It was also involved in the strike at Barr and Stroud’s engineering factory when 200 women came out over pay on 13th December 1943. The strike organised outside official union structures ( three quarters of the women belonged to no union). The Glasgow Anarchist Federation addressed the strikers: “ You have demonstrated that you can organise without the Trade Unions…and yet you have taken part in one of the most solid strikes of recent years”. Leech followed this up by writing: “We would like to see you forming Committees to prepare for the taking over of the factory and commencing the production of the goods you require”.
Leech, along with James Kennedy, Eddie Shaw, and Frank Dorans were arrested in August 1940 for inciting people to evade duties and responsibilities relating to conscription laid down in an Act. The basis for this was that they had offered advice and information to prospective conscientious objectors and had held mock tribunals to prepare them for this. They were found not guilty.
In November 1943 Leech was summoned to the Sheriff’s Court for refusing to register for fire-watching.
Leech: Twenty seven years ago, during the war of 1914-18 , I volunteered for the armed forces, being partly taken in by the decoy phrases similar to those used in this war. They then were “Poor Little Belgium”, “Land Fit For Heroes”, etc…
Sheriff: I will not listen to a political tirade. I also served in the last war, and perhaps did more than you.
Leech: I want to explain why I did not register. I discovered that our ruling class were not concerned with “Poor Little Belgium”, or a “Land Fit For Heroes to Live In”, but were only concerned with the preservation of their right to hold the common people up to ransom, demanding their labour or their lives.
Sheriff Would you rather be in Nazi Germany?
Leech: No. we anarchists opposed Hitler and Mussolini when your ruling class, including Winston Churchill, were praising and supporting them. Today, November 11th, you hypocritically remember those who fell in the last war. But November 11th has another meaning for the anarchists. It is the anniversary of the day in which the Chicago anarchists were hanged on a framed-up charge in 1887. We still remember. Today, you threaten me…
Sheriff: I don’t threaten you.
Leech: The very fact of your position is a threat to me. You threaten me with imprisonment or a fine if I refuse to obey you, but neither of these punishments would be as heavy as the punishment to myself if I gave in to authority in these issues. That is all I have to say. Do your worst."
He received a £25 fine or in default 60 days imprisonment. He refused to pay the fine and was imprisoned in Barlinnie jail. He then declared a hunger strike which went on for 17 days, until some friends, against his wishes, paid the fine. There was a lot of sympathy for him among the Glasgow working class, with the women workers at Barr and Stroud’s making a collection for him in recognition of his help in their strike. When he left Barlinnie the tram conductress refused to take his fare.
“Big Frank “ Leech spoke every Sunday on Glasgow Green to hundreds of workers, he addressed factory gate meetings outside the Royal Ordnance Factory, he wrote for Freedom on industrial matters. He died at his home on January 2nd, 1953 of a heart attack, some say brought on by hearing that Herbert Read was accepting a knighthood!
1. Willie McGill was described as “a fiery old anarchist-atheist” by Sylvia Pankhurst. From Pollokshaws, he was active in an association of freethinkers there, the Progressive Union, where he met John Maclean, another native of Pollokshaws. He chaired the American anarchist Voltarine de Cleyre’s talk to the Progressive Union on her Scottish tour. An old foundry worker, on retirement he and his wife then set up a newspaper shop in George Street, Glasgow. An enthusiast of the Daily Herald, McGill became its Glasgow agent and lent the local Daily Herald League the use of his shop for meetings. The Clyde Workers ‘ Committee used it as its headquarters. Years later the Minority Movement met at his shop. McGill stuck with the Herald right through, even in the 1930s when it became quite a different paper. During the big strike in Dublin in 1913, McGill went out with a barrel-organ every Saturday night to collect money for the strikers in the streets and around theatre queues, raising at least a couple of pounds every time. At the end of November 1915 whilst MacLean was in jail for 5 days, McGill held a meeting in City Hall to agitate against conscription and to welcome MacLean on his release.
Shipway, Mark. Anti-parliamentary Communism.
Articles in Freedom, January 17th and January 24th 1953