The British Fascists. The 1920s
The 1920s, like the whole inter-war period, were a time of protracted economic, social, and political crisis. Throughout the decade unemployment in Britain never fell below a million. Although the South East generally escaped the worst ravages of the economic crisis, industrial parts of the region (such as the Medway Towns) were certainly not immune from unemployment. The Towns depended overwhelmingly on Chatham Dockyard for employment, and the 1920s saw large-scale lay-offs by the Admiralty, which were not reversed until the mid-1930s. There were persistent rumours of the Dockyard's impending closure throughout the 1920s.
The decade saw bitter class conflict, epitomised by the General Strike of May 1926. The Strike was called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on behalf of the miners, who faced savage cuts in their wages. It ended in defeat when, after nine days, the TUC General Council sounded the retreat (much to the disgust of most strikers). In the Medway Towns engineering workers (at Short Brothers' aircraft works in Rochester, and at Aveling and Porter's factory in Strood), printers (at Mackay's of Chatham), barge workers, stevedores, railwaymen, and tram workers all struck. There was, however, no strike at Chatham Dockyard. The Chatham and District Trades Council reported that overall the strike had still been holding firm locally at the time of the TUC's decision to surrender.
In the political arena too the 1920s were years of upheaval. 1924 saw Britain's first Labour government, which (lacking an overall majority) lasted less than a year. Nevertheless, the party of the organised working class had at last occupied the government benches and supplanted the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives. A further minority Labour government took office after the 1929 election when, for the first time since 1906, the Medway Towns returned a Labour MP (in the shape of S Frank Markham, the Member for Chatham).
To the left of the Labour Party stood the Communist Party of Great Britain, founded in 1920 under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution. By the late 1920s the Party had begun to establish itself in the Medway Towns, as in other industrial areas, chiefly among the unemployed.
The "British Fascists"
It was against this backdrop of crisis and class conflict that the first British Fascist organisation developed. The "British Fascisti" (their somewhat unfortunate acronym was the "BFs") were founded in 1923 by Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman, in emulation of Mussolini's Fascist movement, which had seized power in Italy the previous year. Capitalising on a political and economic crisis Mussolini had promised "discipline" and "order". He set about destroying democracy, outlawing the trade unions and parties of the Left, and instituting a murderous dictatorship. Miss Lintom-Orman (the daughter of a Major and granddaughter of a Field Marshall) dreamt of doing the same in Britain.
From the outset the British Fascists (as the Fascisti became to avoid charges of "foreign influence") were organised along quasi-paramilitary lines. In the 1926 General Strike squads of Fascists undertook organised strike-breaking activities, with the tacit approval of the military and civil authorities.
It was also not unknown for Fascist squads to be found stewarding Conservative Party public meetings. This was due to the significant overlap between the BF's leadership and those on the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party known as the "Die-hards". (The BF's leadership consisted of, as one historian of British Fascism has put it, "retired military officers of the Colonel Blimp type, Die-hard conservatives, landed gentry and emancipated middle-class women".) The BF's Grand Council included a former Conservative MP (Colonel Sir Charles Burn); and at least one serving Tory MP (Sir Robert Burton Chadwick) was a member of the BF. John Baker White, a member of a prominent east Kent land-owning family and a future Tory MP for Canterbury, was a member of the Fascists' Grand Council (as was his mother). In his memoirs White praised the Fascists for fighting the Communists "with their own methods ... in many bloody and sometimes considerable battles at street corners and public halls". He also described Rotha Lintorn-Orman as "one of the bravest people I have ever met".
The BF in Gillingham - April 1927
Given these connections, it is perhaps not surprising that the BF's first appearance in the local press in the Medway Towns was in connection with a gathering held at the Gillingham Conservative Club and attended by the Conservative mayors of Gillingham (Alderman J Bate) and Rochester (Cllr Bert Ward).
The occasion was a "supper and smoking concert" on Tuesday 5th April 1927, held to inaugurate a new "Vat" (i.e. branch) of a bizarre organisation known as the "Ancient Order of Frothblowers". The Order was a social organisation which (as the name suggests) was devoted ostensibly to the consumption of alcohol. The Frothblowers were also overtly associated with right-wing politics, specifically those of the Conservative Party. Just how right-wing they were is evident from the reception given to their guest speaker at this particular gathering, Capt. W Turner-Coles "Vice-President and Chief of Staff of the British Fascist movement".
An account of the event, written for the Chatham Observer by the secretary of one of the Frothblowers' local branches, related that Capt. Turner-Coles had been introduced as a fellow Frothblower to the assembly (which included a Captain, a Lieutenant, two RAF Flying Officers, and two local doctors, as well as their worships the mayors). His position within the British Fascists "ensured for him deep attention, and the hope was apparent that he would have something to say about that subject". The Frothblowers were not disappointed. Speaking for ten minutes Turner-Coles explained that the Fascists were "not a group of hooligans who go around in black shirts, looking for trouble", but "a body of loyal Britishers who were prepared to fight the Red menace". (The reference to black shirts is an allusion to the uniform worn by Mussolini's followers.)
He justified the Fascists' paramilitary organisation as necessary to defend the right of free speech for "Constitutional candidates" at elections. In reply to his rhetorical question "were they going to allow free speech to people who ran down the Constitution and all that was held dear?" his audience replied with cries of "No".
Turner-Coles evidently made no attempt to conceal the Fascists' willingness to use violence against their political opponents. "They were prepared, when force was necessary, to meet force with force", he declared. He continued that "whilst there were many organisations that did better work in the way of propaganda than the Fascists did, he was right in saying that the Fascist organisation was the only one in existence prepared to fight real trouble, give sufficient man-power, and really scrap when the scrapping came along".
The chairman of the meeting (who rejoiced in the title "Tornado" W Sandall) tried to link the Fascists' objectives with the Frothblowers' favourite recreation: "Just as I am sure the Frothblowers will beat Prohibition in America, so I am sure the Fascists are going to beat the Socialists in this country".
Turner-Coles' speech apparently had the desired effect, being met throughout with loud applause and cries of "hear, hear". And at its conclusion Frothblower "Blaster" Harry Reader "expressed, amid applause, his intention of joining the Fascist movement after hearing Capt. Turner-Coles' speech, remarking that he was a King's man, and that they were not doing enough against the Reds". He added that "I am afraid we shall not get them down unless we join an organisation like the Fascists".
The week after publicising Capt. Turner-Coles' speech, the Chatham Observer, for the benefit of those who desired to learn more about the organisation, listed the BF's aims. Chief among these were "to oppose Communism and any movement that is calculated to endanger the Throne, the Constitution and the Empire by all the means in our power" and "to foster pride of race". "In brief', concluded the Observer, "the British Fascist movement was started to counteract treachery by patriotism".
The Observer also obligingly informed its readers that a branch of the BF already existed locally (as well as branches at Maidstone and Gravesend), and printed the name and address of the Gillingham "Recruiting Officer" (Mr W J Bullock, Mezaler House, Beresford Road).
How much progress the BF made as a result of the good offices of the Gillingham Conservative Party and the Chatham Observer is not known. Nationally the BF had begun to falter by 1927. It suffered a series of splits, and Miss Lintorn-Orman succumbed to a very bad drink problem. After her mother cut her allowance the BF very quickly slid into bankruptcy.
In truth the BF was something of a joke organisation (although the acts of violence committed by its members against political opponents were far from amusing). The BF effectively collapsed in 1932, when most of its active members defected to Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF). Throughout the 1930s the BUF was to make strenuous efforts to establish a base in the Medway Towns, meeting with some success, but also a great deal of concerted opposition.