It was a very British crime. Elsewhere, in the cities of mainland Europe, bands of political extremists from both Left and Right roamed the streets, seeking out violent, sometimes deadly, confrontations with their opponents, as they fought for control of the continent. But when the rising star of British communism was abducted by fascists, he was put up in an agreeable country pub for the night, before his abductors sent him on his way with a slice of cake and a cup of tea.
Harry Pollitt, who would later become the general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was 34 years old in 1925 and working as a boilermaker at Tilbury Docks. He also led the National Minority Movement, a communist grouping within the trade unions, and, according to the press, he had insurrectionist ambitions: ‘once the trade unions have been captured they will be converted into purely revolutionary organisations,’ he was quoted as saying, in a front-page Daily Express exposé headlined ‘Plot by British “Reds”‘.
On Saturday 14 March 1925, Pollitt took the train from London to Liverpool, where he was scheduled to address a meeting of the Movement. He expected to be met at Lime Street station by a group of his comrades, but he didn’t get that far. Instead, when the train stopped at Edge Hill station around half-past-nine, two men, wearing caps and mufflers, entered his carriage and pulled him out onto the platform, where they were joined by two others. He was taken out of the station – his captors explaining to railway employees that he was drunk – and bundled into the back of a car, driven by a fifth man.
It was a long drive and a damp, chilly night. When Pollitt shivered with the cold, he was offered a scarf and coat. The men tried to keep the windows obscured, but occasionally Pollitt could see signs looming up out of the darkness. Ruabon and Mold came and went, so clearly they were in North Wales, but there was no apparent logic or direction to their journey. It was getting on for two in the morning by the time they stopped, at what turned out to be the Liver Inn in Rhydtalog, Flintshire, some eight miles west of Wrexham.
The publican – one Thomas Bold – was woken, and while his wife prepared rooms for the party, he served his six guests a supper of eggs and cold beef in the kitchen. According to Bold’s later account, there was nothing suspicious about their behaviour. ‘If Mr Pollitt had only dropped a hint to me,’ he reflected, ‘I would have protected him; but everyone was so genial and pleasant.’
After supper, Pollitt was escorted to bed by three of the men. The weather was getting to his chest and he had trouble sleeping, so one of his guards fetched some mustard oil and rubbed it in for him – ‘and did it very nicely too,’ conceded Pollitt later.
The next morning, the group enjoyed a hearty breakfast, then sat around discussing ‘various topics of the day’ until lunch. Finally, some twelve hours after their arrival, they settled their bill, and drove off. Their progress was interrupted when a wheel came off the car, but they managed to hitch a ride on a butcher’s cart, which took them to Shrewsbury. The kidnappers bought Pollitt a cup of tea and a cake and put him on a train back to London, leaving at 5 o’clock that evening. They also returned his bag, though he subsequently noted that they had removed his papers. ‘On the whole,’ he concluded, ‘I have nothing much to complain about their treatment.’
When Pollitt arrived back in the capital, his tale wasn’t received ‘with the seriousness which such an outrage would seem to merit,’ according to the Manchester Guardian. ‘The general belief is that whatever took place was some stupid ragging game of students.’
There were some, though, who had their doubts, and two Labour MPs raised questions in the House of Commons about the possibility that right-wing extremists were behind the abduction, an allegation denied by the British Fascists. The home secretary gave assurances that the police would investigate.
Those investigations appear to have been highly efficient. Within three days, five men had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to assault Pollitt and with his unlawful imprisonment. Their ages ranged from 25 to 35, and they were variously employed as a garage proprietor, a tailor, a cotton salesman and (in two cases) as commercial travellers.
All were members of the Liverpool branch of the British Fascists, obliging the area commander, Staff Captain W.J. Lewis, to admit that the earlier denial had been incorrect, while making clear the organisation stood behind its men:
We had no knowledge that our people went in until after the event, but now we find our members were engaged in the enterprise we shall protect them every inch of the way. It may prove that what they have done is a great national service.
Evidently the fighting fund that was set up was well subscribed, because when the five men came to trial they were represented by Sir Henry Honywood Curtis-Bennett, a QC who was also the Conservative MP for Chelmsford. (His junior, incidentally, was David Maxwell Fyfe, later to be one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials and a Tory home secretary.) All five pleaded ‘not guilty’, despite having previously admitted their involvement to the police.
The defence case was that Pollitt had merely been the butt of a practical joke, undertaken on the group’s own initiative, to keep him from speaking in Liverpool. After his first reaction of shock, he had gone along with it – he was ‘a willing prisoner’ – because he had swiftly calculated that the stunt would be good publicity for him. That was certainly the line Curtis-Bennett took when questioning Pollitt. You’re a famous man, he suggested, and the communist couldn’t help but agree: ‘Yes, and I am only quite young.’ Ah, famous early in life? ‘That is the ambition of everybody,’ replied Pollitt.
The defendants further claimed that at Shrewsbury, they’d had a whip-round and given Pollitt five pounds to compensate him for any inconvenience or financial loss he might have suffered. At this, Pollitt shouted ‘You’re a liar!’ from the back of the court, earning himself a rebuke from Mr Justice Finlay.
Summing up, the judge said it was a question of freedom of speech:
What a terrible business it would be in this country if people could take the law into their own hands, and could, if they chose, seize upon a particular person holding views which were obnoxious to them – and perhaps to the majority of individuals – and lock them up.
There seemed little doubt that he was amongst those who found Pollitt’s views ‘obnoxious’.
The jury took thirty minutes to return a verdict of ‘not guilty’.
Still, there were few prepared to take any of this seriously. A foolish prank, was the general conclusion of the press. In October that year, however, the Labour Party’s annual conference debated and passed a motion on the subject:
That this Conference, realising that the verdict in the recent Pollitt kidnapping case was merely an instance of class prejudice on the part of juries, calls for such an alteration in the law as will ensure adequate representation of all workers on juries.
The property requirement for jurors still applied at this stage, and the fear was that this wasn’t just an isolated incident: the hostility shown towards Pollitt in the court could apply to any one of them, any prominent member of the labour movement. At a time when industrial tensions were high, and many were confidently expecting a general strike, the judicial system could not be expected to act impartially.
As if to make the point, within a fortnight of that conference, Harry Pollitt was himself in the dock, arrested and charged – along with eleven other communists – with seditious conspiracy under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797. He received a twelve-month sentence.
Despite which, it’s still hard not to conclude that the snatching of Pollitt wasn’t the most serious of incidents. In Italy, Mussolini’s thugs were punishing their opponents by forcing them to drink a whole bottle of castor oil, resulting in chronic diarrhoea that could incapacitate a man for a week. In Britain, by contrast, the fascists rubbed mustard oil on their victim’s chest to ease his cough. It really was a very British kidnapping.