Lou Kenton

Lou Kenton

Lou Kenton, the first of nine children, was born in Stepney in 1908. His Jewish parents had fled from the Ukraine during the pogroms. Lou was one of nine children living in a three-roomed flat. His father, a tailor, died of tuberculosis when he was a child.

After leaving school at fourteen Kenton got a job in a paper factory in London. He later recalled: "On my first day at the factory, I was involved in seven fights. I reacted very badly to being called a Jew bastard."

Kenton joined the Communist Party in 1929 and was involved in the campaign against Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the East End of London. This included heckling at the famous BUF meeting in Olympia meeting in 1934. Kenton also took part in the battle of Cable Street in November, 1936. He later recalled: "I had a motorbike at the time and was able to whizz around the periphery of the crowd, going from section to section to warn them what was going on. We had a number of people watching the Fascists and quickly telling the crowd what was happening. We were able to get word to the majority of the crowd in Commercial Road, which was some way from Cable Street, of what was happening. The dockers themselves were manning Cable Street and had thrown up barricades. As soon as the word got around that Mosley was on the way towards Cable Street, within minutes thousands of people were there. Although hundreds of police and the Mosley crowd tried to break through, they were stopped."

Kenton married Lillian, an Austrian nurse who had fled Nazi Germany. Soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Kenton and his wife attended an anti-fascist meeting with Ben Glazer. "One evening myself and Lillian and my dear friend Ben Glazer walked along the Embankment. We walked - stopped at many coffee stalls - talking, wondering what it would be like in Spain. We didn't finally decide until we reached a coffee stall at Westminster Bridge, opposite the House of Commons. I think we had already decided to go, but didn't say so in as many words. I think we were deeply fearful in our hearts, hut none of us wanted to show our fears. What would it be like? Would we ever come back? What if we were captured? And when we decided - how we embraced! Lillian kissed us both. We linked arms and walked almost cheerfully down Whitehall to the all-night Lyons Corner House just off Trafalgar Square for more coffee and eggs and bacon. From there we decided that tomorrow morning we would go and volunteer."

Lillian Kenton joined the nursing staff set up by the British Medical Aid Committee. Lou wanted to join the International Brigades in the front-line but the Communist Party arranged for him to work with the medical teams that had been sent to Spain. He arrived in Valdeganga soon after the Battle of Jarma. "Every day I was either on my motorcycle or driving an ambulance, picking up wounded from the base camps. Often I would go to different units of the battalion scattered around Spain with messages or parcels of medical equipment, where they were in short supply.... I lived on grapes growing by the roadside, for days on end." Kenton returned to England in 1938 to raise money for the Republican Army.

During the Second World War he was badly injured in a bombing raid and was hospitalised for two years. According to his friend, Steve Donnelly: "After the war he worked as an organiser for the Communist party in London, and helped run the ex-servicemen's squatting movement. He incentivised recruitment by offering a trip to Paris for Bastille Day as a prize. The trip soon became an event in its own right and in 1947 it attracted 1,000 people who paid their own way."

Kenton continued to work in the print industry. He was also played an active role in Progressive Tours, the travel company that organised trips to communist countries in Eastern Europe. In 1955 he organised a trip to the village of Lidice, the scene of one of the worst German atrocities of the war, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. The village was razed to the ground and its 173 male inhabitants were murdered. The 198 women were sent to a Concentration Camp in Ravensbueck.

Kenton remained in the Communist Party until the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. He then became active in the Labour Party. According to Steve Donnelly: "In retirement he found a new career, as a prolific maker of commemorative pottery for unions and other organisations. In 2009, he was one of the IB veterans awarded Spanish citizenship."

Lou Kenton, died aged 104, in September, 2012.

Primary Sources

(1) Lou Kenton, The Real Band of Brothers (2009)

At that time London was a much-divided place - in the east there were lots of trade unions, factories and the tailoring was mostly Communist. The first big encounter was when Mosley announced that he was going to march through the East End of London on 4 October 1936. His main slogan was "down with the Jews". We had enough notice to run a campaign against the march. Until then Mosley had had setbacks, but was going from strength to strength. The point we tried to bring to public attention was that this was not just a provocation of the Jews: this march was an attack on the people of Britain as a whole. We tried to win the support of all sections of the population, which indeed we did. Not only the local trade council, but trade union branches from all over London and other parts of the country, supported the campaign to stop Mosley marching through east London. Of course, the Jewish population was on our side, although the official view of the Jewish Board of Deputies was "Don't make trouble - just be quiet". But we were able to get the majority of the Jewish population of east London on our side, as well as the dockers - they were the main big sections. Every grouping also had a job to do in the organisation of the whole of what has now become known as the Battle of Cable Street. My job was to organise my own Party branch of Holborn, which included the print workers, to occupy the ground around Aldgate Station. Mosley was going to march from the Minories (around Tower Hill), where he had assembled with the help of the police, through Aldgate, along Whitechapel Road, into Bethnal Green, where he had a certain amount of support I had two jobs, firstly for my branch to be the first line of defence in Aldgate. What we were supposed to do I don't know - there were only about thirty or forty of us and we didn't know how big the crowd would be. We imagined that we would hold the Mosley crowd for even a few minutes, while the rest of the crowd would rally. In the event, the crowd was great: it stretched right along the Whitechapel Road, Commercial Road, Gardiner's Corner, right up towards Aldgate Station itself. The crowd was so thick that you couldn't move. There were a number of trams in the area and they were stuck in the middle of the crowd. You can imagine the sight - something like half a million people with these trams stuck all over the place. Of course, the word got to Mosley, and to the police, that they couldn't possibly go through Aldgate.

They tried to redirect the march the other way, down Leman Street from the Minories into Cable Street, making a detour of Whitechapel Road. I had a motorbike at the time and was able to whizz around the periphery of the crowd, going from section to section to warn them what was going on. We had a number of people watching the Fascists and quickly telling the crowd what was happening. We were able to get word to the majority of the crowd in Commercial Road, which was some way from Cable Street, of what was happening. The dockers themselves were manning Cable Street and had thrown up barricades. As soon as the word got around that Mosley was on the way towards Cable Street, within minutes thousands of people were there. Although hundreds of police and the Mosley crowd tried to break through, they were stopped. Mosley then had to go back to the Minories and finally the police chief said there was no possibility of them going through the East End. They turned round and went the other way, towards the City, to the Embankment, and dispersed. That was really the great Battle of Cable Street: a major historic event and the first real defeat of Mosley.

Can you imagine the celebration throughout the East End that day? People were dancing in the streets, hugging each other. They had defeated Mosley - defeated Fascism. And although people had not yet fully realised what Fascism was, they could see what the Fascists' intentions were.

(2) Lou Kenton, The Real Band of Brothers (2009)

I was married to Lillian at the time and we were living in Holborn and we were both very active. I was in Holborn at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the branch, being more or less in the centre of London, helped to steward the big meetings taking place in Conway Hall, Farringdon Hall and Kingsway Hall. Appeals were made for money, food and support - they were very enthusiastic meetings.

I remember clearly, when the revolt started, how immediately the whole of the left-wing movement rallied in support of Spain. The majority of the people, however, didn't take much interest and a good many were influenced by the press of the time, which condemned it as a Bolshevik, anti-Christian revolution. On our side we got to know early on about the real issues in Spain. The formation of the International Brigades gave it a personal interest, as people we knew began to make their way there.

Very quickly we began to know the background to the Spanish struggle and the campaign in support of the Spanish Government grew in strength. Soon after the start of the civil war, Mussolini and Hitler sent Italian and German armies and air force over to help Franco. The Spanish Government, the legitimate government of the day, tried to buy arms. Britain and France were able to win the support of the League of Nations on a policy of so-called non-intervention. The reality of non-intervention meant that the Spanish Government was unable to buy arms, while the Fascists were free to buy what they wanted. The Spaniards were only able to get arms from Russia in a limited quantity, and from Mexico. Right through the war the army of the Spanish Government was far worse equipped than the Fascist side.

In Britain the movement grew in a number of ways. An organisation called British Medical Aid had been set up to raise money for ambulances. Very soon they opened first one and then another hospital in Spain. British doctors and nurses went to service these and other front-line hospitals. There was a great campaign to raise money and whole lorry-loads of food were sent. There were also the youth food ships for Spain, which brought regular supplies. The British navy blockaded the coast and tried to stop the food ships, but several got through the blockade. Then, very soon, the refugees from the Basque country came over - we had several hundred Basque children in Britain who were looked after mostly in and around London. I think hardly a week went by without demonstrations and meetings taking place. Gradually the movement grew and became a very powerful crusade.

While this was happening individuals were going to Spain, isolated from each other, and joining one of the Republican units when they got there. Then the call went out throughout the whole world for volunteers to form the international Brigades.

One evening myself and Lillian and my dear friend Ben Glazer walked along the Embankment. We walked - stopped at many coffee stalls - talking, wondering what it would be like in Spain. We didn't finally decide until we reached a coffee stall at Westminster Bridge, opposite the House of Commons. I think we had already decided to go, but didn't say so in as many words. I think we were deeply fearful in our hearts, hut none of us wanted to show our fears. What would it be like? Would we ever come back? What if we were captured? And when we decided - how we embraced! Lillian kissed us both. We linked arms and walked almost cheerfully down Whitehall to the all-night Lyons Corner House just off Trafalgar Square for more coffee and eggs and bacon. From there we decided that tomorrow morning we would go and volunteer.

(3) Lou Kenton, The Real Band of Brothers (2009)

Before I got to Valencia I found the place where wounded Brigaders were convalescing after the Battle of Jarama and that was where Lillian had been sent. It was wonderful to see her. We lost more than half Of our battalion, killed and wounded, in that battle. It wasn't just a convalescent home - it was also being used as a hospital. There were a number of wounded, several nurses had been in Jarama and they told me that it was very, very serious, very tense. One nurse from the north had had a nervous breakdown and said to me, "You mustn't come out here, young man. You should go back home. We don't stand a chance." Another nurse who had been with her tried to calm her and said to me, "It is tough, but you knew what you were coming to, anyway." Very soon, those who were well enough to travel went to a proper convalescent home which was run by British-speaking volunteers, at Benicasim. The others either went hack to the front, or to one of the hospitals for further treatment. I was told to report to one of the British hospitals in a place called Valdeganga. We had two hospitals - one in Valdeganga and one in a place called Cuenca. I reported and I spent the rest of my time in Spain based in Valdeganga. I took Lillian with me on the bike.

Every day I was either on my motorcycle or driving an ambulance, picking up wounded from the base camps. Often I would go to different units of the battalion scattered around Spain with messages or parcels of medical equipment, where they were in short supply.... I lived on grapes growing by the roadside, for days on end.

I have one feeling of unease - whether I did the right thing or not I don't know. On one occasion when I was at Albacete I met Wally Tapsall, who was the political commissar of the battalion, and Fred Copeman, who was a commander. When they saw me with the bike, they said, "Hey, we want you in the battalion - we could use you."

I said, "OK - by all means. You just get in touch with the hospital."

They said, "Oh no, it would take too long. You just come along and we will straighten it out later."

I said I wasn't prepared to do that, because I was attached to the hospital. I often wonder whether I did right. It is one of those things - you never know.

I remember when Harry Pollitt, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, came to speak to the battalion. He took a number of the wounded and members of the staff to hear him. It was a wonderful experience, because Harry was a well-known speaker. He had the art of speaking about what you felt in your own heart and on this occasion he spoke with such pride of the men who were there and pride in the fact that it was the Communist Party that inspired the formation of the Brigade.

(4) Steve Donnelly, The Guardian (30th September, 2012)

The defeat of the Spanish Republic left Lou Kenton briefly depressed, but at this time he met his second wife, Rafa, whom he married in 1941, and with whom he spent the rest of his long life.

In the second world war he initially worked on a whaler in the south Atlantic. Back in Britain, he was badly injured in a bombing raid and was hospitalised for two years. After the war he worked as an organiser for the Communist party in London, and helped run the ex-servicemen's squatting movement. He incentivised recruitment by offering a trip to Paris for Bastille Day as a prize. The trip soon became an event in its own right and in 1947 it attracted 1,000 people who paid their own way...

Lou's faith in the Communist party was shattered by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and both he and Rafa left to join the Labour party. Professionally, Lou returned to newspapers, working at the Financial Times well into his 70s. In retirement he found a new career, as a prolific maker of commemorative pottery for unions and other organisations. In 2009, he was one of the IB veterans awarded Spanish citizenship.