A transatlantic pilgrimage achieved its goal today when the relatives of men who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War gathered around a newly refurbished bench honouring the volunteers on Hampstead Heath.
Mariah Wilson - the grand-daughter of International Brigade member Joe Gibbons - flew in from New York and was joined by her father David Wilson from Florida. They met up with Mariah's London-based cousin, Ted Sandling - a relative of another of the men honoured, Milt Cohen - to visit the bench and to pay tribute to the courage of their forbears.
The original bench with an inscription honouring the Gibbons brothers and their comrades was in such disrepair that it was set to be removed. Heath runner Martin Plaut was familiar with the bench and wanted to ensure that well-wishers had an opportunity to keep alive the memory of this band of International Brigaders. That led to a blog here all of six years ago - which eventually caught the attention of Mariah Wilson in the US.
Until then. Mariah was entirely unaware that her family members had a memorial bench on the Heath. For her, organising a replacement bench with a slightly modified inscription became a Pandemic mission. The bench was installed in June - the story is told here along with an account of the volunteers and what befell them in Spain and afterwards. And this morning, she and David flew in and made more-or-less straight away, along with Ted, to see the bench.
They were joined by Marlene Sidaway, president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust which seeks to keep alive the memory and spirit of those who volunteered to resist fascism in 1930s Spain.
Quite by chance, as the group approached the bench today a young man was sitting there enjoying the view. He had noticed the inscription and it bore a powerful echo of his own family's experience. Alex Baro, a freelance film maker, is from Barcelona, and lost family members in the brutal Battle of the Ebro in 1938 which sealed the fate of the Republican forces.
The bench is in a wonderful, tranquil spot - looking out on the ponds and beyond towards Highgate. It's a beautiful spot for the Brigaders to be remembered.
Mariah commented: "I'd like to think Joe and his brothers, as well as Milt Cohen and Pat Dooley were all smiling down at our gathering today :)"
For all those who paid homage on the Heath today, it was a special moment!
Coming Up for Air
The damming work on Hampstead Heath (it's supposed to be a flood prevention scheme, but when this is one of the highest points in the city, what exactly is the flood peril?) is making quite a mess of the 'model boat' pond and surrounding area. But some curious relics are being uncovered after decades under water.
What is that you see in this picture? Yes, it really is a car - coming up for air after many waterlogged years in NW3.
True car afficionados may be able to make out the model (a Cortina, possibly?) - all I can say is that the scrap value could well be very modest And how did this car get to the bottom of a Heath pond? Someone, somewhere, must know more.
This mud-coloured sedan is even more of a talking point on the Heath than the heron, the parakeets, the ever-declining standard of cappuccino at the cafe. And the big question - will it be hauled out and junked, or once more consigned to a watery resting place when the flood prevention work is done?
DANNY TOMMY JOE GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL BRIGADERS 1936-1938
PAT DOOLEY SPEAKER AT PARLIAMENT HILL EDITOR 1901-1958
THEIR FAMILY PROUDLY REMEMBERS APRIL 1980
That's the inscription on a bench on Hampstead Heath - just a five-minute stroll from Kite Hill, bordering a copse of pine trees, and looking out east to Highgate. My friend Martin Plaut came across this rather out-of-the-way bench while doing his morning sit-ups. It's in some disrepair. He's trying to contact the family to see if they would be on board for a bit of fund-raising to spruce up this rather touching memorial.
The International Brigaders were those left-wingers who went to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. More than 2,000 headed out from Britain - 500 or so never returned. I had the privilege to meet and interview a few of them towards the end of their lives. The International Brigade Memorial Trust keeps their memory and spirit alive - though this modest memorial seems to have escaped the otherwise comprehensive list on their website.
Danny Gibbons, a Scotsman who moved to Camden, was a communist and for a while the political commissar of the British contingent of the Brigades - there's a brief biographical note about him here. He was wounded at Jarama in February 1937 and was sent home to recuperate. He insisted on going back to Spain, was arrested by Franco's troops, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange involving German and Italian officers. His younger brother Tommy died in Spain, in the battle for Brunete in July 1937.
Joe (his real name was Patrick) volunteered with the American battalion in Spain - there's some details on this site. And there was a fourth brother, John Gibbons, who was apparently refused permission to join the International Brigades - according to some accounts, the CPGB leader Harry Pollitt, said with three brothers risking their lives, it would be wrong to have a fourth Gibbons fighting in Spain. He was, all the same, a very loyal member of the Communist Party and spent many years in Moscow.
Kathleen Gibbons was Danny's second wife, and her maiden name was Dooley. That may be the link with Pat Dooley - about whom I have been able to find out little. (Can anyone help?) A biography of the bohemian inter-war poet Anna Wickham mentions Pat (his real name was Lawrence) Dooley as an activist who made rousing left-wing speech at the top of Parliament Hill in the 1930s and '40s. Strange to think of this as a pitch for outdoor speakers!
I have a feeling that this blog will be returning to the story of the Gibbons brothers ...
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