By Jim Jump
Chris Birch, who died on 1 September 2021 at the age of 93, was a steadfast supporter of the International Brigades and a prominent anti-Franco campaigner in the post-war years. Following the dictator’s death, he was the treasurer of the International Brigade Memorial Appeal (IBMA), which raised the memorial to the International Brigades on London’s South Bank. He was also a founding member and enthusiastic supporter of the IBMT.
Christopher Berkeley Peyton Birch was born on 26 April 1928 on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where his father was a bank manager. He moved to Bristol to attend university in 1946, where he read philosophy, botany and chemistry. There he joined the Communist Party and met his wife Betty, soon to be a fellow Aid to Spanish Youth Committee member. In subsequent years they regularly attended organised campaigns and protests about Spain’s many political prisoners.
In the 1980s Chris collaborated with veterans Bill Alexander, Jimmy Jump and Joe Monks on the committee of the IBMA to create a national memorial to the International Brigades in London. They fundraised, commissioned sculptor Ian Walters and, with the help of the Greater London Council, saw the memorial that stands today in Jubilee Gardens unveiled by former Labour leader Michael Foot on 5 October 1985.
In more recent years Chris took a great interest in MI5 files compiled by the British secret police monitoring activities in which he and Betty had been involved.
He wrote in the IBMT Newsletter in 2008 (issue 20): ‘It was a considerable shock to sit in the Document Reading Room at the National Archives at Kew recently and to read some of the mass of material with our names in it that had been accumulated by MI5 and the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch.’
Chris Birch (right) with Betty Birch and International Brigade veteran Alec Digges outside the Spanish embassy in London in 1952.
Photo: Sid Kaufman
Among other things, his researching unearthed a four-page typed report headed ‘Metropolitan Police Special Branch. Subject: Anti-Franco Meeting’, dated 27 March 1952. It was signed by an Inspector, a Chief Inspector and a Chief Superintendent and began: ‘Accompanied by other Special Branch officers, I was present at 7.30pm today at Connaught Place, London W2 in connection with a proposed torchlight procession to the Spanish Embassy, 24 Belgrave Square, London SW1, organised by the International Brigade Association, Friends of Republican Spain and the Aid to Spanish Youth Committee, to protest against the sentences passed by the Spanish courts on Spanish workers and to demand the release of those at present awaiting trial.’
Though his own personal MI5 file remained under lock and key, Chris found another report, headed ‘Secret’, with his and Betty’s details among the names and addresses of individuals and organisations who had written to the Spanish ambassador expressing their concerns about political prisoners. He also found photographs of minutes of the Aid to Spanish Youth Committee and letters he had written together with transcripts of his private conversations in Communist Party headquarters with Peter Kerrigan, who had fought with the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain.
In 2010 he published his autobiography ‘My Life’ (St Christopher Press, London), describing a life packed with incident, travel, passion and political commitment. He was a journalist for many years, working for the Daily Worker and as editor of Municipal Engineer. In 1956 he witnessed Soviet tanks putting down the uprising in Budapest. Afterwards he co-authored a memorandum to party chiefs in London critical of the Hungarian party’s subservience to Moscow. However, he remained in the CPGB until its dissolution in 1991. His memoir underlines his pride for having been a member of a party that foresaw the evil of fascism and created the International Brigades.
Writing in the IBMT Newsletter in 2016 (issue 1-2016), Chris celebrated the successes of the Trust. ‘How the IBMT has grown!’ he said. ‘It is several years since Betty and I have been able to attend the annual Jubilee Gardens event as we are now not mobile enough to do so. But we are so proud to have been associated with the International Brigade Association and now the IBMT for the past 64 years. Congratulations, best wishes and many thanks to you and the rest of your team.’
Jim Jump is the IBMT Chair.
Posted on 19 September 2021.