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Teesside memorial plaque and the story of a love-letter home

Teesside 17 OctoberSupporters from Middlesbrough with a banner which belonged to local International Brigader David Marshall.

 

Activists and friends in Middlesbrough gathered on 17 October to salute the International Brigades as part of a series of events across the country organised by the Communist Party of Britain. They laid a wreath in front of the Dorman Museum by a banner which belonged to Teesside International Brigader David Marshall (1916-2015). Due to distancing restrictions, they were unable to hold the commemoration at the Teesside International Brigade memorial plaque in Middlesbrough Town Hall. The oak plaque was made in 1939 and lists the names of ten volunteers from Teesside who fought and died in Spain.


In this article, which originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2020, Middlesbrough IBMT activist and member Tony Fox provides a history of the Teesside International Brigade memorial, including an account of a local volunteer bringing home a dead comrades final letter to his partner.

Middlesbrough Plaque

The Middlesbrough memorial plaque. Made in 1939 and rededicated 9 October 2009.

 

I have been researching the Teesside International Brigade memorial for a series of talks as part of Middlesbrough council’s heritage festival. Produced in 1939, it was on display in the YCL (Young Communist League) office, and later the Communist Party offices in Middlesbrough. When this office was closed in 1967 the plaque went missing until, in 1983, it was found by a teacher on sale in Acton, London. International Brigader David Marshall ensured it was returned to Teesside, where fellow veteran John Longstaff held it for safe-keeping.

In their book ‘Memorials of the Spanish Civil War’, Williams, Alexander and Gorman state that Sir Maurice Sutherland, on John Longstaff’s initiative, arranged for the Teesside plaque to be placed in Middlesbrough Town Hall. The plaque names ten Brigaders from Teesside who ‘went out to fight’ and found a resting place in the soil of Spain. The memorial is unique in that it is one of the first, if not the first, memorial to Brigaders produced in the UK, and in addition was produced by men who knew these men as comrades before they went to Spain. In his 1987 book ‘Battle of Jarama 1937’, Sunderland-born International Brigade volunteer Frank Graham writes: ‘I knew all of them for several years and their deaths affected me profoundly.’


The Teesside memorial plaque has particular significance for IBMT President Marlene Sidaway. Not only does she hail from Teesside, but David Marshall, her partner, was instrumental in the plaque’s initial production, restoration and re-dedication. Talking to Marlene about the memorial’s dedication in 1992 brought to light a heart-breaking story. Very recently Marlene kindly allowed me to see what I think is the only photograph of the 1992 ceremony. It shows David Marshall, John Longstaff and Frank Graham as guests of honour. David and John came from Teesside and Frank from Wearside. 

One 1937 newspaper clipping from the Yorkshire Evening Post shows how close the bond between these Brigaders was and suggests the impact it had on those who did make it home. The newspaper report describes Frank Graham’s return in 1937. 
 

Yorkshire Evening Post

Yorkshire Evening Post, 12 April 1937.


He would return permanently after being wounded in the Battle of Caspe in March 1938. It movingly describes how he brought with him ‘a dead comrade’s last love-letter to his sweet-heart’, before going on to describe the early battles in which comrades lost their lives. The ‘dead comrade’ whose letter he brought is named as Wilf Jobling of Blaydon. Jobling, along with Bob Elliott, was a prominent organiser in the local Communist Party. Both organised a number of hunger marches and other YCL and NUWM (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement) activity in the region. I have evidence of frequent visits to Teesside to work with George Short of Stockton (George, his wife Philis and Wilf all originate from Chopwell). Wilf Jobling and Bob Elliott’s names appear on the Teesside memorial. Wilf features heavily in Frank’s ‘Battle of Jarama 1937’ book. For me this suggests that this memorial dedication in the council chamber of Middlesbrough Town Hall must have had a huge emotional impact on David, John and Frank, as Frank says in the 1937 newspaper report: ‘Those early days of the war were terrible to remember.’ 

These words resonate, and resonate particularly strongly as we think of Frank recalling his fallen friends and comrades, recollecting the time he had to console the sweetheart of a dear friend. This story becomes even more heartbreaking when we note that the dedication ceremony was held on 14 February 1992, Valentine’s Day, just over a week before the 55th anniversary of the death of the man whose last love-letter Frank carried; Wilf Jobling was killed on 27 February 1937 during the Battle of Jarama. 

I am continuing with my research into the Teesside memorial and would be grateful for information, in particular anything on Harold W Bennet from Kent. Contact me by email at foxy.foxburg(at)gmail.com or the IBMT office at admin(at)international-brigades.org.uk.

 

Posted on 5 November 2020.