A memorial fit for Stockton’s heroes

Post date: 11/06/2023

Tony Fox writes…

Throughout the world there are many memorials to the International Brigades. Yet, until now, there has been no public memorial to the International Brigades on Teesside. Thanks to John Christie this omission is now remedied.

It was back in April 2018 after the first performance of ‘The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff’ by The Young’uns in Stockton’s Arc Theatre that John was inspired to campaign for a memorial to the Stockton men who volunteered to fight fascism.

Five years later, on Sunday 23 April 2023, the eight men were commemorated at the official dedication of the new Stockton International Brigade memorial. It was installed at Wasp's Nest Yard, off Stockton’s High Street, the previous autumn.

Relatives of International Brigade volunteers travelled from across Britain and Ireland to take part in the dedication events. 

Among them was actress Elizabeth Estensen, daughter of Otto Estensen, who served in the XV Brigade’s Anti-Tank Battery. Elizabeth is possibly best-known as Diane Sugden in the ITV drama Emmerdale. But she has also played leading roles in The Liver Birds and T-Bag. On the Friday she visited John Christie's Golden Smog pub, which has a wealth of Teesside and International Brigade memorabilia, and pulled a few pints – just like the her days on Emmerdale.

During the events on Sunday, Elizabeth presented the Otto Estensen Trophy to the winners of The Golden Smog Warriors basketball contest held in memory of her father.

Another guest was John Sutherland, the son of the late Sir Maurice Sutherland, who was Otto Estensen's employer and brother-in-law. John formally 'tipped-off' the basketball contest. The Golden Smog Warriors basketball team host this competition and were the major fundraisers for John Christie's campaign, one part of which was selling almost 400 'No Pasarán' basketball shirts in Spanish Republican colours.

At Stockton's Market Cross.

Later Elizabeth and John joined other relatives and memorial campaign supporters for the procession to Stockton’s Market Cross. The other relatives included George Short and Alan Short, the son and grandson respectively of George Short, who, as the Communist Party's Teesside secretary in the 1930s, organised the International Brigade volunteers.

Mich Maroney travelled from Ireland and Nic Maroney from London to join Chris Hill, Barbara Sneath and Katie Quigley. All five are relatives of Patrick Maroney. They only discovered Patrick’s role in Spain after the Stockton memorial was installed in autumn 2022. Sadly, the nephew of Myles Harding, Phil Saint, and Duncan Longstaff, son of Johnny Longstaff, were unable to attend the dedication day.

Elizabeth Estensen with the Otto Estensen Trophy.

Fittingly it was The Golden Smog Warriors who led the town procession to the Market Cross, where attendees heard about the April 1933 arrest of George and Phyllis Short at the Market Cross and the subsequent 'Battle of Stockton’, the demonstration organised by George Short against the British Union of Fascists. It is marked by a commemorative plaque at the Market Cross. After a minute's silence to remember the British volunteers who did not return from Spain, the assembly sang the reunion version of ‘Jarama Valley’.

Tony Fox at Wasp's Nest Yard.

At Wasp's Nest Yard the new memorial was formally dedicated. People heard that both Wilf Cowan and Otto Estensen arrived in Spain in April 1937, and poignantly that Guernica was attacked days later on 26 April; a magnificent reworking of Picasso’s iconic painting by designers Abby Taylor and Owen Smith is the heart of the Stockton memorial.

The poem ‘Our Open Eyes’ by Mike Wild was read; a line of this poem is quoted on the memorial's information plate. Mike’s father, Sam Wild, commanded the British Battalion volunteers at the Ebro.

Ron Brown of the Communist Party of Britain concluded the dedication ceremony. He commended the Stockton memorial campaign group for raising awareness of the men locally and nationally and spoke of their legacy.

The evening activities at the Georgian Theatre started with pies and peas from John Buckle, Stockton’s premier pie man.

Elizabeth Estensen, George and Alan Short and Katie Quigley spoke on stage about their relatives. As well as her father Elizabeth included his comrade, Tommy Chilvers. George spoke emotionally on the love and humanity that his parents and the volunteers showed to him. Katie spoke equally emotionally on her family's pride on having such a heroic relative.

Owen Smith and Abby Taylor.

A remarkable coincidence came to light at this part of the evening. It was said that in July 1937, British officials at MI5 intercepted a letter from George Short to Patrick Maroney. Patrick had just returned from Spain and George was asking for information on Tommy Chilvers and Otto Estensen, who were still in Spain.

The audience were then treated to a superb talk by memorial designers Abby Taylor and Owen Smith. They described the fundraising campaign, their design process and key aspects of Picasso’s masterpiece.

IBMT member Peter Widlinski spoke on behalf of Duncan Longstaff, describing Johnny Longstaff’s subsequent Second World War service.

A short film was then shown, a new documentary under production about Tommy Chilvers, Otto’s closest friend and fellow member of the Anti-Tank Battery.

The evening finished with music, songs and poetry from the Smog Singers (a group of regulars from The Golden Smog) and Bob Beagrie, a poet, playwright and Teesside University senior lecturer.

Bob regularly reads his poems at Teesside International Brigade events. He and Project Lono have just produced a new sequence of soundscapes bringing to life Bob’s poems about the Spanish Civil War and International Brigaders. The collection of poems will be published by Drunk Muse Press in a book entitled 'Romanceros', due out in spring 2024.

The evening ended with toasts to John Christie of The Golden Smog, for doing so much to raise awareness of the volunteers for liberty from Stockton-on-Tees.

Tony Fox is an IBMT member. This article first appeared on his blog site.

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