Saving lives: Margaret Powell’s world-spanning journey

Post date: 24/11/2022

Dolores Long reviews ‘Margaret Powell: An Extraordinary Life’ by Ruth Muller (Crickhowell District Archive Centre, 2022). This piece was originally published in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2022.

This is a short biography of the fascinating life of Spanish Civil War nurse volunteer Margaret Powell (1913-1990), written by her daughter. Lily Margaret was born into a farming family at Cwm Farm in Llangenny, Breconshire. She attended the small village school, one where Welsh speaking children from the surrounding hills were forbidden to use their mother tongue and beaten if they did. Margaret recalls how she got the usual caning from her teacher: ‘ten smart cuts on my hands but I never flinched or cried because I knew that that was what he wanted’ an early indication of the strength of character and bravery she would display throughout her life.  

Margaret left her Welsh home at age 16 and by 23 had qualified as a State Registered Nurse, gaining valuable experience in London hospitals as well as an awareness of the changing political situation: ‘It was in a London hospital that I read about Hitler, and felt for the first time the evil that this hated name stood for.’

On a holiday in Germany she recalled ‘memories of jack-booted feet’ and ‘seeing gatherings of Nazis’. An article on the Spanish Civil War in the Daily Worker alerted her to the need for volunteer doctors and nurses. She left London for Spain two days before her 24th birthday, a courageous decision for a young woman and one that was to transform her life. Her front-line experiences as a nurse in Spain, working under the most arduous conditions, are touchingly described: ‘I used to see trucks full of young men going up to the front and though I was very irreligious, I prayed for them and thought of their families. And I used to wonder how soon it would be before the mules carried them back to us’. She recalls how the men carried small, white beautifully embroidered pillows given to them by their mothers or sweethearts.

A report by Winifred Bates on Margaret’s work stated ‘She regards political work amongst the soldiers and nurses as important as medical work. Speaks good Spanish. An asset to Spain and the revolutionary movement’. And it was in Spain that she met Sam Russell, known then by the surname Lesser, a young ex-International Brigader turned journalist whom she was to marry 13 years later.

After her return from Spain, Margaret’s life continued to be challenging and adventurous. With the end of the Second World War in sight, she joined the United Nations Refugee and Rehabilitation Association and in 1944 left London for Cairo to work in the El Shatt refugee camp in the Sinai Desert – a camp of over 20,000 Yugoslav refugees. VE Day in May 1945 found her ‘dancing in the cobbled streets’ of Jerusalem. 

By April 1946 she was working in the displaced persons’ camps of southern Germany. She recalls: ‘Those two years were a nightmare, trying to nurse back to health young people so ill with tuberculosis as to be certain to die’ and ‘helping to bring into the world babies whose mothers often did not have the strength to survive’. An entry in her diary in 1947 records ‘mal sueno noche pasado’ (bad dream last night) – hardly surprising given the memories she must have carried of her battlefront work in Spain and experiences in the camps. Christmas 1947 had her travelling by train and ship across Europe before returning to London.

Back in London, and having qualified as a health visitor, Margaret at 38 was now married to Sam Russell and pregnant with her first and only child, Ruth. For a woman who had lived her life so bravely and independently and travelled so widely, adjusting to her new life must have been difficult. Sam’s work as a poorly paid journalist took him away frequently on foreign work assignments, leaving Margaret to juggle home, childcare and political work. Being monitored along with Sam by MI5 must have only added to the challenges.

Powell with daughter Ruth (front, middle) and Sam Russell (back, centre-right) with international delegation, Sochi, Russia, October 1956.

Returning to work in 1955, Margaret must have felt her life was getting back on track before Sam took up the post of Moscow correspondent for the Daily Worker and Margaret and Ruth set sail for Leningrad. Ever resourceful and determined, Margaret found work at the Foreign Languages Publishing House and the English-language service of Moscow Radio. Although life was busy she enjoyed outings to the ballet, theatre and exhibitions as well as socialising with Spanish communist refugees and the British-Soviet defectors Donald and Melinda Maclean.

Margaret had retained her love of independent travelling and in her final months in the Soviet Union she travelled alone to Kiev, Yalta and Odessa, an opportunity to reconnect with her younger, more adventurous self. Back in London Margaret found work as a health visitor in Hackney and even though she was dealing with serious personal medical issues, maintained her involvement and interest in politics. Margaret’s contribution to the fight for democracy in Spain was recognised in 1976 when presented with the Medal of Loyalty ‘For having given your courageous services as a nurse in the Republican army’.

Margaret died in 1990. A woman from a working-class family in a small, rural Welsh village who had the courage, confidence and independence to live the life she led deserves wide recognition. The memoir is a welcome contribution to the often overlooked lives of women.

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Posted on 24 November 2022.

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