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Woddis was born in Barnet on November 7th 1914 as Hillel Chayim (sometimes rendered as `Chayin’) Keith Woddis to Polish emigre parents who had left their native land at a time when the part they came from was still in the Russian Empire.
When Hillel was born, as the second child, his father, Moses Jacob Woddis (b 1884) was a 30-year old teacher, who had become naturalised at a young age in 1894. Leah (b 1886), his wife, was still deemed a Russian citizen. They had previously been living in Hackney but appear to have moved in the years before Hillel’s birth. (Jack Woddis' brother, Roger, was a poet who was also for a time a member of the Party.)
It is likely that Moses’ father Anglicised the family name unofficially for his son’s naturalisation. The original name being lost, thus far, but it might be something like Wodzislaw (pronounced `Waddisslaw’), actually a placename, or Wojciechy (pronounced `Wadjehky’), normally a surname. The oddity of a name spelt “Woddis” in English (pronounced `Wodis’), was always rendered by contemporaries of Jack Woddis in speech as Woodis (and pronounced as such) leading to confusions and misspellings. These confusions about the surname perhaps largely arise since it proves not to be a native English name at all but a pure invention. The exception to various small genealogical branches in London, Nottingham, and Birmingham, seemingly dated from Moses’ time, is only the use of name as a misspelling of Woods in the 14th century, otherwise it is a rare name to encounter.
Jack Woddis joined the Communist Party in Hendon in 1937, which is when he also joined the Merchant Navy, as a quarantine clerk. His first trip out was that year and he seems to have returned to Britain and gone out again. Given that his third trip, in 1938, was on the P&O’s SS Rajputana, a 16,600 ton regular mail and passenger ship, it could be that he was acting as a courier assisting the underground Indian Communist Party.
Deposits of his files in the Communist Party archive show that he wrote sketches on the merchant navy, and articles on Palestine and India in 1937, moving on to articles on Australia, New Zealand, and Japan in 1938. In the following few years, he had articles published in the Daily Worker, Tribune, and World News and Views on Canada Australia, Kenya, South Africa, Malaya, and Hong Kong. In the post-war era he wrote on Vietnam, Japan, USA,and China.
Jack Woddis utilized a number of pen names; initially, he signed articles as “HCK Woddis” but he was Bill Keats for Inside the Empire, but also wrote – less subtly perhaps - as `Jack Knife’ and `Proteus’.
No doubt, this appetite for knowledge of the nations of the world was much fuelled by his own travels. He appears to have ended his life as a merchant seaman with a short book on their experience, “Under the red duster: a study of Britain's merchant navy” (1947).
Woddis then worked as a full-time worker in the Party’s London district before moving to Prague to work for the World Federation of Trade Unions during the 1950s.
He and his wife, Margaret Woddis (see separate entry) married in 1949.
On his return, his activities were directed into the anti-colonialist movement, and he was the first open Communist on the central council of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which he served on until his death. He lectured at schools for trades unionists in Africa and at the African Workers’ University in 1962.
He was Secretary of the Communist Party’s International Department for a long period, and he authored a number of works on related themes, including:
- “Africa: The Roots of Revolt” (1961)
- “Introduction to Neo-Colonialism” (1967)
- “Portugal: support the revolution” (1975), a Communist Party pamphlet.
- “New theories of revolution: a commentary on the views of Frantz Fanon, Régis Debray and Herbert Marcuse” (1972)
Woddis was also a member of the Communist Party’s executive and political committees at various times; being strongly associated with the revisionist leadership group in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He died in 1980.