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Born 6th December 1894 on Tyneside, the youngest of three sisters in a working class family, thanks to her parents’ sacrifices was able to obtain a high school education, subsequently winning a scholarship to Sunderland Teachers Teachers’ Training College. The experience of the First World War, like so many of her generation, shattered her previously firm religious beliefs and her acceptance of the norms of conventional society.
When Isabel became a teacher, a local NUT activist and member of the county committee of the union, her experience aroused a sense of social injustice. She taught classes of sixty or so seven and eight year olds, whose lives were rooted in abject poverty. Learning of classes being run by the National Council of Labour Colleges in the Boldon miners’ hall for the local miners’ union, she went along and was the only woman present. The tutor was Tommy (T.A.) Jackson (see separate entry), whose Marxist exposition illuminated her understanding of the world and won Isabel to a lifetime’s commitment.
Having joined the Labour Party in 1918, Isabel was also a foundation member of the Communist Party. Isabel married Ernest Brown, then a full time organiser for the Communist Party, in 1921. Although she was obliged to conceal this at first, since the prevailing employment practice was then to require married women to vacate their teaching posts, when she became pregnant she had to cease teaching and their son, Ken, was born in December 1922.
In 1924, Ernie was appointed British representative to the Executive Committee of the Communist International and they moved to live in Moscow. There, Isabel mixed in circles that included Dolores Ibarruri (Spain), Clara Zetkin (Germany) and Helen Stasova (Bulgaria). She was now set on a course that was to see her subsequently become the leading Communist woman of the late 1920s and 1930s. Ernest Brown was recalled to Britain after the arrest of the Communist Party leadership in the run up to the General Strike and the couple threw themselves into the struggle.
In 1926, Isabel spoke at the May Day rally in the Yorkshire railway town of Normanton. Seeing some soldiers on the edge of the crowd, she urged them: “Don’t let the ruling class use you against your own fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins.” For this, she was arrested and imprisoned for three months in Hull prison for sedition, or “committing acts and uttering words likely to cause disaffection amongst His Majesty’s troops.”
Five weeks after Isabel was released, the General Strike was over but the miners were fighting on alone, amidst grinding starvation. In the small village of Alltofts, in Yorkshire, she contrasted the treatment of the newly born Princess Elizabeth – later Queen Elizabeth – with the fate of miners’ babies. For this, she was again arrested and charged with sedition, the judge defining this as any action which set one class against another class. Isabel was sentenced to three months hard labour plus either the option of another three months or £50, a considerable sum, instead. Naturally, working class solidarity saw to the necessary collections to avoid the extra term.
Isabel was soon back in the fight, first in Scotland and then back to Yorkshire, where, in 1929, she was active in the woollen workers’ struggles against a 10% imposed wages cut. It was during the campaign to raise funds for the wool workers and then the Lancashire cotton workers that Isabel acquired platform skills as a unique raiser of funds. She was also a decisive figure in the National Union of Unemployed Workers’ Movement and saw to it that women developed their own sections. The first such contingent appeared on the 1928 march in Edinburgh, and between 1932 and 1936 the number of women’s contingents on the national hunger marches doubled. She stood for the Party in a 1929 by-election, achieving 4.4 % of the vote.
Isabel went to the Lenin School in 1930 to obtain for herself a thorough grounding in Marxist ideas. She became the driving force behind the British Committee for the Relief of Victims of Fascism, which inspired the creation of the British Medical Aid Committee and Medical Aid Unit. She notably led the international campaign for Georgy Dimitrov's release, organising a counter-trial to that being held in Berlin that was seeking the life of the Bulgarian Communist who was quite falsely accused of the cooked-up burning of the Reichstag fire. Out of this campaign came the Committee for the Relief of Victims of Fascism, which saved many lives as Hitler’s stormtroopers extended their reach across Europe.
Isabel was also a towering force in the "Aid for Spain" funds campaign. By her actions, during the 1930s, Isabel Brown almost personified the fierce determination of European Communists to stem the tide of fascism. She became virtually famous across the length and breadth of Britain as the key orator for the mobilisation of mass action, in turn, in defence of Dimitrov, for Spain, for the Second Front and for the Anglo-Soviet alliance. Her talent as a fund-raiser for all these causes was so widely admired that her interventions in the role of appealer for donations at meetings after mass demonstrations and at rallies was often more eagerly awaited than the main speeches themselves.
The Earl of Listowel in his memoirs described her as “(o)ne of my best friends … with no more than an elementary education but an extraordinary gift for tear-jerking platform oratory that brought in a great deal of money for the victims of aggression”. (www.redrice.com/listowel/CHAP4.htm)
She was by now the British Party’s national women’s organiser. In this capacity she contested the Bow and Bromley by-election held on 12th June 1940. The seat had become vacant when the constituency's Labour MP, George Lansbury, died on 7th May 1940, aged 81. A former Leader of the Labour Party, he had held the seat since the 1922 general election, and previously from 1910 to 1912.
The main political parties in the Coalition Government had agreed not contest by-elections in seats held by the other parties in the coalition and this accord left the field clear for Labour.
Isabel Brown was the only opposition. She had been a Parliamentary candidate in Scotland, in Kilmarnock and Motherwell; she had previously worked in the Ministry of Education in Moscow.
The British Union of Fascists had intended to put up Mick Clarke as a candidate although this had to be abandoned when he became one of the first bunch of fascists rounded up under Defence Regulation 18B. Predictably, Key held the seat for Labour with 95.8% of the votes. Isabel’s 4.2% was no insult, however, especially since the war had yet to turn from its completely phoney character.
Isabel was seriously injured in an air raid in December 1940 and never really recovered properly thereafter, having spent six months in hospital and six month recuperating. With her health in jeopardy, she thus scaled down her Party commitments significantly although during the Second World War she was especially noted for speaking at meetings for Soviet Aid.
After leaving the EC in 1945, Isabel maintained a role as a speaker at meetings and attending international conferences for many years. She remained completely loyal to the Party and died just two months short of her 90th birthday on October 1984.
Sources: May Hill “Red Roses for Isabel” (1982); Morning Star October 24th 1984
Sources: May Hill Red Roses for Isabel (1982); Morning Star October 24th 1984