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Edna Croft and John Tuke

Edna was the youngest of nine siblings, her older sister being 25-years old when she was born of a family of impoverished West Cumbrian miners. The family birthing pattern meant that her own youngest child was sixteen years behind her sister when born; this meant that the immediate family “could go back to 1867 by word of mouth” I recalling past lives and events! Edna’s – and that of her remarkable father, in particular, has thus been saved for posterity only by this oral tradition, communicated to this website.

Edna’s father was John Tuke, a commanding but discreet man who stood over six feet tall, which “attracted respect by that alone”. He and his wife were from Quaker families (the Tuke Quaker family of York was involved in the founding of Rowntree’s, and othr philanthropic ventures; possibly, John was a distant relative?).

With the tradition of abhorring hierarchies, it did not seem a great leap from that to the Communist ethos of embracing fairness for all. Even so, Tuke’s wife stayed staunch to Christianity all her days, a view John was very respectful of, especially since she maintained that Christ was the first Communist.

When the local gentry were “swinging round a corner in the town, all were required to curtsy or bow”. John Tuke told his children that if they so much as “dropped their eyes, he would thrash them”! So, while others did so, the Tukes remained upright. Later, when the young Edna did this once when alone, one of the high and mighty of the county got off their horse, whipped her across the cheek, got back on and rode away. She always laughed and said she felt she couldn't win ... she would either be thrashed at home or in the town by what she called "those and such as those”!

Tuke was instrumental in bringing the Communist Party to West Cumberland and, eventually, the wider labour movement, too. For his troubles, at one point, he was stoned out of Cockermouth and other places. It is said, by family members, that he carried the marks to his grave. Even so, he was asked to be a candidate for the Labour Party, with a real chance of becoming the first Labour MP for the area.

But he preferred to “work from the back”, so someone called Cape was given the job of Labour Prospective Parliamentary candidate instead. Just to reinforce a message that might otherwise be lost, Tuke’s brother and another comrade, called Johnny Rafferty, stayed up one night and painted Maryport Town Hall red!

West Cumbria is an area built on coal mining, iron and steel, and its growth in the 19th century and sustained activity in the early 20th arose largely because of its geographical closeness to Ireland, which was the recipient of almost all of the exported coal. Obviously, the creation of the Irish Free State, and later Republic, changed much of the dynamics of this.

A tradition of serious disputation had arisen during the 19th century between the largely mining population and the coal owners. The early years of the 20th century saw repeated disputes, strikes, wage reductions, lock outs and closures.  As local industry closed down, the community knit ever tighter and tighter together.

A well known local story locally tells how, during the 1926 strike and then the extended lock-out of miners, the Communist Party in Scotland sent one of their activists to Maryport to organise the West Coast miners.  He found himself constantly frustrated in this aim by what seemed natural anarchistic tendencies of the locals, yet he also found the hospitality of the area and its sense of communal solidarity so strong that he simply could not leave when the time came for this.

Giving up his campaign of revolutionary agitation, it is said, he decided to stay on in Maryport and to open up a café. All during the 1930s, this provided a basis for cheap or even free food, along with a strong taste of radical debate.

The Great Depression pushed Maryport into virtual economic decline. All but one of the shipyards losed and trade declined because even a newly built dock was not wide enough to accommodate new ships. During the 1930s, adult unemployment peaked at over 50%, some even claim 80%.

Edna’s account of the Jarrow marches to her own children was harrowing; it didn't begin at Jarrow but converged there, so there were marchers from Cumberland, the west of Northumberland and South Scotland, joining up in Carlisle. Carlisle's contribution was to allow them to sleep in the large Market Hall and feed them. The marchers from South Scotland had only rags on their feet and only kept moving by chanting "Are we Red, yes we are Red" to keep shuffling down the hill into Carlisle. She had wept then and always wept when she recounted the memories.

Edna was honoured for her campaigning work for the Spanish Civil War. She kept a long correspondence and friendship with an old friend called Margaret Cohen, whom she had met in connection somehow with the Spanish Civil War. At one point this resulted, so some of Edna’s older children have recalled, in a group “descending on the house like a load of Hippies and sleeping on the floor after their meetings”!

Her children were brought up on books such as "And Quiet Flows the Don", “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist" and so on. He daughter still “treasurers “the most amazing book, `Songs of the Revolution”. Edna ensured that her family were exposed to the Daily Worker and later the Morning Star, along with the News Chronicle and the Manchester Guardian. But she said that, when her children were interviewed for university, they had to say they read the `Times’ and the `Observer’ at home! “She was no fool”, her daughter writes of her. “But I am so glad that the old folks cannot see how things are. All that fighting all that belief.”  

But Edna’s commitment did not fade as she became older. Even at this point in her life, her conversation was sprinkled with glib or off-hand talk of having tea with Kier Hardy, Harry Pollitt, and so on.

Despite many challenges, the area around Maryport now appears uncharacteristically staunchly Labour. But its candidates have not always met the stern test of history’s requirements. Once, when a Labour candidate came to the door, Edna told him: “OK, lad, recite some of the Red Flag to me and you can have my vote.” He couldn't recite any of it; Edna was 89 at the time! 

Edna died in 2002 aged 92, “still as red as ever”, and so sad about Tony Blair, his government, and the drift of New Labour; she'd mutter "pale pink the lot of them". She still spoke affectionately of "Uncle Joe Stalin" and maintained that the USSR had been demonised by the USA. Mao Tse Tung's great achievement, according to Edna, was simply to feed and clothe the population.

Main source: The family of Edna Croft