Clive Branson was born in 1907. He became a skilled painter and studied at the Slade School of Art. At the age of 23 he exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy. He joined the ILP around 1927 but moved to the Communist Party in 1932. For a time, he managed a Communist Party bookshop with his wife Noreen Branson (see separate entry.)
For most of the 1930s, Branson was active in Battersea, South London, where he married Noreen, later to become a famous Communist historian, in 1931. Clive was a pioneer of working class education and was a National Council of Labour Colleges tutor, and spoke in this capacity to nearly every trade union branch in Battersea. He used his skill as a speaker and tutor to great affect at weekly open-air meetings on Clapham Common. For much of this period, Noreen was Secretary of the Battersea Communist Party, which had some fifty odd members.
Clive (pictured left in army uniform during WW2) was a powerhouse of Communist agitation; the Party’s General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, described Branson in retrospect: “Nothing was too much for him: selling the Daily Worker at Clapham Junction, house to house canvassing, selling literature, taking up social issues, and getting justice done – all those little things which go to make up the indestructible foundations of the movement”. [`Introduction to `British Soldier in India: The Letters of Clive Branson’ (1944).]
Battersea, of course, had a long tradition of radicalism, and there had been a branch of the British Socialist Party prior to the formation of the Communist Party. With Communist Member of Parliament Saklatvala at its head , Battersea was one of the first areas to recognise the threat of Hitler’s Nazis. Within a month of Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 a newly created Relief Committee for the Victims of German Fascism had been set up in the borough.
Branson took a leading role in driving Mosley’s British Union of Fascists out of Battersea, especially after they established an unemployed centre at 263 Lavender Hill. The Communist Party organised regular open air meetings, which attracted as many as over five hundred people, close to the fascist headquarters.
When Franco’s fascists staged a military coup in Spain, Branson was one of the first to throw himself whole-heartedly into the fight to rouse the people of London, speaking at numerous factory gate meetings, and at trade union meeting. He helped with the collection of money. In Battersea he was largely responsible for the formation of a strong Aid Spain Committee under the auspices of the Battersea Trades Council , the initial meeting had been organised by the Communist Party at the Railwaymen’s unity Hall in Falcon Grove on 31st July 1936 and was entitled “Support Spanish Workers Against Fascism”. The principal speaker were Branson and Tom Oldershaw, a local Battersea Communist who had been on a cycling holiday in Spainwhen the civil war had started.
Regular outdoor meeting in support of Spain were held in the open air at Comyn Road near Clapham junction with Dan Lewis, a local Communist organiser, David Guest and Bill Johnson of the Trades Council speaking. It was also the Communist Party in Battersea that organised the first financial collections for Spainlocally. The first large public meeting on Spain was held at Battersea Town Hall on 13th September 1936 speakers included Dan Lewis, J R Campbell, Ted Bramley and Clive Branson and attracted over 400 people.
When BUF leader John Beckett tried to speak to assembled fascists at Comyn Road, Clapham in October 1936, the Communist Party forced them to move by “holding” the road, leaving the fascists no alternative but to move to Aliwal Street, a side road, where hundreds of anti-fascists jeered and booed as Beckett failed to speak. (Oddly, Beckett was the father of a later, rather contentious if supposedly left-wing, chronicler of the Party’s history.)
In December the Trades Council established an Aid to Spainsub-committee and the work was coordinated by three Trades Council delegates from then on, with Communists still playing a prominent role including Branson, Tom Oldershaw and Cadwell. Much of the work of the Battersea Aid to Spain campaign was carried out both from the Labour Party HQ at 177 Lavender Hill and the Communist Party’s People’s Bookshop at 115 Lavender Hill; here, women sat knitting woolen goods in the windows, which would be sent on to Spain, to draw attention to the plight of Spanish democracy.
Clive’s own artistic skills were also used by Party headquarters at 16 King Street. One of Branson’s paintings, “Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works” (1937), shows a man and a woman, the latter probably modelled on the artists’ wife, selling copies of the paper outside a munitions factory in Battersea, the area where the Bransons then lived. (Their actual address was 4, Glycena Road, which is off Lavender Hill.)The slogan ‘For Unity’ is displayed on the sellers’ aprons and the painting shows a deliberate rejection of the academic painting which was taught, with Branson adopting a deliberately naïve manner that is suggestive of a conscious rejection of `high’ art and an endorsement of workerist styles such as the ‘pitmen painters’ of Northumberland.
When the International Brigade sent out a call for various scientific instruments, such as prismatic compasses, Branson secured a large selection of instruments, which were sent out within the fist days, when the republican army desperately needed technical equipment. He was also instrumental in getting aeroplanes for the Spanish government when the British government refused it right to buy arms. Branson also acted as a courier taking groups of international brigadiers to Paris and handing them over for safe passage to Spain, which in itself was illegal.
The aforementioned painting was completed shortly before Branson was released by the Party from other duties so that he could volunteer for service with the British Batallion of the International Brigade in Spain. He finally was able to do the job he had long wanted to do, when he joined the British section of the International Brigade in Spain, arriving in January 1938. But, shortly after his first battle he was captured by Franco-ite troops and spent eight months in fascist prison camp.
According the International Brigade journal, “Volunteer Liberty”, it was a bitter blow to Clive when, in his first battle against the fascists, the company he was fighting with was surrounded and captured at Calciete in April 1938. Fellow Brigadier Alec Tough, who was in Franco’s prison with Branson, wrote: “In a difficult time Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do, and helping to educate others in order to use the time usefully. He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners…Clive was a fellow to be proud of.” Branson himself had recalled that it had been necessary to work hard to “keep up morale – some men got frightened – prisoners were beaten there were no cigarettes – some would fight over a butt end. The food was rotten…”
After his release from prison in October 1938, Branson became the organiser of the International Brigade convoy which toured the country to raise money and support for Spainin the last and most difficult period of the struggle; the convoy collected £5,000 for food and medical aid.
Meanwhile, back in Battersea, on April 4th 1938, 400 anti-fascists greeted Mosley at Clapham Common but such was the opposition that, instead of speaking from the platform, he was forced to give his speech from inside a van by microphones as his supporters were chased away. In May 1938, Fascists tried to march from Clapham Junction to Clapham Common, but less than 100 turned up, being met with huge opposition along the route.
Battersea Communists in no way let up as the first year of the war loomed. Indeed, from September 1939 to September 1940, one single pitch in Battersea sold 250,000 copies of the Daily Worker!
On 1st September 1940, Clive Branson was arrested on Clapham Common for speaking on the need for deep shelters. When he appeared at South West London Police Courton a charge of “insulting words and behaviour”, he accused Sir John Anderson, after whom the widely-promoted garden shelter of thin metal was named, of creating the circumstances which prompted him to protest. (The value of the shelters was arguable, as many as 25% of Londoners simply had no garden.) At the same time, the Communist Party’s offices were raided and ARP publications seized.
Branson painted many Battersea street scenes during the blitz, exhibiting for Artists International Association.
Conscripted into the Royal Armoured Corps in 1941, he was sent to Indiain 1942 as a tank commander and ultimately fought with the Royal Armed Corps 25 Dragoons, being initially stationed in Indian Burma. He was killed in action on the Arakan Front in Burma, when an enemy shell penetrated the top of his tank during the fighting for the Ngankedenk Pass, on February 25th 1944. Branson was aged 36. Troop Sergeant Clive Branson is buried at Taukkyan War Cemetery Burma 3.G.18. In the words of his Colonel “he was a very gallant man in action and an extremely fine example to all under him”. One comrade said of Branson that: “passionately hating poverty and ugliness, he demanded much more than mere freedom from want.”