Felicia Browne was born at Thames Ditton on 18th February 1904, to a middle-class family. Her father, however, held progressive views, although her mother died when she was a child. Her father encouraged Felicia’s artistic talents, sending her to the St John’s Wood School of Art. Excelling there, she studied at the Slade Art School from 1924 to 1926,
In 1928 she went to Berlin to study metalwork at a state technical training facility in Charlottenburg, Berlin (she spoke several languages very well). In 1929, this resulted in her becoming apprenticed to a stone mason for two years and, inevitably, drew her into anti-fascist campaigning. In Berlin she took part in anti-fascist street fighting and, when Hitler came to power, she gave almost all her money to refugees.
Returning to Britain, a scholarship followed at Goldsmiths College in London to study metal-work and she began teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
Having joined the Artists International Association, Felicia visited the Soviet Union in 1931, which saw her anti-fascist work increase enormously on her return. She spoke at many meetings on her experiences in the Soviet Union on her return and, in 1933, joined the British Communist Party.
The National Archives have a publicly released security file on Felicia Brown. This starts when she first came to the notice of the Security Service. In 1933, while a patient at Guy’s Hospital, she distributed leaflets and attempted to convert some of the nurses to communism. As a result, a watch was established on her postal mail, and it became clear that her home, in Bessborough Gardens and then Guilford Street, London, were being used as cover addresses for foreign mail being sent to Communists in Britain. The file includes copies of much of the intercepted mail, including some of Brown’s own letters adorned with line drawings, as well as details of her involvement in Spain.
As an accomplished sculptress, in 1934, she won a prize for her design of a TUC badge, which commemorated that year’s centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, which was given for special achievement on union recruitment. Ironically, most of the recipients of this award would turn out to be Communists.
But Felicia is more regarded in posterity for being the first British volunteer to be killed in the Spanish War. She was holidaying on a tour of Spain with her friend, Edith Bone (see separate entry), a Communist photographer, when the Civil War broke out in July 1936. Bone went on to become heavily involved with the establishment of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, (PSUC) in Barcelona.As for Felicia, she was eventually allowed to volunteer for a militia unit in Barcelona, after attempts to dissuade her by both the Communist Party and the leader of the unit. Her role was unique enough to attract the attention of the British media. Felicia merely noted that she was as able to fight as any man. But she was soon killed in action near Tardienta, Aragon, on 28th August 1936 (some sources say 22nd, some 25th), while part of a squad seeking to dynamite a Fascist munitions train (some sources say `on a reconnaissance mission’). Although under heavy fire, Felicia was trying to help save a wounded Republican combatant at the time.
Her friend, Nan Youngman organised a memorial event for Felicia in October 1936. Felicia’s death radically altered her own political outlook, causing Youngman to join AIA, which became a focus for showing her own work in painting, In 1939, Youngman asked a workman in from the street outside an AIA exhibition to its `Art for All’ event. There was no better memorial for Felicia.
Left: a drawing by Felicia of Spanish militia woman
MI5 archives, especially the pic of Felicia.