Copeman Fred

Fred Copeman

Copeman was born in 1907 at the Wangford Union Workhouse in Suffolk, where he was to stay for some years with his mother and brother.  He was employed on the workhouse farm when aged nine but was later transferred to a children’s home in Beccles. When he was 14 years old, he joined the Royal Navy, first on the Ganges, then on the battleship Valiant, where he became the captain’s runner, followed by the Stuart, the Emperor of India and the Royal Oak.

In September 1931, as part of general economies in public sector spending, the National Government reduced sailor�s pay but these were unfairly weighted so that able seaman were to loose some two to three times the percentage cuts that officers were to have.

This resulted in what became known as the Invergordon Mutiny. Fifteen ships of the Atlantic Fleet decided not to obey orders until the pay cuts were reviewed and Copeman was a member of the strike committee. The strike lasted for two days and was only called off when the wage cuts were withdrawn. Copeman actually first came to Security Service attention, not as a leader of the Mutiny, but as one who continued agitating for better treatment for seamen immediately afterwards. A note as to his character when he was discharged from HMS Norfolk (in November 1931) describes Copeman as: “A bully and general bad character, but a good seaman when he tries which is not often”.

In the end, Copeman was forced to leave the Royal Navy and, in November 1931, he started work as a rigger in the London docks and joined the TGWU and the Communist Party. After loosing work on the docks he was active in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, taking up the role of roving agitator for a while. The `Unemployed Leader’ journal of 21 October 1931 reported Copeman’s arrest for obstruction. Also, he was involved in a riot at a meeting in Oxford where Copeman was speaking, when 200 under-graduates invaded the hall and a pitched battle ensued. Later he joined the Constructional Engineering Union and became President of the Greenwich Branch.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Copeman decided to travel to Spain to fight for the Popular Front government and left on the boat train to France in November. He was wounded at Jarama but recovered and later became commander of the British Battalion. In December 1937, Copeman was taken ill just before the offensive at Teruel. He was suffering from a gangrenous appendix and a splinter from a bullet that had entered the lining of the stomach. After the operation he was sent back to Britain to recover. Soon after arriving back, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party and, in November 1938, was a member of an official delegation to Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. He publicly claimed to be disillusioned by the level of inequality in the Soviet Union and, on his return, ceased to be a member of the Party.

In the Second World War, Copeman was heavily involved in the placement of public air raid shelters shelters in Westminster and, in that capacity, worked closed with Herbert Morrison. In November 1945, he was awarded an OBE and was elected as Labour councillor in Lewisham. In his autobiography, `Reason in Revolt’ (1948), somewhat contrary to his earlier statements, Copeman elaborated his reasons for leaving the Communist Party. He cited the decision to go along with the non-alignment stance of the western powers, with regard to arms trade with the Spanish Republic. The Soviet Union, after long vainly seeking to keep up the Fascist powers supplies to the other side, and the Republican Government had both hoped that cessation of the Soviet arms might enable French munitions to be bought. The war with Finland and the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany were, however, his main complaints.

After the war years, he worked as a foreman in at Ford’s in Dagenham and died in 1983.

Sources: PRO files ref KV 2/2322-2324; serial 127B KV 2/2323, 1932-1938; serial 1X in KV 2/2322, 1931-1932; other sources.

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