David Tony Gilbert was born in Poplar in 1914 and moved to Bethnal Green, alien territory for a Jewish family in the early thirties. He was apprenticed as a nailer in the fur trade and became active in the anti-fascist movement, then the Communist Party. He was subject of an anti-semitic assault by British Union of Fascist thugs in the early thirties, waking up in Bethnal Green Hospital.
When the war in Spain began, he joined the International Brigade and was its Courier. He used ruefully to recall being consulted about the direction they should be taking at a fork in the road and sharing responsibility for marching into a trap and captivity until the end of the war.
Thus, he was a POW from March 1938 until he was repatriated later that year. Back home, it took him some time to adapt, and he recalled during the first air raids on London using his Spanish experience and heading in the opposite direction to everyone else – out to Victoria Park on the grounds that if a bomb hit a building it could collapse on you but you had to be very unlucky to suffer a direct hit out in the open.
Tony worked in the Yorkshire Coalfield as a Bevin Boy before joining the British Army. After the war he was an industrial militant and could call on experience as a miner, an NUR activist at King’s Cross and as an engineering worker. Awakened to the importance of anti-colonialism by his wartime experience, he was quick to understand the uses of racism and the need to face it head on. The first black recruits to British Rail at Kings Cross were all put in his shop prior to an attempt to victimise him. He also worked in the Circulation Department of the Daily Worker/Morning Star.
Tony loved setting up an open air meeting and with skills learned in his youth in East London was a magnetic speaker. He was in the leadership of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which changed its name in 1970 to Liberation. Tony became its General Secretary and wrote and spoke consistently against racism and imperialism. For many years, he was active in the Stoke Newington Branch of the Communist Party and on the Hackney Borough Committee and lived with, then married, Kay Beauchamp (see separate entry), also a lifelong Communist and anti-racist. Both of them died in 1992. (His first wife was Sheila.)
I was in Stoke Newington Party Branch when Tony, Kay Beauchamp, Kay’s sister, Joan Thompson, and Leah Wesker used to provide an unrivalled historical backdrop to all deliberations! Two of Tony’s brothers were also in the Party one, a hairdresser, advertised in the Daily Worker and Morning Star as Gilbert and another was a book dealer with a shop at The Angel. Whilst Tony was really a very little bloke – less than five feet – such was his presence that he somehow only looked small from across the street!
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