Woolf Barnet

Barnet Woolf

Barnet Woolf was an undergraduate at Cambridge University when the British Communist Party was established. He was a founding member along with his close friend and contemporary at Cambridge, Ivor Montagu (see separate entry). Woolf stood for election to the `standing committee’ of the Cambridge Union Society in March, 1922, for the Easter Term, along with Montagu.

Woolf’s professional career took a strongly research-orientated turn after graduation. In collaboration with Juda Hirsch Quastel, CC FRSC FRS, in 1926, he was already showing expertise in the medical research field by exploring the effects of Bacillus coli communis. By 1929, as the Beit Memorial Research Fellow at the Biochemical Laboratory, Cambridge, he had had an important study published.

Now associated with the important scientist JBS Haldane (see separate entry), Barnet  was close enough to Haldane to be told by him as early as 1935 that he considered himself a Communist, some seven years before he would actually join the Party. A measure of how close the two men may have been came with Haldane’s writing of a children’s book `My friend Mr Leakey’, in which he had a `private’ political joke with Woolf: “When I want to borrow money I always go to a friend called Dr Barnet Woolf, who thinks it is wicked to pay interest for it, I owe him two pence halfpenny at present.” [There being two Dr Barnet Woolfs operating as scientists at the time, there is room for confusion, as evidenced by correspondence with one Dutch university at least.]

Haldane’s non-Party publishers would not reference his political beliefs but it is possible that the scientist adopted a practice of continuing with `private jokes’ by constantly mentioning `wolves’ in his work. In `Why I am a Materialist’ he reckons that language historically began with cries such as “Wolf!”. In `Science and Everyday Life’ he writes of matriarchal lineage by instancing a woman of the Bear clan marrying a man of another clan, say, “the Wolf or Snake clan”.

During the Second World War, when at Birmingham University’s Department of Zoology, as a Ph.D. and Owen Research Fellow, Woolf wrote a characteristic letter to Ivor Montagu. “It’s a hell of a time since I asked you to pull strings for me but I’m going to revert to old-time customs. It isn’t really for me, except that there's a wild big sandy Scotsman nagging me skinny.” Forbes W Robertson, later of the Institute of Animal Genetics, Barnet explained, was a “big bug in the Midland area of the Association of Scientific Workers”. Actually, like most Communist scientists, Woolf was himself active in the AScW, which at the time organised mainly in university science departments and hospitals. In time it would merge to form ASTMS, today part of Unite the union.  The point of Woolf’s approach to Montagu was that Robertson was holding a conference in Birmingham Town Hall on "Science under Fascism and Democracy". This was a big affair with the Mayor of Birmingham officiating but, at the point of writing, no Soviet scientist had been obtained as a speaker and Robertson wanted the Party’s help. Montagu was the man with the Soviet contacts. Barnet’s big-hearted style was well exemplified by his signing off the letter to Ivor – “Love to Hell, etc.”

In tune with this mix of high seriousness and light-hearted creativity, Woolf took his larger than life character, described as such by contemporaries and evidenced by the tenor of letters sent to Montagu over many years, to the cultural world of the Left. A stalwart of the Workers’ Music Association, in 1946 Woolf was the author of the marvellous and, sadly, now once again relevant song, "Pity the Downtrodden Landlord".  Workers Music Association Archives No. 9029 tune: by Arnold Clayton after `She is More to be Pitied than Censored’] Written during the war, Woolf’s song became the anthem of the whole post-war tenants’ movement, with tens of thousands of sheets of the words and music being sold by the WMA at 6d each.

His song was even reproduced in `The People's Songbook’ produced by the Communist-inspired People's Artists in New York in 1948 and motivated an entire generation there. CPUSA] Unfortunately, it was long misattributed to one Bill Wolf (the mistake arising from the song being attributed by the WMA to “B Woolf”). Bill Wolf was the American author of organising and campaigning songs such as "Put It on the Ground".

The later celebrated comic actor Alfie Bass (see separate entry) recorded Woolf’s song with the 'Four Bailiffs' in a 1955 single released by the folk record house, Topic. Michael Broken] It also appeared on the Topic record `Songs for Swinging Landlords To’ by Stan Kelly & Leon Rossselson in 1961. Charley Noble] Song sheets with a humorous graphic illustration were certainly still circulating in Birmingham YCL in the very early 1970s.

Pity the Downtrodden Landlord

Please open your hearts and your purses,

To a man who is misunderstood;

He gets all the kicks and the curses,

Tho he wishes you nothing but good;

He wistfully begs you to show him,

You think he's a friend, not a louse,

So remember the debt that you owe him,

The landlord who lends you his house.




So pity the downtrodden landlord,

With his back so burdened and bent;

Respect his gray hairs,

Don't ask for repairs,

And don't be behind with the rent!


You are able to work for a living,

And rejoice in your strength and your skill,

So try to be kind and forgiving

To a man whom a day's work would kill;

You are able to talk with your neighbor,

You can look the whole world in the face,

But the landlord that ventured to labor,

Would never survive the disgrace. (CHO)


When thunder clouds gather and darken,

You can sleep undisturbed in your bed,

But the landlord must sit up and harken,

And shiver, and wonder, and dread;

If you're killed, then you'll die in a hurry,

And you never will know your bad luck,

But the landlord must sit up and worry,

"Has one of my houses been struck?" (CHO)


When a landlord resorts to eviction,

Don't think that he does it for spite;

He's acting from deepest conviction,

And what's right, after all, is what's right;

But I see that your hearts are all hardened,

And I fear I'm appealing in vain;

Yet I hope that my last plea will be pardoned,

If I beg on my knees once again (once again). (CHO)


Woolf, known there as "Doggie" Woolf was also associated with Unity Theatre and was responsible for much of the material of a number of productions, some of which has been originally written as diversions at Workers’ Music Association summer schools. His forte was comedic numbers, although he employed the pseudonym of Arthur Pooley. `Late Extra’, 1945 a performance for the Civil Service Staff Association, a body only a couple of years away from being purged by the British state, was largely written by “Doogie”.

Reinforcing his serious contribution to social science, Barnet Woolf was the author of Social Conditions and Infant Mortality in 1944, a British Journal of Social Medicine paper that focused on stillbirths in 1928-38 in large towns in England and Wales.  Now considered to be a model of study into health inequality, Barnet is seen to be a pioneer of the field of epidemiology; almost single-handedly he created the science of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease in defined populations. What is now a cornerstone of public health policy was demonstrated by Barnett in a model manner. His paper showed that overcrowding, poverty, heavy work, and family size were strong indicators of infant mortality.

It is likely that the collaboration with JBS Haldane went into deeper scientific territory with the development of a statistical device today termed the “Woolf-Haldane Correction”, applicable to epidemiological retrospective studies, whereby a “modification of the observed data (permits) statistical analysis when cell(s) in a table have a value of zero”.

Woolf worked at the Edinburgh University Department of animal genetics in the years after the war. There, he was known for his ready advice on the pitfalls of statistical analysis and was the “originator of the idea of realised heritability”. This is a complex approach employing algebraic formula to `narrow-sense heritability’, a principle underlying artificial selection or breeding.

In 1947, Woolf wrote music for performances in events that would become what is now known as the Edinburgh Fringe. Originally, a series of unofficial events challenged the establishment’s Edinburgh International Festival. Celebrations of traditional Scottish culture prompted by Communists in Edinburgh led to the establishment of Peoples’ Festivals that ran up 1954, initially widely supported by the local labour movement, though eventually much truncated due to Cold War paranoia.

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