Born Dona Ruth Anne Torr on April 28th 1883, her father, William Torr, was first a vicar and then Canon of Chester Cathedral. Her paternal grandfather was a wealthy merchant and a Conservative M.P. Completing her studies at University College London and then becoming a journalist, she found her social conscience forced her to opposition of the 1914-18 war.
She worked for the Daily Herald and, in 1920, became a founder member of the Communist Party, working on its journal, `Workers’ Life’. Later she worked for the publishing company Lawrence and Wishart and married the prominent Communist, Walter Holmes, a long-standing columnist for the Daily Worker. Despite her lasting, if often muted, reputation as a writer of some substance, she was a dedicated member of the Party, delivering leaflets from her bicycle during the General Strike of 1926 and selling Party literature, especially, later the Daily Worker.
Her knowledge of German saw her visit Moscow as a translator for the Fifth Congress of the Comintern and she gained a reputation as an interpreter of Marxists classics through her language skills. She translated and edited Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ `Selected Correspondence’ (1934), wrote supplementary notes for a new edition of Marx’s `Capital Vol I’ (1938), and translated Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ (1940) and Marx’s articles `On China’ (1940). She also edited two volumes of extracts from the Marxist classics, published as `Marxism, Nationality and War’ (1940), as well as translating Dimitrov’s `Letters from Prison’.
Torr was a key participant in the work of the Communist Party Historians’ Group from 1946, yet much of her contribution is clouded by the publicism, sometimes self-motivated, of some of the younger historians who later took a dissenting path. Dona Torr was more inclined to work behind the scenes to encourage the then younger historians who became so famous.
A historical advisory committee chaired by Torr and aided by students such as Max Morris worked on draft scripts for the 1930s historical pageants and events that first promoted British working class history as a core theme in Communist politics. Party historians did research for the 1939 Chartist Centenary, the ‘Heirs to the Charter’ Pageant, and with associated Daily Worker articles. Then Robin Page Arnot, Douglas Garman and Dona Torr, with around a dozen academic historians to aid them, formed the ‘Marxist Historians’ Group’ in September 1938, with a ‘History Bureau’ for propaganda. Torr and Garman worked at Lawrence and Wishart, which commissioned Christopher Hill’s English Revolution, published in 1940, a key step in the development of British Marxist historiography. .
Although she translated many Marxist classics into English, and produced `Marxism, nationality and war’ (1940) and `Marxism and war’ (1943), and occasionally wrote for `Labour Monthly’, she is perhaps best known in posterity for her partially completed `Tom Mann and his Times’ (1956). Dona Torr was captivated by the story of Tom Mann; he was not only a remarkable, seemingly ever-present figure throughout the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th, she knew him personally and admired him enormously. Little wonder that Torr published, first, a brief biography of Tom Mann in 1936, promising a full length biography. It took her 20 years to finish the first volume and the project was never fully completed.
In 1946 she received help from Yvonne Kapp, but even with Kapp’s prompting, Torr still took full part in political activity, writing as homeless families took over unused properties in 1946 that yet another draft would be delayed, this time ‘owing to the squatter excitements’. She edited `History in the making’ in 1948 but, from 1950 onwards, Torr was increasingly prone to bouts of illness. Despite such setbacks, work continued, and the first but only volume of `Tom Mann and his Times’ finally appeared in November 1956. The book ends on 16 September 1889 with the victory of the dockers’ struggle of that year.
Perversely, the role of Dona Torr in the Historians Group has been underestimated by many commentators on this aspect of the Party’s history. Perhaps this may be largely due to the fact that those who were closest to her had not been university students and gained admiration for her in her role as teacher to a pupil. Even so, she was acknowledged as the main mentor for the Group’s members well before her death in 1957.
E P Thompson singled her out as partial co-author of his first major book, William Morris and, in 1954, an impressive list of historians contributed to a book of essays in her honour, in which Christopher Hill wrote: “So fertile has she been of ideas that a whole school of Marxist historians has grown up around her, fostered by her unfailing interest and aid.” John Saville initiated and edited this collection and himself spoke highly of her.
But her own complete work of Tom Mann and his Times was left unfinished, since Dona Torr died on 8 January 1957. Torr herself believed that her greatest contribution had come in the 1920s. On her death, Dona Torr’s library was donated to the headquarters of the Communist Party in King Street.
See: "The Past is Ours": The Political Usage of English History by the British Communist Party, and the Role of Dona Torr in the Creation of its Historians’ Group, 1930-56′. University of Sydney PhD (2004)
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