Robert William (often RW as the author of pamphlets) Robson was a founder member of the Communist Party, its London District Organiser and head of the Organisation Department during the 1930s and 1940s. He recruited soldiers to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and was the main contact for Communists in the British armed forces. Robson was also placed in charge of co-ordinating and overseeing the activities of the Party’s `professional workers’’ section, organising a national conference of such activists in the winter of 1937.
Much of the publicly available documentation on Robson is in the form of secret service files only released in recent years. The files on Robson cover the period from 1922 to 1953 more than half a lifetime of surveillance.
He had been London District Organiser from 1927 to 1933, and was the head of the Organisation Department in 1935, in which role he played a leading part in recruiting volunteers for the Spanish Civil War. Though his role in the Party seemed mostly to be with organisation, it was suspected that he was also involved with undercover work.
A particular set of files covers the period 1922-35, and includes documents relating to the general investigations of Robson’s activities, such as: copies of circulars he issued as London District CPGB organiser; Passport Office forms listing Robson and Bob Stewart (see below), among others, whose passports should not permit them to travel within the Empire; and intercepted phone conversations. There are Special Branch reports of Robson’s arrest and conviction in 1931 in connection with charges of receiving stolen goods. (He had been found in possession of a stolen Gestetner duplicator at the Party offices!) There are many reports about his separation from his wife and subsequent cohabitation with one Eireen Potter, who was passed off as Mrs Robson.
The files from 1935 to 1953 include detailed surveillance reports of Robson’s activities and phone conversations, these are especially and significantly detailed and assiduous in the period March to August 1942.
Robson fell ill with tuberculosis during the Second World War, and when his wife (and supposedly Robson himself, but he may have simply been humouring his wife) turned to religion the Security Service considered approaching him for an interview, but this was never followed up. So this is an example of a potential turncoat (criminal conviction, health scares, religious wife, scandalous affair) who was not considered worthy of the danger of a serious attempt to recruit him. The security forces kept up their long-term watch on him, even when he convalesced from tuberculosis in
Agents hoped the Reverend DJ Cockle, the vicar of Timberscombe in
Robson’s common-law wife, Eileen Potter, was a regular at the Revd Cockle’s services, despite Robson’s scepticism. She told the vicar she wished to make amends for having lived with Robson unmarried and said she hoped Robson would also convert to Christianity.
Her conversion, combined with Robson’s ailing health and his worry about what would happen to his wife if he were interned due to the Cold War might help the Revd Cockle convince him to defect, MI5 hoped. The security body described his possible defection as “a prize of the first magnitude”, but spy chiefs realised it was unlikely. In a stark document weighing up the chance of his betrayal, Robson is described as having a “twisted character”, which would allow him to attend church to appease his wife while remaining, at heart, a Communist.
Nevertheless, it was decided to use the Revd Cockle. In secretly recorded conversations over tea and biscuits, the vicar put the case for religion while Robson spoke about his involvement in Communism. A letter Robson wrote to the Revd Cockle from Hampstead makes it clear the vicar had broached the subject by asking for advice on a book about the difficulties between Communism and Christianity. Robson told him there was “no essential conflict” between the two and added: “I think God’s ends are being realised in the present turmoil, awful as it is, and that men are on the threshold of a wonderful new era.”
The Revd Cockle seems to have felt guilty about his undercover work. He told Somerset police, who were working with MI5, that he did not want to get involved in politics and said his influence could only be spiritual – although agents remained convinced he would pass on any “treasonous” material. The vicar was “relieved” that Robson had learnt, via Father Bailey, that police were making inquiries about his Communist background. It odes not seem that the plot to turn Robson ever had any chance of success.
In 1951, Robson wrote a scathing criticism of Douglas Hyde, a former Communist Party comrade who had joined the Roman Catholic church and written a book on his former life called `I Believed’. Hyde had co-operated with MI5. Robson wrote: “Hyde has rejected the substance and embraced the shadow. He will not persuade many to join him. “They not only believe, they know.” But the whole scam against Robson failed since the vicar died in 1951 before the attempted conversion could be completed.
Beyond these stupid games, which say little about Robson’s real threat to the nation’s security and more about the culture of high jinks and rooted anti-radicalism of the elite security forces, the majority of the remaining documents in the National Archive are unrevealing. One criticises his wife’s intelligence and says she “dresses poorly”. Others detail bickering within the Communist Party, and Robson’s trivial run-ins with the law in earlier life.
Sources: National Archives
1931 newspaper report on Robson