Jimmy Shields was born in January 1900 in Greenock, Scotland, of Irish parents and joined the Communist Party in 1921. He spent the rest of his life as an absolutely dedicated Communist, dying 28 years later in virtual obscurity, for he was virtually unknown in his lifetime in this country after 1935 and there are very good reasons why this was so.
We owe both the South African government’s education department, which is in the process of researching the complete history of their liberation heroes – black and white – so as to teach the story of their lives to their children, and MI5, part of Britain’s secret police, our current knowledge of Jimmy’s story. For the truth is that he spent the last two decades of his life in dangerous and scary work in activity that was motivated by anti-racism and anti-fascism. It has been truly satisfying for this site to have been assistance in researching the following material, prompted by the official South African interest.
In 1925, mainly initially searching for work, Jimmy moved to South Africa, where he soon became Chairman of the South African Communist Party until 1927. It was not the most propitious time in the SACP’s history and the political questions he faced were difficult. But Shields more than proved his gargantuan appetite for handling big and problematic political questions. (The picture – of an intense and focused young man – is Jimmy's passport photo from his time in South Africa, possibly taken before he went.)
Whether he was asked to move back to Britain, or whether it simply seemed the best thing to do, is unclear. Either way, Jimmy moved back
to his native Scotland, where he became a member of the Scottish District Committee. He later played an active part in supporting the fight of the militant miners, then organised in the United Mineworkers of Scotland. Jimmy's qualities and rapid development were reflected in the increasing responsibilities which he shouldered in the Communist Party. Branch Organiser, District Organiser, then a member of the Executive Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Party – all were offices he successfully filled.
At the Party Centre he was at different times in charge of the Central Industrial Department and the Organisation Department. A most effective Party propagandist, he acted as tutor at Party schools and classes all over the country, interrupted only by illness, right up to a short period before his death. He served two terms of imprisonment fighting for freedom of speech.
He went to London in 1931 to work on the staff of, and later to take charge of, the Daily Worker of which he was editor from 1932-33 and later again in 1936-37. Such confidence in so young a man is remarkable, and must testify to Jimmy’s remarkable political gifts, but there was more.
In 1932 he made the first of several visits to Moscow as the British representative to the Comintern. From 1931, he was a member of the Central, later Executive, Committee and Political Committee of the Party. From 1937, he was also chair of the Control Commission (later the Appeals Committee), the Party's highest disciplinary body. In addition, he was a member of the British Communist Party’s International Committee, and later assumed responsibility for this area of work and became widely known in British Empire anti-colonial circles. This alone would have been enough to bring him to the attention of MI5 and this indeed was the case; in combination, it was guaranteed.
In their surveillance, MI5 officers appeared fascinated by the young and passionately devoted Communist women Shields worked with. Amongst other things, his assistant at the International Department, Eileen Palmer (Eileen Bolton) was known to travel extensively on Party business, possibly in a courier role that may have involved the funding of colonial freedom movements and / or underground anti-fascist groups in central Europe. This was a fairly common activity for 1930s Communists.
More damagingly, or so it seems, it is also suggested by some sources that he was responsible for organising the clandestine wireless station, used for maintaining contact with Comintern headquarters. Yet it is not clear that this was necessarily an illegal activity, even if it were a discreet affair. E-mail did not then exist (!), nor was it possible then for the State to easily intercept private communications by radio wave.
It appears to be the case that, at a time when it was still believed that the Communist Party might be banned in Britain just as the Daily Worker had been, Jimmy Shields recruited a Party member, Jean Jefferson, to set up and operate a covert Comintern radio link from her home in Wimbledon. Jean had joined the Young Communist League in London in 1932, attended the LeninSchool in Moscow in 1936. By 1938, she was working in Paris, in some way connected with undercover Party work.
For all these reasons, MI5 felt completely justified in keeping an extensive surveillance of Jimmy Shields' activities, including intercepted correspondence, phone calls and recorded conversations. Their files even includes a picture of Shields' wife Violet, in order that surveillance officers could exclude her from observations of the glamourous Communist women activists they were most interested in.
Shields played a conspicuous part in the successful Empire Conference of the British Communist Party held in February 1946. Activists from all over Africa, Malaya, Burma, Ceylon, India, Canada, and Australia attended, no doubt sending the security forces into apoplexy as a result!
He worked in his position as a member of the National Appeals Committee of the Communist Party and in the International Department at the Party Centre until shortly before his death.
Sadly, at some point in his protracted and periodic foreign visits, Jimmy had contracted tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known in his day. For an extended period after the war, he was forced to remain in Kelling Sanatorium in Norfolk by this illness, which would kill him in 1949. Even there, his every communication continued to be monitored.
To what useful end the intensity of this invasion of privacy was for is now clearly less arguable than it once was. But, certainly, the MI5 files show how Shields maintained links with the Soviet embassy during the Second World War. It is conclusively now certain that the Security Service was employing a double agent, "M/7", to feed information to Shields which he then passed on to the Soviet Union.
Yet, by the time this was in full flow, The USSR was a legal ally of the UK in a common war. This, plus a morbid preoccupation with preventing liberation forces in the colonies from gaining strength, which was a key aim of Shield’s work, would appear to be the sole justification for the excessive attention that was given by the security forces to knowledge of the daily life – including the matter of his marital faithfulness, or otherwise, of this dying man. Neither critique is recorded by either the National Archive or MI5 press releases and records that announced the opening of files on Jimmy Shields.