John and Ella Larmour
John Larmour was born in Belfast on the 29th April 1910. He attended the Prince of Wales Sea School for Boys in Limehouse, London from 1923 to 1925. Founded only three years before John went there, the school changed its name to the less patronising Prince of Wales Sea Training School in 1948. (See picture below)
Larmour (pic left: in the centre during his time in Spain) worked as a seaman on long voyages, encountering the IRA and becoming interested in left wing politics after meeting IWW workers while bumming on freight trains in America. At some point, he joined the Communist Party and was certainly a member when he was chased out of Hamburg in 1933 while engaged in anti-fascist leafleting with his union. The International Transport Workers Federation, and its affiliates, were heavily involved in anti-fascist work in this period in Hamburg and it is conceivably this activity which John was involved in.
He met his future wife, Noella (always known as Ella) May Parker, also a member of the Party by this time, at Coppice Camp, an Essex rural retreat used for educational events in owned by the Communist Party, in 1936. Born on 19th December 1911, Ella had left school after taking an Oxford certificate but was not permitted by her parents to undergo teacher training at a college, presumably due to the prevailing social attitudes about young women being away from home. Instead, she worked for ICI as a secretary for some years.
Ella had become active in the fledgling youth hostel movement, hiking all over England. She came into contact with the ILP during stays at a camp in Devonshire. In common with many ILP adherents at this point she had moved on to the Communist Party. It was from Ella’s background in the youth hostel movement that now saw her spending most of her weekends in charge of the kitchen at Coppice camp, there to meet the young seaman. John Larmour was there with a great friend of his, one Christopher Sprigg, known as `Spriggy’, who is known to posterity by his pen name as the poet, writer and Marxist literary critic Christopher Cauldwell. Born Christopher St. John Sprigg, he was already the author of a strong of textbooks, detective novels, poems and short stories, although his greatest works were then about to be born. Both young men were with a group, a `troika’ who would be a group of great friends all their lives, Ted Roycraft, Stan Hart and Nick Cox. Spriggy and the young couple alike were now in Poplar, John and Ella together, and were both active in the Party at the time when Oswald Mosley’s began to promote his British Union of Fascists (BUF) and its paramilitary wing, the Blackshirts in emulation of the movements led by Mussolini and Hitler.
Copying the staged events of the Nazis, Mosley aimed to create momentum for his movement in 1934 by staging three great rallies in London, first at the Albert Hall in April, the second at Olympia in June, and the third at the now demolished White City Stadium (the site of today’s BBC television centre). At the Olympia on 7th June 1934, mass brawling broke out when anti-fascist hecklers were removed by Blackshirts, who were noted for their especial brutality in handling the protests at this event, a fact that lost the BUF much support. In August, when Mosley held his White City rally, along with other seafarers, John went up in the girders of the stadium to bomb the participants of a fascist rally with leaflets. Blackshirts tried to follow them up but could not stand the height, which the seafarers by virtue of their training found all too easy!
Right: the sea school John attended, pictured with the then Prince of Wales.
An activist in his union, in 1936, John was also at Cable Street, London, with groups of fellow seafarers. This even more famous protest arose when the British Union of Fascists announced an intention to mount a show of strength on the afternoon of Sunday October 4th. Inevitably, this would have intimidated the organised working class in general, but was especially aimed at the local Jewish community, in which the Communist Party was particularly rooted. The BUF planned to gather in black-shirted military formation at Royal Mint Street, where they would be reviewed by their leader, Oswald Mosley, before marching in four streams to different meetings in the east end.
A petition of 100,000 signatures was gathered within two days and presented to the Home Office on October 2nd by a broadly based deputation but the government refused to stop the provocation. Since the fascist onslaught in Spain had now ensued, anger at the BUF’s strategy was widespread. The Communist Party now cancelled a planned protest in Trafalgar Square and called for mass opposition in the East End itself.
Long before the BUF was due to assemble the streets were full with people. Not far off a third of a million people clogged the streets leading to the east end. Thousands of police were brought in to protect the fascist march. People were refused admission to the locality. The Blackshirts appalling chant: “The Yids, the Yids, we are going to get rid of the Yids” was drowned by masses of counter-protestors. What effectively became a confrontation between police and anti-fascists was concentrated on Cable Street, down which the BUF aimed to march. An intense battle saw many injuries, only relieved by rapidly established first aid stations. John Larmour was himself lightly injured during the battle.
The police advised Mosley that his march could not proceed because of the threat of disorder – anti-fascism had been beaten in the east end of London but the thoughts of many young men – and some women, too – now turned to Spain and how they could personally make a difference. After a Party meeting, John decided on the spur of the moment to go to Spain and join the International Brigades, which he joined at the age of 26 years. (His parents were cited as legal next of kin and their address was still Belfast – 15 Torrens Gardens.) For work purposes, no doubt, he was recorded as being employed as a merchant seaman from Liverpool at the time he joined the IB. He was also logged by the IB as being a member of the Communist Party of Ireland (which had only been formally constituted in 1933) and the Transport & General Workers Union. Ella attempted to join him in Spain but was obliged to stay in Poplar as she had no driving licence or nursing qualifications and was not accepted as a volunteer.
Less than a couple of months later, Larmour would have been accepted into the International Brigade, for he reported on the 18th December 1936 at Albacete, where he was posted to the newly formed No 1 Company, which was to be part of the XIV International Brigade. 145 Members of the British battalion were reinforcements for this mainly French Brigade. The Company comprised a mixed collection of English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Dutch, and a couple of Cypriots; Larmour was in this Company with other Volunteers from Belfast, including, Danny Boyle, Bill Beattie, Gerry Doran, Isaac Hillen and Sydney Quinn. (Right: John Larmour’s identity papers.)
No 1 company left Albacete by train on the 24th December 1936 and disembarked at Andujar. They went into action on the 27th December. Larmour was seriously wounded in the right arm at Lopera on the very next day of action and remained in hospital for about six weeks. He returned to the British battalion in time to take part in the Battle of Jarama on the 12th February 1937. He was again wounded on, or about, the 15th February at Jarama and was again hospitalised. In retrospect, the only thing he would say about Spain was that “war was rotten” and that he had lost his closest friends there, including of course, his mate, `Spriggy’.
Larmour was stated to have a very good record in Spain and he arrived back in London on 7th September 1937 and put in a compensation claim, since his arm wound had led to slight paralysis in his hand. The couple then got married in November 1937 but only at the behest of the Party, which thought it unsuitable to `cohabit’ in a working class area like Poplar! John then began employment in a Communist Party bookshop in Hayes, west London.
During the Second World War, because of his injuries from Spain, it was not possible for him to go into the services. But, sometime after the fall of France, he travelled by fishing boat to the prison camps for German and Austrian Brigaders in the south of France. There, he gave his passport and those of others’ to those chosen to go to America. He received an appliqué (i.e. applied to another surface) picture as a memento of thanks (still possessed by his daughter).
John Larmour started working for Eva Reckitt and Olive Parsons at Collets bookshop after being bombed out in Poplar and other places in London. After thus being bombed out five times before living at Hayes, where Ella gave birth to a son, she and the baby were evacuated twice. In the end, the family went to live at a cottage on the South Downsowned by Eva Reckitt, the owner of Collets, where a daughter, Sarah, was born in 1945. Sometime towards the end of the war, this cottage ‘The Hollow’ at Houghton between Storrington and Arundel, near Worthingwas raided by police but for what possible reason was unclear.
Eva Reckitt may not have been actually formally a member of the Communist Party – certainly not an open one, as such – but was clearly a strong supporter – and a wealthy one at that, her capital coming from the Reckitt family part of the well-known firm of Reckitt and Colman. She had first come to MI5’s attention in 1923 when mentioned in intercepted communications between leading Party members.
In particular, her friendship with the well-known journalist W N Ewer was of interest to the security services. Reckitt had been involved in this period in supplying funds for Comintern covert operations, perhaps in India. The Home Office kept a permanent warrant legally justifying surveillance on her for the next 30 years. MI5 also kept on file all this time a hand-drawn map showing the location of Reckitt’s cottage, designed to show how isolated it was and unsuited for keeping up observations on the inhabitants. Presumably, it was suspected for being a `safe house’.
West Sussex police made the search of ‘The Hollow’ after a local resident reported Reckitt to the police for subversive activities, following a row over politics. Perhaps he had been made a fool of by the strong-willed woman! In common with usual practice, copies of any pertinent documents found were retained. The police report, which is part of the MI5 releases at the National Archives, includes a summary of the contents of Reckitt’s will.
The operation therefore may have been simply a trawling exercise using the neighbour’s complaint to justify entry to the cottage. During the raid, Special Branch will have obtained the details, since they would have realised MI5 would want to know the beneficiaries of her will. In fact, when she did die many years later, Reckitt set up a perfectly respectable charitable foundation! Oddly, Collett’s premises themselves were never seemingly subject to surveillance but it is believed that John Larmour was watched during the 1950s.
Until the birth of her and John’s first baby in Hayes, Ella was involved in organising squatting during the blitz with Bill Sedley, a Communist lawyer. They targeted what was then commonly termed `luxury housing’, in 1940 and 41. From the moment the blitz had come, many well-to-do people had chosen to live in smaller and newer properties away from the centre of London. Not a few of these properties were empty and became the target of Communist-organised groups of squatters, many of whom had been bombed out and were crowded into the already small homes of relatives and neighbours
After the war they moved to Chislehurst and John continued to work at Collets as a manager, mostly at its second-hand shop, which also had a jazz and folk record shop in the cellar. Around 1955 to 1956, he left Collets after a dispute over commercial money-making policies and worked in various jobs for a while.
After the war, Ella was a full-time housewife and mother until she worked as a supply teacher, remaining as active in the Party as this could permit, though she resigned membership after the events of 1956. (It is thought that John stayed in the Party all his life.) Ella finally was to fulfil her youth aim and to attend a teacher training college in 1963. In the late 1960s, she and John bought a bookshop in Hastings and she worked as a teacher in Rye until she was 69.
After John’s sudden death in 1973, Ella continued to work in a range of progressive movements until as recently as two years ago. She maintained an active involvement by marching in peace demonstrations, boycotting South African goods and was, for thirty years, an active member of the Co-operative Women’s Guild and associated bodies.
Ella continued to be active in the peace movement, maintaining a vigil once a week for many years in Hastings, becoming much respected in the district. She was involved in all the protests against the Iraq War and, at the grand age of 93, collected money for the children of Iraq from the public. She is now living in a care home and is partially disabled after operations and a stroke but remains as interested in world affairs as such a lifetime would lead one to expect!
Sources: information from Sarah Larmour Marskog (Sweden) and Jim Carmody (IBMT)