Christopher Berkeley Peyton Birch was born in 1928 in St Kitts, which was then the British West Indies, the son of Norman Peyton Birch and Iris Berkeley King. St Kitts was the same small island where Emile Burns (see separate entry), a distant relative, was born. Birch’s father was the accountant at the St Kitts branch of Barclays Bank; his mother’s family had been in the West Indies for nearly 300 years. As a child he spent ten years in St Kitts, followed by seven years schooling in Trinidad and a year in Barbados before going to England in 1946.
At Bristol University, he joined the Communist Party in 1948 and met and fell in love with Betty, his wife and life-long partner whom he married in 1950. When they moved to London from Bristol, the couple were both involved in the Aid to Spanish Youth Committee (Betty was chair), which campaigned on behalf of young political prisoners in Franco’s jails.
Chris was national treasurer of the Young Communist League from 1953 to 1955. The couple went to Warsaw (with their small son) in April 1955 to work on the International Preparatory Committee for the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, which was held in Warsaw from 31 July to 14 August. When the festival was over, they then went in August to Budapest to work at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. Chris was the Young Communist League’s representative on the secretariat; Betty worked in the propaganda department. Their daughter was born in Budapest and, when street fighting broke out, Betty left with the children on 1 November. Chris and Charlie Coutts stayed until the fighting was over, leaving Budapest on 17 November.
Their time in Hungary enabled them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the `communist’ government in that country and its failure to respond flexibly to demands for democratic change. On their return to London in 1956, Birch and Charlie Coutts wrote a memo to John Gollan, who had recently succeeded Harry Pollitt as party general secretary. It dealt with questions of democracy, corruption and their view that the ruling Communist Party in Hungary “had been reduced almost to political impotence,” largely because of a “widely held view that no major question could be decided without Moscow’s approval.” (The then governing party was actually called the Hungarian Working People’s Party.) Gollan did not reply to the letter but handed it over to the Soviet ambassador in 1956 to be forwarded to Moscow. Birch served for many years in the British-Hungarian Friendship Society on its executive committee, while Coutts settled in Hungary, from where he wrote regularly to the Morning Star until he died in 2000.
In 1966, Chris Birch was election agent for Peter Robson when he stood as a Communist candidate for Fulham. In 1968, he stood as a Communist candidate in the elections to Hammersmith borough council, gaining 145 votes. At that time he was secretary of the party’s Hammersmith borough committee.
A journalist for most of his working life, Chris was editor of a local government weekly for 13 years, taught journalism at the London College of Printing (now known as the London College of Communications), and was a journalist and sub-editor on the Morning Star, for a period of three-and-a-half years.
Fulfilling roles such as a NUJ activist, party branch officer, treasurer of the International Brigade Memorial Appeal and author of Communist Party policy on HIV/Aids, he remained a member of the CPGB until 1991 when it dissolved itself into the short-lived Democratic Left. Although Chris and Betty Birch still regard themselves as Communists, despite not having been a member of any communist organisation since 1991.
Chris’ own bisexuality has been open and accepted within a very happy marriage. He has given voluntary work at London Lighthouse from the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, along with the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Kobler HIV Clinic at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and Westminster Abbey.
Chris retired in 2012 after 20 years as an Abbey volunteer, despite being an atheist.
He was first elected a governor of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in 2007 and re-elected for a third three-year term in 2013.
MI5 has a file on him, no P.F.402/51/1064 which is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
He has published his autobiography “My Life: The Caribbean, Communism, Budapest 1956, journalism, HIV/Aids, London Lighthouse, Diana’s funeral, Westminster Abbey, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and much much more”. (This may be ordered from www.StChristopherPress.com.)