Born in the east end of London as Nathan Cohen, he was always known as Nat. (Pic: Nat and his wife Ramona)
In the early 1930s, Nat was in Argentina for a time and as part of a textile workers’ union had tried to get local workers organised. But the authorities there were not very happy with this foreigner unsettling workers so he was expelled from the country. Special Branch files show that when his boat docked at Tilbury they were there waiting for him.
Working as garment worker in the East End, Nat was often to be found involved in political street-fighting in this period. Perhaps a reason why he, the entire troupe, and another member of the street audience were arrested on one occasion when watching five members of Red Radio, a street theatre group, performing an anti-Nazi sketch in Court Street in London, to a crowd of a couple of hundred. The five actors were wearing old khaki tunics and imitation helmets in imitation of Nazi Stormtroopers. The arrest was clearly ludicrous and highly suggestive of sympathy in the police for fascism. The following Sunday a torch-lit demonstration in support of those arrested was held in east London. When they did arrive in court, the Magistrate, Mr. Barrington Ward, surprisingly but quite properly, thought that the law entitled the bulk of the defendants to peaceably mock a political opponent and discharged them – though with a caution.
But Nat Cohen had been charged with assault of a police officer, the one who had arrested them, and was fined and `bound over’ for 12 months, that is to say obliged to keep his nose clean for a year. On the strength of all this, Stepney International LabourDefenceorganisation went on to hold a conference on restrictions on free speech but, actually, Red Radio’s brushes with the police were mild in comparison to the repeated and violent experiences of the Manchester group of the same name.
Nat was a regular draw at Communist Party meetings and his family had fought Mosley’s hated Blackshirts at every opportunity. Nat’s heroism is legendary – he was notorious in Stepney for his actions and words, so much so that Arnold Wesker mentions him in his play `Chicken Soup With Barley’: “That Nat Cohen,” says one of his characters, “he’s a right terror.”
In the spring of 1936, with the Olympics due to be held in Berlin, a campaign for the games to be boycotted was under way. Nat was asked by his union to travel to Spain to compete in the bicycle races at a Workers’ Olympiad being held that July for those refusing to participate in the Berlin affair. Short of cash, he and his friend Sam Masters decided not to buy a train ticket to the south. Instead they carried their bikes on to a ferry, pedalled through France and cycled their way over the Pyrenees to Barcelona.
It was just days before the Fascists rose in Morocco. As the army rose against the workers, Nat, instead of turning round and pedalling home, immediately asked what he could do and was signed into a workers’ militia. With Spanish workers, he went to help try and retake the Balearic islands – a disastrous mission, as Italian warplanes murdered the loyalist troops heading out to Menorca and Majorca in small fishing boats from the Costa Bravaharbours.
Nat survived – and his bravery in the fighting had been so impressive that he was asked to head an English-speaking militia brigade which became known as the Tom Mann centuria, the first British unit. `Centuria’ was a label adopted by many of the early militia companies.
Nat Cohen met his future wife, Ramona, at the front. She was a Spanish nurse, whom he managed to smuggle out of Spain when he himself was repatriated as a result of his injury. The problem of getting her into Britain from Paris was solved by a comradely arrangement with Joe Jacobs and his wife, Pearl, whereby they crossed the Channel on a pre-arranged day trip to France and Pearl returned as a ‘day tripper’, that is to say not needing a passport, having given her passport to Ramona whom they met up with on the other side.
Nat fought through the war before being shot in the knee and having to come home – although his friend Sam Masters was not so fortunate and was killed in Spain. Nat later came home to be greeted by a street party in Stepney – thousands came out to greet him.
He returned with Dolores and also a Great Dane dog – a stray he had found wandering the streets of Barcelona and couldn’t bear to leave behind. The event was marked by a photograph in the Daily Mirror.
Nat and Dolores played a major role in bringing Spanish orphans to Carshalton in the borough of Sutton. The large house that accommodated them was known locally for many years as “The Spanish.”
Later, at the height of the Second World War blitz, Nat heard that the Ritz Hotel was stopping West End shop workers from taking shelter in its bomb-proof basement ballroom. Apparently it was reserved solely for guests even though hundreds of tons of high explosives were being dropped from above on everyone. He and his friends decided to do something about it. One lunchtime, they marched down Oxford Street and pushed their way into the ballroom. They occupied it and refused to leave until they had an undertaking that the management would let shoppers and workers shelter when the sirens went off – and if they refused, he’d be back.
In his final years Nat lived in Glastonbury Road on the St Helier Estate, spanning Sutton and Merton. During the late 1960s, Nat still sold Morning Stars on the street, locally. As he became more frail the late Queenie Knight visited on a weekly basis to tidy Nat’s house.
Sources: Morning Star 17th July 2011; “Ideas, forms and developments in the British workers’ theatre: 1925-1935” Ian Saville, Ph. D, CityUniversity (1990); Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto – My Youth in the East End: Communism and Fascism 1913-1939; Cllr Paddy Kane of Sutton
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