Griffith Campbell MacLaurin was a New Zealander who became a Communist in Britain and died fighting in Spain in 1936.
MacLaurin – or Mac to his friends – and his family lived in Remuera, where his father, Kenneth, was headmaster of Westmere School. Griff went to Hamilton High School and was then an outstanding student at Auckland Grammar School. At Auckland University College he specialised in mathematics, winning the Sir George Grey Scholarship, which took him to Cambridge University.
His was a family of talents; Kenneth instilled in the young Griff his own love of history, whilst his mother, Gwladys, taught him French. His uncle, James Scott MacLaurin, had been New Zealand's foremost analytical chemist. Another uncle, Richard Cockburn MacLaurin, was an outstanding mathematician and legal scholar who also won a scholarship to Cambridge and was foundation professor of mathematics at Victoria University College in Wellington. R C MacLaurin became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1909 until his death in 1920. Under his presidency MIT was reformed into a world-class research and teaching institute.
At Auckland University College MacLaurin took a BA degree in 1930, followed by a master's with first-class honours, the Cook Prize, and a post-graduate scholarship in arts. In 1932 he arrived at St John's College, Cambridge University, which his Uncle Richard had attended.
Paddy Costello, another New Zealander and the father of noted British Communist, Mick Costello (see separate entry) was Mac’s best friend at Cambridge. But MacLaurin struggled with the work, scraping through with a third. He was possibly diverted from scholarship by the many diversions available to him.
His tutor instilled MacLaurin with a desire to travel and a visit to Germany in 1933, soon after the Nazis took power, profoundly changed his world view. MacLaurin spoke German and French and spent four months in Freiburg. His experience made him a staunch anti-fascist and the impact of the Depression on working people led him to question capitalist economics. He now made a thorough study of socialist theory and joined the very active Cambridge University Socialist Association, which was much influenced by Marxism.
After graduation in 1934, Griff taught mathematics at secondary schools in Glasgow and St Peter's in York, but he was sacked from the latter after a heavy drinking session. By this time, he had joined the Communist Party and considered politics more important than teaching or studying mathematics.
Returning to Cambridge, he set up a successful radical bookshop, which was highly regarded by publisher Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club. The shop became the social centre of the left-wing scene at Cambridge. MacLaurin married suddenly, without telling his family in New Zealand. He began to learn Spanish, adding to his `portfolio’ of languages, with the intention of travelling through Spain, but this plan became more urgent after the outbreak of the civil war in July 1936.
Harry Pollitt, on discovering that machine-gunners were needed in Spain, asked MacLaurin – who had been trained to use a Lewis gun when in his school OTC cadet corps – to join the International Brigade. MacLaurin left his bookshop in the care of his wife, and was off to Spain within the week with the first organised group of eleven volunteers from Britain, led by the Cambridge poet John Cornford (see separate entry), which arrived in Madrid on November 8th 1936.
MacLaurin was amongst those who marched down the Gran Via, the main street of the Spanish capital, on November 8th 1936. This arrival was a turning point, boosting the morale of Madrid's people and playing an important role in halting the fascist advance. They were sent to defend the Faculty of Philosophy at the University City, a part of Madrid under attack from Franco's forces, backed by German and Italian tanks, artillery and aircraft.
MacLaurin, with Kiwi-born Londoner Steve Yates and two others formed a machine-gun team. On November 9th, their second day in Spain, in savage fighting at the parkland of Casa del Campo, MacLaurin's machine-gun unit remained behind to cover the retreat of their comrades. Sadly, only one of the team survived the engagement with the fascist forces.
Cornford, who was killed in Spain a month later, paid MacLaurin this tribute: "If you meet any of his pals tell them he did well here and died bloody well. It's always the best seem to get the worst." Cambridge activists commemorated the two Cambridge men with the Cornford-MacLaurin Memorial Fund, raising money for Spain.
MacLaurin's parents did not know he had gone to Spain until they received a telegram with the news of their son's death. They became very active fundraisers for the Auckland branch of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In all about 20 New Zealanders went to Spain with the International Brigade as soldiers or medical personnel, along with MacLaurin and Yates, four other New Zealanders were killed in Spain.