The inter-war period, from 1918-1939, was one of conflicting political viewpoints. It saw the birth of communism in Russia, of fascist take-overs in Italy and in Germany, and of violent doctrines springing up left, right and centre. Amongst all of this political upheaval was Britain, which historians believe remained – by and large – relatively stable, with its democratic institutions continued undamaged. Fascism did not take root or grow in this land, however, more recent studies over the past two decades have started to test such an assumption.
Todd Gray’s Blackshirts in Devon (published in 2006) investigated the rise in fascist support of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the mid-1930s. Uncovering many interesting details – such as a thriving, yet brief, branch office in Plymouth – Gray’s book has enabled the local historian to bring in the wild doctrines of continental Europe to our very own shores and parishes. The book is a fantastic tool in helping the local historian and enthusiast understand more about the political context of the period, particularly in connecting the wider world with the locality (a feature of which is a heavy component in the Hidden Histories module which I teach on the foundation degree at University Centre South Devon College).
And what of Cornwall’s flirtation with fascism? Although no comparative work has been undertaken to rival that of Gray’s, Blackshirts in Devon mentions a keen fascist resident in Saltash in the 1920s to 1930s. His name was W.E.R. Martin, a former Paymaster Rear Admiral. Born in Devonport in 1867, he retired in the early 1920s and became the Chief Fascisti organiser for Cornwall. Such was his zest for this political doctrine that he personally attempted to present his autobiography – The Adventures of a Naval Paymaster – to Mussolini in Rome; though, was rebuffed. Gray notes him as ‘a prolific writer’, who was regularly in print in the Saltash Gazette, the Western Independent and the Western Morning News.
Presumably, he was a natural public speaker, holding meetings in Alexandra Square in Saltash in the 1930s. Some of these meetings were the scene of disturbances, leading to the local council blocking many future fascist-related events. Martin was in opposition to such a decision, as he was to the country as a whole, on which he believed ‘was like a piano out of tune’. Indeed, such was his antipathy that he even disagreed with Mosley’s very own fascist grouping, preferring instead to retain an independent stance.
Yet despite Martin’s spirit, the cause of fascism floundered in the west-country long before the start of the Second World War, with the local branch offices being abandoned due to a lack of numbers. The war itself was the final nail in the coffin for the doctrine, with fascist ideals becoming completely unfashionable. Such was the shame attached to those associated with the belief that there remains a black-hole in our understanding of those involved during the 1930s. Fascism in the west-country, then, presents an intriguing hidden history to anyone willing to dive in tackle it.