Thursday, 7 February 2019

Comrade Kath – a brief life of Kath Duncan

Kath Duncan, communist political activist in 1920s and 30s Deptford, is the subject of a new play Liberty and a biography The #Last Queen of Scotland by Ray Barron Woolford. Red Blouse Theatre, a local radical theatre company first formed in the 1930s and newly re-formed for the Deptford Heritage Festival, will stage the play in February 2019.

Katherine Sinclair Duncan (nee MacColl) was born in 1888 Argyllshire, Scotland. She became a teacher and joined the National Union of Teachers (NUT). After a marriage of convenience to Alexander “Sandy” Duncan in 1923, the couple moved to Hackney. They joined the Hackney Labour Dramatic Group, part of the Workers Theatre Movement, a revolutionary, left-wing theatre movement which had it’s origins in the Russian revolution of 1917. After a time in the Independent Labour Party, she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain because of the UK General Strike of 1926.

In 1929 she was elected to the party’s central committee, but stood down a year later when she moved to Deptford. During the 1931 General Election she hit the local headlines as the communist party candidate for Greenwich where she received over 2,000 votes.

A powerful public speaker at demonstrations, town hall deputations and street meetings, she championed the National Unemployed Workers Movement and other working class causes such as opposing the Means Test, defending the rights of Lewisham street-traders, supporting the hunger marchers and the South London gas charges protest (“The great Gas Fight”) of 1936.

Kath Duncan addressing a crowd during the great Gas Fight.

In 1932, local dockers demonstrated against ships sending arms to Japan which had just invaded Manchuria, China. Opposed to fascism and war, Kath spoke at a demonstration in Woolwich and was hospitalised after the police charged the crowd. Demonstrating the next day in what became “The Battle of Deptford Broadway”, Kath was charged with disturbing the peace. She refused to be bound over and so spent a month in Holloway Prison.

After her release the London County Council tried to remove her name from the teachers list. Helped by a 5,700 strong petition and letters of support from many Deptford trade unions, Kath soon won this battle and went on to stand unsuccessfully for the L.C.C (London County Council) in 1934.

Arrested again in 1935 for refusing to stop speaking outside a New Cross employment exchange in Nynehead Street, she was charged and convicted of willfully obstructing a police inspector in the execution of his duty. The National Council for Civil Liberties took up her case, the first time they had done so. The appeal was dismissed but Duncan v Jones [1936] became a landmark case. It established that free speech was allowed unless likely to cause a disturbance. The case has been cited in the courts in defence of the rights of animal rights protesters, Stonehenge campaigners and demonstrations at an RAF air base. Red Blouse Theatre, a local radical theatre company first formed in the 1930s and newly re-formed for the Deptford Heritage Festival, will stage Liberty.

Later, Kath spent much of her time opposing fascism. She was involved in the Battle of Cable Street and an active member of the Aid to Spain Movement, interviewing volunteers for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

During the 1945 election, she worked for the Labour Party addressing envelopes in Deptford Labour Committee rooms even though she had arthritis in her hands.

After her death, the London District Committee of the Communist Party published a pamphlet “Deptford’s Tribute to Kath Duncan” which is available on reference in Lewisham Local History and Archive Centre. Kath Duncan died in Scotland 1954, but she lives on in the popular memory in Deptford.

Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian, Lewisham Libraries

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