I know where my mother was on 28th September 1936. Aged only twelve, she had walked the short distance from her home to Holbeck Moor to watch as Oswald Mosley arrived, flanked by a thousand members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The march commenced a mile or so away, at Calverley Street in the centre of Leeds, although the BUF had planned a longer route. They had been forbidden by the authorities to march through the Leylands district, which for more than a century had been the ‘melting pot’ of Leeds, where newcomers, including Irish and Jewish immigrants, lived side by side with the working classes. Even so, the night before the march, swastikas and slogans appeared throughout Leylands on shopfronts and businesses owned by Jewish residents.
By the time Mosley and his Blackshirts reached Holbeck Moor, 30,000 Leeds residents – most of them Communist Party members or Labour supporters – were waiting for them. As Mosley took to the stage the crowd roared out The Red Flag.
I strongly suspect my grandparents didn’t know their daughter was there. Decades later, she described the Blackshirts, hate written all over their faces, and expressed her pride for the men of Leeds who, having no time for fascism, threw stones in the direction of the stage. She didn’t mention that Mosley was hit – I now know that the man who threw that particular stone was 19 year old John Hodgson from Leeds. It’s astonishing what you can learn on the Internet!
By coincidence, exactly one week later, on Sunday 4th October, the far more famous Battle of Cable Street took place, as many thousands prevented Mosley from marching his Blackshirts through the East End. My father in law, then a young man, was amongst those protestors.
It must have been about five years ago that I came across an article online about The Battle of Holbeck Moor. I realised immediately this was the event my mother had told me about. It was during an exchange of comments with the author of a similar article on the 28th September last year, commemorating 82 years since the event, that this novel, The Dead on Leave, was recommended to me. It opens with events surrounding the Battle.
The 1930s was a difficult time for my mother’s family – an experience shared with many more throughout the land. My granddad was out of work for several years, and it was perhaps from personal experience that on another occasion my mother made reference to the Means Test Investigators who would visit the homes of the unemployed. ‘All of this would have had to go,’ she said, with an expansive sweep of her arm to indicate the china cabinet and its contents of treasures, almost all of sentimental rather than great financial value. Again, the term ‘Means Test Investigator’ was not one she would have known. So it was with interest that I learned a significant character in Chris Nickson’s novel was one of these Investigators. Their powers were far greater than I had imagined, with authority to turn up unannounced, carry out thorough searches of the house and dock payments to the deemed value of any family ‘treasures’.
I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel; rather I was reading it to harvest facts about the period. But I was immediately drawn in. The characters were well-drawn, the sense of place spot-on, and the murder detective storyline gripping. I got a real sense of Leeds as it was in the 1930s: the Depression, the ongoing tension between the Far Right and the Left, the rehousing of people from the old back-to-back housing to the local authority cottage estates with their spacious rooms and gardens, and even the high incidence of bronchial problems due to air pollution. This was the ‘grim, industrial North’, after all; and my impression was that in the 1930s it was indeed grim.
I recommend this book to anyone with a historical interest in Leeds, the industrial North, the battle against fascism, or life in general during the 1930s Depression. I’ve already found a whole series of police detective novels by the same author set in Victorian Leeds, and plan to start working my way through them too.