Friday, September 12, 2008

Bill Alexander, an International Brigadier in Sydenham

Time Out London has started a series about London park benches and who they commemorate. This week's issue (11 September 2008) covers a bench in Mayow Park, Sydenham that is dedicated to 'Bill Alexander and Phil Jessamy, good friends of the park and active peace campaigners'. Apparently both were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and with Bill's wife Lena formed a group in the early 1980s called Sydenham Against Cruise Missiles. Fellow member Hillary Jarrett recalled: 'Some amazing art work was produced, including a terrifying poster depicting the effect of "One cruise missile on Sydenham"'.

Bill Alexander (1910-2000, pictured) grew up in Hampshire and joined the Communist Party in 1932, taking part in the the anti-fascist 'Battle of Cable Street' and then joining the International Brigades on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (at the time he was living in Southwark). In 1938 he took over for a while as commander of the British battalion in Spain, before being wounded and invalided back home. In the 1960s, Alexander moved to South London, working as a chemistry teacher at Sydenham Girls School. In retirement, he became secretary of the International Brigade Association, and published British Volunteers for Liberty, an account of the International Brigade in Spain. In 1996 he returned to Sapin with other surviving volunteers and was awarded honorary Spanish citizenship. He died on 11th July 2000, aged 90 years.

According to Graham Stevenson's Compendium of Communist Biography, Sydenham was 'a part of London that long boasted a Communist Party branch with the highest concentration of veteran and well-known leaders of the Party'. These included Ida Fisher who 'worked as a doctor in Sydenham for many years' and 'was personally closely associated with Robin Page Arnot and other veterans who were registered as her patients' (she died, aged 69, in 1986); and Alec Miller, a veteran of the 1930s unemployed and anti-fascist movements who was Chair of the Sydenham branch of the CP when died in 1986.
Bill Alexander was not the only Commander of the British Battalion in Spain with a South London connection; as we've mentioned here before Fred Copeman - later a Lewisham Labour Councillor - was also in this position for a while. Personally I am ambivalent about the International Brigades - in Spain, under instructions from Stalin, the Communist Party ruthlessly suppressed other left-wing and anarchist groups who were also fighting Franco. But I can see that many of those who volunteered to fight in Spain had noble motives in wanting to do something practical to halt the advance of fascism (see Bob from Brockley for lots of links to ongoing discussions about all this).

No comments: