Ray Barron Woolford on why Kath Duncan is the ‘most important civil rights campaigner in the last century’

Kath Duncan addressing 30.000 as she marched on Gas Works against the poor tax

Kath Duncan addressing 30.000 as she marched on Gas Works against the poor tax - Credit: Archant

Playwright and community activist Ray Barron Woolford is on a mission to bring Kath Duncan – who he argues is the most important civil rights activist in the UK in the past 100 years – out of the shadows. He tells Emma Bartholomew why.

The National Hunger March

The National Hunger March - Credit: Archant

Ray Barron Woolford stumbled upon Kath Duncan's story when he was setting up what became the UK's largest food bank in Deptford.

Tasked with the need to fundraise, he decided to set up a heritage festival, leading him to find one small newspaper article on how Kath had attended Winston and Clementine Churchill's wedding and had worked on his election campaign.

It set Ray on a five-year journey of discovery, resulting in a play called Liberty about Kath's role in establishing the National Council of Civil Liberties in 1930s Britain - amazingly attended by a 99-year-old man who remembers attending Kath's rallies.

Ray became so fascinated with the civil rights campaigner, who was jailed twice for fighting for social justice, that he decided to write his own book about her whole life - The Last Queen of Scotland.

DDYF9K Sylvia Pankhurst, British suffragette, in a bath chair, London, June 1914. Artist: Unknown

DDYF9K Sylvia Pankhurst, British suffragette, in a bath chair, London, June 1914. Artist: Unknown - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Born in Argyllshire in 1888 Kath MacColl was a teacher, who moved to 49 Downs Road, Lower Clapton in 1924 aged 35 after marrying gym teacher Sandy Duncan. Ray thinks they would have been in for a shock when they first arrived because the activism and politics were far more militant in the capital, with "soap box" street corner politics and direct action.

Kath became a key activist and Ray credits her time in Hackney up until 1930, when she moved to Deptford, with turning her into a leader.

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"This part of London appealed to many of her social and political instincts she was only too aware of the misery of slum living that clearly seemed to be a direct consequence of the capitalist system and its failure to ensure for everyone decent housing, access to good education, fair pay and health care," said Ray.

Kath and Sandy were activists in the Teachers' Labour League and when a branch of the Workers' Theatre Movement, known as the People's Players, was set up in Hackney, Kath became a prominent member along with other activists. Ray thinks acting gave her the confidence to stand on any street corner or factory gate and address hecklers as well as others who were ready to march with her.

Kath Duncan

Kath Duncan - Credit: Kath Duncan The Last Queen of Scotland

"In London, there was the constant fear of arrest; messages and propaganda for the causes and campaigns were communicated by chalking slogans and details of meetings on walls and roads, and rallies would take place suddenly on any and every street corner," said Ray.

"Kath would unhesitatingly take the lead and rally others."

She worked with the Cohen Sisters and Emily Pankhurst, but by 1926 she transferred allegiance from the Suffragette movement to the British Communist Party. Her "proudest moment" in Hackney came with the General Strike of 1926 when as a union activist she encouraged drivers to support it whole heartedly - meaning not a not a single tram or bus moved during the strike.

Kath went on to work supporting the miners, Communist fighters in the Spanish Civil War, led the Hunger Marches, led protests in Cable Street against the fascists, was an anti-war activist, supported Indian workers rights, and took on the utility companies' poor people's tax. She was one of the first women to stand as a Parliamentary candidate, and her two jail terms led to the first House of Commons Civil Rights debate and the establishment of The National Council Civil Liberties, which is known as Liberty today.

A Communist party rally

A Communist party rally - Credit: Archant

Sadly she contracted TB whilst in jail and after her mother's death in 1952 she moved back to Scotland where she died in 1954.

It was only after he'd written his book that Ray discovered Kath, an LGBT campaigner, may have been a lesbian.

"At this time being LGBTQ was against the law and I believe her and Sandy married to hide their sexuality so it did not distract from their activism," said Ray.

"I have chosen not to dwell on that, as Kath was about her cause and not her gender or her sexuality.

"No other person, male or female, was as active at leadership level on so many campaigns between the wars," added Ray who cannot understand why barely anyone has ever heard of her.

"Part of the problem with Kath is that she was successful, but in history you are always taught our betters are the people who control us - whether it's the Lord of the manor or the politicians at Westminster. Of course along came Kath Duncan who took on the gas board and won, who took on the government and won, who was a suffragette and they won. It defeats the elitist agenda that the establishment knows best.

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