A Red Rambler in Germany, 1936 – 1939

Fragments: Tapes Interview with Reg Holmes recorded shortly before his death; autograph book kept by Reg Holmes throughout the 1930s; four photographs of Reg Homes in Germany, 1938-39.

 

Another category of traveler to Germany in the 1930s was ramblers, many of them lower in the class hierarchy than members of the Workers Travel Association. Rambling reached the height of its popularity in Britain in the 1930s. Thousands of British ramblers made their way from the towns to the countryside, not only in Britain itself but in continental Europe. Most walked as informal groups of friends and relatives, plotting their own routes. Many sought the guidance of such organised bodies as the Ramblers Association, founded in 1935, or the Progressive Ramblers Association. Few social groups formed in the 1930s, whatever their primary purpose, failed to include rambling as part of their programmes.

 

For workers in factories and the inhabitants of slums rambling was primarily a means of escape from the dirt and grime of the city and the monotony of the workplace. For those somewhat higher in the social scale, like the mother of the historian, Raphael Samuel, who lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, it might be an escape from the boredom and conventions of English suburban life. What Samuel’s mother sought in the countryside, according to her son, was not the cosy and the charming, but ‘the thunder of waterfalls, the turmoil of mountain cataracts, rugged coastline and the echo of the sea’. In the countryside, she could wear the kind of ‘male clothing’ frowned upon in the suburb: rucksacks, windcheaters, stout and sensible shoes, shorts.

 

More generally, rambling was a potential route to nonconformity. Women could dress like men, look like men and act like men. People from sectors of British society, like the Jewish community, with strict taboos on relationships and behaviour, could break the rules without peril. People with views considered dangerous or subversive or seriously at odds with the popular consensus could express them openly without fear of alienating their family, friends and relatives. This applied particularly to those inclined to Communist beliefs, still a cause of familiar alarm in the 1930s.

 

In part because they recognised this, and in part because they sought to take advantage of ramblers’ camaraderie, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was quick to establish ramblers’ groups and encourage rambling amongst its potential members. An heroic moment for the party was the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, organised in 1932 by Benny Rothman, secretary of the Lancashire branch of the communist front organisation, the British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF). Defying the police and gamekeepers, around 1500 members (the number is uncertain) of the BWSF climbed Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, from the village of Hayfield, and there confronted police and gamekeepers, a venture which led to five, including Rothman, being arrested for violent affray and serious bodily harm and sentenced to between two and six months in prison. Their well-publicised martyrdom provided a further stimulus to left-wing rambling.

 

Rambling was particularly important in Manchester, where a grimy city, packed with exploited workers and with strong traditions of working-class political activism, was surrounded by beautiful countryside. Throughout the 1930s the politically conservative journalist (he opposed ‘trespass’) who wrote weekly articles of advice and guidance in the Manchester Evening News as ‘The Rambler’, urged rambling in the ‘wonderland’ of the Peak District as ‘a quest for health and beauty’. His articles found a wide readership, whose appreciation converted some of his work into what were essentially popular rambling guide books.

Undated copy of “Rambles for All”, published post war following “…insistent pressure from the readers of The Manchester Evening News and Rambles in the Peak District“.

Adverts in the first edition of his book Rambles in the Peak District (March 1934), display other signs of the popularity of rambling in Manchester. A threepenny magazine, ‘Out-o-doors’ devoted to hiking and camping was published by Open-Air Publications Limited of Manchester; cheap tickets offered by the LMS, the LNER and the North Western Road Car Company (of Stockport) for the ramblers referred to in the book, which also advertised Wilson Brewery’s pubs and hotels in ‘the Rambling county’, the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland (founded in 1901), the Sunny Guest Houses of the Holiday Fellowship and the Co-operative Holiday Association (CHA) and shops selling ‘Ramblers’ Requisites’ (including Tyldesley and Holbrook in Manchester’s Deansgate). The Ramblers’ Federation, which published an annual handbook, had its headquarters in Manchester.

 

Rambling was the route by which Reg Holmes made his entry to the political Left in the early 1930s. As a member of the athletics and rambling club of the Vegetarian Society, he took many walks on Kinder Scout which, before the Mass Trespass, brought him into conflict with the owner of the land, ‘Jack’ Watts of the Manchester firm, S. and J. Watts, and his gamekeepers charged with keeping intruders of the estate. It was these clashes and Watts’s arrogant attitude which helped convince Reg of the need to fight social injustice. He subsequently took part in the Mass Trespass, joining the trespassers by a walk to Kinder Scout from Edale station, on his normal route into the Peak District.

Entry in Reg Holmes’s autograph book signed by John Smith Burgess, wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu, Manchester Y.M.C.A. 5th November 1939

 

Reg’s background is anything but conventional. Born in Knutsford in 1913, he was the son of John Sydney Holmes, a Quaker dentist who had strong links with Manchester’s Jewish Community. Sydney’s surgery in Salford, close to the district of Jewish settlement, had many Jewish patients, attracted by both his friendly manner and his modest charges of 6d or 1/- a week, sums which Reg Holmes was asked to collect from poorer Jewish families living in working-class districts of north Manchester like Red Bank.

Reg Holmes’ authograph book, entry from 4th January 1930, signed by his mother, Ethel Holmes. She wrote: “Best Wishes for you sixteenth year. Mother.”

 

After Hitler came to power in Germany Sydney Holmes was asked by Jewish leaders to act as the curator for Jewish families seeking to leave Germany and enter Britain.[1] Among others, he actually signed a guarantee for Ziegried and Gretchel Hermann and their four-year-old, Danny, with whom Reg forged a close friendship when, after a time in Liverpool, they settled in Rusholme. Through them Reg was well aware of the nature and consequences of German fascism.

” Kde domov můj? V svobodnem Ceskoslovensku! Tvuj pritel (signature illegible), 1st October 1940. (Where is my home? In free Czechoslovakia! The first line is from the Czechoslovak national anthem)

At about the same time on Edale Station Reg was introduced to a newly-arrived young German student refugee, Oscar Bunnemann, a member of a wealthy family in Hamburg, which had, in Reg’s words, ‘a Jewish streak’, and whose members were also members of the German Communist Party (the KPG) and opposed to Hitler. In Germany they had chosen to keep their heads down for fear of arrest. Oscar’s visit to Britain, where he became a student in the mathematics department of the University of Manchester, was also his means of communicating openly with fellow Communists. It was his links with the Bunnemann family which caused Reg to make three trips to Germany, in the summers of 1936, 1937 and 1939, on two of which he stayed for a time with the Bunnemann family in Hamburg. It was also through the Bunnemanns that Reg made contact with members of a refugee hostel in Broad Street, Sale – Sylvan House – which in 1939 accommodated ten to fifteen Communist refugees who has arrived in Manchester via Prague and London in 1938.

Reg Holmes’ autograph book, entry from 14th May 1943 signed by Tibor reads: Világ proletárjai, Egyesüljetek!! (Proletariat of the world unite!!

While not joining the Communist Party of Great Britain until 1946 (he was earlier too independent to be a ‘joiner’), Reg moved in Communist circles throughout the 1930s, attended anti-fascist meetings in Manchester and became close friends with such dedicated Manchester communists as Harold Rycroft, Harold Lee, James Wade and one-legged survivor of the Spanish Civil War, Terry Ward.

 

Reg made his first journey to Germany in 1936, his last for six week in August of 1939. As an informed anti-fascist he was well aware of the realities of Nazi policy. What interested him was the extent of its popular support. He understood the significance of the squads of Nazis he saw marching and signing and the work camps (he did not see a concentration camp) set up by the Nazis to undertake public works. The visits convinced Reg that most Germans regarded Hitler as their saviour. ‘Heil Hitler’ had been adopted as the normal greeting, and in Reg’s autograph book, which he took with him to Germany, many entries end with a Heil Hitler or include other accolades to the Fuhrer.

One of Reg’s main concerns was to keep his left-wind politics hidden from those he met, although he was prepared to take risks. On his visit of 1936 he met up with a teacher from Hamburg, a Herr Vonart, a Nazi supporter who was leading his pupils on a bus trip through the Hartz mountains. Reg stayed with them at hostels in the foyers of which were maps of the world with former (‘lost’) German colonies marked in black. Somehow he manged to complete the trip without revealing his political allegiance.

 

On his 1919 visit, while walking through a forest near Magdenburg, Reg came upon a military practice ground with metal figures set up for firing practice and German planes flying low over the trees. While watching these, he was confronted by an elderly man in military uniform with a shot gun, who turned out to be a retired general from the First World War. Later, in the same forest, while resting in his sleeping bag, he was approached by a young girls from a nearby youth hostel (Mittelhoff). He spent the rest of his visit as a guest at the hostel. It was only after the war that he learnt from the girl that he had been under surveillance from the Nazi authorities since meeting the retired general.

 

On his return to Britain, Reg received his call-up papers. Determined not to take part in any war for a capitalist country, he declined to respond. After subsequently refusing to attend a Conscientious Objector tribunal, he was registered, in absentia, as a Conscientious Objector. After working in a railway signal box Reg retired to a tiny cottage in Cheshire, where he was living at the time of the interview.

One of the many international entries in Reg’s autograph book. An entry from 6th December 1939

 

 

 

Most people wrote simple messages, some included a drawing but none as accomplished as the entry from 28th October 1938.
From a musician friend on 13th August 1938
Description of a lap-dog: “So nasty that it was almost human, ” signed by Bernard Gressy, 30th October 1938

 

[1] A guarantor was asked to sign an undertaking that the refugee family would not become a charge on the state, a condition of its entry to Britain. This was typically a formality only, since the Jewish community itself ensured the financial independence of guaranteed refugees.

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