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Conscience is not a crime in time of war

The bid to hound a group of 'reds' from the staffroom should not be forgotten, says David Limond

In one way or another, the usually reticent MI5 has been in the news recently. Its present-day activities have come under scrutiny, but so too have its actions in the past. Following the release of papers from the national archives there were widespread reports of the intelligence service's efforts to monitor communist teachers in the 1950s. But this ought to have been of little surprise to anyone. The teacher as subversive - real or imagined - is a long-standing trope - so long-standing in fact that a line of descent can be traced from Socrates who, at least in his faithful disciple Plato's depiction of him, was sentenced to drink hemlock on the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings.

However, there was no real revelation in the fact that MI5 was searching for reds under the desk in the 1950s. Concern that teachers, with their privileged influence over children, might be communists had been manifest in the UK to a significant extent earlier in the 20th century: teachers as communist Pied Pipers.

The Scottish firebrand and demagogue John Maclean - appointed Soviet consul by Lenin's new government - lost his job teaching in a Glasgow elementary school as a result of his political activities. During the inter-war period and the 1939-1945 war, there were various outbreaks of witch-hunting specifically concerned with the teaching profession which, if they did not exactly rival Stalin's show trials for vicious inhumanity, were unpleasant enough for those involved.

Concern was expressed about primary and secondary schools alike, in both the independent and state sectors. Teachers who were, or were suspected of being, Communist Party members or sympathisers, and who were conscientious objectors, were the object of particular opprobrium during the six years of Britain's supposed finest hour, a period being especially remembered this summer.

There were dismissals in various parts of the country and investigations launched into teachers' political and personal activities elsewhere. One such case occurred in Hamilton in 1939 and 1940. In some ways, it was all a storm in a staffroom tea cup, but it is an instructive example of the consequences of a clash between vocation and conscience and moral panic.

On May 18, 1940 a letter in the local newspaper, the Hamilton Advertiser, spluttered a splenetic warning about "this school-teaching business at Hamilton Academy". The correspondent went on to claim that "the wrong kind of teachers (have been) successful in worming their way into the best and easiest jobs . . . Some (of them) are atheists, some Communists . . . all are out for themselves alone . . . we cannot be too careful now."

The "business" in question concerned persistent allegations that some half dozen teachers, all of whom were conscientious objectors, had been making concerted efforts to influence pupils to adopt both left-wing and pacifist opinions.

So serious were the allegations against the men (whom I shall forbear to name) that the local authority convened an informal committee of inquiry to look into the matter. They were paraded before this kangaroo court and asked such questions as whether or not they believed themselves to be "fulfilling . . . (their) obligations as . . . teacher(s) and . . . loyal British subjects?" One was asked if he gave boys tickets to attend a Communist Party rally. This he denied.

A local politician, who had been largely responsible for starting the campaign to have the men removed from their posts, gave evidence in which he lamented the fact that the committee did not have "the power to put people on oath and . . . to intern people". There were also allegations (unsubstantiated) of sexual impropriety involving one of the teachers.

Whether it was the teachers' influence or the climate of the times, there could be no doubt that some pupils had used the school magazine to publish pacifist articles and poems. There was some suspicion that these were really the work of one or more of the teachers, published over pupils'

signatures - though anyone who has ever read, or worse, written, tortured adolescent poetry will recognise the indelible stamp of excruciating authenticity in such an offering as "Your place is mean In a mighty war machine".

The school's rector gave his view on the events. He summed up the teacher generally taken to be the ringleader as "brain clever" but added the assessment that he could be "selfish". In the end one of the teachers (he who was "brain clever") was transferred to another school and a second (an art teacher) was admonished for his conduct. The others had all charges against them dropped.

Fuss over nothing? Perhaps. But events did not end there. A local grandee promised to have the matter raised in Parliament. And he seems to have been good to his word. Hansard records that a Conservative MP did indeed raise the possibility that "to replace schoolmasters called up . . . without exposing boys and girls to the influence of conscientious objectors", it might be prudent to "issue an appeal to women of suitable experience and education to offer their services as teachers". The suggestion was not taken up.

This case matters, even now, more than 60 years after the fact, because it highlights the perilous path teachers tread as intellectuals: those charged with speaking truth unto power, those charged with thinking about the world and encouraging and equipping others, their pupils, to do likewise.

If there ever was a just war, it was the Second World War, and I am far from being an unequivocal admirer of the Hamilton men. But they took a conscientious stand and that is important. This will be a summer of remembrance and it might seem perverse to ask for a moment of remembrance for men who did not fight. War is hell, but the Hamilton teachers were not diabolical and conscience can burn with a terrible flame.

David Limond is a lecturer in the history of education at Trinity College Dublin. His latest work is in Visual History: Images of Education (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005).

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