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Kath Duncan was a legendary Communist in Deptford in the 1930s. A teacher, she became a redoubtable organiser of the unemployed. A remarkable orator, she was a woman of obvious personal magnetism, with an attractive demeanour. The local Deptford press felt unable to refer to her with mentioning her “blazing red hair”!
Katherine Duncan was born about 1889 in Scotland, a descendent, she claimed of Rob Roy who she stated “would never steal from the poor”. In her youth she was much influenced by the Suffragette movement and joined her village Independent Labour Party.
A teacher and member of the NUT, she moved with her husband Sandy, also a teacher, in 1923 to London, initially to Hackney. There, they joined the both the local ILP and Hackney Labour Dramatic Group, early in 1926. Husband and wife remained ILP members until the 1926 general strike, when they joined the Communist Party
Kath was elected to the Party’s Central Committee in 1929 for one term.
Kath and Sandy moved to Deptford, in South London in 1930. Soon afterwards, Kath threw herself into work on behalf of the National Unemployed Workers Movement becoming a powerful and prolific street speak, a small women making powerful speeches. She organised Unemployed deputations sometimes as large as 5,000 to the Deptford Urban District Council Council Offices.Alf Lucas, Deptford NUWM Organiser would often speak at these.
Kath herself headed one such mammoth local deputation, which specifically demanded action to clear the slums and provide work. Children on the march held posters saying: “Daddy’s on the Dole”. Such was the size of the deputation that the Council was forced to suspend its standing orders.
In 1931, Kath Duncan stood as a Communist in the parliamentary elections for the Greenwich constituency.
During May and June of 1932, hundreds of workers frequently marched to the docks (often through the Blackwell tunnel) to urge dockers not to load “murder ships” ships with military equipment destined for Japan, which was then in the process of invading mainland China.
On one Sunday in June 1932 a group of marchers returning back from a 3,000 strong meeting in Woolwich, at which Kath and Sandy had spoken, were informed by a police inspector that they must stop singing the `Red Flag’. When they refused, a large number of police appeared and laid into the crowd with batons, making numerous arrests including Alf Lucas. Sandy Duncan was hospitalised and the events became known locally as the “Battle of the Deptford Broadway”.
The news of the unprovoked attack was met with great indignation in Deptford. The next day, as a direct result of the Police attack, unemployed men at the Unemployed Training centre went on strike. An eight thousand strong crowd gathered in the Deptford Broadway. Kath demanded the dismissal of the Inspector and the police responded with a mounted police charge, batons raining down on the crowd.
On Tuesday the Daily Worker reported “groups of police patrolling about and the place is liked an armed camp”. Later, pictures of those arrested were sold to raise money for the “defence fund”. Some were released in early October. Two of those jailed, Albert Crane, a 24-year old hosiery worker, and George Childs, a 24-year old clerk, were met by “a small band of Deptford Communists” on their release from Brixton prison, going on to address a meeting of 400 people in Deptford Broadway where they “said they would not be afraid to go back if there was any chance of it doing any good to the working classes of Deptford”.
Six months after the main events, on 19th December 1932 Kath appeared in court under laws originally used against the leaders of the 14th century peasant revolt on a charge of being “ a disturber of the Peace of our Lord the King”. She refused to be bound over or stay out of politics and was sentenced to six months in Holloway Prison. (Coincidentally, the 76 year old Tom Mann was also in Brixton Prison at the same time for the very same reason!) While in prison, Kath was forced to make shirts, she herself was “convinced no one would wear”.
On her release the people of Deptford flocked to greet her in the Broadway. However the LCCEducation Committee wrote to her a few days after her release to inform her they were going to remove her from the list of approved London County Council Teachers. A campaign, spearheaded by the NUT and other unions, secured 5,700 signatures in opposing the attempted victimisation in Deptford alone, and as a result the attempt to remove her was defeated.
By 1932, Kath was now the acknowledged leader of unemployed in Deptford and her open air meetings had become feature of political life in South East London. She spoke on platforms with NUWM leader Wal Hannington and at a major NUWM rally in Hyde Park in February 1933. She was involved in securing accommodation in Deptford for Kentish unemployed marchers on their way to Hyde Park in October 1932 and two years later accommodating 30 Scottish unemployed marchers.
Kath stood along with NUWM South East London organiser Vic Parker as Communist candidate for the 1934 LCC elections. She recalled how a bunch of red carnations arrived at the Communist Party committee rooms at Tanners Hill, sent with best wishes from the boys at Surrey Commercial Docks. Kath appreciated the gesture greatly as dockers had once thrown “ochre”, a red dye, over her.
In 1935 Kath, now living at Ommaney Road, New Cross was once again arrested for refusing to move her meeting from outside the local Unemployment training centre at Nynehead Street, New Cross, when asked to do so by Police Inspector William Jones. The case provided what is now known as Liberty, or more formally the National Council for Civil Liberties, founded in 1934 at a time when workers’ protests were subject to severe civil liberty constraints, with its first test case. As disturbances had occurred at a similar meeting over a year earlier, Jones claimed that he was duty bound to prevent it happening again. But this potentially created a precedent that the police could ban any political meeting in public places at will, simply by expressing a fear of disorder.
Not only was Duncan v Jones  the first case taken up by the NCCL, it was a landmark in the law on public order. Despite representation from D N Pritt KC and Mr Dingle Foot MP, Kath Duncan was fined 40 shillings and costs of five guineas. But her case has gone down in legal history.
What had happened was that Kath was about to make a public address in a situation in which the year before a disturbance had been incited by her speaking, when she was stopped by the police on the grounds that she would destabilise civil peace by the strength of her words. Even though Kath was arrested while peacefully speaking to a small crowd, she was charged with police obstruction. This raised the question not directly of the quality of her conduct but of the reasonableness of the constable's understanding of it. What the constable had to evaluate was the reality of the risk of a breach of the peace.
The Chief Justice's judgment at the end of the trial made clear that the much vaunted British democracy, in the absence of a written constitution guaranteeing the right of free speech, is a construct of propaganda. His view was that: “English law does not recognise any special right of public meeting for political or other purposes. The right of assembly is nothing more than a view taken by the court of the individual liberty of the subject.” In other words – it all depends! Even so, for much of the rest of the last century the practical effect of Duncan v Jones was to support the notion that free speech was an absolute right, unless the situation was genuinely likely to get out of hand. Kath lost the case but won the war for us – at least for sixty-odd years. Of course, in recent years, as the `war against terror’ has taken priority, public order legislation has got tougher.
Kath’s ready reliance on direct action methods were in sharp relief to the image conveyed by Beatrice Drapper, Deptford’s Labour Party pioneering woman councillor. First elected in 1919 and only finishing as a councillor in 1956, she was also Deptford’s first women mayor in 1927.
Kath spoke regularly of the threat of fascism and was involved in the famous Battle of Cable Street in the East End and Battle of Bermondsey. On one occasion, the Fascists singled out Kath for special attention but, thanks to a tip-off, local anti fascists successfully were able to chase them off.
She was heavily involved in the Aid to Spain Movement, organising door to door collections on Sundays throughout Deptford and raising £100 towards an ambulance. She also interviewed men who wished to fight in the International Brigade in Spain. Les Stannard was considered to young to fight in Spain but he and other Deptford YCLers were inspired by Kath Duncan’s commitment.
Sandy died in Scotland towards the end of the war. However, by 1945 Kath, albeit now crippled by arthritis, was working for the local Labour MP. Around 1953 Kath’s sister took her home to the Scottish village where she was born and it was here that she died in August 1954. After her death the London District Committee of the Communist Party produced a pamphlet, “Deptford’s tribute to Kath Duncan”, in which the author stated: “Where there was a job to do, Kath was always with us… She would march off at the head, leading the way, full of vitality and purpose. She was always a striking and imposing figure with her neat black costume, spotless white collar. And a black wide-brimmed straw hat, worn at an angle showing her auburn short cropped hair”.
Sources: South London Press, June and October 1932; South London Press 3rd December 1954, Michael Walker; “Turning the Tide - the history of everyday Deptford” by Jeff Steele