New Tour Launch: Unnatual Histories

Join us for a unique tour of the Natural History Museum in Oxford! We'll explore how human influence and selective choice shape the narrative of natural history museums, offering an 'unnatural' perspective on their historical and ideological foundations.

Abraham Lazarus: The Champion of Oxford’s Working Class

Who was Abraham Lazarus? Of the thousands of activists and leaders in the past century ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Abraham Lazarus: The Champion of Oxford’s Working Class

Who was Abraham Lazarus? Of the thousands of activists and leaders in the past century ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Who was Abraham Lazarus?

Of the thousands of activists and leaders in the past century to have served the residents of Oxford, few can match Abraham Lazarus’s popularity or his dedication to improving the lives of everyday people in the city. Lazarus, also known as Firestone Bill, was arguably the most famous trade unionist and labour rights leader to have ever organised the city’s workers. Not only did he contribute so much to the people of Oxford, but the majority of his achievements all took place less than three years after he moved here.

Before his life is narrated, here is a list of key moments in Lazarus’s activism in Oxford which highlight his importance:

  • (1934) Headed the successful strike of nearly 1,000 workers at Cowley’s Pressed Steel plant, before leading the famous Florence Park rent strike to protest against slum conditions of those same factory workers.
  • (1935) Spearheaded both the campaign and the 2,000-strong march to demolish Oxford’s Cutteslowe Walls, a nine-foot-tall barrier adorned with metal spikes designed to stop working-class families from passing through wealthier neighbourhoods.
  • (1936) Helped protect Oxford’s Jews from fascist intimidation by organizing crowds of students and workers to successfully disrupt the British Union of Fascists in Oxford during “The Battle of Carfax”.
Police files pictures and leaflets showing the face of the same man.
Photographs of Abraham Lazarus found within his police file. National Archives reference KV 2/1999

Early life

Abraham Lazarus (1911-1967) was born and raised in London and hailed from a Jewish background. He was noted for being a sickly child who suffered from childhood rheumatism, a fact which later in life made him exempt from military service during WWII.[1] At age 15 he became a mechanic, though he soon found himself unemployed. This brought him into contact with the National Union of Unemployed Workers, an organisation founded by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).[2] As a teenager he was often spotted selling the Daily Worker (aka Morning Star), which is today Britain’s largest and longest running leftist newspaper. In 1930 he joined the CPGB where he immediately became entrenched in the fight for workers’ rights.

In 1933, Lazarus led a six week strike at London’s Firestone Tyre factory which (although unsuccessful) did win the workers union recognition and recruited many of the factory workers to the Transport and General Workers Union. During the strike he excelled as a leader of the factory workers, earning him the nickname “Firestone Bill”.[3]

Coming to Oxford: the Pressed Steel factory strike (1934)

In recognition of his skills in speech-writing and organising, and his vast knowledge of labour unions, the Communist Party sent him to Oxford in July 1934 to aid factory workers in Cowley who were engaged in disputes with the factory bosses. Many of these workers had been driven to Oxford from Wales, fleeing poverty-induced starvation. Some of these desperate workers had walked the entire journey from Oxford to Wales, and some even died before arriving.[4]

The Pressed Steel workers formed their own strike committee; however, they recognised that they lacked the necessary experience and invited Abraham Lazarus to become their leader. Arriving at Oxford train station, Lazarus was warmly greeted by students from Ruskin College, and quickly went to work organising the workers and giving rousing speeches to massive crowds in St Giles. The strike was bitter and brutal, workers threw bricks at busses full of scabs, strike supporters rode their bicycles slowly in front of said busses, and the British government deployed soldiers from Aldershot to break up pickets.[5]

Eventually the strike was successful, the authority of the trade unions was recognised by the factory bosses, and new hourly rates of pay were agreed upon. The overwhelming victory of the strikers caused Abraham Lazarus’s reputation to soar among Oxford’s workers. However his rising popularity and fame among Oxford’s working class also brought with it harassment from the local police force, whose officers sought to protect the profits of large factory owners at the expense of the city’s poorer residents.

Black and white pictures of men walking, talking, or putting their hand to their face.
Photographs of Abraham Lazarus taken by a police spy. National Archives reference KV 2/1999

The Florence Park rent strike (1934)

Not only did workers at Cowley’s Pressed Steel plant suffer from low wages and harassment from their bosses, but they also suffered slum-like housing conditions. The houses built for the workers in Cowley’s Florence Park estate were shoddy and poorly built, they were prone to both damp and flooding, and the foundations were built upon a marshland. Roads were left unconstructed and some of the doors fell off their hinges.[6]

After the successful Pressed Steel factory strike, Abraham Lazarus set his sights on bettering the living conditions of the workers through improved housing. Moved by the suffering of the workers’ families in these conditions, Lazarus got to work organising the tenants, contacting the media, and creating alliances with fellow activists. Lazarus met with the minister of health Kingsley Wood who told Oxford council to investigate the complaints, only for the council to ignore them. With no other options, Lazarus and the workers’ families organised a rent strike.

Though Lazarus’s reputation with the tenants, his organisational skills, and his knowledge of labour disputes all undoubtedly helped the strike, it was ultimately unsuccessful. The strike was defeated after the slumlords, a company called N. Moss and Son, refused to repair the broken houses and chose instead to evict the tenants. Though the strike was unsuccessful, the new owners repaired the houses and Moss left Oxford.

Abraham Lazarus’s ability to mobilise such large numbers of people can be credited not only to his charisma but also his ability to network and form links with people from different organisations. Lazarus was also known to have been a common guest of the famous left-wing Carritt family, whose brothers included the spy Michael Carritt, the International Brigade fighter Anthony Carritt, the co-founder of the October Club Noel Carritt, and the hunger march organiser Brian Carritt.[7] Lazarus would also give weekly political speeches at St Giles, which ended up heavily influencing the political opinions of Olive Gibbs, the future national chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.[8] Lazarus was also known to have been close with the activist and international brigadier Carl Aldo Marzani,[9] and would share his flat with the Soviet spy Arthur Wynn while the latter studied at Oxford’s Trinity College.[10]

The Cutteslowe Walls (1935)

Much of the support for the Florence Park rent strike came from the other side of Oxford in an area called Cutteslowe, where slums had recently been demolished and a new council estate built to accommodate the working-class population. However, next door to the council estate was a privately owned estate occupied by wealthier residents who felt threatened by the arrival of working-class people. The private estate then built a fortification known as the ‘Cutteslowe Walls’, to stop poorer people from easily entering the estate. The Cutteslowe Walls were two nine-foot-tall brick walls topped with solid metal spikes, built straight across a road, forcing working-class residents to travel a longer distance to leave the estate on their commutes to work.[11]

Outraged by the creation of the Cutteslowe Walls, an alliance of Abraham Lazarus, the Oxford Labour Party, Communist Party activists, trade unionists, and Ruskin College students all attended a 1,200-strong meeting at Oxford town hall to discuss the issue. Speaking at the meeting, Abraham Lazarus declared that they would destroy the Cutteslowe Walls.[12]

Intending to make good on this threat, Abraham Lazarus organised a march to Cutteslowe led by his comrades from the Communist Party. They managed to recruit not only a theatre troupe but also a band to play music at the march.[13] The call for a march was a resounding success, with 2,000 people showing up on the day.[14] After an outdoor pantomime in which Abraham Lazarus played the role of a “Good Fairy”, both he and an acquaintance approached the Cutteslowe Walls with pickaxes; however, the police (who had read all of Lazarus’s mail) intercepted the march and put themselves between the Cutteslowe Walls and the marchers.[15] The police then threatened to arrest Lazarus for assault if he took another step towards the walls. Oxford police were successful in protecting the interests of the wealthy residents near Cutteslowe, and after being defeated Abraham Lazarus climbed a nearby tree where he gave speeches to the marchers.

The walls were eventually removed in 1938, only for them to be rebuilt shortly after. During WWII, soldiers stationed near the city mistook the Cutteslowe Walls for a training prop and demolished the walls by driving straight through them with a military tank. The walls were again rebuilt, before being permanently demolished in 1959.[16] In 2015 a piece of the Cutteslowe Walls was donated to the Museum of Oxford, where it remains on display.[17]

Photo showing exhibition dislays of recent archeological finds of built elements.
The newly refurbished Cutteslowe Walls display at the Museum of Oxford (left), and a part of the Walls on display (right)

Fighting Mosley’s fascists: The Battle of Carfax

Though it was important to both Abraham Lazarus and the people of Oxford to pursue campaigns of social justice such as that against the Cutteslowe Walls, a far more dangerous and pressing threat required their attention. The rise of Nazism within Germany, coupled with both the Nationalist insurrection in Spain and the growth of the British Union of Fascists, forced British socialists to declare the fight against fascism their number-one priority.

Oxford was an important location for British fascists, as local grandee William Morris (Viscount Nuffield, who was the owner of Morris Motors, joint-creator of the Pressed Steel factory where Lazarus led the striking workers, and the founder of Oxford University’s Nuffield College) was a wealthy supporter of British fascism. Morris had donated £85,000 to the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Worse still, Oxford University had allowed the creation of an official Fascist Association whose members openly supported Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile Oxford University’s communist society, known as the October Club, was banned by campus authorities.[18] Oxford was also an important location due to the large number of German refugees who chose to live in the city after fleeing the Nazis.[19]

During a visit to Oxford, the British Union of Fascists and their leader Oswald Mosley organised a meeting in the Carfax Assembly Rooms. Local trade unionists, Labour Party activists, Jews, communists, and all their allies showed up in full force to break up this meeting.[20] During the meeting, a journalist had allegedly asked questions about Spain, only for Mosley’s henchmen to move forward and grab him. In response, a bus driver picked up a chair and smashed it into the head of one of the fascists, setting off a small riot which the Oxford Mail dubbed “The Battle of Carfax”.[21] Although Lazarus was not physically present at the Battle of Carfax, he played a central role in organising the anti-fascist resistance which defeated Mosley and the BUF in Oxford.

The British Union of Fascists were so utterly outnumbered and overwhelmed by the alliance of communists, trade unionists, and labour activists that Mosley never organised a political event in Oxford again. After successfully routing Mosley, Abraham Lazarus dedicated much of his time to campaigning for the Spanish republican cause, and in 1938 he was a speaker for Oxford’s May Day march, which that year was one of the largest marches in Oxfordshire’s history.[22]

Later life, death, and legacy

Abraham Lazarus’s tireless anti-fascist and trade union activities had achieved amazing success, though not without taking a heavy mental toll which was further agitated by intense harassment from the Oxford police, who raided his house, stole his belongings, intercepted and photographed his mail, and stalked him when he attempted to leave his house. This abysmal treatment by the police, coupled with the collapse of his marriage (followed by a romantic affair with Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s ex-wife), caused Abraham Lazarus to become more socially withdrawn. During the final years of his life Lazarus worked as a librarian at the Bernal Peace Library, whose collections now belong to London’s Marx Memorial Library.

In a final testament to his legacy and contribution to both Oxford and the trade union movement, the modern offices shared by the Oxford branches of both the Labour Party and the Unite union was named “Abe Lazarus House” in his honour.

Written by Dan P.

For more information on the history of anti-fascist activism in Oxford, see our profile of Charlie Hutchison, the only black man to join the 2,500-strong British Battalion in Spain.


References

[1] Simon Meddick, Liz Payne, and Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism (Manifesto Press Cooperative Limited 2020), p. 121.

[2] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford‘, Museum of Oxford, 19 May 2021 (accessed 22 January 2022).

[3] Chris Farman, Valery Rose, and Liz Woolley, No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 (Oxford International Brigade Memorial Committee 2015), p. 23.

[4] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’.

[5] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’.

[6] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’.

[7] Meddick, Payne, and Katz, Red Lives, pp. 27-28.

[8] Farman, Rose, and Woolley, No Other Way, pp. 23-24.

[9] Farman, Rose, and Woolley, No Other Way, p. 82.

[10] Duncan Bowie, Reform and Revolt in the City of Dreaming Spires: Radical, Socialist and Communist Politics in the City of Oxford 1830-1980 (University of Westminster Press 2013), p. 308.

[11] BBC reporter, ‘Local History: The Cutteslowe Walls‘, BBC, 26 March 2009 (accessed 22 January 2022).

[12] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’.

[13] Bowie, Reform and Revolt, p. 183.

[14] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’

[15] Peter Collison, The Cutteslowe Walls: A Study in Social Class, (Faber and Faber 1963), p. 61 (accessed 22 January 2022).

[16] BBC reporter, ‘Local History: The Cutteslowe Walls’.

[17] Naomi Herring, ‘Cutteslowe Walls: How two estates were divided by class, Oxford Mail, 6 September 2018 (accessed 22 January 2022).

[18] Farman, Rose, and Woolley, No Other Way, pp. 38-39.

[19] Farman, Rose, and Woolley, No Other Way, p. 39.

[20] Meddick, Payne, and Katz, Red Lives, p. 25.

[21] Katherine Hughes, ‘Abe Lazarus and Oxford’.

[22] Farman, Rose, and Woolley, No Other Way, p. 19.