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Charlie Hutchison: Oxfordshire’s Forgotten Black Anti-Fascist

Born in Oxfordshire, Charlie Hutchison (1918-1993) led an extraordinary life as both a champion of ...

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20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Charlie Hutchison: Oxfordshire’s Forgotten Black Anti-Fascist

Born in Oxfordshire, Charlie Hutchison (1918-1993) led an extraordinary life as both a champion of ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Born in Oxfordshire, Charlie Hutchison (1918-1993) led an extraordinary life as both a champion of working-class interests and a dedicated opponent of fascism, most notably as the only Black-British person to join the International Brigades. He spent ten years of his life endlessly fighting Nazis and their allies, in a series of events that would see him present at the Battle of Cable Street, the Spanish Civil War, the Dunkirk Evacuation, the North African campaigns, Italy, Iran, Germany, and finally the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. However, despite his incredible deeds, the full story of his life remained almost completely unknown to professional historians, only to be rediscovered in 2019 during a research project led by London school children.

Sepia photoportrait of a young man smiling.
Portrait of Charlie Hutchison. Image source: Communist Party of Britain.

Charlie’s life

Born in 1918 as one of five children, Charlie Hutchison’s early life was a seemingly endless struggle for survival. After his father’s mysterious disappearance during a trip to Ghana, his mother could not financially afford to care for him. Because of this Charlie and one of his sisters spent much of their childhood in an orphanage where he was often the victim of racial discrimination due to his African heritage. These experiences of poverty and racism under capitalism inspired Charlie to join the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), making him a life-long socialist and anti-fascist. [1]

Now an eighteen-year-old teenager, Charlie’s new love for both communism and bashing Nazis began with his participation at the Battle of Cable Street where socialist and Jewish activists successfully repelled a march led by the British Union of Fascists. [2] Two months after Cable Street, Charlie joined the International Brigades to fight against Spanish fascists backed by Hitler and Mussolini during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Soon after his arrival in Spain he survived being badly wounded at the Battle of Lopera, but refused to return to Britain and quickly became friendly with the British Battalion’s future commander Bill Alexander. He was not only among the youngest of the volunteers but also became one of the longest-serving, fighting for almost the entire duration of the war. In addition, he was the only known Black-British person to have joined the 2,500 volunteers of the British Battalion. [3] Despite only being a teenager when he arrived in Spain, he was noted for his distinguished service by his commanders, who commented on his intelligence and bravery.

Almost immediately after his return to Britain, fascists would again make headlines following the UK’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany. Charlie joined the British military and fought against the Nazis in France as early as 1939. He was also present at the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. Trampling over any and all fascist resistance, Charlie and his fellow soldiers stormed through Northern Africa, cut upwards straight through Italy, served a brief time in Iran, before again meeting the Nazis in combat in both France and Germany. In April 1945 Charlie was present at the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp, where he witnessed the logical conclusion of fascism manifest in the form of corpse pits and starving children. [4]

In 1946, nearly ten years after his crusade against European fascism began at the Battle of Cable Street, Charlie laid down his weapons to lead a peaceful and quiet life in England. He married fellow communist activist Patricia Holloway in 1947, raised a family with her, and spent the remainder of his years living a long and happy life surrounded by his loving family. After passing away in 1993, Charlie left behind a family extremely proud of all his achievements, with his sons recounting their happy childhood surrounded by Charlie’s treasured book collection.

Oxford’s memorial and Charlie’s rediscovery

How is it that such an impressive historical figure from Oxfordshire, whose life could easily be mistaken for a movie script, could fall deep under the radar and avoid being noticed by historians until so recently? It seems Charlie was an extremely humble man who was never known to brag about his anti-fascist activism, a personality trait that inadvertently made the job of rediscovering his life a lot more difficult for modern researchers.

In 2017 the Oxford Spanish Civil War Memorial was erected and unveiled, honouring thirty-one known anti-fascist volunteers with links to Oxfordshire, six of whom were killed during the war. This memorial was built near South Park after all planning proposals for an anti-fascist

memorial in the city centre were rejected by city councillors for a number of arbitrary and seemingly nonsensical reasons, prompting the Morning Star to label said councillors as “NIMBYs”. [5]

Photo of a stone memorial, with names and a fist hodling a scorpion on it.
The Spanish Civil War Memorial by South Park, Oxford.

A book titled ‘No Other Way’ containing the biographies of all thirty-one volunteers was published to raise funds for the memorial. It was authored by three local historians with supervision from Oxford University history professor and expert on the Spanish Civil War, Tom Buchanan. [6]

However, despite being born in Oxfordshire, Charlie Hutchison’s name was missing from the list of thirty-one volunteers with links to the county. The several local historians who wrote the book, the Oxford professor who oversaw its creation, and the organisers of the memorial committee, were all seemingly unaware of Charlie Hutchison’s existence.

In early 2019 the Marx Memorial Library in London had invited local students to a presentation on black anti-fascists and told the students of a Black-British International Brigade member who fought in Spain called Charlie Hutchison, though the library staff admitted that they did not know the full details of his life. Students from Newham Sixth Form College then worked with the Marx Memorial Library to uncover the details of Charlie Hutchison’s life, and later that year presented their evidence at a public conference held by the Marx Memorial Library and witnessed by the Hutchison family. [7] The first permanent and all-encompassing record of Charlie Hutchison’s life was published in 2020 within the book ‘Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism’, a work that highlights the lives of lesser-known British activists who dedicated their lives to fighting against colonialism, racism, and class inequality. [8]

Newcomers to the city of Oxford are often taken aback by the aristocratic and upper-class culture of Oxford, with its monuments to colonisers and war criminals, museums stacked with stolen loot, and endless streams of dodgy and unethical funding. What the life of Charlie Hutchison proves is that for any examples of oppression, tyranny and corruption that can be found in history, tales of resistance are never far away. Charlie Hutchison was never rewarded with a legacy in the form of statues and stone buildings that people such as Cecil Rhodes and Halford Mackinder enjoyed. Instead Hutchison’s mark on the world comes in the form of a family proud of his achievements, and the knowledge that his fight against fascism made the world a safer and happier place for people across the globe.

For anybody wanting to further dive into Oxfordshire’s links to the anti-fascist forces of the Spanish Civil War, the author of this article highly suggests reading about the lives of Olympic gold medallist and Christ Church graduate, Lewis Clive; the Magdalen College academic and biographer of Lenin and Genghis Khan, Ralph Winston Fox; the founder of Britain’s first union for low-income nurses and founder of the first foreign hospital for Spanish republicans, Thora Silverthorne; and the violent confrontations in Oxford city centre between the British Union of Fascists and an alliance of communist and Jewish activists led by the legendary Oxford-based trade union leader Abraham Lazarus, AKA ‘Firestone Bill’.

Written by Dan P.


References

[1] Simon Meddick, Liz Payne, Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism (UK: Manifesto Press Cooperative Limited, 2020), 97.

[2] Marcus Barnett, “Britain’s Black International Brigadier,” Tribune Magazine, October 31, 2020, https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/10/britains-black-international-brigadier (accessed April 22, 2021).

[3] Richard Baxell, “Charlie Hutchison: the only black Briton in the International Brigades,” October 19, 2018, https://richardbaxell.info/hutchinson/ (accessed April 22, 2021).

[4] Meddick, Simon, Liz Payne, Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism (UK: Manifesto Press Cooperative Limited, 2020), 98.

[5] Luke James, “Nimby’s block nod to heroes of Spain Civil War in Oxford,” November 6, 2015, https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-69a5-nimbys-block-nod-to-heroes-of-spain-civil-war-in-oxford-1 (accessed April 22, 2021).

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

[7] Newvic, “Revisionist History, Remembering our Black British Heroes,” November 22, 2019, https://www.newvic.ac.uk/news/2019/11/22/revisionist-history-remembering-our-black-british-heroes (accessed April 22, 2021).

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