A hundred years ago: great John Maclean comes home to the Clyde—part 3
John Maclean was released from Peterhead Prison on Monday 2 December 1918. That evening he addressed a meeting of supporters at the Meatmarket Street Hall in Aberdeen. The following day, accompanied by his wife Agnes, he travelled by train to Glasgow. Despite Maclean’s desire to ‘get right home’, word had quickly spread of his release and a large crowd had gathered at Buchanan Street Station, many of whom had taken the afternoon off work.
The temperature was mild for the time of year, around 11C, with a blanket of cloud and some light showers. The train’s arrival was delayed and in his memoirs Harry McShane, then a shop steward and member of the British Socialist Party, recalls Jimmy Johnstone, ‘the old rigger’ addressing the crowd while it waited.
‘He had great style; he wasn’t a deep thinker but he spoke real working-class language. Near the station were some tenement houses and Jimmy pointed to these ‘birdcages’ and started talking to the crowd about what they should fight for. Suddenly he grabbed a child out of its mother’s arms and shouted: “Will you fight for this?” It had a great emotional effect on the whole crowd.’
It was already dark when the train arrived at 4.36 p.m. The Glasgow Herald reported Maclean looked ‘fairly well enough although slightly worn in appearance.’ McShane said he was ‘so weak and worn out he couldn’t speak’.
Among those on the crowded station platform were James Maxton, the Labour candidate for Bridgeton, Neil Maclean, the party’s candidate in Govan and William Gallacher and his wife (Gallacher was chairman of the Clyde Workers’ Committee and had been conducting the Labour Party campaign in Gorbals on Maclean’s behalf). Also present was Dora Montefiore, an English member of the British Socialist Party executive.
Montefiore (pictured left) had been a delegate to the annual BSP conference in March 1918 where she had met and been impressed with Maclean and had promised to speak for his parliamentary candidature at Gorbals.
On 26 November, Agnes Maclean wrote to Montefiore to tell her that Maclean’s agent had booked her for two meetings on 4 and 5 December. She invited Montefiore to stay with them at their home in Newlands. On Sunday 1 December, Montefiore left her Sussex home for Glasgow and in the days that followed was a close witness to the events surrounding Maclean’s release and its immediate aftermath. She wrote about them both in an account for the BSP newspaper The Call and also later in her autobiography.
‘The next day (Tuesday 3 December) a huge demonstration was arranged to meet John Maclean at Buchanan Street Station on the occasion of his return from prison. I was with my two comrades, (William) Gallacher and his wife, and a carriage was waiting inside the station yard for Maclean and his wife, when they left the train. Our little group on the platform was invited into the carriage with the Macleans, but before we reached the station gates, the horses had been taken out, and the crowd, which had completely blocked the traffic, drew the carriage through the main streets of Glasgow, while Maclean stood on the seat waving a huge red banner.’
The Herald estimated the crowd as ‘several thousand’ and Gallacher later wrote, ‘By the time we got half way down Buchanan Street, the springs of the carriage had collapsed and the bottom was resting on the axles.’
‘A carriage was waiting inside the station yard for Maclean and his wife, but before we reached the station gates, the horses had been taken out, and the crowd, which had completely blocked the traffic, drew the carriage through the main streets of Glasgow, while Maclean stood on the seat waving a huge red banner.’
The procession inched its way south under the streetlights of Glasgow from Buchanan Street, down Renfield Street towards the Clyde. When it halted for a minute in Jamaica Street, Montefiore wrote, ‘Maclean called for three hearty cheers for the German Social Revolution; and on these being given by thousands of voices, then called for three more cheers for the British Social Revolution, when the shouts that rent the air made a volume of sound that the capitalists of Clydeside will often remember in the near future, when they are troubled with bad dreams.
‘For the best part of an hour, just when the trams were taking to their homes the daily loads of shoppers, those trams that were leaving the city had to travel, till the river was crossed, at the rate of John Maclean’s triumphal red-flag procession, for his supporters, in disciplined orderly ranks, spread across one half of the street; while from the trams going towards the city peeped timidly or with scared faces those who for the first time had seen flaunted on the four winds the emblem which now waves over the public buildings of Petrograd, Moscow and Berlin.’
Eventually, the carriage progressed over the Glasgow Bridge to Carlton Place, where after short speeches, Gallacher ‘got Maclean away and we drove out to his home in a taxi.’
Caledun, the Scottish reporter for The Call wrote, ‘It truly was a triumphant entry. Maclean was granted the freedom of the city in a far more real sense than was Lloyd George when behind a guard of bayonets, he received the burgess ticket from the Lord Provost.’
The following day, the Glasgow Herald reported: ‘In a brief conversation with press representatives (at Carlton Place) Maclean said the revolutionary spirit was stronger than ever in him, and the fight, which was that of the workers, would go on. He was in ignorance of what had been going on in the political field, and so he was not able to make any long statement and he was hardly physically fit to conduct an election campaign.’
‘For the best part of an hour, just when the trams were taking to their homes the daily loads of shoppers, those trams that were leaving the city had to travel, till the river was crossed, at the rate of John Maclean’s triumphal red-flag procession.’
Maclean also made some comments about George Barnes that didn’t come out quite as he had intended. The Herald reported, ‘He (Maclean) had he said told Mr Barnes that while he was personally anxious to get out, politically it might suit him better if the authorities did not let him out as Mr Barnes would be sure to be defeated and besides he would run serious personal risks if he (Mr Maclean) had been kept in prison. That communication was considered by Cabinet, and, Mr Maclean added, he was now released.’
On 5 December the Herald published a clarification: ‘Mr Maclean sought to correct a statement which appeared yesterday with regard to his release. In the excitement attendant upon his release in the city on Tuesday, he says he made it appear as if he had spoken to Mr Barnes and told him he would be defeated and would run serious personal risks if he (Mr Maclean) were kept in prison. As a matter of fact he had never spoken to Mr Barnes. The remarks he made were addressed to the prison doctors and other officials, to whom he had said he would not be responsible for what might happen if he were kept in prison.’
After the emotional high of Glasgow’s heartfelt welcome, the following days were a marked contrast. In the public arena, the Herald reported, ‘ … he (Maclean) is resting at home but his cause is being pleaded by a number of prominent Socialists who have arranged a full program of daily meetings—indoors, at street corners and at works gates, where the electors are being urged to “strike a blow at the parasites and profiteers”. Greater production, desired by Mr Lloyd George, means, according to the views put before the electorate by Mr Maclean’s lieutenants, a glut in the market sooner or later, resulting in “an army of men and women walking the streets unemployed.”’
‘ … he (Maclean) is resting at home but his cause is being pleaded by a number of prominent Socialists who have arranged a full program of daily meetings—indoors, at street corners and at works gates, where the electors are being urged to “strike a blow at the parasites and profiteers”.’
But on the domestic front, things were far from comfortable. Montefiore wrote, ‘When I stayed in his home after his second term of imprisonment, and witnessed the agony of his wife and the sorrow of his relatives, I realised more than ever I had done before the refined and machine-made cruelty of a prison system which takes the souls of men and of women (as the Inquisition used to take their bodies) and leaves them wrung-out rags of humanity.
‘This was quite another John Maclean from the man, the ex-school teacher, whom the authorities some months before had cast into gaol, because, as he said at his trial, “He had squared his actions with his conscience.” His thoughts were now disconnected, his speech was irresponsible, his mind, from solitary confinement, was absolutely self-centred. In a word, prison life had done its work on a delicately-balanced psychology, and our unfortunate comrade was now a mental wreck.’
It’s obvious that John Maclean was in a bad way both physically and mentally immediately after his release from prison. But under the care of his wife, who was a trained nurse after all, he had recovered sufficiently to pen an article for The Call that was published on 12 December. And on the eve of the election, Friday 13 November, he was sufficiently well to give extended campaign speeches to huge crowds at St Mungo’s Hall in Ballater Street, Gorbals.
‘Greetings to all comrades and the mass of the working-class who forced the Cabinet to release me!’ he wrote in The Call. ‘George Barnes’s claim that he got my release is a lie as base as his betrayal of our class. He and the Cabinet members were really afraid of their very lives, and rightly so; for the workers have now reached a stage in the evolution of our class when they will punish their enemies in the great class war.
‘Greetings to all comrades and the mass of the working-class who forced the Cabinet to release me!’ he wrote.
‘When leaving Peterhead, I told the governor, the head-warder, and others that if the workers made a bid for freedom along the lines of Russia and Germany, I would be in the thick of the fight, although aware that I would be the first to be captured by the real enemy, the propertied plunderers of Britain. Comrades can take it, then, that I am not “tamed,” although the prison people did their utmost to accomplish the usual. The doctors this time made the most thorough test of my mind and character to find out such weaknesses as they might play upon in future to corrupt me into the betrayal of my class. It was beautifully done, but I can assure comrades that I beat the doctors at their game. I let them know that I was obsessed about nothing, not even life itself, and that they could burn all they thought they knew about me and have in tabulated and indexed form, as it would be of, no use to them in my future, fight against capitalism.
‘I have already received the greatest honour of my life in being appointed Scottish representative of the first Socialist Republic in the world, the Russian one; and the second, in being selected as the standard-bearer of my class by the Cabinet of the British capitalist class.
‘From a bread-and-butter point of view I don’t need to sell out. I can go to Russia and be secure till I peg out. But I am not going to Russia, except on working-class business or for a holiday. The place for every British Socialist is here at home until capitalism is overthrown. I stay at home, then, with the Clyde Valley as my centre.
‘I have already received the greatest honour of my life in being appointed Scottish representative of the first Socialist Republic in the world, the Russian one; and the second, in being selected as the standard-bearer of my class by the Cabinet of the British capitalist class.’
‘My only appearance in Gorbals will be on Friday, December 13th, the eve of the poll, and I speak then only because my “bosses” have dictated this course to me. Personally, I would have preferred to stay in Aberdeen enjoying my liberty amongst the “boys of the old brigade,” the Coopers, the Pithies, the Morrisons, the Gordons, the Wheelers, etc. Why? Because I was selected whilst in prison; my address was written and circulated by the workers whilst I lay in prison; everything was, and is being, done under the guidance of Willie Gallacher (my deputy), the witty, cheery, and popular chairman of the Clyde Workers Committee. The fight is one against treachery; and the significance of the fight is that the workers are not lying down in disgusted despair but have roused themselves to the intensest activity to retain the honour of our class by crushing the traitor. The fight is not mine, therefore: hence my attitude.
‘In the international aspect the return of Barnes will be fraught with momentary misfortune for our class. The Government, knowing this, are doing everything to defeat me. If I am returned Britain will have to withdraw her forces from Russia, Germany, and Belgium, or she will feel the consequences at home. I trust that Lloyd George will cherish no illusions about that. If Barnes wins and the British troops try to crush our Russian and German comrades, Barnes had never better appear in Glasgow again and his committeemen had better leave Scotland for good. Let no one have any illusions.
‘The election in itself counts for nothing. Our BSP candidates and the readers of The Call know that—in spite of what I have just written. The real British crisis is coming, and coming quickly, too. Let us, then, keep our committees going, let us rush forward with meetings, sales of literature, discussions and organisation in the workshop, economic classes and conferences to promote Labour Colleges after we have polled, conscious that economic circumstances are going to arise in 1919 that will thrust the revolutionary section into power as on the Continent.
‘I place myself absolutely at the disposal of the movement, and trust that my services will be taken advantage of for educational conferences on Saturdays and lectures on other nights of the week. Keep it going, comrades, keep it going; our victory is fast approaching.’
‘The election in itself counts for nothing,’ Maclean had written in The Call. This may have disappointed Gallacher (pictured right) and his colleagues who had put so much time and effort into getting Maclean selected as an official Labour Party candidate and mounting a vigorous campaign in the Gorbals. So while the Glasgow Herald—a paper certainly not noted for any sympathy towards the Socialists—reported Maclean’s election-eve speech in fairly straight terms, one can detect a mix of admiration and frustration in Gallacher and Tom Bell’s later accounts. The election messages they had developed—messages that had been thundered from the platform by the array of guest speakers in the indoor, outdoor and work gates meetings during the campaign—were not the focus of Maclean’s address. He was in the same church, but he was not singing from the same hymn sheet. This insistence on ignoring the party line and being his own man would be at the heart of Maclean’s exclusion from the process of forming a Communist Party of Great Britain and his personal falling out with Gallacher in the future. And it suited Gallacher and Bell to use this one very public event to later portray Maclean as having suffered permanent mental damage as a result of his prison ordeal.
One can detect a mix of admiration and frustration in Gallacher and Bell’s later accounts. The election messages they had developed were not the focus of Maclean’s address. He was in the same church, but he was not singing from the same hymn sheet.
‘He was welcomed in the dual character of candidate and “political martyr” and the personal note predominated in his speech’, the Glasgow Herald reported. ‘The Chairman (presumably Gallacher) counselled the audience to maintain silence while Maclean spoke as he has suffered from the effects of a nervous breakdown. He, however, expressed himself with vigour. His address was a gust of discursive oratory, slightly autobiographical, merely adumbrating his political principles, and concentrating on his personal achievements. He had been arrested as the standard-bearer of the workers; he had been released through fear; if he had been held in imprisonment the life of George Barnes would not have been safe. He was occasionally vituperative, delivering fluent denunciation of legal and medical “scoundrels”. His renewed imprisonment would be the signal of revolution. The egotistical note was sounded throughout; a sense of humour was less apparent.’
In Revolt on the Clyde, Willie Gallacher wrote: ‘When I reached St Mungo’s Hall, John was still going strong, with no sign of finishing. I whispered to the Chairman: “Have you reminded him that he’s due at the other meeting?” He shook his head; he was obviously too nervous to intervene. I waited about ten minutes, and then passed John a note saying they were waiting for him at the (other meeting). He didn’t look at it, just crumpled it up and put it in his pocket. After another wait I approached him and whispered “John! Remember your other meeting!” He turned on me, shouting: “For Christ’s sake, Gallacher, leave me alone. I’m feeling fine and nobody needs to tell me what to do!”
‘And on he went. His energy, his flow of language, his grasp of politics and his wide range of ideas relating to the working class were unsurpassed by any other leader in the movement. It was a great speech, full of very good socialist electioneering, but marred by the sickness that had become firmly embedded in his mind: he kept on introducing the subject of how they had doped his food in prison and how he had got the better of them despite their dirty work. To me it was very painful, though I am sure many in the hall accepted the “doping” story as true.’
‘And on he went. His energy, his flow of language, his grasp of politics and his wide range of ideas relating to the working class were unsurpassed by any other leader in the movement.’
Tom Bell, a prominent member of the Socialist Labour Party, wrote in his memoir Pioneering Days: ‘The fact that he would speak at the final rally was fully advertised, with amazing results. The whole suite of the St Mungo’s Halls, the scenes for so many meetings for the release of Maclean, was fully booked, and on the final night, the Reception, the Assembly and the Grand Halls were crowded to overcapacity. Thousands failed to gain admission and it taxed all the available speakers to exhaustion to maintain a service indoors and outdoors. Never within living memory had there been witnessed such high enthusiasm.
‘Contrary to the wishes of his friends, who urged that he appear for a short time at the Grand Hall only, John insisted on speaking at all three meetings. The scenes of wild enthusiasm when he appeared passes description. His very presence was in itself a great victory for the campaign and a personal tribute to himself. And had he been in good health and able to hold the enthusiasm of these three meetings and the crowds outside, the story of his last days would have been very different.
‘As it was, he was unable to concentrate upon the problems of immediate importance in the election. Prison with hunger striking and forcible feeding had obviously had graver effects than was generally known. Persecution obsessions and questions irrelevant to the Election made up the subject matter of his speeches. The efforts of his friends to restrain him had not the slightest effect, except to provoke his feelings and to make matters worse. The wild enthusiasm with which he was received at teach of his meetings evaporated in murmurs of sympathetic concern, many people leaving the meeting while he was speaking, obviously disturbed by the state of their friend and comrade’s mind.’
After three trials in which he knew a long line of police had perjured themselves to procure his conviction, added to the prison experience of hunger striking and forcible feeding, meant any faith Maclean may once have held about fair play in the system had long gone.
In his speech he said he was ‘deliberately of the opinion that the ballot boxes of the Gorbals will be tampered with in the interests of Mr Barnes, and he suggested that at the close of the poll representatives of the workers should be chosen to accompany the ballot boxes to their destination, and that relays of men should attend throughout the fortnight before enumeration in order to keep watch and ward. The audience seemed impressed by the candidate’s deliberate manner and on his suggestion pledged themselves to see to the payment of the watchers.’
Given the rushed nature of the election, perhaps it was no surprise that the proportion of eligible people who actually voted—57.2 per cent—was the lowest since 1868.
The election was held on Saturday 14 December. The extension of adult suffrage meant the electorate had almost tripled in size (from about seven to twenty-one millions) since the previous general election of 1910. It included most women aged over thirty and all men over twenty-one. A special provision also lowered the voting age to nineteen for those who had served in the war. For the majority of the electorate, it was their first ever vote. Many British troops were still overseas and an influenza epidemic was raging. Given these factors and the rushed nature of the election, called mere days after the signing of the armistice with Germany, perhaps it was no surprise that the proportion of eligible people who actually voted—57.2 per cent—was the lowest since 1868.
It took two weeks for the votes to be tallied and the results were declared on 28 December. In Gorbals, Maclean polled 7436 votes against George Barnes’ 14,247. While Labour polled over two million votes nationally—a 14.5 per cent increase on 1910—it won only one of the 15 Glasgow seats—Neil MacLean in Govan—and 7 in Scotland. Across the country Labour won just 61 of the 706 seats. The Coalition candidates won 531 and even though the Conservatives under Bonar Law won most of these, Lloyd George continued as Prime Minister.
John Maclean convalesced at home while waiting for the election results. He applied to the Govan School Board for reinstatement as a teacher (he had been dismissed at the end of 1915 following a dispute with his headmaster) then took a brief holiday ‘doon the water’ in Rothesay with his wife Agnes and Willie and Jean Gallacher at the end of the month.
But as the bells rang in the new year, rather than taking some time to recuperate after the trials and tribulations of 1918, Maclean threw himself immediately back into agitational and educational work. The war was over, but the old order had collapsed across much of Europe and many in the British working class were ready for a change too. Maclean sensed that mood for change. His struggle for a better, fairer world was about to begin afresh.
Main picture: A tram and traffic jam on Glasgow Bridge
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Cabinet papers, National Archives (UK)
Hansard, UK Parliament
John Maclean papers, National Library of Scotland
The Glasgow Herald
Barnes, George N., From Workshop to War Cabinet (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1924)
Bell, Thomas, Pioneering Days (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1941)
Cole G.D.H., A History of the Labour Party from 1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1948)
Gallacher, William, Revolt on the Clyde (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2017)
Howell, David, A Lost Left—Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)
Lenin V.I., Collected Works, Volume 28, July 1918—March 1919 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965)
McShane, Harry and Smith, Joan, No Mean Fighter (London: Pluto Press, 1978)
Milton, Nan, John Maclean (London: Pluto Press, 1973)
Montefiore, Dora, From a Victorian to a Modern (London: E. Archer, 1927)
Ripley B.J. and McHugh J., John Maclean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)
Taylor A.J.P., English History 1914—1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965)