Reading the biography of Wilfred Risdon : Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles by J L Risdon
Giving up his early job in bookbinding to volunteer in the Army during the 1914 -18 war, on his return he became at miner in South Wales and was active in the militant South Wales Miners’ Federation. Subsequently an organiser in the West Midlands for the Independent Labour Party, he came into contact with Oswald Mosley and, in due course like many other ILPers including John Beckett the former MP, he joined the British Union of Fascists. Wilfred’s organisational capabilities ensured his employment as a BUF organiser and, for a short time, internment under regulation 18B. On release he gained employment first in the London and Provincial Anti-Vivisection Society and then the National Anti-Vivisection Society as general secretary until his death in 1967.
Yet this interesting man is not included within the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (though Muriel Dowding, animal rights campaigner in the BUAV and John Beckett are) nor is he in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. This extensively researched book by Risdon’s nephew aims to redress Wilfred’s omission from such histories. Jon Risdon became interested in family history many years ago but never actually met his uncle although their chronologies could have facilitated this. Although some of the photographs are gleaned from family archives for the most part the material used is from public archives. What Jon Risdon has attempted is an engaging micro-history of political organisations through the lens of his uncle’s life. And his attempt has been very successful. His very detailed and careful reading of material related to the ILP, BUF and NAVS gives us new insights into the working of these organisations. While the capriciousness of Mosley, sacking people on a whim, is fairly well known, Jon Risdon’s approach that focuses on the narrative of one individual, albeit always in an informed context, makes us understand more clearly how the BUF operated.
This book shows us that individuals change their views in relation to external circumstances: defining a person through narrow criteria is not necessarily productive or illuminating. As I have argued elsewhere, (and against the orthodoxy of some scholars of British fascism) although many in the London and Provincial Anti Vivisection Society were fascist in their politics they were also committed opponents of vivisection. It was not simply a ‘front organisation’ for the BUF. This biography develops our understanding of such anti – vivisection organisations.
The book is extensively footnoted enabling the reader to follow up their particular interests. In the introduction Jon asks that the book ‘ should be read with an open mind, conscious of the fact that just because an orthodoxy is widespread or commonly accepted does not make it right (or wrong for that matter); and reprehensible clichés though they might be: truth is the first casualty of war, and history is written by the victors.’ Any open-minded reader with an interest in a range of political activity in the twentieth century would find much to think about in this book. The subject deserves to be more widely known – and understood. I first heard about this project when Jon spoke about it at an early public history conference I organised at Ruskin College. I am very pleased it has finally seen the light of day!
Unfortunately, it was obliged to be privately published. It can be obtained from the author or ordered through bookshops. This 700 page book was initially available in print at £15 plus postage . I had encouraged people to buy it or get their library to purchase a copy. ISBN 978 -0-9927431-0-9.
I am pleased to be advised by Jon that it can now be purchased for just £5 in a PDF form from Wilfred Books website direct.