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Reading the biography of Wilfred Risdon : Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles by J L Risdon

2014 February 16

Snapshot  Risdon coverWilfred Risdon’s life embraced many key moments of political activism in Britain during the twentieth century.

 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.

9 Responses Post a comment
  1. February 17, 2014

    Thank you for this extensive and supportive review, Hilda, it is much appreciated.

  2. Jeff Wallder permalink
    February 18, 2014

    A very professionally written biography indeed and a most interesting insight into someone whose life was dedicated to helping the ‘underdog’. I don’t think Mosley sacked people on a whim, on the contrary it can be said that he failed to sack people who he should have got rid of. Wilfred Risdon did not fall into this category, he was an asset to any organisation he worked for.

  3. May 17, 2014

    Hats off to this fine gentleman, and his nephew for making Mr. Risdon better known! I have found that support for animal rights and welfare is always an issue dear to the hearts of Fascists everywhere, although I was unable to officially get an “animal rights plank” inserted into the initial program of the American Fascist Party, when it was formed.

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      May 18, 2014

      This is certainly not the case in Britain. Socialists, liberals, progressive thinkers and feminists were the leading lights in many of the animal rights campaigns of the past including the Humanitarian League, Animal Defence and Anti Vivisection Society, and League against Cruel Sports. Although anti – vivisectionists were sometimes fascists, as I argued in my article The Smooth Cool Men of Science this too was a cause promoted largely by socialists and feminists.

  4. a j standley permalink
    November 17, 2014

    a question really; was wilfred risden also held in the prison at stafford while detained as an 18b?

    • February 6, 2015

      Sorry to have only just found your question, but I can answer it categorically [as detailed in my biography]: no, Wilfred Risdon spent the whole of his 18B incarceration in Brixton Prison. He was released after three months, and the book includes an appendix that is a transcription of his Appeal Hearing in June, 1940. The biography is being released as an eBook any day now, so please keep an eye on the website, or my Facebook page, It is also still available as a print book, if you prefer.

  5. April 19, 2015

    Page 406 para 1; re ‘unusual arrangement of release by telephone.’ Have you considered the possibility that Wilfred might have been in an establishment too far distant for a messenger to convey the warrant by hand? You mention ‘King’ who you describe as a ‘functionary.’ If he had been instrumental in Wilfred’s release, as appears from your account, he would surely have been at least a senior official not just of the Home Office but presumably of the Prison Commission that then had control of prisons and while responsible directly to the Home Secretary was itself independent of the Home Office. For a prison governor to act on a ‘phone call surely he must have known who it was who authorised release? Just a thought.

    • May 8, 2015

      I’m always happy to receive new information, and that includes anything to do with the wartime prison system administration, so thank you for this. I was working on the basis [rightly or wrongly] that Brixton prison, where Wilfred was held, was certainly close enough to the Home Office/Metropolitan Police, or whichever agency [possibly the Prison Commission, as you suggest] was responsible for the 18B releases, for it to be practical to confirm them either by letter [next day delivery, even in wartime, I would have thought?] or courier delivery, under normal circumstances, rather than by telephone.

      Just out of curiosity, have you found the book in your local library?

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