Friday, 15 October 2010

A communist at sea

While researching my new book on tracing naval ancestors for Pen & Sword I came across the curious story of Len Wincott. Able Seaman Wincott was one of the leaders of the Invergordon Mutiny which took place in September 1931 which took place as a protest against a proposed cut of a quarter in sailors' wages by the Admiralty as part of the government's austerity progamme as the result of the economic depression. The sailors' protest so shook the stock market that it forced the Pound off the Gold Standard. Despite the Navy's promise 24 men, including Wincott, were identified as ringleaders and dismissed from the Navy ("gone out" to use the technical phrase).
Wincott eventually published his autobiography "Invergordon Mutineer" (Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 1974) which makes interesting reading. Born in 1907 in poverty in Leicester he joins the Navy in 1923 after time at the training centre for boys at Shotley. The Navy gave him security, even if the pay was not much and the prospects in the peacetime RN fairly minimal  Wincott seems to have been more articulate than his fellow matelots. His service record at The National Archives (piece ADM 188/861) runs to the end of 1929 and shows a model seaman.  But his life would change overnight when he gets caught in protests about the proposed cut in pay. According to his memoirs he was one of the key leaders, but this may have been an exaggeration.
After his dismissal he became involved with the Communist Party speaking at meetings up and down Britain. The CP may have given him the same feeling of belonging as the Navy had. There are three MI5 files on him at TNA (KV 2/508-510) which show that he was being followed, and his mail intercepted. There are also detailed accounts of speeches he made, which make dull reading today. There were are also several reports from informers whose names have been blanked out in the files. With perhaps of hint of what was to come Wincott mentions that he was aware of being followed and his letters being read and names one of the informers as being a disaffected shipmate Terry Gentry. His account matches notes from one of the interviews in the file, so Wincott was probably right about the snitch.
For all the surveillance MI5 failed to spot that Wincott left Britain in 1934 for good as it turned out. He went to Leningrad to run the Anglo-American section of the International Seamen's Club. Wincott may have taken the post to be with his first wife Mary Copeland an American journalist who lived in Moscow - or perhaps the Russians were increasingly worried that he might prove to be an embarrassment to them. Apart from a visit to England in 1974 Wincott spent the rest of  his life in the Soviet Union. He survived the Siege of Leningrad and ten years in the Gulags where he met and married his fourth wife. Wincott finally died in Moscow in 1983. His ashes were scattered over Devonport Harbour..
Len Wincott has a rather hostile entry written by John Horsfield in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is also an interesting obituary in The Times for 22 January 1983.  Francis Beckett takes a more sympathetic approach when he describes Wincott's time in the Soviet Union in Stalin's British Victims (Sutton, 2004). Clearly another interesting footnore in history 

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