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 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Soldiers' documents 1760-1913

If you have an ancestor who was an other rank (ordinary soldier) in the British Army before 1913 then you need to check out this new resource from Findmypast. They have completed digitising the soldiers' papers in series WO 97 at The National Archives (TNA). These are records for men who survived army service and received a pension: there are no records for men who died in the service or deserted. You can read more in my Tracing Your Army Ancestors' book from Pen & Sword (buy it at
Any way I have been playing with the new resource which can be checked out here. It is pretty good. I do like FMP's clear layout (despite the distracting ads) . The index seems good and the quality of the images is excellent.
My only gripe is that in the indexing the only practical modifier is place and date of birth, which you may well not know, so you could waste precious units in downloading records which are no use to you.. It would have been better to include regiment as modifier, which users are likely to know. To an extent you can over come this, at least for men who left before 1854, by typing in your man's name into TNA catalogue and in the series box add WO 97. Years ago the Friends of the Public Record Office, as they were then, indexed these records in some detail and results were added to the catalogue.
It costs 5 units to download a transcript and 30 units for the document itself. The other thing you need to do is to press the clear button before each new search, otherwise the search engine may get confused.
Over the years I have researched several of the men who appear in here: Pte Fred Grover (48th Foot) who fought in the Crimea and whose life is memorably told in George Bourne's Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer, Richard Cavendish, a Gentleman-Ranker (and supposedly the illegitimate son of the King of Prussia) who abandoned a promising career in the Queens Hussars to become a workhouse master, and Benjamin Harris of the Rifle Brigade who left a fascinate set of memoirs behind which was the inspiration of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels.  

Blogs I like: Bradford University Library Special Collections

I've become very partial to history and archive related blogs. Many contain excellent and thought provoking material which really deserves a wider audience, such as the one posted by Alison Cullingford of Bradford University Library's Special Collections. At present there are a lot of references to JB Priestley's wartime broadcasts, but there is much more besides:

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Library of the month: London Library

Founded in 1841 the London Library is the world's largest private library, with something like a million volumes on the shelves all of which can be borrowed by members. After all the library was established by Thomas Carlyle when he was banned from borrowing books from the British Museum. I joined about ten years when the place was comfortably shabby. In recent years the Library has been transformed as the result of a multi-million pound rebuilding project, which has seen expansion into a building at the back and a revamp of the public area. The new bits resemble some achingly hip boutique hotel you might read about in the Sunday supplements, but the old stacks largely remain unchanged since they were erected in the 1890s (you still might get a slight electric shock when you pull one of the light switches). One of the great joys of the place is the unique cataloguing system, particularly in "Science and Miscellaneous" with shelfmarks for topics as varied as "S.Dreams" and "S.Devil etc". It works very well, although it can be hard to find books in some of the larger shelfmarks, such as "H. European War 1". There are some nice reading areas - I particularly like the Lightwell reading room in the basement, which seems particularly popular with balding young men finishing off their first bestseller. You would expect the place to be a major site for celeb spotting, but most authors are fairly anonymous looking even if they are household names, although I have spotted Alan Bennett and Edna O'Brien taking out books, and a friend of mine once saw Peter Mandelson. All in all the London LIbrary is a great place and I have spent many happy hours there. Find out more at   

Films of history

One of the best free websites for historians is run by British Pathe at This is where you can see all of the newsreels made by the company between 1897 and 1970. As well as the great events of history - coronations, wars, and Miss World - there is a huge number of films relating to minor happenings and the lives of ordinary people, such as this clip of a darts match in 1938 at And you can download items for personal use. I've used clips in talks about pubs of the 1930s. It is also brilliantly indexed often with interesting notes provided by the film archivists and indexers. But now the company wants local historians and anybody with an interest in the past to add more information or make corrections if they spot something wrong. - perhaps you recognise one of the darts players. So why not give it a go. If you see something which needs correcting email