“A Penny From You” – Activism and Organisation in Edinburgh During the Spanish Civil War

By Harry Taylor

The outbreak of Civil War in Spain in the summer of 1936 caused reactions across the globe. Whilst the leading powers in the world opted for a policy of containment designed to prevent another international conflict, countless men and women organised in support of the threatened Republican government. Most famously, this took the form of volunteers. Some 35,000 foreigners volunteered to fight in Spain with the International Brigades with Britain being no exception.[1] This, however, was not Britain’s only contribution. In many of the nations from which volunteers made their way to Spain, efforts were made to help raise funds for supplies and materials as well as a range of humanitarian causes. In towns and cities across Britain organisations were created to address concerns such as food shortages, medical supplies, and lack of clothing for the Spanish population. This piece examines the activities of activists and organisers in Edinburgh and the contribution they made during the conflict. It focuses on the methods and tactics used and assesses how far the campaigns can be deemed successful.

Often seen as the middle class, liberal counterpart to Scotland’s second city, Glasgow, Edinburgh has rarely been viewed in comparison as a hot bed of political activism. The 1936 Edinburgh Corporation election saw the Labour Party return only 15 members out of a possible 69, a number vastly dwarfed by the 46 centrist Progressive members which were elected.[2] Such statistics paint a picture of a city cautious with regard to Labour politics. However, unlike Glasgow, the political landscape in Edinburgh was not so bitterly divided along the lines of sectarianism, making the potential for cross party coalitions more probable. By March 1937 a mere £50 had been raised by activists in the city, increasing the urgency for an organised network of activists.[3] By mid-1937, the Edinburgh Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (JC) had been formed bringing together a wide range of supporters and organisers. Liberals, Quakers, Trade Unionists and local churches were all involved whilst the presence of the Edinburgh Left Book Club built bridges between the more middle-class elements of society and the Labour Party.[4] During the tenure of its first Chairman, Thomas Murray, the Committee saw an enormous rise in donations compared to the early months of the conflict. By the time Murray left for Spain in April 1938, £500 had been raised in total.[5] This, however, was a drop in the ocean in comparison to the sums raised under the leadership of Murray’s wife and successor, Janet.

Janet Murray sought a change in direction and method when it came to leading the JC. Large scale events aimed at mass public engagement addressing a variety of causes took shape. Dances, whist drives and concerts became regular occurrences, and a focus was placed on the emotive and empathetic suffering of the most vulnerable in Spain. The most successful of these events was the Spanish Fiesta held at the Central Halls over two days on the 16th and 17th of December 1938.[6] Original tickets from the event detail the suffering in Spain illustrating the humanitarian framing of the event.[7] Stalls at the event ranged from baked products to homemade items. In addition to this, games, raffles and tombolas were present making the event accessible to families and therefore engaging with as wide an audience as possible.[8] The event itself, however, still centred around aiding those in Spain. A range of causes in need of funds were represented including aid for Spanish refugees.

A determined effort was placed upon ensuring the safe passage of adults and families “to the new world”.[9] Countries such as Mexico were chosen as a safe haven due to the nation’s sympathy for the Spanish Republic and common language. Present at the Fiesta was a scheme used by the JC to assist in this endeavour known as the “Mile of Pennies”. Donors were invited to place a penny in a line of pouches designed to symbolically represent the refugee’s journey from Spain to safety. Images of dishevelled and exhausted refugees acted as a reminder of the suffering of the people of Spain whilst notices stating “a penny from you will help one refugee a mile on his road” served to place emphasis on the role the individual could make in providing aid.[10] The Fiesta was a success raising £1,000 in total.[11] Given the original target had been £150, this event was a great success.[12] The pennies scheme also proved fruitful raising just over £62 alone. With one event, Janet Murray had doubled the funds raised by the Committee under her husband. Throughout her 15 months at the helm, the Committee raised a total of £2,800 for relief causes.[13]

This piece has sought to briefly chart the successes of Spanish aid campaigns in a city that seemingly lacked the appetite for political activism. It has demonstrated the effective efforts of organised activism in the city when the focus centred on the empathetic and unifying notions of emotion and humanitarianism. The broad-church coalition formed, when coupled with the accessible nature of events under Janet Murray, allowed for a successful and sustained campaign of aid. Ultimately, a concentration on the human cost of the war, by an organisation which extended across all levels of society, made it possible for the groups message to be disseminated as widely as possible to the public.

Author’s Bio: Harry Taylor is a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University who graduated from Hallam with BA Hons in 2016 and the University of Sheffield with an MA in 2017. His research concerns the grassroots movements of activists and organisers in Britain during the Spanish Civil War. His research interests also extend to the Spanish Civil War more broadly, as well as the longer history of British grassroots activism and politics and society in the Inter – War period.


[1] G. Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, (London:2020), p. 5

[2] The Glasgow Herald, 4/12/1936, p. 14

[3] F. Raeburn, Living, Thinking and Dreaming Spain: Aid Spain Movement’s in Scotland 1936 – 1939, (Unpublished MA Thesis from the University of Edinburgh)

[4]  F. Raeburn, Scots and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity, Activism and Humanitarianism, (Edinburgh:2020), p. 163

[5] Accounts of Edinburgh Committee, National Library of Scotland, AC9083 Box 2 (3)

[6] Ticket for Spanish Fiesta, National Library of Scotland, ACC9083 Box 3

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Mile of Pennies Receipt, National Library of Scotland, ACC9083 Box 3

[10] Ibid

[11] Accounts of Edinburgh Committee, AC9083 Box 2 (3)

[12] Ibid

[13] F. Raeburn, Scots and the Spanish Civil War, (Edinburgh:2020), p. 167

Image: Left Book Club – Wikipedia