Little Moscow and Moscow Row: Part 2

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General Strike of GWR workers

Join Veronica Kelly this month in the continuation of a three-part article looking at the history of the two Great Western Railway housing estates, ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’ in Cornwall, and their economic and political standings over the years. You can catch last month’s article here.

None of the present day privately owned houses, with their tarmac drives and garages, has benefited from the original uniformity of grass lawns and privet hedging, which was exclusive to Truro. Penzance, although just a long row of houses backing on to the railway lines, were enclosed with traditional granite hedging, which fortunately are still there today. The 1920s architectural character of the houses however, has been reduced over the years due to modernised incremental alterations made to individual houses. Whilst these changes could be considered necessary, the cumulative effect has been to both estates of that homogeneous feeling that earlier on had offered a sense of community.

Truro housing estate today is surrounded by newer property and its once wonderful panoramic view of Truro has been partially blocked. The big oaks, which used to line Green lane (part of Green Close estate) are also gone and the once quiet lane has been widened into one of Truro’s main artery roads. The smaller Penzance estate, which commanded front views of rolling Cornish countryside, is now surrounded by a modern industrial estate, a supermarket and its front view is dwarfed by a petrol station, which is adjacent to A30 bypass.

In 1925 however, when Muriel Boynes and her parents moved into number 17 Green Close it was distinctly idyllic.  Number 17 was one of the middle sized houses built around a crescent shaped road. In those days, the family enjoyed a ‘marvellous’ view of Truro. Their immediate neighbours were the Reynolds.  Having a bathroom in the house was considered a luxury. Muriel remembers a wash boiler in the kitchen lit by coal, which heated the hot water. Cooking was done on a Cornish Range also lit by coal. Although the smaller houses had their toilets just outside the back door, they also had the luxury of a bathroom. From the records, we know electricity was laid on in 1933 (AD1553/2).

 I think it must have been two years before my mother and I joined my father in our new house in Green Close … I can remember the unloading of the tea chests, the new home and my own bedroom (Boynes, M.  Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January2001).

Boynes Family

As the physical environment changed the social compositioning of these estates, the historical architectural value has been lost. The philanthropic ideal, which created a sense of community, was also lost when the houses were finally paid for and the leases bought by the tenants in the 1970s. The same pattern of events that transformed ‘Little Moscow’ also transformed their sister estate ‘Moscow Row’. All the houses are now privately owned; the links to the Railway, Unions and Labour Party has gone. Therefore, the historical connection to the Labour Movement in Cornwall for both these estates has become all the more important.

I hardly know anyone in Green Lane or the Close now (Ibid). 

I moved away after we bought the houses. Best thing I did (Bowden, V. Interview

28 July 2005).

I am the last Railway worker here now. Everyone else has died or moved away (Oates, H.  Interview3 February 2006).   

Green Lane or ‘Little Moscow’ had thirty-six houses. Therefore, more families meant more community based social activities, such as their very own concert party, which ventured out into the wider community to entertain. Residents in the smaller ‘Moscow Row’ appear to have been more content with the annual Christmas parties organised by the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). Kathy Pope (2005) affectionately remembers those children’s parties, which were organised by the NUR and held in the Railway Inn, Penzance.

Cricket Team
Green Lane Cricket Team

Chy- An- Mor estate was much smaller than Green Close, we did not have enough residents to form our own entertainment. We were also close to the Long Rock community where many railway workers lived. When I first transferred to Penzance depot, I lodged in Long Rock. Work felt like a Community. It was a pleasure to go to work (Oates, H. Interviews 18. December 2005, 3 February 2007). 

Truro at that time was Cornish… and reserved. Most people in Green Close were Foreigners from Plymouth and Wales … it was only natural to … find our own entertainment. Whist drives were run in each other houses. Once, a small number of children held a concert … The concert was quite a success and performed in St. Austell, St Blazey and Truro. When we were at the British Legion in Truro … we were each given an Easter egg.  Eventually, more locals came to live in green Close and we became more Truronian, but still a close-knit community (Boynes, M. Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January 2001, 11 April 2006). 

Moving as a young child and as part of a group to a new area obviously made an impression on Mrs. Boynes as the collected memories of the other interviewees    remember most of the tenants as being local. The archive records also suggest the latter.

Paradoxically in the same interview, Mrs. Boynes also talks about some of her neighbours never being out of Cornwall. This contradiction does not diminish this individual memory or the relativity of oral history. After all, written history is not absolute.  It does, however, help develop David Thelen’s argument (1994:40) that ‘people find security in memory’. Security for this person was the familiarity of the group she felt she belonged to.

What has just been said also strengthens the argument that working for a particular company, such as the GWR created a ‘sense of identity, class solidarity and a sense of place’. (Railway Workers, railway towns). This would have distinguished them from other communities.

Another distinctive characteristic in both communities is the phenomenal number of tenants who became local Councillors or held executive position in their local party.  All the interviewees suggest this is why neighbouring communities bestowed the labels ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’ upon both estates. The origins of the label however, I believe, dates back to the 1926 General Strike, which I shall explore later.

The relationship between the railway workers and their unions has been well documented. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) was formed in 1872. One of its objectives was to limit working hours in order to reduce the high level of accidents. The first national railway strike in 1911 demonstrated remarkable unity, despite the fragmented nature of the company. The many different job grades represented by different unions made union solidarity difficult.

‘Divide and rule’ by the employers was a routine method of labour control during early trade unionism (Tucket 1976:285).  Charles Dickens called this the ‘combination of capital against workman’ (Railways and Trade Unions (2006). Albert Jenkin (1970) suggests that the 1919 rail strike was crucial in the development of Cornish class-consciousness amongst railway workers in Cornwall.

General Strike of GWR workers
General Strike of GWR workers

In 1913 however, the (ASRS) amalgamated with the General Railway Workers Union and renamed itself the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).  Train drivers and fireman remained in the Amalgamated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman (ASLEF). The structure, solidarity and commitment to both unions from railway workers are characteristics, which were also cultivated on both housing estates. For example, each estate had its annually elective management committees, which met regularly to discuss any problems that arose. All tenants, except the women, were encouraged to stand for the management committee (Bowden, V. 28 July 2005).

The exclusion of women from the management committees did not discourage them from being politically active in their communities or the newly emerging constituency labour parties. While this is a history yet to be written it should be noted here that many of these women went on to be political activists in the local labour constituencies, the Co-operative Movement and leaders in their communities ((Boynes, M. Interview 11April 2006), (Bowden, V. 27 July 2005.

The same trade-union spirit, which had raised men’s consciousness to a decent standard of living, was also shared by women. ‘During any railway industrial dispute my mother always supported my father one hundred percent’ (Pope, K. interview 28 August 2005). (Boynes, M. Interview11April 2006).

Rents were collected each week from a small shed erected in one of the tenants’ gardens: number seventeen in Green Close and number one in Chay-An-Mor. Complaints about maintenance and, sometimes, neighbours were also reported. One such complaint was against a tenant who kept fowl during wartime. The complaint was specifically against the noisy cockerel. In his defence, the accused tenant argued his fowl was supporting the food war effort.

‘Keeping fowl means keeping both sexes if successful egg lying is to be obtained’ (AD1553/2/6). Sadly, the cockerel had to go. These complaints then went before the committee where it was decided if it should go to the Agent. These sustained democratisations lasted over 50 years and meant all the residents were irrevocably linked by housing, work, trade unionism, and politics.

Typical long time residents of ‘Little Moscow’ were Bill and Vera Bowden. Bill Bowden (MBE) started work on the railway aged 14 as a cleaner who worked his way up to engine driver. He was continually elected onto the estate’s management committee. As an active trade unionists (ASLEF), he represented his colleagues at work. He was active in the Labour Party.

As a local Councillor in 1961, he became a Labour Mayor of Truro. His wife Vera was also active in Truro Labour Party. As a member of the Labour Women’s section, she helped found the Branch building fund, which still exists today. She was as popular and successful as the Mayor’s consort she was later asked by the Conservative Councillor, Arthur Hamblyn, (19720) to fulfil the role again (Bowden, V. 28 July 2005).

Children growing up on both estates during those years said they felt special and more distinctive than children from other neighbours. Mrs. Boynes remembers her teacher saying she loved teaching the children from ‘Little Moscow’. Most noticeable throughout these interviews however, was all the interviewees’ appreciation of education. The fact that many of their children won scholarships to grammar schools or were sent to private schools was extraordinary and reinforces how much the parents from both communities valued education.

As a trade unionist, my father realised the value of education.  On a railway worker’s pay he struggled to send all his three children to a private school. We all went to University (Pope, K. Interview 28 August 2005).

At eleven, I took and passed the examination for the County Grammar School, a fee-paying school, which gave scholarships. Many Green Close children won scholarships (Boynes. M. Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January 2001, 11 April 2006).

Also, notable was the fact that all the tenants interviewed were proud of their railway association and amused by the labels ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’. Having suggested their estates were labelled ‘bolshie’ (informal for Bolshevik) because they voted Labour. None of the interviewees knew exactly when the label was attached. It had always been there and they were proud of it.

Their amused admiration for the ‘Bolshevik’ label comes from the fact that many residents became respected pillars of the community as magistrates, school governors and councillors, who went on to be elected Mayor. Many of the tenants were awarded MBEs. One of the most popular MBE holders was Joe Bennetts, Labour Party agent for A.L Rowse in 1931 and 1935. (Bowden, V. 27 July 2005).

Over the years, the Labour Party and its members became a respected group of people especially when the Labour Women took their place with different organisations and committees (Boynes, M. Interview 11 April 2006).     

I think the label was attached because railwaymen were thought to be militant and we were all Labour (Oates, H. Interview 18 December 2006).

We were labelled ‘Moscow Row’ because we all voted Labour. No Conservative or Liberal candidate would ever show his or her faces in Chy An Mor (Pope, K. Interview 27 August 2005).

I think the label was because we were all Labour and many of us active in the local Labour Party (Bowden, V. 28 July 2005).

I suppose the Railwaymen were one of the first groups of organised union men in Truro. This was why Green Close was to become known locally as ‘Little Moscow’. I have been reminded of this… over the years… when I was asked where I lived people would say ‘Oh yes, ‘Little Moscow’ (Boynes, M. 11 April 2006).

Stuart Macintyre suggests that labels, such as ‘Little Moscow’ were attached to a place because the people of that place were sympathetic to Communist Russia, the Communist Party or the residents were industrial militant. The label was also useful to the State when they wished to remind the public that strikes for better working conditions was a conspiratorial character of militancy. However, there is evidence to suggest that those who were called Bolshevik were not unhappy with their label.

The Labour Movement in Britain generally welcomed Russian associations throughout the ‘inter-war period’ (Macintyre, 1999: 14-15).

End of part two.

This three-part article will continue next month. Enjoyed reading about this subject? You can catch another academic article on Cornish Celtic Identity here.

Veronica Kelly joined CAVA in 2004 and worked across various projects, notably the Cornish Labour Movement Project in 2005 presided over by Tony Benn. This article is a tribute to the men and women connected to Cornwall’s railway industry.