Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Sunday, 3 January 2010

Children of Blackshirt women live with shame

By James Maw
Presenter, Mother Was A Blackshirt

A woman signs a public petition against the release from prison of Oswald Mosley
Along with most fascists in Britain Oswald Mosley was arrested in 1940

Children of Blackshirt women, who joined Oswald Mosley's pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists, often feel that they have had to live with the burden of the guilt and shame caused by their mothers' fascist sympathies.

When I was 11, I was taken by my mother to visit her birthplace in Kennington, London.

As we walked around my mother showed me where the air-raid shelters were during the war, but then she began telling me about the Blackshirt meetings.

At 11 it did not mean much to me but it has played on my mind ever since.

I decided to reopen the case of how the Blackshirts attempted to recruit my mother.

It led me to question how many British women supported Hitler during the war, and what was their fate?

"I could have ended up in prison," my mother said.

And many of these women did.

Now aged 88, my mother told me about the ink factory she worked in as a young girl.

"At first I was packing ink, it was horrible.

"There I met Primrose, nobody liked her, but she invited me home.

"I met her family and I fell for it - they were trying to get me to be a Blackshirt."

Inflammatory speeches

In documentaries about the Blackshirts, the pictures I have seen are only of men, marching in the streets in their paramilitary uniforms.

I knew about the daughters of the aristocracy, like Diana Mitford who married Oswald Mosley, but I had not realised that young girls, like my own mother, could have been sucked in too.

But speaking to the historian Julie Gottlieb (author of Feminine Fascism) I was surprised to learn that the first fascist political organisation in Britain was actually founded by a woman.

"It was called the fascisti, then changed its name to the British Fascists and it was founded... in 1923, by a Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman," she told me.

Mrs I M Swire - a leading figure in the British Union of Fascists - wearing the new uniform of grey skirt with black shirt
The women wore a black shirt and tie, beret and slightly flared skirts

Until then the most prominent political movement for women had been the Suffragettes.

One of the most influential Suffragettes was Norah Elam, who was in charge of propaganda and imprisoned for making inflammatory speeches on women's suffrage.

Sent to Holloway prison in 1914, she shared a cell with Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British Suffragettes.

But Norah Elam was imprisoned again during World War II, this time with Diana Mosley, wife of the fascist leader.

Like me, Norah's granddaughter and great-granddaughter Angela and Susan McPherson have been on a quest to find out more about their family's history.

They knew little about the colourful past of their granny Norah.

"It was a bit of a shock," they told me. A bit of a shock indeed.

'Battle of the shirts'

But women like my mother were not interested in politics, as Norah Elam was, so was it the comradeship or merely the appeal of the smart uniform that was the attraction?

Julie Gottlieb described the Blackshirt uniform as "a great marketing tool, and an incredible draw particularly for the youth. Some historians call this period the battle of the shirts".

I felt utterly responsible for what happened in those camps, because I did write 'Perish the Jews' on walls - it is something I will never get over
Diana Bailey

The party grew and even children were recruited to support Hitler's ideology.

Diana Bailey, as a young girl in Bognor Regis, remembers her mother and father in their Blackshirt uniforms.

"We were told to paint slogans on the walls with 'Britain Awake' and 'Perish the Jews'. I was nine years old," she said.

Francis Beckett's mother Anne was also a young working woman, like my mother.

Anne was sent along to Mosley's headquarters by the Pitman's Shorthand temp agency to work as a secretary.

"She wanted to be an actress but she made what she said was a dreadful mistake, she learnt shorthand.

"Pitman's sent her to Black House, HQ for the Blackshirts. She found it exciting.

"She was never a racist but worked amongst racists," Francis Beckett said.

It was at fascist headquarters that Anne joined the Blackshirts and met and later married one of the Blackshirt elite, John Beckett, Francis's father.

Women Blackshirts on parade in Liverpool give the fascist salute
The British Union of Fascists had 50,000 members at one point

John was sent to prison with Oswald Mosley during the war - and his family spent the rest of their lives living hand to mouth.

A former Labour MP, John Beckett should have taken his place in the post-war Attlee government. Instead, he worked as a night watchman for Securicor.

Seeing how easily Francis's mother had become a Blackshirt, I asked my mother if something similar had happened to her, with her factory workmate Primrose and her fascist family.

"They were talking about these meetings - I thought they had got me there for a reason.

"They were talking about Mosley, so after this I left, and later gave in my notice at the ink factory," she said.

So after all these years I can stop imagining my mother sitting in the rows of a mass meeting, 'sieg heiling' their leader and being hauled off to Holloway Prison.

But in talking to these families I can see how life could so easily have been very different for my family.

Diana Bailey continues to live with the consequences of her parents' actions - and says she will never lose her feelings of guilt.

"When Richard Dimbleby went into Belsen I felt the guilt of the whole of the world, I felt utterly responsible for what happened in those camps, because I did write 'Perish the Jews' on walls, it is something I will never get over."

Mother Was a Blackshirt will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 4 January at 1100 GMT.

Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer (UK only).

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