Friday, June 03, 2011

Jim Connell - The Man Who Wrote "The Red Flag"

The Rebel Poet Who Gave The Workers Their Battle Hymn
Daily Worker Friday 2 February 1962

Thirty Three years ago yesterday, Jim Connell, thet man who wrote " The Red Flag," died at the age of 76.
For over 70 years that song has been the battle hymn of the British Socialist movement.
Multitudes in each generation have sung it, but comparatively few have known anything about the author.
Jim Connell was an Irishman, born in 1852 in the village of Killskyre in Co. Meath.
During his boyhood days the terrible living conditions in Ireland under British rule awakened the class-consciousness of young Jim, and he joined the Irish Fenian/Brotherhood before he reached adult age.
Irish freedom
When Michael Davitt, one of the great fighters for Irish freedom, was released from a seven year. jail sentence and began organising the Irish Land League in 1879, Connell was then an exile in Britain, but he became a member of the British executive committee for the League.
In England Jim Connell soon realised that the fight for national freedom had its place in the inter national struggle for Socialism. and he joined the Social Democratic Federation long before the Labour Party was formed.
In 1890 he stood as a Parliamentary candidate for the S.D.F. in a three-cornered fight with Tory and Liberal in a North London constituency. He later became a member of the Independent Labour Party.
Charming wit
He was a man of many parts and once described himself as having been a " sheep farmer, dock labourer, navvy, railway man, draper, journalist, and ' a lawyer of sorts.' “ But he also had the attributes of an artist—he was an ardent student of Shakespeare and a lover of nature.
I first met him in 1924 with Tom Mann, who invited me to join them at a pub named The Golden Cross, which then stood in the Strand opposite Charing Cross Station.
I was then under 30 years of age and always remember the deep impression of that first meeting with Jim Connell. He was a hefty man over 6ft tall and very picturesque in his style of dress—a black sombrero hat, a large bright red tie and a long black cloak. He looked like an old Shakespearean actor. He had an enormous moustache and a rather high-pitched voice.
When he spoke with his rich Gaelic brogue there could be no doubt that he was an Irishman. He was a great talker with a charming wit, but he had a fighting spirit which blazed forth, whenever we talked of the class struggle.
I met him several times in the company of Tom Mann, Tom Quelch and Nat Watkins and always enjoyed his company. When Tom Mann was there it was great fun, because he had the same exultant nature as Jim.
they chaffed and bantered each other to the delight of our own group and often to the amusement of others within earshot.
At one period in his life he got his living as a poacher and later wrote a book entitled " The Confessions of a Poacher." Once when I was in his company he slapped me on the back with gusto and complimented me on my organising work among the unemployed and then added: " But why don't you advise the unemployed to become poachers? There's plenty of good food to be grabbed on the big estates of the Lords and Dukes of Britain."
Many poems
He wrote many poems and lyrics which are now unobtainable, but the one that still survives is " The Red Flag." It was first published by the S.D.F. paper Justice in 1889 the year of the famous strike of the London dockers for the " tanner-an-hour " wage.
No doubt this event prompted its publication. But I think the original inspiration of Connell for writing the song was the international protest against the execution in America, on November 11. 1887, of four militant trade unionists who were leading a strike movement for the eight hour day.
Chicago Martyrs
They became known as " The Chicago Martyrs." As they stood on the gallows they each pro claimed their faith in the ultimate victory for the working class. One said: " The time will come when our silence in the grave will be more eloquent than our speeches."
I believe that it was this tragic event in international working class history, and the challenging spirit of the Chicago Martyrs. which inspired Jim Connell to write the defiant verses of " The Red Flag."
Wal Hannington
Daily Worker Friday 2 February 1962

Why he wrote it
In The Call (B.S.P. weekly) of 'May 6, 1920, there was an article by Tim Connell entitled " How I Wrote ' The Red Flag.' " He mentioned a series of great struggles which " got me into the mood which enabled me to write ' The Red Flag.' " The first was the fight of the Irish Land League, which roused the democrats of all countries and in which he was secretary of the Poplar branch.
The second was the struggle of the Russian revolutionaries. He was in the company of one of their great figures, Stepnyak, on the night the latter was accidentally killed at a level crossing.
Stepnyak's book " Underground Russia " had had a deeper effect on him than any religious revival, Connell wrote. The third was- the hanging of the Chicago anarchists, and particularly the speech of Mrs.Parsons, the widow of one of them, which Connell heard. And the fourth was the great dockers' strike of 1889, which " aroused the whole of England."
So Wal Hannington, in his splendid article (February 9) has hit the nail squarely on the head. Connell said that he wrote the first two verses and the chorus during a 15-minute train journey between Charing Cross and New Cross, and finished the rest that night.
Then he sent it to Harry Quelch, Editor of Justice. It was printed in the Christmas number, published on a Thursday, and the following Sunday the song was sung in both Liverpool and Glasgow.
Connell was very emphatic that it should be sung to the air of " The White Cockade," not of the old German church hymn, " calculated to remind people of their sins and frighten them into repentance." known also as " Maryland."
Daily Worker 13 February 1962


Highlander located in Maidstone Prison


At least one of the three Sutherland Highlanders sentenced to five years' imprisonment, following a mutiny among the troops in Jamaica, according to news which has just reached the Daily Worker is in Maidstone Gaol, Kent.

The exact place where the others are imprisoned is not yet known, but here is an opportunity for London workers to strengthen the campaign for the immediate release of these men.

It will be remembered that these four men received this vicious sentence about eighteen months ago at a court martial following a mutiny and the singing of the "Red Flag " in the barracks by the soldiers.

The Capitalist Press made a great show of the affair about six weeks ago, pointing to it as an example of how stern measures had to he enforced in order to maintain discipline.

The whole scandalous affair of the brutal sentence and the way news concerning the case was being suppressed bv the Capitalist Press was exclusively exposed in the " Workers' Life last August. The whole affair first came to light following the publication, in a Communist pit paper in Fife, of a letter from a soldier in the Sutherland Highlanders.

His regiment was stationed in Jamaica, in the West Indies, and his
letter stated that scandalous conditions for the men prevailed. Deep resentment was growing among the soldiers against the bad conditions, and this came to a head in the revolt .

In his letter Private Clark described the events which led up to the revolt. An N.C.O. and two officers entered the barrack room to arrest two soldiers for making a noise after 10 o'clock. The men, it is said, demanded the remedying of certain grievances, and had the complete support of the two hundred men -in the barrack room, who commenced to singing the " Red Flag." Eventually the revolt was crushed, the four men taken to the guard room and. Later, court martialed.

Daily Worker first Edition
January 1st 1930

Born 27th March 1852 - Kilskyre, Meath, Ireland (five miles from Kells)
Died 8 February 1929 - Lewisham Hospital, London, england

Emigrated to London in 1875
His occupations included, Dock labourer, navvy, railwayman, draper, journalist and sheep farmer
finally, Secretary of the workers Legal friendly Society based in Chancery Lane, Central London

Keen Countryman, poacher, he was taught by the local Police constable his poaching skills, Connell wrote a book "Confessions of a Poacher" which sold 80,000 copies also another book "The truth about the Game Laws"

Connell disregarded the game laws. in his opinion wild animals could not be anybody's private prporty"

"I broke ev'ry law the land robbers made
And mocked at the strength they put forth"

Connell had a favourite Lurcher called "Nellie" and he stated in Labour's Whos who Recreation as "poaching". He was caught poaching twice fined £1 Croydon (Mr Gladstones at Addington) and woolwich 13s 6d
According to a Times article in 1922 "in the authors own words the spirit of revolt against injustice in every country had become a religion"
Jim Connell wrote the Red Flag on a fifteen minute night journey from Charring Cross Station to New Cross Station, In South East London. in the Times article 22 January 1922 he states "The fortnight before Christmasof 1889"

Just prior to the train journey Connell had attended a lecture by Herbert Borrows
"As I sat down in the train for New Cross something urged me to write a song embodying the spirit of that lecture" (Times)

One of Jim Connell's favourite Public houses was the Golden Cross in the Strand

Branch secretary of Poplar Land League

Red Flag first produced in SDF journal "Justice" 1 December 1889

The "Maryland" or "Die Tannenbeaun" version was published by Adolph Smith of Headingley in 1895

The "White Cockade" "which could be heard in the mud cabins all over Ireland in the "sixties" and before" " a tune to which Robert Burns had written "John Hielan Man" Times article

He lived at 408 New Cross Road, Lewisham, later Battersea Rise and later still at 22a Standon Park,Lewisham
Jim Connell joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in June 1881 and was later a member of the Independent Labour Party
1890 Jim Connell was Socialist candidate for Finchley East

Connell received the red Star Medal for composing the Red Flag by decree from V.I.Lenin in 1922

Cremated Golders Green Crematorium an ashes scattered in garden of Remembrance

The White Cockade V (Maryland) Die Tannenbaum
"The Red Flag" has fine words, yet few people sing it now because the tune is so dreary. In fact. Tim Connell, about whom Hannington wrote the interesting article on February 9, intended " The Red Flag " to be sung to the lively tune called "The White Cockade."
But in the 1880s the use of British folk tunes for workers' songs was wellnigh unheard of, so the defiant verses got hitched to the draggy German tune of " Tannenbaum."
Music fashions have changed now, thank God, and it's time "The Red Flag" text was divorced from its unsuitable German mate and reunited with the grand springing tune that Connell had chosen for it.
Then you'd hear- it really sung, by young as well as old. And .it would be a pleasure, and not merely a duty, to sing it.
A. L. LLOYD. London, S.E.10.
Maryland' version
For nearly 40 years I have been conducting " The Red Flag " to the " Maryland " tune.
When energetically and not too slowly sung it is an inspiring song.
Unfortunately the tune " Maryland " has reactionary associations in Central Europe, so to sing it there is an affront.
By all means let us try singing the words to the original tune for which they were written.
But do not let us deride the" Maryland " version as a piece of useless junk; it is still sung by hundreds of thousands of people in the working-class movement.
How can we get a new song? The only new progressive songs that have caught on in Britain since the First World War are the C.N.D. songs "The H-Bomb's Thunder," words by John Brunner to a Moody and Sankey hymn tune, and " The Family of Man ' by Fred Dallas.
A competition for a new" song could not succeed unless we controlled B.B.C. and I.T.V. and could plug it. New songs should certainly be tried out at mass meetings. Perhaps one of then will catch on.
ALAN BUSH. Radlett. Herts.

Jim Connell Author of the Red Flag
By Andrew Boyd

In 1963 the Workers' Musical Association thought it time to settle the argument about either Maryland (Tannenbaum) or The White Cockade being the proper air to which The Red Flag should be sung.

The association produced a record of The Red Flag, sung by the Glasgow Socialist Choir and the Young Communist League Singers to the tune of Maryland on the one side and to the tune of The White Cockade on the other.

Reviewing the record, on 19 January 1963, Fred Dallas, music critic of the Daily Worker, decided there was 'no question' which tune the Labour Movement should choose. The answer was Maryland simply because it is so much better sung. The Maryland version is sung so as to give each word its proper weight and the diction of the massed Glasgow Socialist and Young Communist League Singers is so impeccable that the whole point of the song comes over.

But The White Cockade version is taken at a tremendous lick, with the words emerging like mouth music, a meaningless gabble which passes in one ear and out the other.

Fred Dallas also observed that as soon The Red Flag was sung in Glasgow and in Liverpool in December 1889 it was no longer Jim Connell's property. It belonged to the Labour movement which had created both Connell and the song. The movement had therefore the right to sing The Red Flag to whatever was judged to be the better tune.


The Red Flag was played for the first time on the BBC in 1936 as part of the BBC radio "Songs that made history" series despite the opposition of the British Empire Union (Times 26 September 1936)