During the inter-war period Torquay’s MP and the editor of the town’s newspaper had a similar and very surprising view of the world. They were both prominent self-confessed fascists, and one of them carried on his enthusiasm long after the horrors of fascism became evident to all.
It was in 1922 that Mussolini’s fascist party came to power in Italy. This stimulated an interest in new ways to run society and, during the following years, a number of British fascist groups were set up – including the British Fascisti (1923-1934), the Imperial Fascist League (1929-1939), and the British Union of Fascists (1932-1940). These directly led to modern far right movements such as the National Front, the British National Party and Britain First.
First of these inter-war organisations was the British Fascisti, formed in 1923 in the aftermath of Mussolini’s March on Rome. Fascisti membership largely came from high society, and included a number of women amongst its ranks, though even at its peak in 1925/26 it only had a membership of a couple of thousand.
The prominence of those members of the peerage and senior military figures significantly influenced its policies. These included the maintenance of large landowning estates and concern over the lack of civilian occupations for ex-serving officers. One revealing proposal was a call for a reduction in income tax so that the affluent could hire more servants and reduce unemployment.
These men and women were directed by a Fascist Grand Council of nine men. Remarkably, one of these was Charles Rosdew Burn (1859-1930), the Conservative MP for Torquay for 13 years. Charles (pictured above) had been elected to Parliament at the December 1910 general election and held his seat until it was won by the Liberal Party in 1923. During his career, Charles was a colonel in the Army, an aide-de-camp to George V from 1910 to 1926, and he was created a baronet in 1923. He had married the daughter of Baron Leith of Fyvie and, when the Baron died in 1925 without male heir (causing the extinction of the title), Charles changed his name by deed-poll to Charles Forbes-Leith of Fyvie, so inheriting the family seat of Fyvie Castle.
Alongside his membership of the Conservative Party, Charles had joined the British Fascisti on its formation in 1923. He was also a member of the National Citizens Union, a right-wing pressure group. Multiple memberships of organisations – even those with a deep hostility to democracy – doesn’t seem to have been an issue for the Conservative Party at the time. The Conservatives, however, would soon realise what fascism actually meant.
Despite modelling themselves on Italian Fascism, the British Fascisti appear to have been seen almost an adult version of the Scouts, generally harmless and dedicated to “uphold the same lofty ideas of brotherhood, service and duty”. Accordingly, during Charles involvement, the Fascisti acted as uniformed stewards at Conservative Party meetings and canvassed for Tory candidates. It was when they put up Fascisti candidates in local elections that the Conservatives recognised the fascists as opponents rather than allies. And, despite their apparently benign front, the Fascisti began to offer to attack picket lines during industrial unrest, while younger members were often involved in violent street confrontations with their opponents in the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In 1924 the British Fascisti became the British Fascists in an attempt to appear more patriotic and to distance themselves from their Italian comrades. Nevertheless, in 1927 they adopted a blue shirt and beret uniform in the style of other European fascist movements. The British Fascists then began to press for a more authoritarian government and a corporate state led by the King, a limit to the right to vote, and the purification of the ‘English race’.
Yet by the early 1930s the British Fascists were being eclipsed by Oswald Mosley’s New Party and then by his British Union of Fascists. Indeed, Mosley (pictured above with fellow Blackshirts) was always dismissive of his rivals on the far right, calling the British Fascisti, “Three old ladies and a couple of office boys”. The two extreme groups were mutually hostile and in 1933 a BUF fighting squad wrecked the British Fascists’ London offices. The British Fascists struggled on but were declared bankrupt in 1934.
Charles died in 1930 so never saw what fascism became in the thirties and early forties. Therefore, we may want to partly excuse his misguided enthusiasm for the new movement. The same defence can’t be made for our second Torquay resident, the senior fascist and Nazi, Arthur Kenneth Chesterton (1896-1973), a journalist who founded a variety of extreme right-wing organisations and was active right up to the 1970s.
Chesterton (pictured above) had a distinguished career in the Great War and had won the Military Cross at the age of 20. In 1929 he came to Torquay to edit the Torquay Times and the Torquay Directory. He was also active in the Torquay Citizens Defence League.
Violently anti-Semitic, he joined the British Union of Fascists in 1933, and in 1937 published a sympathetic biography of Oswald Mosley: ‘Portrait of a Leader’ (pictured above). However, Chesterton came to believe that Mosley was too liberal and not sufficiently hostile to Jewish people. For example, in 1939 Chesterton suggested that the lamppost was “the only way to deal with the Jew”. Giving up on his supposedly lightweight fascist comrades, he and others left the BUF and founded the National Socialist League in 1938.
Another BUF member who defected to the National Socialist League alongside Chesterton was William Joyce. Nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw, Joyce broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany to Britain during the Second World War. For such treason, Joyce was hanged in 1946. Meanwhile, Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, often the focus of violence, had made little electoral headway before it was banned in 1940 for pro-Nazi sympathies. More than 700 of its members were interned, but not Chesterton who was serving in Africa during the war. When he returned to Britain after the end of the conflict, he again became active in extreme right-wing organisations, including the League of Empire Loyalists, the Racial Preservation Society and the National Front.
Even after the passing of these prominent fascists we didn’t see the end of the far right in the Bay. A number of neo-fascist groups have based themselves in our three towns and have attempted to organise across the South West: the National Front in the 1970s; the British Movement and the Patriotic Forum in the 1980s; and the British National Party more recently. All have failed to make much of an impact.
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