The lost ‘national treasure’ of radical Kath Duncan
She was a diminutive school teacher from Kirkcaldy who enjoyed an “extraordinary” friendship with Winston Churchill and spent two terms in jail as she led some of the biggest civil rights campaigns of her generation.
But the story of Kath Duncan, a powerful orator “everyone was scared of” has, up until now, gone largely unnoticed by a modern audience.
Newspapers of the day dedicated countless column inches to the activities of the Scot, who was involved at the highest level in campaigns such as the 1920s hunger marches and the fight against Oswald Mosley’s fascists. She took on slum landlords, rallied against gas price rises for the poor and, later, acted as a recruiter and fundraiser for the Spanish Civil War. She was also a suffragette.
But her legacy has been largely airbrushed out of history, according to Raymond Woolford, author of The Last Queen of Scotland, who said Duncan should be celebrated as a working class hero.
Woolford said: “We get taught about our kings and queens and tyrants and yet working class heroes, ordinary women like Kath, who became extraordinary, are left in the shadows. It is long overdue that Kath is recognised as a national treasure.
“In the post-war context, Kath would stand out from the crowd and become arguably the greatest UK civil rights activist of the past 100 years; no other activist was as forceful as her in her leadership in so many different campaigns.”
Duncan’s rise to prominence began when she ran Churchill’s 1917 by-election campaign in Dundee which secured him a massive vote after he was appointed Minister of Munitions in David Lloyd George’s coalition government.
Her connection with Churchill began after meeting Churchill’s wife-to-be, Clementine, in Edinburgh, where Duncan attended the Karl Frobel School for a time.
The two forged a “close bond from the moment they met” according to Woolford, with the pair sharing a strong sense of social justice.
At the time of Churchill’s election campaign, Duncan was living in a room in Kirkcaldy High Street and working at the old East School primary, which is now a neighbourhood centre.
Woolford said: “Her friendship with Churchill was extraordinary as women from her class were not given this level of contact. It was because of her friendship with Clementine that she had this level of access. And of course, Kath winning Dundee for Churchill with 87 per cent of the vote won Churchill’s respect.”
Woolford suggested that it was her friend Churchill that led Duncan, who left Scotland for London in 1924, to have her two jail sentences inexplicably cut. She was jailed in December, 1932, and again in 1934, after being prosecuted as a “disturber of the peace” and an “inciter others to commit crimes and misdemeanours”.
Woolford said: “On the first occasion, the court gave Kath 12 months jail but by the time she arrived at Holloway Prison, the sentenced had been changed to one month – even though court papers said 12 months.” The friendship between Kath Duncan and Winston Churchill was widely known but “kept secret from wider public for obvious reasons,” Woolford added.
Kath Duncan was born Kath MacColl on 4 July 1888, in Tarbert, Argyll. Her father, Alexander, died when she was five. Later, she won a scholarship to St Andrews University to study literature.Around this time she started to become active in the Independent Labour Party and Suffragette movement. In 1926, she joined the Communist Party during the General Strike. Woolford said: “In so many campaigns she is so important but because of her involvement in the Communist Party, her legacy has been left in the shadows. By rights she should be a household name.”