John Beckett Collection

Scope and Content

Books, journals and some documents formerly belonging to the politician John Beckett, together with files of research material assembled by his son, the journalist Francis Beckett, during the writing of a biography of his father The Rebel Who Lost His Cause (1999).

Administrative / Biographical History

The collection consists of books, journals and some documents formerly belonging to the politician John Beckett, together with research materials assembled by his son, the journalist Francis Beckett, during the writing of his biography of his father The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, published in 1999. This book makes clear that most of John Beckett's correspondence and other documents then extant were lost at the time of his arrest in May 1940, although his unpublished autobiography 'After my fashion', which covers the period 1918 to 1938, is in the University of Sheffield Library (MS 188).

John [William] Warburton Beckett (1894-1964), a maverick figure of British politics, was active in the decades between the Wars and immediately following the Second World War. He was born in Hammersmith, London on 11 October 1894, son of a master draper, and his wife (who came from a Jewish family). He was educated at an elementary school and then won a scholarship to the Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a draper, about which time his father's business collapsed. John Beckett taught himself advertising and journalism through correspondence courses and night school, and had begun working in these professions when war was declared on 4 August 1914 - he enlisted on the same day. Experiences in the Great War affected him profoundly: before the war a Conservative and a militarist, he moved into left-wing politics following discharge from the Army in 1916 or 1917 due to ill-health. In 1918 he married his first wife.

Moving to Sheffield, he began to take an interest in Socialism, and joined the Independent Labour Party in September 1917. He was already active in the Sheffield Branch of the Comrades of the Great War. Dismissed by his employers for political reasons he moved back to London, where he joined the Hackney Branch of the ILP. He also became chairman of the National Union of Ex-Servicemen, though this organisation lasted only a year due to the growth of the British Legion. Beckett became a Hackney councillor two months after the council election, in November 1919, in which Labour became the governing party. When Herbert Morrison was brought in from outside the Borough as mayor, relations between the two became strained. At the end of 1920 Beckett accepted the position of full-time agent for Clement Attlee in Limehouse. He became honorary secretary of the ILP divisional council, and secretary of the No More War Movement, founded in February 1921.

His journalistic talent was employed in a monthly periodical, the East End Pioneer (1921-23). When Clement Attlee was returned for Limehouse in the general election of 1922, Beckett acted as his private secretary. The Parliament lasted less than a year, and Beckett then stood as a candidate for North Newcastle, the first official Labour candidate in that division. Although not elected his campaign nevertheless attracted a large vote. Eventually he was returned, in 1924, at the age of 30, as an ILP member for Gateshead, with a large majority, serving as MP there until 1929. In that year he stood for Peckham, being elected, and serving until 1931.

His Parliamentary career was notable for several incidents. Amongst these, investigation of the Sir Alfred Mond 'war profits' scandal was the first, centered around the commercial exploitation of German secrets on the fixating of nitrogen from the air following their acquisition by an Army commission under the terms of the Armistice. Beckett's anger over this affair led to a campaign to discredit Mond in 1925. Elsewhere, breaches of Parliamentary etiquette led to his suspension from the House on more than one occasion: notably, in 1930, when, during a debate on the treatment of political prisoners in British India during which another MP was suspended, he seized the Mace and walked off with it. Such incidents marked a growing disillusionment with the Parliamentary system.

In December 1929 he was divorced, a matter of considerable local scandal in Peckham. In the general election of 1931 Beckett again stood as ILP candidate for Peckham, but was defeated. In June 1930 he had married the actress Kyrle Bellew, and this second marriage led, after his electoral defeat, to his undertaking the management of the Strand Theatre, though he continued to take an active interest in ILP politics for a time.

In 1933 he was declared bankrupt and his second marriage failed, and he joined the British Union of Fascists, like Mosley having been impressed through visits to Italy by the achievements of the Mussolini regime. During his years with the BUF he was widely involved in agitational work, took a full share in rowdy meetings, became Director of Publicity, and for the years 1936-7 edited both Action and Blackshirt. During this time he was involved in several libel actions both as plaintiff and defendant. He was successfully sued in 1937 by Lord Camrose and the Daily Telegraph over strong anti-Semitic allegations.

By the time the trial took place, in Spring 1937, Beckett had been dismissed from the BUF, and was by then openly critical of Mosley. With William Joyce, dismissed at the same time, he founded the National Socialist League, but this organisation never achieved more than a small number of members. He left the League in 1938 but remained in contact with Joyce until the latter left for Germany shortly before WWII.

In September 1938 Joyce joined with Viscount Lymington to form the British Council Against European Commitments, to which the NSL became affiliated. Beckett and Lymington published a monthly journal, the New Pioneer, championing non-involvement in European affairs.

Beckett now moved to a new organisation which he joined with Lymington and the Marquess of Tavistock (later the Duke of Bedford), the British People's Party, of which he became Secretary, which had as its slogan 'Campaign against War and Usury'. Its aims were monetary reform, the championing of small shopkeepers against trusts, security of employment and electoral reform.

In 1938 Beckett went through a ceremony of marriage with Anne Cutmore, though as his currently estranged wife would not divorce him the marriage was not legal (they married legally in 1964).

Following the declaration of World War II in September 1939 Beckett was involved in the foundation of an anti-war campaign called the British Council for a Christian Settlement in Europe, of which he was Secretary and Tavistock was Chairman, advocating a negotiated peace.

In May 1940 Beckett was arrested under Defence Regulation 18B and interned, along with many other political detainees considered a potential danger by the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. He served a term of three and a half years, much of it in prison, considerably longer than most detainees, and he believed this was because of personal animosity by Morrison dating back to their estrangement in 1919-20. He was eventually released in October 1943, following which he moved into accomodation provided by the Duke of Bedford.

In June 1945 the activities of the British Peoples Party were revived, though it attracted violent opposition. Between 1948 and 1954 Beckett edited the Fleet Street Preview, which Bedford subsidised,. After the death of the Duke of Bedford in 1953 Beckett became essentially a private person, making a living by issuing a fortnightly stock market letter called Advice and Information which was aimed at small investors.

Following his wartime experiences Beckett turned to Catholicism, being received into the Church in 1952. He died on 28 December 1964 in London.

[Notes based on the Beckett entry by Colin Holmes in J.M. Bellamy and J. Saville, eds., Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol. 6, 1982, with additional information from Francis Beckett].


By category

Access Information

Available to all researchers, by appointment

Acquisition Information

Donated by Francis Beckett 1999


Description prepared by Lawrence Aspden

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Conditions Governing Use

Certain documents are restricted

Related Material

British Union Collection; Robert Saunders Papers