Frank Graham 1913-2006

Frank Graham, who died in a Newcastle nursing home aged 93 on April 30th 2006, was an International Brigade soldier who later became one of the most successful local publishers in Britain since the Second World War.

Frank Graham (centre) leading the parade of International Brigade Survivors in 1939

Francis Moore Graham was born in Sunderland in 1913, one of five children. His father worked in a draper’s shop. Academically gifted, he won scholarships to the Bede Grammar School in Sunderland and then to King’s College at the University of London. His course – Classics – did not prove to his taste and neither did the College. He spent more time in lectures at the LSE and became active in the student politics of the early 1930s. He threw himself into anti-fascist work, including the famous fight during Oswald Mosley’s rally at the Olympia in London, and through this he joined the Communist Party.

Money pressures forced Frank to abandon his course and he returned to Sunderland, by then a town devastated by unemployment. He was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the town and helped to organise local contingents for the 1934 and 1936 NUWM Hunger Marches to London. A police report to the Special Branch on the 1936 March described him as ‘one worth watching’. He was always scathing about the more famous but ‘non-political’ Jarrow March in the same year.

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Frank was instrumental in organising volunteers from Sunderland to join the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Around twenty Sunderland men served but Frank and three of his comrades from the local NUWM were the first of them to arrive in Spain at Christmas 1936. Frank fought through the ferocious battle of Jarama in January and February 1937, and in the trench warfare that followed, when British and Irish volunteers played a crucial role in preventing the fascists under General Franco from seizing the main route to Madrid and achieving an early victory. But the casualties were enormous and Frank was deeply affected by the deaths in action of two of his close friends from Sunderland. He helped to bring one of their bodies back, in darkness, from outside the fascist lines. In April Frank toured England to speak at meetings of the various campaigns to support the Spanish Republic. He returned to the Brigade and took part in the battle of Brunete and the fighting around Villanueva de la Canada. By this time he was attached to the Brigade staff and acted as a reconnaissance officer, often on horseback, for British commanders Fred Copeman and Jock Cunningham.

He was seriously wounded at the battle of Caspe in March 1938. After leaving hospital Frank contributed to Republican radio broadcasts in Barcelona until he contracted typhoid; Sam Russell, a fellow Brigader and a journalist, negotiated his repatriation through a hostile British Embassy towards the end of 1938. On return to Britain he was a speaker at the commemorative rally for the North East of England International Brigade volunteers at Newcastle City Hall, which was attended by over 2,000 people.

The wounds Frank had received in Spain rendered him unfit for further military service and he spent the Second World War in manual jobs, including a spell as a Co-op milkman, on Teeside, where he also worked for the Communist Party. In 1945 he trained as a teacher and then taught for 15 years at Wharrier Street School in Newcastle.

Frank realised how little had been published on the history of the north east of England since the Victorian and Edwardian periods when he was teaching evening classes for the WEA. To fill this gap for his class he researched and published a pamphlet on the history of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast. Holy Island appeared in 1958 and sold nearly 3,000 copies in 18 months.

Frank realised that there was a market in the region for scholarly but popular and accessible accounts of local history and culture. Thus began Frank Graham the publishing firm, and this, capitalised by a shrewdly-run sideline in antiques and old prints, became his full time business between the 1960s and his retirement.

The first books were on the castles, battles and town histories of the area along with a number on the social and military history of Hadrian’s Wall. But the range was always noted for its breadth, and it included railway studies and 17 books on coalmining and the history of the mining trades unions. They included the Banner Book and Ray Challinor’s The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners. Another useful addition to local studies was the various Miscellanies he produced on social and political themes.

His publication of Larn Yersel Geordie by Scott Dobson was controversial. Some felt it just made a joke out of local dialect and culture. But it was also an extraordinary success: the first run of 3,000 copies sold out in 48 hours and a total of 81,000 copies was sold in the first year. Such successes made a number of solid achievements financially possible. These included re- publishing Victorian collections of northeast songs (some with new introductions by Dave Harker), thus preserving invaluable records of local traditions as well as unique social history resources. The unique contemporary illustrations in Thomas Hair’s Sketches of the Coal Mines in Northumberland and Durham (1844), and the facsimiles of engravings by Thomas Bewick are other examples. Frank kept works by local writers Sid Chaplin and Jack Common in print, and published the first studies of Thomas Spence. Other publications included two accounts of his own experiences in Spain and a re-print, in 1975, of the official Book of the XVth International Brigade,originally published in 1938 while the war was still in progress.

The books and pamphlets were generally illustrated, and to a very high standard, by local photographers and particularly artists such as Ronald and Gill Embleton. The publications received no grants or subsidies and did not take advertising. Wherever possible the printing and binding were also done in the north east – Frank saw no point in producing books promoting the history and culture of the region and then having them printed and bound in the south of England. Further, his pricing policy deliberately put most of them within the budgets of schools, libraries and tourist information offices as well as the general public.

When the firm was sold in 1987 it had published 387 titles (of which 103 were written by Frank himself) with total sales of over three million copies – a British record for local publishing.

Frank was a stalwart member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and attended their annual commemorative meetings until infirmity prevented him. His views on the internal politics of the Spanish Republic, and on the Soviet Union, remained very much the same as those he had held in the Communist Party as a young man. Like all the surviving International Brigaders Frank felt great satisfaction about the growing interest in the Spanish Civil War in recent years. He was also fortunate enough to attend memorial meetings in Spain after the restoration of democracy and to experience the respect and affection in which the anti-fascist volunteers are held there.

He left Vera, his wife (and former business partner) of sixty-six years, two sons and a number of grandchildren.

Don Watson

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 38, 2007