SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

A glimpse of wartime Britain

Refugees, Newcomers, Citizens: migration stories from Picture Post 1938-1956

Peltz Gallery, London, to 5 July

Reviewed by Manny Thain

This one-room exhibition shows Jewish children arriving in Britain on the Kindertransport in 1938, African-American women volunteers during the second world war, and West Indian immigrants to Britain after it. They are intimate, dignified photos, often revealing the vulnerability and trepidation of an uncertain future, or pride and comradery. The headings chosen by the Peltz Gallery – linked to Birkbeck University of London – follow those of articles in Picture Post, a pioneering publication launched in 1938.

Picture Post was a very successful blend of large format photography and social documentary. Its founding editor was Hungarian-Jewish refugee Stefan Lorant, a filmmaker and journalist who had worked on photo weeklies in Berlin and Munich.

Lorant fled to Britain in 1933 after imprisonment by the Nazis, helping to launch the Weekly Illustrated then, in 1937, the satirical Lilliput. That was acquired by Hulton Press, owned by Edward Hulton, and this led to Picture Post, launched in October 1938. Lorant brought in other refugees, such as Kurt Hutton, Felix H Man and Gerti Deutsch, alongside British journalists and photographers, including Tom Hopkinson.

From the start it took an anti-fascist stance, exposing Nazi racism and antisemitism. It also featured photo-documentaries on shipyard workers, office cleaners, working-class communities and unemployment, alongside more quirky tales of everyday life in Britain. Within two months, Picture Post was selling 1.7 million copies a week, rising to 1.95 million by the end of 1943.

The exhibition opens with Their First Day in England (17 December 1938) – a month after Kristallnacht. It notes that, today, the British establishment boasts that the Kindertransport was a mark of the government’s openness to the refugees. Yet the children were considered temporary ‘guests’, no provision was made for possible future family reunification, and there was no public funding made available. The aim was to resettle them in other countries.

There are photos from 1942 of African-American women volunteers who ran Red Cross clubs for black US soldiers. There were 150,000 African-Americans among the US troops in Britain, in units segregated on racial lines. Another cover story and article from 1949 – Is there a British Colour Bar? – raised issues of racism in accommodation and employment, delving deeper into social attitudes to immigration, a year after the Empire Windrush had docked.

When Lorant moved to the US in 1940, Hopkinson took over as editor. In January 1941, Picture Post published a ‘Plan for Britain’. This included the call for a minimum wage, full employment, child allowances, a national health service, the planned use of land, and an overhaul of education. The magazine’s generally social-democratic stance, however, led to conflict between Hopkinson and Hulton, a fully paid-up member of the Tory party. His Picture Post articles included I Cannot Vote Labour, and Socialism Has No Future.

Hopkinson was sacked by Hulton in 1950 for refusing to pull a powerful exposé of the mistreatment of political prisoners by the US-backed South Korean government, by journalist James Cameron and photographer Bert Hardy. The working-class Hardy, who had left school at 14, was renowned for his photos of ordinary people’s lives in Liverpool, Glasgow, Tiger Bay and his native London. He also accompanied the D-Day landings, the liberation of Paris, the allied advance through Belgium, the liberation of Russian slave labourers at Osnabrück, and of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

A clear example of the change in Picture Post’s editorial direction can be seen in its coverage of immigration. An article (featured in the exhibition) from 9 June 1956 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – followed West Indian passengers from the Irpinia ship, which docked in Southampton, on their onward journey to Victoria Station, London. The sympathetic photos here are completely out of sync with the right-wing content and racist title.

Picture Post steadily shifted its original focus, increasingly towards celebrity. By June 1952, circulation had fallen to 935,000. When it folded in mid-1957, it was less than 600,000 copies a week. It had, in Cameron’s words, “drifted into the market of arch cheesecake and commonplace decoration”.

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