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An Interview with Joan Bellamy: On Leeds, Communism, Nkrumah’s Ghana and Women’s Writing


By Christian Høgsbjerg

Joan Bellamy was an author and before her retirement was a teacher of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Open University and Founder and Director of its Women in Humanities Research Group.  From a working class mining background in the Spen Valley region, she was an active figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).  Her husband Ron Bellamy taught Economics at the University of Leeds. From 1963, the Bellamys worked in Nkrumah’s Ghana until the 1966 coup.  This interview, which ranged widely from her early life as a student at the University of Leeds in the 1940s to the CPGB, Nkrumah’s Ghana and women’s writing, was conducted at Joan Bellamy’s home in Leeds, on 14 and 28 November 2017.   The footnotes have been added by Christian Høgsbjerg.

[This interview was published in the 2017-18 issue of the Leeds African Studies Bulletin. It has been made available online in June 2023. In March 2023 it was reported that Joan Bellamy (1926-2023), described as ‘a leading campaigner for equal rights for women and pioneer of women's studies at the Open University’, had sadly died, aged 96. See the obituary by Michael McGowan in the Dewsbury Reporter, 8 March 2023. With her passing it has now been possible to make this interview available online, and a new subtitle has been added. My thanks to James Gibbs, Michael McGowan, Gerardo Serra and of course to Joan herself. Note by Christian Høgsbjerg, June 2023.] 

Early Life and Leeds University

In your biography of Mary Taylor1 it mentions you were brought up near Mary Taylor’s own home, in the Spen Valley region, so I was wondering if we could begin with you saying something about your family background?

Well, I was born in 1926 a few weeks before the General Strike, and before miners were locked out until the end of that year I think.  My father, Tom Shaw, was a miner, and a militant young trade unionist and for the next ten years was blacklisted and out of work.

It must have been a very hard time, and the miners had been kind of left to fight on alone by the wider working class movement…

Yes, but I had young vigorous politically active parents.  My father became a local councillor, and subsequently mayor of the area, and on the West Riding county council, and also on the miners’ council, so politics was always there. I got a scholarship to Heckmondwike Grammar School (where later Jo Cox MP, who was murdered in 2016, was a pupil), I think probably around 1936.  When I was seventeen I got a Board of Education bursary which covered my fees to university and I had a small grant with the undertaking that I would take a postgraduate certificate of education on graduation, and then teach.

So this is 1943, you get the bursary to do the degree, and this was at the University of Leeds?

Yes, and I studied English Literature, with two subsidiary subjects, French and History.

Were your parents literary?

My father wasn’t a great reader.  My parents were very active in the Labour Party, which had its own education programme. My mother, Hilda, was a great reader of the literary classics.  She had left school at twelve and went part time into a textile mill as a weaver and hated it.  This was during the First World War, and because she was good at school doing well, she was allowed to leave early… you can see the kind of contradiction.  She worked part-time in the mill and went to school part-time.   The whole region was an important area for textile mills.  If you look at the map, and follow the river Spen, you will see little industrial villages, each with its own textile specialisation.

Were there many other young women students at Leeds University?

There were in the Arts, but I don’t suppose there were many if any in engineering, and of course teaching was accepted as the obvious end point.  Thinking about it rather carefully recently, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much else for us women to do in the professions.  Becoming a doctor of course was beyond my wildest dreams, and in any case there was a limit on the number of women accepted into medical schools at that time.  Law and the learned professions were in the main closed to us.

And the University was obviously much smaller than it is today…2

Yes, and one of the advantages was that we got tutorials, 2 to 1, an essay every week or every fortnight, very much on the Oxbridge model.  The head of the department was the distinguished critic, Bonamy Dobrée.

Did you have any particular memories of any staff members?

One of my school friends entered the department rather late, she had gone to another university, and wasn’t happy so came back and was accepted at Leeds, and the language professor, Bruce Dickens, a distinguished scholar, casually asked her if it was true that I was a miners’ daughter, to which the answer of course was ‘yes’, and he said ‘She’s very cultured, isn’t she?’ My first meeting with Kenneth Muir, who became one of my tutors, he was eventually King Alfred Professor of Literature at Liverpool, he became a distinguished Shakespeare critic.  During our first few days, he had a little group of us in, sounding us out as it were, and at one point he commented that Shelley became virtually the Bible of members of the Fabian Society. But then he said, in a rather superior voice, ‘But I don’t suppose you know who the Fabians are?’  And I said, ‘Oh, yes, I do, I’m a member’.

That’s brilliant… Could I ask about other activities you were involved with at University, was there a Student Union for example?

Yes, there was a Student Union, which was active, and there was the University Labour Federation (ULF), which was a very broad left organisation.

The other feature of life at that time was the number of foreign students – refugees, often from Eastern Europe, and colonial students who were stranded, Indian students mainly. Most of these students were drawn to the left, and were in ULF like I was.   Immediately after the war, 1945, numbers of Middle Eastern students came, some of whom came as they had been been in trouble with the British authorities back home.  One Iraqi, from a well-known Communist family, I think had been sentenced to death, and the Attlee Government invited him to go back, despite the fact that he was likely to be hanged.  This rather liberal view that we were a great country for taking in refugees and so on, well this wasn’t quite true.  You had a situation with highly skilled people being given asylum or a visa on condition they did all sorts of unsuitable work, wasting their skills.  Anyway, the Attlee government finally climbed down, and said if any other countries would take my Iraqi friend, they could go there.  This friend from Iraq, Akram, he had a French girlfriend, so he went there and got married.  I said to him, years later, that for us as [white English] students, many of us had never been abroad, and so meeting all these students at Leeds University from around the world was a very mind-expanding, culturally rich experience for us.  And he said, ‘well, it was very important for people like me, because our experience of Britain and British people, had been rather negative, and at University we met up with people who were actually sympathetic to us, and didn’t show us any kind of racist inhibitions or anything of that sort’.

And after University?

Well degrees weren’t divided up into 2:1s and 2:2s then - so I got what was described as a ‘good second class honours degree’.  When I showed my testimonial to a Czech friend of mine, he said, ‘well if I got a testimonial like that I would go back and do a postgraduate degree’.  But that had never occurred to me, I don’t think anyone really did stay on, apart from someone doing Old Icelandic in languages or something like that.  So I went to teach in Birmingham, but I wasn’t really very interested, so I did go back.  I had an idea and so said to Kenneth Muir, who was my tutor all the way through, including postgraduate, I want to do something on seventeenth century prose style, because from the beginning of the early modern period, it is an English that most people can’t relate to, and by the end of the century we have Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.  And I asked myself what had happened, and one of the things I thought happened, was for the first time, ordinary people were being drawn into politics in the English Revolution, so the language became demotic, and found its expression in pamphlets.  And Kenneth Muir said, ‘I can’t supervise that, you will have to go to the History department’, and when I got to the door, he called me back and said, ‘Okay, we will see what we can do’.

So I looked at seventeenth century pamphlets…  I thought I was never going to finish it, so I got leave of absence from Birmingham Education Authority, and came back to Leeds.  I had two very small scholarships, of £25 each, one from my old Grammar School, and one from the Miners’ Welfare.  I am not sure what £25 would be now, but with such money as I had I bought a portable typewriter and typed up my own thesis.   I taught at the local night-school in Leeds, four nights a week.  The government issued a guide for civil servants, Plain Words by Ernest Gowers, in the attempt to demonstrate to civil servants that they didn’t need a bureaucratic language.  I was asked to take a class in Leeds as an initial experiment, on Saturday mornings.  So that is how I lived.  My MA was by research – they didn’t have taught MAs in those days – it would probably today be called an MPhil.  I was viva’d by Kenneth Muir and a lecturer called Harold Fish, who subsequently emigrated to Israel, and L C Knights, who was a very distinguished literary critic, who I think was very interested in a kind of historical approach and sympathetic.3

Political Activism

So in terms of your politicisation, in this period, when did you join the Communist Party?

Well, I came across Communists at the University, but didn’t join the Communist Party until 1947, when I was 21, as I didn’t want to distress my parents, so I held back.  They were more active about issues, peace, nuclear disarmament, and so on, than the Labour Party.

The Communist Party in this period was a relatively sizeable organisation…

I guess about 30,000 members, a lot of people who had joined the party when they were students.  But the University Labour Club at Oxford University alone had about a thousand students…

And you started working for the Communist Party?

Yes, in about 1953….  We held open air meetings in front of the town hall in Leeds every week at lunchtime, I think on Thursdays.  People, including students, used to come down.  Bert Ramelson was the local secretary and was a very powerful speaker, and made an impression.4  And we went to factory gates and sold the Daily Worker and held factory gate meetings at dinner time.  We had a lot of factory branches, not so much in Leeds, but in Sheffield.

Arthur Scargill saw Bert Ramelson as a mentor politically…

Well Arthur was in the Young Communist League (YCL).  In fact, I took a meeting during the strike [1972/1974], in Leeds with Arthur, and he invited me to speak about the paper [the Daily Worker], and so I was on the platform.  Arthur introduced me and said ‘Joan Bellamy was really my teacher in what socialism was’.

You marry Ron Bellamy in 1953, and he moved from Oxford to begin lecturing at Leeds University in 1948?

Ron had been seriously injured during the war, and had a year in hospital, and then had gone back to graduate. He had got a first at Queen’s, Oxford, and then got a job in the Statistics department and then to Christchurch and did a lot of adult education work in the Potteries.  During the start of the Cold War period, there were accusations against Communists in the extra-mural department in this period, and a secret investigation was made into their teaching in adult education.  What must have come up for debate in the classes was the social contract between trade unions and the Labour government, and so there was a complaint made.5

And Ron Bellamy spent a year in Moscow in the Academy of Sciences, in the early 1960s?

Yes, I visited him two or three times, at Christmas and Easter, and also we visited Czechoslovakia.  Moscow was rather nice.  I remember one evening at a New Year’s Eve Party held by young researchers to which we were invited, and we walked back through the snow. Moscow was brilliantly lit, and it was absolutely enchanting walking back in the early hours of the morning, without feeling insecure.  Ron made friends there, but was a bit lonely, so when Ghana loomed, Ron said ‘yes’, but also that he didn’t want to go without me.

In Nkrumah’s Ghana

So we come to 1963, and this opportunity for Ron Bellamy to go to Ghana for a three year post as Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Ghana.  Could you say something about the kind of economics he taught?

Well, I don’t know much about the teaching of economics in the department as such, but I take it there was a coherent programme within which people taught their own specialism.  I don’t suppose there was a hard line or anything.  The retiring head of department was Polish, Jan Drewnowski, but he went off for a job with the United Nations.  One or two Poles there were self-exiles, they weren’t reactionary – they were sort of social democrats and technocrats.  So Ron had become the acting head of the department, and the question of the appointment of the next head of the department loomed large.  Obviously I thought Ron should be the next head of department, but the Poles had some sort of cultural agreement with the government that I knew nothing about that the next head of the department should be a Pole too.  I went to the Polish embassy to complain!  But Ron and I decided when the new Polish head of department arrived, we would give a reception to welcome him nonetheless.  The new head was a nice chap, he had fought in the Warsaw Ghetto; so anyway that passed off smoothly, and we got on well with him.

Ron had a very nice personality, well I think so!  He had no side, he had no pretensions, he never pulled rank, but the Canadians who were in Ghana training the military, army officers, were very friendly and used to invite Ron and always gave him his military title!  The workforce on the campus, apart from academics and administrators, were mainly Muslims, they were the manual workforce.  Every hall on the campus had a chapel, a Christian chapel, they had nowhere to worship.  Whom did they approach?  Ron.  ‘Could we use the lecture theatre in the department, every Friday, for their prayers?’ ‘Yes’.  I remember going down to the workshop once, and being asked ‘what is your name?’  ‘Bellamy’.  ‘Ah,’ Mr. Bellamy is a good man’.

Nkrumah in 1963 argued that ‘true’ academic freedom was meant to be ‘always fully compatible with service to the community; for the university is, and must always remain, a living, thinking, and serving part of the community to which it belongs’, and that it needed not only to ‘feel the pulse and intensity of the great African revolution’ but also make ‘a contribution of its realisation, progress and development’.6  Did this progressive and radical vision cause tensions at the University of Ghana? 

There were disagreements between the University of Ghana and the government about the role that the University was to play in the development of the country.  The argument of Nkrumah and his government here seemed to me to be legitimate, but Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Vice Chancellor, was very hostile to it.  It’s a fine line, it’s not easy, but it seems to me it was very important.  O’Brien by the way didn’t think very much of us [Ron and Joan Bellamy], he had a terrible article in the Observer afterwards, he became editor of the Observer, attacking unnamed people – I presume he meant people like us - for trying to introduce all these dreadful alien ideas into other countries.

I got a local appointment, a smaller post teaching English literature, for a short period, about four terms.  O’Brien interviewed me actually for the post – well, there were only two candidates, and I had been doing it already.  He chaired the interview with Thomas Hodgkin, head of African Studies at the University, and Alex A. Kwapong, who became Vice Chancellor after O’Brien.   The wider hostility of the university staff towards the government didn’t impinge on me because up to that point there were no Ghanaian staff, and my colleagues were mostly very temporary, one or two from America.  The head of my department was a very nice man, Douglas Duncan.  There was an open day coming up and we had a letter to the department urging us all to do something for it, but when we all met to discuss it there was dead silence among the staff. So I said ‘well I think I could think of things we could do’.  So the upshot was, they couldn’t think of anything they could do, so I could go and run with my ideas.  The head of the department was very supportive of me.  My line was, ‘the public out there, cocoa farmers, they pay for all this, and they have a right to see what is going on, and we have an obligation to put something on’.  Anyway, the campus had a centre point and there was a stage erected there, where the Vice Chancellor was going to open the day, and I obtained some translations of funeral elegies in Ghanaian which had been translated into English.  So we cyclostyled copies of these, and I told the two or three students who were going to be reading these, ‘the minute they get off, tell the man in charge of the loudspeaker system not to switch it off, you get on there and read out these elegies’.  People were delighted, they took away photocopies afterwards, even if they couldn’t read, they felt it was marvellous.  In the department itself, I got pictures of many of the authors students were studying, and copies of extracts of the works, there was a girl there with a very beautiful voice, so I got her to record poetry which we played continuously; it was very successful.  My colleagues came along, looked at it, were very shame faced I think, that they hadn’t thought of any contribution or willingness; anyway there was no bad feeling in the department.  We didn’t make an issue of it.  But there was this concept of the university and its role that I had that was different from my colleagues, about feeling some responsibility to government policies, to put it crudely.

So if there were no Ghanaian staff, was the curriculum there still quite Eurocentric and traditional?

Yes, we had that problem, when I had to pick up somebody’s teaching, they were studying W.B. Yeats, and after a while it dawned on me that they had no concept of Ireland having been a colony and having achieved independence, and that what Yeats was often writing about was precisely that.  It had no relevance for them.

Thinking about my students, who were very nice, very keen, I didn’t have the sense that they and their country had gone through an enormous, impressive change.   There were two very bright young fellows, who used to irritate me at first because they did a sort of running commentary on my lectures, exchanging notes, and I found it rather disturbing, but in fact when I came back to Britain after the coup in 1966, they were here on the postgraduate scheme that the department had for African students. They were very ashamed that there had been a coup.

I also tried to make whatever kind of feeble contribution I could make to developing a Ghanaian literature.  I formed a creative writing group to try and encourage the students to write about the region, and their own lives, and the life of the people around them.  Of course there were people like Efua Sutherland, and I can’t imagine why I never got in touch with her actually, but in 1964 I was approached by two of the undergraduates. Another student was writing a play, and they were producing it but some were having problems with the dialogue, and so would I go and help them.  I walked right into this.  I joined them and there was a very nice little open air theatre in the grounds [behind the Commonwealth Hall on the University of Ghana campus], like a miniature Greek theatre, and they were all rehearsing around me, making plenty of noise, and at the end of it, they said ‘thank you very much’, and would I help them throughout the rehearsals? Anyway, the play [The Dilemma of a Ghost] was about a young Ghanaian who had gone to the United States to study, married a black American wife, and then come back, and about all the different degrees of adjustment between these markedly different cultures.  I had never helped practically with a play before, and I never have since.  Anyway, we decided to push the boat out, and we wrote to the Chancellor of the University, who was of course, Nkrumah, and invited him to the opening night.  We also invited all the embassies of the West African countries, and the head of Ghana television and radio, and the agent for Longman books.  Anyway, it was a very glamorous affair, with all these ambassadors’ wives and so it was quite a success.7

Did Nkrumah come?

No, but he wrote a very nice letter saying essentially ‘thank you very much but I am rather busy’.  Anyway, Longman offered the playwright - Ama Ata Aidoo - a contract and she has published ever since.8

Were there many other plays going on then?

There was an arts centre in Accra itself, which did put on plays.

Politics in Ghana

And after your teaching you went to work on Nkrumah’s party’s weekly paper, The Spark?9  You mentioned to me how Spark came out every Friday, and it was a struggle to get it out?

Well that was because of the short supply of skilled workers.  We had typists, but by Thursday lunchtime, well I used to take over to get it out.  The staff was Kofi [Batsa], me and later [Dennis] Ogden, another Communist Party member, who had been the Daily Worker Moscow correspondent, and had a degree in Russian.  Kofi Batsa as a young student in Ghana had picked up a copy of the British paper of the Young Communist League and was so impressed, he wrote and applied to join the YCL! An ally of Kofi’s was the Nigerian exile who went by the name Sam Ikoku, he worked at Winneba College, the Convention People’s Party training college, and was very close to Nkrumah.  He advised about articles, and probably wrote some of them.  There was a French version of Spark as well – I don’t know if it was simply a translation, or with additional material, or applying much more to the former French colonies.  The Spark office was burnt down after the coup, but Marx Memorial Library in London has collected copies of Spark.

In 1965 the Organisation of African Unity held an historic Summit Meeting in Ghana of heads of African states.  Ghana provided shelter and money for living for large numbers of exiles of all sorts, Pan-Africanists, ANC, even people from Surinam!  Large numbers of people owed a lot to Ghana.  I suggested to Kofi that we should produce special issues of Spark in which I described the work and policies of all the various ministries in Accra.  The interviews were published in Spark.

The relation between the CPGB and Nkrumah seems to have been quite strong in that sense…

There were Marxist classes for colonial students in London, which Nkrumah had attended.  The person who actually tutored him was Emile Burns, who worked in the Education department and had been born in the Caribbean [St Kitts] (his father was an administrator out there).  Emile’s brother was a governor in one of the Nigerian states, so at the celebrations of independence, the two brothers were present!10 And Nkrumah’s landlady [from back in Britain] as well, I have to say!

Did you have much interaction with Winneba College, the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute?

I really have no knowledge of Winneba.  Feminism was not very strong in Ghana. I have no idea if there were any women students, I doubt it.  Kodwa Addison [the Institute director] had no pretentions of being a great ideologue – he was a loyal party member, and prepared to do what he could.  Grace Arnold must have been the only woman in a position at Winneba.  She was an American, married to a German, and I have a feeling she had been in the American Communist Party and went to a Lenin school in the Soviet Union.  She may have met this German comrade, Arnold, and lived in the Soviet Union during the Nazi period.  She was quite dogmatic, but she became a very good friend of ours.  She had lived in the GDR after the war, and from there came to Ghana – returning to the GDR after the coup. There was a boat in the new harbour at Tema to take GDR citizens out.

Speaking of me, it was automatically assumed that I would not be included in various kinds of things.  Ron went to Winneba from time to time, I was never invited, not that I minded.  As for Ron and myself, we did what we were asked, but I hope we didn’t throw our weight around.  Ron went out to Winneba one day and the whole government were there – Nkrumah had told them all to go and get a bit of Marxist education!

Talking of education, I encountered Henry Bretton, later author of The Rise and Fall of Kwame Nkrumah: A Study of Personal Rule in Africa.  He was appointed a lecturer for seven years in the social science department at Legon.  Mysteriously, it got reduced to five.  He used to come into our [Spark] office and said, I am sure it was true, that he had an appointment with Kofi.  But Kofi was rarely there, so I had to do the diplomatic bit and say ‘I am sorry he is not in’ - he was often abroad as a matter of fact – ‘if you would like to wait, have a cup of tea, and so on’.  Now Bretton came out with this book very quickly after the coup.  Kofi told me that Bretton had proposed doing an aerial survey over Tema, the new harbour, which was an interesting social development from a social science point of view, as people moved out there to work, elementary housing was provided for them, sanitation.  But to propose flying over Tema, taking photographs, was not exactly very bright, was it?  Intelligence services would not take kindly to that, and I think it was at that point Bretton got a five year contract instead of a seven… In his book, Bretton briefly describes us [Ron and Joan Bellamy] as having been sent to Ghana by the Russians as agents, which of course is absolute rubbish, but not only us who were not very significant, but also Dorothy and Thomas Hodgkin!11  Now Dorothy Hodgkin had just been given the Nobel Prize in 1964, for Chemistry, she was a crystallographer!  And Thomas Hodgkin was the Head of the Institute of African Studies, on the University campus, which had a very important role in Ghana… So that was the level of Bretton’s understanding, and of his politics...

As I say I’ve no knowledge really of Winneba.  The committee that organised the massive, absolutely marvellous trade union demonstration on May Day 1965 that I think finally put the wind up the Americans, the British and the right-wing in Ghana, used to meet, overseen by Kwaw Ampah [General secretary of the TUC in Ghana] – I was never invited to that.  Again, it didn’t matter.  Nkrumah spoke at the May Day demonstration, Ron and I wrote parts of the speech, not that I am sure that he knew that, but that’s what happened. The May Day demonstration was marvellous though, the first one in Ghana, with Ampah leading the workers with a red flag. We asked the Nigerian steward who used to work for us throughout ‘did you go down to Accra on Saturday?’  ‘Oh yes’.  ‘What did you like about it?’  ‘Ladies driving tractors’.

Who were these women?

Probably agricultural and distributive workers. You should have seen the plumbers - they devised out of copper piping and other materials of their work, the most wonderful orchestra, they were all playing tunes!  Nkrumah actually broadcast on the radio the night before the demonstration as well.  Ampah joined Nkrumah at the beginning.   We got Ampah a visa to come to Britain later, where he found work in a factory operating a machine making mayonnaise.

There were no women ministers...  The powerful women in Ghana were the market women.  The main market in Accra was called Makola, it was enormous, and many of these women, so the story went, made very good livings.  If you were a nice handsome young Ghanaian, on the make, you could become a lover of one of the Makola market women, and get a ‘Makola scholarship’ to go to University, or even abroad…

The Military Coup

What are your memories of the coup in Ghana that overthrew Nkrumah in February 1966, while he was on a flight to China to help try and negotiate the end of the Vietnam War?

When Nkrumah was invited to go to Vietnam, the Left smelled a rat.  I remember writing a memorandum on Kofi’s behalf to dissuade him from going.  After all, we had had coups elsewhere in Africa by then, in Algeria, the murder of Lumumba and so on.  The atmosphere in Ghana after the coup in Algeria I think changed, people withdrew from association with the Left in Ghana itself.

All our friends were imprisoned during the coup, Kofi, Ampah and so on– and the Soviet and East European embassies were closed.  On the day of the coup, we acted as couriers between the various embassies, as we could get around without problems as we were clearly English, but they couldn’t, and they were very concerned about moving around.  During the coup, one of the GDR diplomats who didn’t know the coup had taken place, drove out to the airport to drop a lecturer off for a plane, and then was shot in the leg in his car. So it was quite dangerous.

Ron stayed on after the coup as he had two or three lectures still to give, to round off the course.  The exam papers were set, so he felt he would be justified in leaving after the course had ended.  The army invaded the campus, so much for the campus being inviolable, drove off students who were known to be Nkrumah supporters or members of his party; subsequently Ron helped one or two with money.  His first lecture after the coup we were very worried about, as you won’t believe this, but it was on Lenin’s Imperialism! So friends and myself gathered in the bookshop down below the classroom, and for the first time ever in Ron’s experience one of the students got up, cleaned the blackboard, and went and sat down.  The students were in a state of shock, there wasn’t a murmur, not a sound, I think they were traumatised.

No one was allowed to leave the campus after the coup, except the people who were being thrown out.  But I was entitled to a ticket, as the wife of an academic, so I went to the travel bureau on the campus to discuss leaving. Just as I got to the door, the clerk said, ‘Oh, Mrs Bellamy, would you mind coming back for a moment?  I have to make sure that if you are leaving you are a good person.’  So I said, ‘I’m a good person, don’t worry’.  Anyway, there were only two of us on this entire plane, leaving – me and Pat Sloan, who had taught at Winneba.  I don’t know how he got from Winneba to Accra, but anyway.  Sloan said something about how it felt cowardly to leave, but probably the wisest option.  So we were given our seats - he sat in one part of the plane, I in another.  ‘When are you coming back?’ asked the airhostess.

As an aside, I was in hospital earlier this year, and two or three of the workers in this ward were Ghanaians.  As soon as I mentioned being in Ghana, they said instantly ‘Nkrumah’.  Interesting.

So you return to Britain, and write a few articles on Ghana and neo-colonialism, and so on, and then it seems you have a shift towards antiracist work?

Well I was given that responsibility.  It was very difficult and frustrating work, actually.  We tried to provide material, and help spur the local branches into fighting racism, which they did.  We had a number of Caribbean comrades working full time in various positions for local authorities. We were instrumental in getting the TUC to establish a Racial Equality Committee, one of our achievements.   I drafted a long memorandum for the party about the immigration bill, which was aimed at ethnic minorities.12   I have an article in Marxism Today on ‘African elites’, and I used to write in Comment, a weekly publication, quite a lot, about party affairs, and current affairs.13  I think there might be copies of Comment in Manchester, at The Labour History Archive in the People’s History Museum…

And you were working now in London, in the CPGB’s International Department based at King Street?  And Ron was back in Leeds?

Yes, from about 1966-1974.  I used to travel back up to Leeds weekly.  But then the CPGB’s financial difficulties got worse and worse, and I used to work once a fortnight more part-time.  The Northern district of the Open University needed a temporary staff tutor, and hired me.  So I worked up in Newcastle, travelling by train from Leeds.

In Leeds, I saw you stood for the Communist Party against Denis Healey in the 1970 general election?

Yes, that was funny, as Healey had recruited Ron to the [Communist] Party, and then eventually got a job in the Labour [Party] Research Department when Ron was teaching in Oxford.  ‘Come on Ron’, he apparently said, ‘leave the Party…’

Then we come to your later, more academic, career with the Open University, where you went from staff tutor to Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and your biography of Mary Taylor, a friend of the Brontës.   You were also a founder and director of the Open University Women in Humanities Research Group.

Yes, we also had an edited collection of the Women’s Study group that I had established [Women, Scholarship and Criticism c. 1790-1900, Manchester University Press, 2000].14 The group was open to anyone (it wasn’t gender exclusive), and reported about the general research they were interested in, that sometimes wasn’t of interest in their department.  We published the papers as pamphlets.  After I retired, I travelled down to chair meetings, but I thought finally we ought to do something more definitive, and I said I was going to be leaving, I did it for nine years.  So that edited collection was my swan song, in some ways.  I joined the Brontë Society council, and became reviews editor of Brontë Studies, and occasionally did reviews myself, and a very good article if I may say so on Ann Brontë.15

 And you also published on Margaret Oliphant?16

Yes. The Leeds subscription library has a terrific collection of Margaret Oliphant’s work.

You would have seen over your life major advances in women’s liberation, but now we are in a period where there is an attempt to push it all back with Trump, attacks on abortion rights, and so on. 

My mother was the founder of the local family planning unit, in her late forties.  It’s very disturbing, the push back.


1 Joan Bellamy, “More precious than rubies”: Mary Taylor, friend of Charlotte Brontë, strong-minded woman (Beverley, Highgate of Beverley, 2002).

2 According to M. Epstein (ed.), The Statesman's Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the World for the Year 1944, in 1943 there were 396 Lecturers and 1,668 students at the University of Leeds.

3 For more on the progressive politics of LC Knights and Bonamy Dobrée, see Alexander Hutton, ‘An English School for the Welfare State: Literature, Politics, and the University, 1932-1965’, English, 65, 248 (2016).

4 For a (rather uncritical) biography of Ramelson, see Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist At Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012).

5 On Ron Bellamy (1917-2009), who taught Economics at Leeds University from 1948-1982, see Hugo Radice’s obituary, online at:  On Bellamy’s departure from Oxford, see Roger Fieldhouse, Adult education and the cold war: liberal values under siege 1946-1951 (Leeds: University of Leeds, Department of Adult and Continuing Education, 1985).  A CPGB branch at Leeds University was established, with other notable Communists being the Marxist literary theorist Arnold Kettle.  Arnold Kettle’s partner, Margot Kettle, was the first administrator for what was then the African Studies Unit, later LUCAS.

6 Kwame Nkrumah, ‘University Dinner, Flagstaff House, Accra, 24 February 1963’, in Samuel Obeng (ed.), Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah (Accra: Afram Publications, 1997), quoted in Gerardo Serra, ‘The Struggle for the Economic Soul of the Nkrumahist State: Economic Analysis and the Socialist Regime in Postcolonial Ghana, 1961-1966’,, p. 13.

7 ‘At the University, a short-lived Students’ Theatre scored a remarkable success with The Dilemma of a Ghost, written by a student who then called herself “Christina Ata Aidoo.”  In it can be recognised the subtlety of stagecraft, stringency of comment, and strength of dialogue that have made Ata Aidoo such a significant Ghanaian dramatist.’ James Gibbs, ‘Introduction: Theatre in Ghana’, in James Gibbs (ed.) Nkyin-Kyin: Essays on the Ghanaian Theatre (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), p. xxi.  The play was performed in March 1964 and published by Longman in 1965.

8  As James Gibbs notes, ‘Longmans were moving in on titles that they felt could replace Sheridan and Shaw on the lucrative school syllabus’.  Personal information from James Gibbs, 4 December 2017.

9 The Spark, ‘A Socialist Weekly of the African Revolution’, took its name and inspiration from Lenin’s Iskra. The Spark is alluded to in Wole Soyinka’s The Detainee.  Personal information from James Gibbs, 4 December 2017.

10 Sir Alan Burns was Governor of Nigeria 1942-43 and of the Gold Coast 1942-47.

11 ‘Some members of this group, foremost among them [Pat] Sloan and the Bellamys, appeared to be active Communists, representative of an even larger but less visible group of Party members who, by all appearances, had been “seconded” from various parts of the world, including Asia and Latin America, to base their operations temporarily upon this strategic spot in Africa…’ Henry L Bretton, The Rise and Fall of Kwame Nkrumah: A Study of Personal Rule in Africa (London: Pall Mall, 1967), pp vii, 24. Bretton was working at the University of Michigan, but visited Ghana in 1956, 1959, 1962 and had an extended stay from 1964-65 thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

12 See Joan Bellamy, Unite Against Racialism: Defeat the Immigration Bill (Communist Party of Great Britain, 1971).  Other anti-racist publications included Joan Bellamy, Homes, jobs, immigration: the facts. (CPGB, 1968); Joan Bellamy, ‘Politics and Race’, Marxism Today (October 1969), Joan Bellamy, The fight against racialism in Britain (CPGB, 1974).  For more on the CPGB and anti-racism, see Evan Smith, British Communism and the Politics of Race (Leiden, Brill, 2017).

13  See for example Joan Bellamy, ‘Testing time for Ghana’, The African Communist, 27 (1966); Joan Bellamy, ‘African Elites – a study of Ghana’, Marxism Today (February 1967); Joan Bellamy, ‘Problems of Neo-colonialism’, Marxism Today (February 1968), the latter a review of Jack Woodis, An Introduction to neo-colonialism, Lawrence and Wishart, 1967; Joan Bellamy, ‘Imperialism and some problems of the third world’, Marxism Today (June 1975).

14 Joan Bellamy, Anne Laurence and Gill Perry (eds.) Women, Scholarship and Criticism c. 1790-1900: Gender and Knowledge, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000).

15 Joan Bellamy, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: What Anne Brontë Knew and What Modern Readers Don’t’, Brontë Studies, 30, 3 (2005).

16 Joan Bellamy, ‘Margaret Oliphant, “Mightier than the mightiest of her sex”’, in Joan Bellamy, Anne Laurence and Gill Perry (eds.) Women, Scholarship and Criticism c. 1790-1900: Gender and Knowledge, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000); Joan Bellamy, ‘A Lifetime of reviewing – Margaret Oliphant on Charlotte Brontë’, Brontë Studies, 29, 1 (2004).

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