Ethel MacDonald

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Ethel MacDonald, 1909–1960

The Defining Moment

Ethel MacDonald was born in Motherwell, just outside Glasgow, on the 24th of February 1909. She was one of nine children. Leaving home at sixteen became active in women’s movements and the rights of the working class. From an early age Ethel was an active socialist, still only sixteen she joined the Bellshill, Independent Labour Party, (ILP). Worked as waitress and shop assistant, 1931 she came in contact with Guy Aldred who asked her to become his secretary. Ethel left the ILP and joined Guy Aldred in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF). in 1934 the APCF split over the issue of the nature of its opposition to Labour Parliamentarianism. Guy Aldred lead the splinter group, Ethel joined him in the United Socialist Movement, and remained a member of the USM and a close comrade of Guy Aldred until her death in 1960. Ethel MacDonald stated that her first encounter with Guy Aldred was the moment which determined for future.

Spanish Civil War

Although Ethel and Guy never achieved any form of financial security they never ceased their intensely energetic political activity in pursuit if their political goals. July 1936 saw the out break of the Spanish Civil War, this sparked a tremendous increase in political activity, especially among groups of the left. The USM diverted all its energies into supporting the struggle of the Spanish workers. Guy Aldred was invited by the French anarchist activist, Pruhommeaux to send a Scottish anarchist to Barcelona . Ethel MacDonald was asked to go because of her work in publishing and circulating the newsheet “Regeneration” in support of the Spanish CNT and FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica), the Spanish, militant federation of anarchist groups. Guy Aldred co-opted Jenny Patrick as the APCF representative. Both women set off for Spain, they left Glasgow on the 20th of October, 1936 with very little money, they reached Paris with one franc between them. With the help of comrades and sympathisers and without money or papers the hitch-hiked across France and eventually reached Spain. Ethel and Jenny were part of a vast army of workers and intellectuals making their way to Spain to join the fight against fascism in spite of their own governments’ policy of “Non-intervention”. Ethel was sent to Barcelona and Jenny to Madrid.

Action in Spain

From arriving in Barcelona in November 1936 until January 1937, Ethel MacDonald managed to send back to Glasgow a bulletin every few days. They gave details of activities in Barcelona and some of the surrounding villages, describing how villages had been organised on a communal basis, how empty nunneries and monasteries had been turned into hospitals, offices and schools, she also told of the difficulties. Many of these bulletins made their way into main stream press. After January 1937 she began her radio broadcasts as the English speaking propagandist for the Barcelona Anarchist radio station and was listened to in may countries throughout the world.

After seven months in Spain, Jenny Patrick returned to Glasgow on the 24 th. of May 1937, it would be November 1937 before Ethel returned to Glasgow. After the May battles and the June the 16th . round up of POUM members and foreign activists, Ethel spent her time smuggling food and letters in to comrades in prison and smuggling out letters and information. She put herself in considerable danger by helping foreign anarchist to escape Spain, she done this by borrowing civilian clothes to disguise soldiers and begging crews of foreign ships to give secret and safe passage for wanted men in danger. News of her activities reached the British press, Ethel became know as the “Scots Scarlet Pimpernel”.


It was obvious that sooner rather than later Ethel would be arrested and imprisoned. The inevitable happened, but while in prison she was still a problem to the “new” Barcelona authorities. The charge against her was, associating with prisoners during her visits to jailed comrades and conspiring with them in a foreign tongue. While in prison she would collect letters from other prisoners and smuggled them out with her own in cans in which her food had been brought in. Those for abroad were given to a French skipper and others got to the British Consul. By the same means it was possible to organise a hunger strike in every prison in Barcelona where anarchist prisoners were held.

Ethel was once again in the Glasgow press, the Evening Times on Friday the 9th . of July 1937 ran an article on Fenner Brockway’s visit to Spain and again on July 14th. when it described her release after the “trifling” charges against her were dropped. When Mr. Brockway met her after being released and again as he left Spain, she was undecided whether she would come back to this country or stay in Spain . She accepted her arrest and imprisonment very philosophically, but it is Mr Brockway’s view that she would be wise to return home.” The Evening Times carried more news of her on August 25th.,

While still in Spain life for Ethel was not easy after her release from prison, her attempts to get her papers and belongings proved fruitless, she never slept twice in the same place and most certainly suffered considerable hardship in her desire to serve her cause As Anarchists tried to tell the world of the “white terror”, and “the purges” that were now part and parcel of Barcelona, Ethel was only one of a host of foreigners caught up in the terror.

Back Home

During her spell in Spain, she produced regular bulletins with accurate information that were in turn printed in several newspapers, her radio broadcasts were listened to by people in many countries. For a brief spell, between July and November 1937, the spotlight of fame shone on Ethel MacDonald, newspapers across the country carried articles speculating on the whereabouts of the “Scots Scarlet Pimpernel”, articles referred to the “Bellshill Girl Anarchist”. In one newspaper report her parents stated that they would gladly sell their furniture to raise money to bring her home if they could get in contact with her. They appealed to the British Consulate to do everything in their power to get in touch with her. On Friday September, 24th. 1937, The Evening Times hit the streets with the front page headlines, “ Miss Ethel MacDonald reaches Paris”. It was revealed that she had left Spain on the 4th. of September 1937 “under escort”, News of Ethel’s activities in Spain had spread to most countries throughout the world, many of these countries sent invitations for her to come and speak of her experiences. Early November 1937 found Ethel back in her native Glasgow, welcomed by several hundred people. The Evening Citizen carried a report of her arrival, “There was sadness in Ethel MacDonald’s face as she said: “I went to Spain full of hopes and dreams. It promised to be Utopia realised. I return full of sadness, dulled by the tragedy I have seen”. Then she whispered to friends: “I’m so thrilled by the welcome. But it‘s terribly embarrassing. Please take me away”. Ethel MacDonald proved to as fearless at home as she had been in Spain and would not be silenced on the truth of what happened in Barcelona. She launched herself on a lecturing and speaking tour throughout Britain giving details of her personal experiences while in Spain.

The Call-Up

In late 1940 Ethel received her call-up papers: after reading them she wrote across them in blue pencil the words “GET LOST”, and posted them back. Some weeks later she received further notification stating that they had not had a satisfactory response to the first notice and must remind her of the serious consequences of not complying with the Act, etc, etc. and she must report to the Recruiting Officer within seven days. Her response on this occasion was to write in large blue letters, “COME AND GET ME.” this she duly posted. She received no further notification, perhaps the authorities had no desire to give the “Scottish Pimpernel” an opportunity to organise wholesale escapes from a women’s prison.

Her Death

Near the end of February 1958, Ethel was standing on a box adjusting some piece of machinery at the Strickland Press when she fell. From then on she needed a stick to get around, it soon became clear that Ethel was suffering from a very serious illness. Her physical deterioration was rapid, and soon her comrades had to nurse her at home. Ethel MacDonald died in Knightswood Hospital on the 1st . of December 1960 of multiple sclerosis.

The Glasgow newspapers were inundated with tributes to her dedication, bravery and remembering her days of glory.

The Glasgow Evening Citizen wrote;

SCOTS “SCARLET PIMPERNAL” DIES, She became legend in Spain The small dark-haired woman — once called Scotland’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” during the mid-1930's — is dead. And so ends the legend of Ethel MacDonald.

Guy Aldred wrote;

“ — it would be absurd to pretend that I can console myself to her passing. As I have said I feel very keenly that she has been cheated of life — It seems to me a pity that she cannot know what I think of her; that she cannot realise how thoroughly I understand her, that she will never know that I wish she was here among the living and that if someone had to die that I could be numbered among the dead — “