Call Mr Robeson in Eastbourne

The refurbished Winter Garden in Eastbourne is going to dedicate a special Paul Robeson Room in honour of Robeson’s legendary performances at the venue during the 1930s period and a special commemorative programme of events is being put together to help launch this.  So far these include a special performance of ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko at the Grove Theatre in Eastbourne on Friday 4 November 2022 – details of how to book tickets please see here:

Update about the Engels in Eastbourne campaign

Summer is here and many of us are headed for the seafront. We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. Do you recognise this art work of Eastbourne’s wonderful beach ? Who painted it? Where did it used to be sited in Eastbourne?

Some of the Trade Unionists amongst us will recognise it. There used to be a fantastic International Workers Mural in the dining area of The View Hotel, formerly the Transport and General Workers Union Recuperation Hotel and Conference Centre. It was painted by an Arts Collective that included Michael Jones, son of the Great Trade Unionist Jack Jones.

The Mural is now in boxes awaiting reinstallation at the new Unite Conference Centre in Birmingham. The Engels in Eastbourne Campaign has been meeting with Unite’s Hotel Manager to ensure the knowledge about the Mural is not lost in time to Eastbournians.

Just ONE project of the EiE’s Campaign is for a pull out brochure of the Mural to be commissioned. This is now agreed and is in progress. But much more currently being discussed. For example, would you like to see a full sized copy of the Mural in a prominent public building in Eastbourne? Would you be interested in visiting an exhibition of the Radical History of the Mural and the Transport and General Workers Union? Would you be interested in finding out more about the period in the relatively recent past when our Town was an important National centre of Trade Unionism in this country.

And, incidentally, our Town can be remembering and celebrating many other areas of our Radical History. We are currently in discussion with EBC on how best to commemorate Paul Robeson’s connection with Eastbourne.

Please get in touch if you wish to support the Engels in Eastbourne Project by messaging the Facebook Page. Let’s begin working together on driving this and several other Radical History of Eastbourne projects forward.

Meanwhile, we will, of course, keep you updated of developments.

Heinz Birch remembers unveiling the Engels plaque in Eastbourne

[Many thanks to Heinz Birch, former German Democratic Republic (GDR) Charge d’Affaires, for kindly allowing us to translate and republish this extract from his autobiography Wiedersehen, ich gehe in die Fremde : Streben für eine bessere Welt (2017) on this website about his role in unveiling the original Engels plaque in Eastbourne in 1976]

At this point I would like to mention a recreational place on the coast of Great Britain that Friedrich Engels once chose for days of recreation.  He spent several holidays in Eastbourne.  This place apparently exerted a special attraction on him.

The place in which Engels lived during his stays on the coast was a popular weekend destination for members of the Embassy.  The consequence of this was that the East German diplomats entertained good relations with the trade unions in Eastbourne.

At some point a thought matured to remember and commemorate Fredrich Engels at this historic place with a memorial plaque.  The festive unveiling of the plaque took place in May 1976.  Because Karl Heinz Kern was on holiday during this time I as his deputy conducted this ceremonial act in the name of the DDR and in the presence of the mayor.  The Tory – member of the Conservative Party – insisted on inviting us and other guests to a reception in the town hall and afterwards to a concert in the theatre of the town.

This mayor not only possessed an awareness of history but also proved to have courage because for, the enemies of progress, the commemoration of Friedrich Engels, the loyal companion of Karl Marx was a thorn in their side.  When we unveiled the plaque ceremoniously, there were supporters of the National Party [Front] – the neo-fascists – standing on the other side of the road with flags and posters and they were trying to disturb the event with their shouting and smearing.  But success was denied to them.  Under the strict supervision of the local police they were held behind a pen erected specially for them.

After the unveiling of the plaque we visited the place on the steep coast from which Friedrich Engels ashes were given to the tumultuous sea according to his final will.  We were fortunately amongst ourselves.  It was an elevating feeling to think back to this 27 September [August] 1895 on which one of the great thinkers of the international working class found his final resting place off the coast of Beachy Head in the presence of Eleanor Aveling, Karl Marx’s daughter.


Edited to add – letter in Sussex Bylines from Sheila Taylor

Engels’ plaque campaign

Dear editor

Carol Mills’ Engels in Eastbourne article, mentioning the original plaque to Engels, aroused memories for me too, as I helped to organise the unveiling event. I was Secretary of the Britain-GDR Society at the time and was invited by the local organisers to give the commemorative speech at Beachy Head. A dramatic location for a public speech! On the clifftops above the sea clutching my typed script, I read out the history of Engels in Eastbourne, glancing up from time to time at Heinz Birch’s encouraging smile in the front row. A Guardian journalist had spotted this highly unusual event and wrote it up as a feature article, gleefully mocking our little gathering of naïve idealists. The East Germans and I were all very sad when right-wing vandals forced the plaque to be removed. I’d be delighted if it could be reinstated!  It would be fun to be in touch.

Sheila Taylor

Secretary, The Britain-GDR Society (1976-80)

Edited to add again – many thanks to Sheila Taylor for providing a copy of her speech on the day – see scans below

Sheila Taylor speech page 1


Sheila Taylor speech page 2


Sheila Taylor speech page 3


Sheila Taylor speech page 4


Eastbourne Radical History Walk #1

Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – a digital self-guided walk of some of Eastbourne’s radical history.

Eastbourne was designed and developed by its landowners from the 1850s onwards. Built as a new resort for the rich, the population greatly expanded from less than 4,000 in 1851 to nearly 35,000 by 1891. The town was owned by just two families, the Davies-Gilberts who owned about a quarter of the town, and the Cavendish family, notably William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who owned about 2/3rds of the town.  From 1859, plans were laid out to build an entirely new town to attract the higher echelons of society to either live or to holiday here. Designed as a new resort, Eastbourne was built “for gentlemen by gentlemen”. The working classes of the town were kept hidden from the sight of our elite visitors in the Seaside area to the East, where visitors feared to tread.

Opening in 1880, the Queens Hotel, near the Pier, was the last of the grand hotels to be built in the town. It was thought to have been deliberately positioned to provide a visual marker for the end of the Grand Parade to the west. To the East of the Queens Hotel there were smaller hotels and boarding houses built largely between 1790 and 1840. There was no road along the seafront on this side of the pier. Visitors were advised ‘don’t go east of the pier, dear’. Though there are accounts of curiosity excursions, for the elite, into the Seaside area, so they could literally ‘see how the other half lived’.

And just as the working classes were kept hidden from the sight of our elite visitors, so too nowadays has much of the town’s radical history been hidden.  Some of us wanted to put this right. So; this walk was written to give a snapshot of just some of Eastbourne’s more radical history.  Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is Eastbourne’s Radical History Walk No 1. It is an around the town walk, starting at Eastbourne railway station and ending in Meads Village.

“Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat and therefore a little bit of history may help”. Tony Benn.

We will be seen, and we will be heard, and we will build a better world.

Eastbourne Pilgrimage Project Walk

The walk was written as part of the Engels In Eastbourne Campaign. Thank you to the Eastbourne Pilgrimage Project for their support and encouragement in bringing this walk to you. You will find the walk map and the accompanying pamphlet on their website – see below for links.  We hope you enjoy.

Local Pilgrimage Walks including Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Eastbourne Pilgrimage Walks website

Carol Mills

The Mackintosh Rebellion 1929

Bathing Scene Eastbourne

It was a long hot summer in 1929 and there was a late heatwave. The 1920s saw the seaside opening up to the working classes thanks to improved working conditions, paid holidays, and an affordable railway network. No longer was Eastbourne the sole preserve of the elites. The heyday of bathing carriages and servants was drawing to an end. Many resorts had already done away with imposing charges and only allowing those who hired a bathing carriage and corporation towel to enjoy sea bathing. The working classes no longer had to keep to paddling with their hankies on their heads as they could not afford the charges.  8p per half hour for the carriage; 2 pence for a towel, plus tip. That was nearly a shilling a dip. So, for a family of 4 for a week this amounted to over £1, or about £70 in today’s money! No, a new working-class bathing habit had arrived in the resorts – the mackintosh bathers. Visitors would arrive on the beach straight from their guest houses already clad in their bathing gear and with their long mackintoshes covering over. Most resorts by 1929 were resigned to the changes and had abandoned the charges. But Eastbourne was not having it. Those in charge were resisting the vulgarity of free bathing.  Eastbourne was determined to hang on to its ‘elite resort’ status for as long as possible. Council officials patrolled the pebbles issuing stern warnings. There were bylaws you see; Eastbourne could not be doing with the common people. And besides, 1928 had seen £5,300 profit for the Corporation – that is £300,000 in today’s money. This was double the profit of 1927.  So. What was it to be? Profits or people? Time for a showdown.

September 13th, 1929 was ‘the day class war came to Eastbourne’. The ‘Bolsheviks of bathing’ had their sights set on action. An act of civil disobedience saw 150 mackintoshed men and women march their way to the shore with the puzzled onlookers not knowing what to make of it. The beach patrollers rallied upon the protesters demanding their names and addresses so that official letters of reprimand could be correctly executed. The ultimate sanction.

The Eastbourne Mackintosh Rebellion hit national headline news for some full 5 days.  The country was on the side of the people. The bathing carriages were described as smelly, dirty, and damp. One reporter asserted: –

‘the name of Eastbourne should stink in the nostrils of holiday makers until Eastbourne’s governors are changed!’

the Corporation response,

‘we do not mean to be vindictive, but we will not have our authority flouted!’

Anyway. By 1932 almost all charges across the country had been abandoned. The end of an era. Even for Eastbourne, that oh so exclusive town ‘built for gentlemen by gentlemen’.

Information and photo ‘Bathing Scene Eastbourne’ courtesy of Charlie Connelly from the podcast   8: The Eastbourne Bathers’ Rebellion of 1929. 14 Feb 2020.  For more “Great stories from around the coasts of Britain and Ireland”, please see the Facebook Page Coastal Stories Podcast, brought to you by Charlie Connelly, bestselling author of ‘Attention All Shipping’.   For more on Radical Eastbourne see here

Engels at Home – Edward Aveling (1895)

[A short piece, Engels at Home by Edward Aveling from The Labour Prophet after Engels’s death in 1895 has recently been transcribed for the Marxists Internet Archive – and it is worth quoting the end section here – which alludes to Engels’s cremation in Woking before his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head – as it mentions Eastbourne…].

… During his last illness at Eastbourne, in spite of all the pain and weakness, there were flashes of the old geniality and joviality, and never, to the very end, did his kindness to and thoughtfulness for everyone for a moment cease. Of that kindness and generosity this is not the place to speak. Every one of his friends can think of that unparalleled generosity and kindness silently, and will have much food for thought…

His life was a beautiful one, and he loved it…. With his knowledge, his good work well done, his certainty of the future of the movement, his troops of friends-—among whom of course Marx was the first, the last, the be-all and the end-all—his intense joy of living, he, more than most men, rightly enough loved and clung to life. Not, of course, that he had for a moment the slightest fear of death. No one who knew him but would give all they possessed in the world to be at the end of such a life as his.

It is something for English people to remember that the work of Marx and Engels was mainly done for the world in this little country, and that both of them died here. That is a higher honour than can be conferred by the tombs and mausoleums of all the kings and conquerors in the world. The places for the dead that will be most visited hereafter will be the grave at Highgate, and the simple little building among the pines of Woking.

The International Workers’ Mural that Eastbourne should not forget

The International Workers’ Mural that Eastbourne should not forget

At the time of its creation in 1922, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) was the largest and most ambitious amalgamation brought about within trade unionism. Later, following various talks between unions a merger with Amicus was agreed and Unite the Union was created in 2007. Today in Eastbourne we have an active Trade Union Council and active members of Unite Community Eastbourne Group have been researching some of the town’s trade union history. Here is the story of the International Workers’ Mural that Eastbourne should not forget.

Jack Jones left school at 14 and after a few jobs joined his father as a Liverpool Docker. He became an active member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and later became the General Secretary of this union from 1968 until 1978. He was a great trade unionist, being converted to socialism by reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, who wrote it in Hastings 1906 to 1910.  Jack once explained how that book “was passed from hand to hand among people in the Labour movement and had a remarkable effect on our thinking”.

Newhaven Fort, 7 December 2008 – Jack Jones (with son Mick) who served with the International Brigades fighting fascism in Spain at the ceremony dedicating the Brigaders memorial bench. It was 75 years to the day from when the British Battalion sailed back into Newhaven and then to a big welcome at Victoria Station. The bench is still there on the ramparts overlooking the harbour. The Guard of Honour is two members of La Columna SCW re-enactment group. Fittingly Jack Jones’s final appearance at a Spanish Civil War event.

In September 1974, the first stone was laid by Jack Jones for the TGWU’s new purpose-built convalescent, holiday and educational centre at Eastbourne. The Eastbourne Centre was then opened by Jack Jones in October 1976. This Centre was built for the purposes of a workers’ recuperation and holiday centre and a Conference Centre for the union. The Centre is now called The View Hotel. It is still owned by Unite the Union. The mezzanine level at The View shows some of the hotel’s union history.

The TGWU centre at Eastbourne

In the dining room of the Centre there used to be a full sized and very colourful mural by the Art Workers Co-operative – Michael [Mick] Jones, Christopher Robinson and Simon Barber. Mick Jones was the son of Jack Jones. The mural is an artistic tribute to international trade unionism and the importance of solidarity amongst workers.  For example, part of the mural illustrates “the union’s struggle through depression and war from which emerges a victorious procession with banners of the amalgamated unions. Support for the Spanish Republic in the 1930’s is shown by the inclusion of the graffiti, ‘SOLIDARITY WITH SPAIN’.”

The International Workers’ Mural in the Dining Room of the TGWU Eastbourne Centre

The mural was dismantled during the recent renovations of The View Hotel. It is being stored safely in boxes ready to be reassembled at a planned for new Unite the Union Conference Centre and Hotel in Birmingham.

Mick Jones at the Spanish Embassy 9 June 2009. Mick receives Jack Jones’s Spanish Passport from the Ambassador – Jack had applied but died in April.

Unite Community Eastbourne met with the Manager of The View, about ensuring the story of the mural is not lost from Eastbourne history. There is no picture of the mural on the mezzanine level. The suggestion of a full colour reproduction of the mural was not taken up as it would not fit in with the new colour scheme.  However, it was agreed that a pull-out brochure would be produced showing the mural in all its colourful glory. We are really looking forward to this brochure and will keep you updated on progress. The photo posted here shows a part of the mural that most likely was inspired by our Sussex coastline. Certainly one part of the mural shows the Beachy Head lighthouse.

NB The Eastbourne Trade Union Council and several of our local unions hold meetings at The View and make occasional use of the Conference Centre. (Unfortunately Unite had not negotiated for any discounts with the new management, an oversight that local trade unionists regret).

Carol Mills

Eastbourne Unite Community

[This post is part of a wider series of posts on Radical Eastbourne]

Friedrich Engels on European disarmament – Palle Rasmussen

[This is a guest post by Palle Rasmussen, emeritus professor in the Department of Culture and Learning, Aalborg University, written in November 2020 for the Engels bicentenary – thanks to Palle for allowing us to republish it here. Palle is speaking at the ‘Engels in Eastbourne’ conference in June 2022.]

In several of his late writings, Engels emphasizes the devastating consequences of war withmodern technology between militarized states. One example is his preface to a book by the German socialist Sigismund Borkheim, published in 1888, in which he gives a gloomy and prophetic description of future war:

Finally, the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle. Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. That is the prospect for the moment when the systematic development of mutual one-upmanship in armaments reaches its climax and finally brings forth its inevitable fruits (Marx & Engels Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 451).

Although Engels here refers to “the possible victory of the working class”, the description does not contain much optimism. The framework for eventual victory will be ruined societies and degraded populations. This is not the way Engels wants to build new socialist forms of society and community.

Continue reading

Paul Robeson in Eastbourne

Paul Robeson in 1942

As part of the series on Radical Eastbourne it is worth recalling that the legendary black American socialist, singer and film star Paul Robeson performed in the town in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s.  This post aims to piece together the history of his performances in Eastbourne over a ten year period – please note that in order to do this post reproduces quotes from newspapers and columnists and journalists from the 1920s and 1930s, and so the language used to describe Paul Robeson and his songs is that which was customary for the time and so we apologise if anyone finds the language offensive today.

According to Marie Seton, after Paul Robeson’s success in the stage production of Show Boat in 1928 in London he undertook ‘his first provincial tour… he gave a concert in Blackpool … he also sang in Birmingham, Torquay, Brighton, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Margate, Hastings, Southsea and Douglas.  “Very early I had the idea of singing in the summer at the spas and seaside resorts,” Robeson said.  “It seemed to me a way to reach the British public.  Even though this was not the usual tour for a singer, I wanted to try it.  I offered to sing on a percentage basis to prove my point.  That is how I began to build up an audience.”‘  As Robeson continued, ‘on sunny days I loved to sit – no, lie on the earth – try to press it to my bosom.  Many times later I felt gay and joyous as I lay in the gentle breeze on the downs of Rottingdean, near Eastbourne.  How I loved the English countryside.  How understandable the lovely poetry flowing from it.  How comprehensible the lovely music, the wistfully gay tunes…’

On 18 May 1929, Paul Robeson performed ‘a special programme of Negro spirituals’ at the Floral Hall, Winter Garden, Devonshire Park in Eastbourne (see Eastbourne Gazette, 1 May 1929).   ‘The famous bass sings fine selections of negro spirituals, and is accompanied Mr. Lawrence Brown, who has composed the music to a good many of them. Paul Robeson’s tour so far has been a triumphant success, all the towns which has yet visited having sold every ticket for his concert. The necessity for early booking of seats is the fact that hundreds of people were turned away from the Brighton Hippodrome when Robeson gave his recital there. Among the songs he will sing are “Deep River,” “Were yen there?” “Water Boy” and “Didn’t it rain?” and many others’ (Eastbourne Gazette, 15 May 1929). Such was his ‘great success’ here that he was invited to return to sing at the Floral Hall in Winter Garden on Sunday 21 July 1929 (Eastbourne Chronicle, 13 July 1929).

In May 1930, Robeson famously starred as Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Browne at the Savoy theatre in London, in a production Browne also produced.   Maurice Browne’s mother ran Clovelly-Kepplestone, a private boarding school for girls in Eastbourne – and it seems Robeson came down to stay at the school as a guest around this time.

On 30 August 1931 Robeson returned to perform ‘Negro spirituals and plantation folk songs’ at the Winter Garden (Eastbourne Gazette, 26 August, 1931).  On 2 September 1931, the Eastbourne Gazette reported that ‘after his appearance at the Winter Garden many were the enthusiastic comments’.   Robeson ‘ the famous actor-vocalist’ returned again on Sunday 11 October 1931 to perform alongside Henry G. Amers’ Municipal Orchestra at Winter Garden (Eastbourne Chronicle, 10 October 1931).  As one columnist, ‘Gazza’, wrote in the Eastbourne Gazette on 14 October 1931, ‘Those of us who were fortunate enough to hear Paul Robeson at the Winter Garden on Sunday evening were no doubt conscious of the grave personality behind this great negro singer. He stood before us in immaculate evening dress, with gold ring glittering on the little finger of his right band, yet his voice sang to us the deep spiritual outpourings, of his own race. I seemed to see him he might have been in his own country, the ebony blackness of his body etched sharply against the white of the cotton fields; or in days before that … down by the river, while his elders sang of the sweet chariot that was coming to carry them to their home. Today he stands the emblem the triumph of art over colour.’

On the evening Sunday 12 August 1934, Robeson returned after a three year absence to perform again at the Winter Garden in Eastbourne at a sell out show at which many people were turned away, unable to get in.  The Eastbourne Gazette reported on their front page on 15 August 1934 there was Paul Robeson Enthusiasm at the Winter Garden’:

‘Extraordinary and almost overpowering was the enthusiasm that greeted Paul Robeson’s singing at the Winter Garden, Devonshire Park, Sunday evening, by an audience that all but overflowed into the gangways. It is three years ago that this deservedly accomplished and popular singer was in Eastbourne, and doubtless he was in the happy position of one who was sure of pleasing many old admirers. To one who had not heard him before he must have appealed as singularly striking and attractive personality: one who carries his six-feet four with all the modesty of a skylark, sings with the ease and grace of nightingale, and whose art springs direct from Nature. Schubert would have written songs on the back of an envelope for Paul Robeson. A couple of Negro spirituals opened his programme.  “Go Down Moses” and “Roll de ol’ Chariot.” Of course, if some religious artist were to paint pictures to-day of such “far off, divine events” on the lines of these Negro spirituals ” he would promptly be accused of something very closely allied to blasphemy. Still, treating the Old Testament Scriptures as so much folk-lore a step in the right direction, and, after all, it was the way we learnt it at our mother’s knee:

Go down Moses,

Way down an Egypt’s Lan’.

Tell ole Pharoah

To let my people go.”

which is, all said and done, what no doubt really happened. Sung by Paul Robeson, it becomes peculiarly pictorial and dramatic: “And the Lord said unto Moses” becomes a “religious ballad” which would have delighted Robert Burns.

Such favourites as “Shenandoah,” Ol’ Man River” (a burning and heartsearching ballad of Mississippi slavery), the pretty “Lindy did you hear dat mockin’ bird sing las’ night”, “Wagon Wheels,”  “L’il David, play on your harp”:

“L’il David was a shepherd boy,

He killed Goliath, an’ he shouted for Joy,”

and some encores (Robeson speaks so quietly that it was difficult be sure of the titles), and a recitation to wind up, all these ditties trolled and crooned in this rich, sweet and mellow monotone, enchanted the large crowd of admirers, who called for more and yet more. Robeson is an “American” born in the States. His father was a parson, and his grandfather—a slave. Britain, following the Roman lead, has made her slaves freedmen, and now the sons of freedmen enslave the masters with their art. Very admirable music came from Alfred Campoli and his Trio of violin, ‘cello and piano. Lawrence Brown at the piano, was accomplished accompanist.’

‘EHB’ added on 15 August 1934 in the Eastbourne Gazette, the following report of Robeson:

‘The unusual spectacle of long queues of people patiently waiting outside the doors of the Winter Garden on Sunday evening ten minutes after the performance had begun in the hope of gaining admission the hall, which was already packed, found its explanation in the fact that Mr Paul Robeson was the attractive magnet that had drawn this huge concourse there. Inside the hall every seat was occupied and there was no standing room. It must always be an interesting problem to the student of psychology in what the particular attraction to the public of any special popular film or musical comedy star lies in excess of that accorded to the others. Fashion has, however, decreed that the particular idol of the moment should reign supreme in his sphere, and the public bow this decree. Many superlatives have been lavishly showered on Mr Robeson by the Press—he is described on the programme possessing the “greatest natural voice in the world today,” which is, of course, merely hyperbolical gush.  Mr Robeson is a man of culture and high attainments with admirable bass-baritone voice, but no critic who knows what he is talking about would call him a great singer. What he sings he sings extremely well, but no better than any other good baritone, and to my mind his range of expression is very restricted, and I find little variety of tone colour or inflection in his voice. He interprets his own native folksongs to perfection, but the standard of a singer’s achievement rests on a much wider basis interpretative scope than that. Mr Robeson was accorded a tremendous welcome by the enormous audience on Sunday evening, and sang many characteristic numbers from his repertoire, including some negro spirituals, folk tunes, and examples by Jerome Kern, Palmgren and Lawrence Brown. A deafening downpour of rain unfortunately drowned his singing of the haunting melody “Shenandoah,” but this was only a transitory eclipse, and in all his songs Mr Robeson showed himself the artist that he undoubtedly is. He was supported in the programme by Mr Alfredo Campoli and his trio – a very attractive instrumental combination, which has been heard here with pleasure before.’

Publicity shot for Paul Robeson’s concerts in the mid-1930s

Robeson – now billed as ‘the world’s greatest Negro actor, singer and film star’ (Eastbourne Gazette, 17 April 1935)  returned to perform ‘a light popular programme’ at the Winter Garden with Lawrence Brown on 20 April 1935.

Advertisement for Paul Robeson at the Winter Garden in the Eastbourne Gazette, 17 April 1935

As ‘EHB’ noted in the Eastbourne Gazette  on Wednesday 24 April 1935,

‘The huge audience that gathered in the Winter Garden hear Mr Paul Robeson on Saturday evening offered another striking example star worship. Not only was every seat, but every inch of standing-room in the hall was occupied by this vast concourse. He was received on Saturday evening with the frenzied acclamation due to a member of the film constellation, and whatever he sang was accorded the tribute of an ovation. He sang, as he always does, very well: but his voice lacks sonority, and in the upper tones is thin and a little nasal in quality, while there is a trace of tremolo here and there. is good baritone voice, but in sense an outstanding one. It is, of course, in his native “spirituals” that Mr Robeson is always at his best, and several of these were included in his selections on Saturday, among them “Go Down, Moses,” “Ebenezer, Roll de ol’ Chariot” and Burleigh’s “Were You There?” (which, by the way, was referred to by the Archbishop of Canterbury ins address on Good Friday morning). By way of variety Mr Robeson included “O, No John, No!” which he sang admirably. In another group were two Gretchaninoff songs and “Ol Man River,” which Robeson substituted for another number, and this, too, was of course, received with appropriate enthusiasm. The duets in which Mr Robeson was joined by his accompanist. Mr Laurence Brown, were cleverly sung; and amusing, and among his encores were such old favourites as “Poor Old Joe ” and “The Old Kentucky Home.” The orchestra contributed a modestly supplementary share to the programme, but their playing was very warmly applauded and appreciated by the holiday audience.’

Robeson returned again to Eastbourne’s Winter Garden with Lawrence Brown on 11 August 1935, for a ‘popular programme featuring his greatest successes’ and alongside H.G. Amers and his Orchestra (see Eastbourne Gazette, 7 August 1935).   As the Eastbourne Chronicle noted on 17 August 1935, Robeson now talked of his love of coming to Eastbourne.

“Whenever I come to Eastbourne I always have lovely audiences, and it pleased me greatly to know that the songs you like best are also my favourites.” Paul Robeson, who may be considered the world’s leading negro baritone, said these few words to the audience at the Winter Garden on Sunday evening at the conclusion of his concert. Every seat was occupied, and the enthusiasm knew no bounds. Seldom a singer been recalled for so many encores, which on this occasion outnumbered the items on the programme while it was plainly evident that Mr. Robeson enjoyed singing as much as listeners appreciated it. The most popular song was, of course, “Old Man River” which Paul Robeson made his finishing item, but even then equally delightful were “Mammies little babie likes shortnin’ bread,” “Steal Away” (this by request), and many others. The Canoe Song from “Sanders of the River,” the film in which Mr. Robeson is appearing was most enthusiastically received.’

AS EHB noted in the Eastbourne Gazette on 14 August 1935,

‘A very large holiday audience filled every put of the Winter Garden on Sunday evening when Mr Paul Robeson, in conjunction with the Municipal Orchestra was the special attraction. Robeson appeared to be in excellent voice and was. as usual, accompanied on the piano by Mr Lawrence Brown a beautiful accompanist, by the way, who first appeared few years ago in London as solo pianist. In his two groups of songs Mr Robeson included several popular spiritual examples, among them “Go down Moses,” “I’ll hear de Trumpet soun’” and “Goin’ to ride up in de Chariot,” arranged by Brown, and interesting songs of other types—“ The Wanderer,” a Finnish folk song arranged Selim Palmgren, the Russian song, “O. Ivan, you Ivan,” Rimaky-Korsakov, a clever nursery rhyme, Short’nin’ Bread,” arranged Wolfe, “Water Boy.” the convict song, and an amusing little folk song. “L’il David,” arranged Lawrence Brown, the charming sea chantie, ‘‘Shenandoah,” and, of course, several encores. Including the favourite plantation song, “Old Jo.” Needless to add, Mr Robeson received the most enthusiastic welcome.  The orchestra, under Captain Amers, also received their full share of appreciation, and every number on the programme was given rounds hearty applause. The selections were of the popular kind and entirely to the taste of the audience.’

It seems he returned possibly again in 1936 (when we know Robeson did play De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on 22 March 1936, see Eastbourne Gazette, 11 March 1936), and again on Sunday 7 August 1938 in the Floral Hall at the Winter Garden in Eastbourne.  As EAT reported for the Eastbourne Gazette on 10 August 1938, there were ‘remarkable scenes at Winter Garden’ as an audience of 1,800 were ‘bewitched’ by ‘the magic’ of ‘that master of song’ – Paul Robeson, with ‘hundreds’ turned away unable to get seats to listen, as had happened two years before.

‘About 1,800 Robeson-fans crowded the Floral Hall hundreds more ware disappointed, seats were provided and many contented themselves with standing, but still enough were turned away have filled another hall. And the scenes inside the hall were memorable. More than usually generous in the warmth of their reception of the preliminary items, the crowd applauded wildly on the appearance Mr Robeson.  At the end of the first half of the show the clamour of the audience necessitated two encores, while at the close of the original programme they simply would not let Paul go. He recalled time after time and even after giving four more items the company wanted more. The applause was terrific. The programme was worthy of the reception. Of Mr Robeson one can say nothing new. The richness of his voice, the strength of his expression. the clarity and forcefulness of his enunciation, have moved the hearts of millions. In days when all that is best music, in song and in their exponents is brought to the masses through the wireless, there still remains only one Paul Robeson. His singing is not merely heard, it is felt, and the inspiration of his singing defies adequate description.   The programme on Sunday was admirable in its demonstration of Mr Robeson’s equal capacity in varying moods of song. In compositions both grave and gay, in pieces delicate or inspiriting, he showed himself once again the complete master. Prominent, of course, were the negro spirituals, those songs of enchanting rhythm and haunting melody which he has made famous.  He began with “Go Down Moses,” followed later by the lovely, amusing, yet impressive, “Ezekhiel Saw de Wheel” (in which he was assisted in a vocal duet by pianist, Lawrence Brown). “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and (again in duet form) “Joshua Fit Battle of Jericho,” while another great favourite, “Little David Play on Your Harp.” was given as one of the many encores, again the assistance of Lawrence Brown. The popular, somewhat hackneyed, “Shenandoah” especially appealed to the audience by reason of the new meaning, the new beauty which Mr Robeson’s voice brought to the song. Another especially appreciated rendering was that of the well-known English piece, “O, No, John!” in which the singer’s wealth of expression gave the song its full appeal. The negro convict song “Water Boy,” the little negro’s heart-cry for his African home “In Galam,” Moussorgsky’s “After the Battle,” the Mexican folk song “Encantadora Maria” and “Sometimes I Feel Like Motherless Chile” were also in the programme. Upon his recall to the stage at the close, Mr Robeson could not resist the for the song for which, perhaps. he is the most famous, “ Ole Man River.” while the beautiful melody of “Curly Headed Baby” provided an appropriate and delightful finale. Although Mr Robeson naturally held wide of place, the entire evening’s programme was one of distinction. For opening of each half was sustained by Alfredo Campoli the well-known whose broadcasts are so popular, assisted by Morris Westerby (cello) and Sidney Crook (piano). His playing was of the usual brilliance, worthy of an outstanding evening’.

Robeson also performed across the South Coast in these years – in April 1938, Paul Robeson performed at Brighton Dome – as covered in the Brighton and Hove Gazette on 30 April 1938.

Paul Robeson review “Audience clamour for more” – Brighton and Hove Gazette, 30 April 1938

As Larry Brown, Robeson’s friend and musical assistant, recalled to Marie Seton the provincial tours of 1938-1939 were ‘the most successful’ they ever had.  ‘We never had audiences like those we had in 1938 and 1939.  The people who formed the backbone of England – those who had kind hearts and were human – had always appreciated Paul.  Now they seemed to love him more than ever because of what he was trying to do for the people.’

Eastbourne Winter Garden – Paul Robeson performed here at least nine times between 1929 and 1939

Notice also references to Spain in the Brighton and Hove Gazette report and in the Eastbourne Gazette‘s report a notice about the local solidarity work with refugees from the Spanish Civil War – a struggle for freedom and democracy against fascism which Paul Robeson had characteristically thrown his support behind, which Mike Anderson, who has helped with this piece, has written about here. When Paul Robeson went to Spain to visit the International Brigades and give a concert to entertain them, one of those in attendance listening was Stan Hilton, a member of the International Brigades born in Newhaven who grew up in Brighton.

Paul Robeson in the Eastbourne Gazette, 10 August 1938

On Monday 10 April 1939, for Easter Monday, Paul Robeson returned to the Winter Garden, supported by the Municipal Orchestra, once again ensuring a full house in attendance (Eastbourne Chronicle, 15 April 1939)  As the Eastbourne Gazette noted on 12 April 1939,

‘Easter Monday and Paul Robeson brought what was expected: a large audience to the Winter Garden. His programme contained, at the one emotional extreme, a song by Moussorgsky (“After the Battle”), and one of Kennedy Reaser’s arrangements of the Hebridean Songs (“An Eriskay love lilt ”). On the other hand there was, of course, a group of those spirituals ” which some admire so profoundly and others dislike so heartily, “Stan’ still Jordan,” “Roll de ol’ chariot along,” Li’l David,” the “sermon-song” about “Weepin’ Mary” and another about Methusaleh and Elijah and Daniel as “Witness for de Lord”; and between these cults came the nursery rhyme “Shortenin’ Bread,” and “Ol’ Man River,” and “Ma Curly-headed baby.” The quiet power of Robeson’s rich and resonant voice penetrates everywhere the softest syllable could be heard at the back of the Winter Garden on Monday evening.’

On 30 July 1939 once again Robeson was set to perform at the Winter Garden accompanied by Lawrence Brown on the piano (Eastbourne Gazette, 19 July 1939), though it seems this was postponed to 24 September 1939 (See Eastbourne Gazette, 26 July 1939), and so given the outbreak of war this concert probably did not take place.

On 6 November 1940, one reader to the Eastbourne Gazette  noted that ‘Myra Hess, Richard Tauber and Paul Robeson’ have ‘been the biggest concert “draw” we have had at the Winter Garden for the last few years’.  On 17 February 1945 the Eastbourne Chronicle columnist G. Wilcox confirmed that Paul Robeson drew the largest crowds in recent years to Winter Garden, Devonshire Park.  Robeson’s 1,573 tickets sold for his 1938 show at Winter Garden was still regarded as ‘the record for recent years’ – beating the likes of Richard Tauber (1,404), Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch for ‘Band Waggon’ (1507) – both in 1939, as well as the 70 strong London Philharmonic Orchestra playing in 1945 (1,175).

Update (May 2022): The refurbished Winter Garden is going to dedicate a special Paul Robeson Room in honour of Robeson’s legendary performances at the venue and a special commemorative programme of events is being put together to help launch this.  So far these include a special performance of ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko at the Grove Theatre in Eastbourne on Friday 4 November 2022 – details of how to book tickets here:  Thanks to Mike Anderson for help with the research for this blog post.