The mound of earth next to Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate cemetery lay unmarked and untended.
It contained the ashes of Claudia Jones, the civil rights heroine who played a pivotal role in the anti-racism campaigns of the 1950s following her deportation to Britain during the anti-communist witch-hunts in the US.
A brilliant organiser and charismatic speaker, she set up Britain’s first commercial black newspaper to give a voice to newly arrived Caribbean migrants and also serve as a platform for the wider campaign for social justice. She is also credited with bringing carnival to London as a community response to the Notting Hill race riots of 1958.
But her health had been permanently broken by the year she spent in a US jail for subversion and she died suddenly at her home in Lisburne Road, Gospel Oak, north London, in 1964 aged just 49. Without her dynamic leadership, the West Indian Gazette swiftly folded while, outside of communist circles, she became a largely forgotten figure, her oblivion symbolised by the unadorned grave.
It may have remained that way had it not been for the efforts of a group of youngsters, who raised money for a headstone to be finally erected 20 years later. They were members of the Afro Caribbean Organisation (ACO) based a few miles away in King’s Cross, one of the numerous black ‘self-help’ groups that sprang up in the 1970s to counter racial discrimination and police harassment.
Its leader was youth worker and ardent communist Winston Pinder. Winston, originally from Barbados, had been a friend of Claudia’s having been a member of the welcome party that met her at London’s Victoria Station following her deportation from the US in 1955.
“I had been asked to meet Claudia as member of the communist party’s Caribbean committee, along with Trevor Carter, who was also a relative of hers, and Billy Strachan,” he recalls. “She’d just been released from prison where we heard they’d given her a hard time. But this smartly dressed woman came walking down the platform looking like she was ready to get down to work straight away. She was also extremely gracious and charming and I knew that I was in the presence of someone very special.”
As a fellow party member, Winston got to see a lot of Claudia, particularly when she moved from south London to Lisburne Road, which was not far from where he lived. “She asked me to sell the West Indian Gazette, which I did, outside Kentish Town tube station, and it always sold well as there was a sizeable Eastern Caribbean community living in the area.”
Like many he would regard Claudia as his political mentor, remembering the long discussions they would frequently have together. But he also recalls a lighter side to her character. “Claudia loved to dance and have a drink and was always fun to be with,” he says.
At her request, Claudia’s ashes were interred next to Karl Marx’s tomb following a funeral at Golders Green Crematorium where her grief stricken partner Abhimanya Manchanda, the Gazette‘s managing editor, led a procession of several hundred mourners. But years later, Winston received a phone call from cemetery volunteer Bill Fairman telling him about the sorry state of her final resting place.
“Bill used to look after Karl Marx’s tomb and had always wondered who the grave next to it belonged to as it looked so abandoned,” says Winston. “He found out after searching cemetery records and was able to point the many visitors who came searching for Claudia in the right direction.”
At a meeting to discuss the matter at the ACO’s offices in Gray’s Inn Road, a group of young people suggested a campaign should be launched to buy a headstone.
“They were a very conscious group of youngsters and wanted to make sure Claudia was properly honoured for her great achievements and sacrifice,” says Winston.
Carved out of polished Cornish granite, the stone cost £1,500, a no small sum of money in those days. Over the next two years, fund raising dances were held while hundreds of individuals and organisations responded to requests for donations, including Ben Bousquet, a west London councillor who used to run errands for Claudia as a youth, and Tony Benn, then MP for Bristol South East.
“Bill Fairman even cashed in an insurance policy to make his own contribution,” recalls Winston.
The biggest donations, though, came from the Chinese and Cuban governments, which gave £300 apiece.
However, raising the money was only part of the problem. Early on in the campaign, Abhimanya Manchanda informed the ACO that he was the owner of Claudia’s burial plot and threatened Winston with legal action if he interfered with it.
“At first he was amenable and even came to the Afro Caribbean Organisation for a meeting,” says Winston taking up the story. “But later he rang me up and warned me not to put anything on the plot. Then he took out a writ against me.”
By this time the headstone was almost ready to be collected from Thomas Judd Memorials in Holloway and Mike Siefert, the ACO’s lawyer, offered some quirky advice. “He reasoned that as we didn’t have the money to fight Manchanda legally we might as well go ahead with our plans and wait and see what happened.”
Shortly after a final cheque for £186 was paid to the stonemason’s, a ceremony was hurriedly organised in January 1984 to lay the stone, attended by ACO members, representatives from the Chinese and Cuban embassies and the Morning Star journalist Mikki Doyle who had been deported from the US at the same time as Claudia.
From that day to this, nothing more was heard from Manchanda, who it turned out, had not bought the burial plot after all. Some years later, Winston received a letter from Mikki Doyle to say she was the rightful owner and was signing it over to him. “It is all a bit of a mystery and I’m still scratching my head over it,” he laughs. “But at least Claudia had a headstone.”
Apart from a mention in the local paper, the Camden New Journal, and the Morning Star, the little gathering at Highgate’s East Cemetery passed completely unnoticed. It would take another 20 years for Claudia Jones to be reclaimed for posterity, thanks in part to the launch of Black History Month in the UK.
In 2008 her image appeared on a UK postage stamp as part of the Women of Distinction issue and in 2011 a blue plaque was erected in Notting Hill to commemorate her role in bringing carnival to Britain (though there is, as yet, no marker at her home in Lisburne Road, Gospel Oak). Much has been written and spoken about her extraordinary life, particularly in this her centenary year, but few people are aware that it is thanks to an anonymous group of youngsters that Claudia now has a proper resting place.
The grave is listed in Highgate Cemetery’s VIP guide for visitors and a few years ago two of the original fund-raisers, now with grown up children of their own, planted a red rose bush behind the stone, which is often festooned with bunches of flowers left by those who have come to pay their respects. There are more than 50,000 graves in Highgate but Claudia’s is easy to find – on a slight incline to the left of Karl Marx, bearing the inscription “valiant fighter against racism and imperialism”.
This is an extended version of an article that was published in the Camden New Journal, March 5, 2015