The Typist, the Historian and the Scottish Scarlet Pimpernel by Kimberley Beasley

Whilst cataloguing the papers of John Duncan Mackie (1887-1978) I came across some fascinating letters that had been sent to him and his wife during the time of the Spanish Civil War. They give voice to a young Communist woman in 1930s Glasgow, Helen Scott Brown Lennox – a voice that might not otherwise be heard were it not for these few letters found amongst the papers of someone who might be described as her polar opposite: a man, a soldier, and professional historian who worked for the establishment.


The letters, like so many fragments of otherwise undocumented lives, are preserved because of their place in the papers of someone else. Being a woman, Helen’s words had less chance of making it into the archive; being a Communist and her chances drop again; being both it is remarkable that her words have lasted across the years. John Duncan Mackie however, had every chance of his words being preserved indeed it would be more remarkable if his words hadn’t made it into the archive.

Helen Scott Brown Lennox was born in Beith, Ayrshire on 19th October 1889. She came to the University of Glasgow in 1905 and was an excellent student, winning prizes in Greek, Humanity and Logic and Metaphysics. She graduated on 8th June 1909 with a first class honours degree in Classics. John Duncan Mackie also received a first class degree in 1909 but studied at Jesus College, Oxford. Helen went on to work as a typist whilst John would take academic posts at the University of St Andrews and the University of Glasgow. It appears that Helen and John met when she worked for him, although she never knew him well. This contrast in their lives, which began in such a similar fashion, is further emphasised when she wrote to him on 13th November 1936:

I meant to get into touch with you to ask if you had any more typing work, but circumstances now force me to approach you as a beggar.

In this letter she asks John for money to help two close friends who “have got into danger abroad” and a man who needs to be cleared of “false suspicion”. She admits that she is vague with the details as she is sworn to secrecy but she can “promise a thriller” if she is allowed to tell her story. In the next letter, the plot thickens. Helen has written another letter which has made her friends’ position “quite untenable”, even saying she has tried to offer her life for theirs:

I feel these two women’s blood on me

She finally gives the names of everyone involved in the third letter and describes the “mad storm in a teacup” which led to Jenny Patrick and Ethel MacDonald being unable to work in Barcelona due to factionalism. Ethel became an English-language broadcaster in Barcelona, a city that had a complex political situation during the Spanish Civil War. Both her and Jenny were present for the infamous ‘May Days’ and in a newspaper article, also found in the papers of John Duncan Mackie, she describes the clashes and how they stopped to allow Spanish women to go to market:

 We mingled with these women, some of whom carried little white flags in their hands. We would slink along a street, hugging a wall. At every corner, where we knew there was a barricade, one of the women would poke her little flag around

Ethel would eventually become known as the ‘Scottish Scarlet Pimpernel’ for her work helping to smuggle out prisoners and smuggle in letters and food and her arrival home was much celebrated.

The correspondence that is left discusses Jenny as the first person to dye Helen’s hair and then ends with a postscript where Helen frets for Ethel who is ill from privation- at this point Helen is yet to have paid back all the money she owes to the Mackies. We know that both Jenny and Ethel made it safely home

It appears that John Duncan Mackie was interested in Glasgow’s far left, as there are other fragments from its history in his papers. There is a 1919 issue of The Communist with some phrases underlined:

Be men, not doormats. Light the red hell of revolution if need be!

One of Helen’s letters suggests that he may have “curiosity about this side of contemporary Glasgow” and may like to join them at 71 Stirling Road. It could simply be that having given her money and heard such a dramatic tale, the professor collected some fragments of the world that surrounded it. The letters are stored, with some other cuttings, in a typed book of poems by Helen Lennox. Perhaps these were a gift of thanks for lending the money, or perhaps he knew her from the poetry.

The exact reason that Helen Brown Scott Lennox’s words survive is unclear: why did John Duncan Mackie keep them? As a cataloguer these letters provide an interesting contrast between people who upon graduation were only separated by their gender but in their records are separated by much more. It is a fortunate historical survival that allows us to hear the words of those who, although able to speak for themselves, might never have been given the chance.

For the full catalogue see DC 032: The Papers of John Duncan Mackie 1887-1978, historian and Professor of Scottish History & Literature, University of Glasgow, Scotland, 1930-1957

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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