Leicester: Opposing Fascism – The Spanish Civil War

A leaflet, in black text on white paper, headed “Crisis – Spain”, calling for donations of food, clothing and money and including the words: “Shall the cries of the hungry children on Spain go unanswered? Shall the women of Spain, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their menfolk for their homes and for their liberty against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s armies, perish of starvation?
A black and white photo portrait of a young white man with glasses.





The Republican government of Spain faced an attempted coup led by General Franco and other members of the military elite, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Initially, the coup was only partially successful, leading to the protracted Civil War.

Motivated by political and humanitarian impulses, Leicester’s Communists campaigned for aid for the Republic. With unemployment a pressing issue, Communists and Fascists clashed in their attempts to capture working-class support.

Left-wing activists raised funds for the Republican Spanish government, while Leicester’s Fascists, the ‘Blackshirts’, sympathised with the rebels. Encounters between Fascists and Communists often turned violent, and at one point the Fascist headquarters was attacked.

A black and white photograph of young white man looking at the broken windows of a building. Two posters on the building’s wall reads “Action. Who fights for Czechoslovakia?” while another poster advertising a Fascist meeting shows a photograph of Oswald Mosley.
‘One of the Broken windows at the Fascist H.Q’. Credit: Leicester Mercury, 1938.

Of 2500 British individuals who fought for the Republic, 500 were killed, including volunteers from Leicester.

A black and white photo portrait of a young white man with glasses.
Photo of Roy Watts, from Roy Watts memorial card, 1938. Credit: The Record Office of Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland.

Roy Watts wrote letters from Spain describing his war-time experiences and calling for more help. He was killed in September 1938 when an enemy bomb hit the farmhouse in which he was sheltering.

I hardly need remind you that the banks of the Ebro are also the doorsteps of our homes in England too. Until 2 days ago I was the only representative from Leicester but now a young lad who came from Leicester […] joined us.

Extract from a letter home by roy watts

Fred Sykes was an experienced working-class activist who led Leicester’s unemployed workers movement, and subsequently the local Communist Party. In August 1936 he was arrested in the Marketplace for disturbing the peace. Four months later he left for Spain and was killed in 1937.

Sykes, Watts and others from Leicester who died fighting the Fascists in Spain, have been transformed into working-class heroes. In 2018 people from across the UK attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in the Leicester Marketplace, honouring the Civil War volunteers. 

A colour photograph of an elderly white women lifting a red, yellow and mauve flag to reveal a plaque embedded in the pavement. Behind her is a bouquet of flowers on a table.
The Leicester plaque. Credit: Lyn Hurst.

We are reminding the citizens of Leicester that we all need to be vigilant against Fascism and remember the sacrifice made by the International Brigades

Lyn Hurst?

Content by Adrian Pole and Henry Brown.

This can be read alongside the story of Leah Manning from Islington and together they show several ways in which people in Britain showed solidarity with those fighting Fascism in Spain. These included humanitarian aid and support for refugees.

Non-governmental organisations providing medical aid and food supplies in war zones, working with displaced people in refugee camps, or drawing attention to human rights abuses all continually need help in many forms. Huge numbers of unaccompanied child migrants –  modern equivalents of the Basque children –  face exploitation, trafficking, detention or death. Even small actions of international solidarity can make a big difference.

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