Source: Ham and High
By Andrew Whitehead Published: 4:11 PM June 17, 2021
Joe Gibbons in Spain in 1938, and the new bench – Credit: Mariah Wilson/City of London Corporation
Three brothers who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s are remembered in a new bench on Hampstead Heath.
It replaces an old bench which was falling apart – after local residents launched a global effort to track down relatives of those to whom it was dedicated.
“I had no idea the bench existed,” said New Yorker Mariah Wilson, the granddaughter of one of the brothers.
Once aware of the memorial and its dilapidation, Wilson became a key figure in arranging the replacement bench, which has been put in place this month.
The story starts with Martin Plaut, a Kentish Town resident and regular Heath runner. He noticed a bench in poor repair with an intriguing inscription: “Danny, Tommy, Joe Gibbons, International Brigaders, 1936-1938 – Pat Dooley, Speaker at Parliament Hill, Editor, 1901-1958 – The Family Proudly Remembers, April 1980.”
Martin set about tracking down the family to let them know about the state of the bench and to offer help if funds were needed to replace it.
The old bench before it was removed – Credit: Martin Plaut
The International Brigade Memorial Trust, which honours the memory of the 2,500 men and women from Britain and Ireland who fought to save Spanish democracy, joined in what became a transatlantic quest to keep alive the memory of those named on the bench.
The Gibbons brothers were from the Vale of Leven in Scotland. Joe Gibbons, Mariah’s grandfather, served in Spain with the American battalion of the International Brigades.
Joe Gibbons in Spain in 1938 – Credit: Mariah Wilson
Danny, from Camden, was political commissar of the British battalion and was injured at the battle of Jarama in February 1937 – he was invalided out, insisted on returning, was taken prisoner and eventually released as part of an exchange with German and Italian detainees.
Tommy Gibbons never made it home from Spain – he was killed in the battle of Brunete in July 1937.
The fourth man on the original inscription, Pat Dooley, was related to the Gibbons family and a lifelong left-winger with a talent for oratory. He was jailed for six weeks in 1935 after trying to disrupt a meeting in Camden of Oswald Mosley’s British fascist movement.
Mariah Wilson has arranged that the new inscription also pays tribute to two additional family members. The full inscription now reads: “In Honour of International Brigaders Danny, Tommy, Joe Gibbons & Milt Cohen who fought fascism in Spain’s Civil War; and revolutionaries John Gibbons & Pat Dooley.”
John Gibbons, the fourth brother, was a prominent left-winger but didn’t fight in Spain. It is said that the British Communist Party felt it would be unfair to the family for all four men to be serving in such a hazardous conflict in which more than 500 British volunteers died.
Milt Cohen was a good friend of Joe Gibbons. They travelled from the US and made the journey from Marseilles to Barcelona on the same ship. It was torpedoed by an Italian submarine and many on board died – but Joe helped his friend Milt get to safety. Both men fought in Spain and Milt suffered a head injury.
Milt Cohen was injured while serving in Spain – Credit: Mariah Wilson
Once back home, Milt Cohen married Joe Gibbons’ sister-in-law and went on to become a prominent figure in Chicago left politics.
This sponsored bench is one of almost 600 on Hampstead Heath. The City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath, only has contact details relating to about 200 of these. It costs £2,600 for a 10-year sponsorship of a bench – but so great is the demand, the waiting list is currently closed.
Scottish members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust donated several hundred pounds towards the new bench; most of the cost was met by the family.
“I hope the bench will be a peaceful and beautiful place for people to sit and contemplate the bravery and selflessness of all who fought fascism in Spain – and during the Second World War”, said the trust’s president, Marlene Sidaway.
The new bench installed earlier this month – Credit: City of London Corporation
Mariah Wilson, who is researching the family’s history, hopes to visit London and the bench with her Florida-based father.
The Gibbons’ bench is close to what the authorities call the small tumulus. It’s on the edge of a small copse of pine trees looking out towards Highgate.
If you walk north with the men’s pond immediately to your right, then once past the pond, look to your left and about 200 yards away up a slope is a clump of trees surrounded by several benches – and the one you are seeking, distinctly fresher and smarter than the others, faces to the east.
Andrew Whitehead is a local resident, historian and author of the ‘Curious’ series of books about North London’s past.
The inscription on the new bench – Credit: City of London CorporationHampstead HeathHeritageHampstead News