02 November 2006

"It is not a sin”, said that legendary Franciscan Fr Neville Palmer SSF, towards the end of the 1950s, “to vote for Solly Kaye.”

The death of the equally legendary former Communist councillor for Stepney, Solly Kaye, at the age of 91 on May Day — he always planned things well — brings almost to an end a remarkable generation of Jewish Communists who played a key part in fighting injustice in the East End of London.

Solly was an atheist, though he retained and manifested much of the power and passion of the ancient Jewish prophets. I once wrote that “he was a charismatic orator whose election meetings resembled old-fashioned revival meetings, though without reference to God.”

Why should Solly Kaye be commemorated in a church newspaper? Because he stood for justice for humanity, and fought for the rights of all people. But, in the East London context, his relationship with the churches was fascinating.

Fr John Groser, who worked in the East End from 1922 to 1962, said that “Solly Kaye is the one remaining prophet of the Lord amid all the prophets of Baal on Stepney Council” — a comment that amused and moved Solly enormously, but did not please the (very right wing) Labour establishment. Both Solly and John were involved in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.

One of Solly’s great enemies, for a while, was Fr Joe Williamson of St Paul’s, Dock Street. Williamson was an ardent royalist, and fiercely anti-Communist. Although Solly was equally committed to combating slum landlords, and was a key figure on the Anti-Vice Committee, Williamson had no time for him — until 1963. In that year, a slum tenement in Whitechapel, Eileen Mansions, was put up for sale.

Solly disguised himself as a City tycoon and appeared at the London Auction Mart as a potential buyer. When Eileen Mansions was announced, he jumped on to a table and proclaimed: “If any of you buys this property, you will get more trouble than you bargained for, not only from me but from the tenants I represent.” He was thrown out, but nobody bought Eileen Mansions.  The following day, Fr Williamson told church people in Stepney they should always vote for Solly Kaye.

Some of the graffiti about him probably still survive. When the Granby Estate in Bethnal Green was being built in the mid-1970s, the cleansing department was ordered to wash off all the graffiti before building began. This they did, until they came to one that said “Vote for Solly Kaye.” They refused to remove that one. In the 1960s, the artist Geoffrey Fletcher published his book Pearly Kingdom, a book of drawings of East End scenes. The last drawing is of a public lavatory in Limehouse. On the wall is written, “Vote for Solly Kaye”. No other local figure ever had his graffiti preserved for so long.


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