THE LITHUANIANS

by Murdoch Rodgers, 1985

During the nineteenth century, there were two quite distinct waves of immigration into Scotland: the influx of Irish settlers, which reached a peak in the 1840s, and a smaller movement of European immigrants between the 1880s and the First World War. According to the census returns, there were never more than 25,000 immigrants in this second wave, with almost half of that number coming from Tsarist Russia. It has been assumed that these Russian immigrants were from the persecuted Jewish community, that they were of artisan or commercial backgrounds, and that their experience of immigration and settlement was largely similar to the Russian groups in the East End of London, Leeds, and Manchester. This was not the case.

Those immigrants who arrived in Scotland from Tsarist Lithuania came primarily from peasant stock, were predominantly Catholic, and had virtually no contact with their Jewish compatriots whose experience of immigration was entirely different. They left Lithuania mainly because of a rapid deterioration in their standard of living. An increase in population, heavier taxation, and a fall in grain prices forced many peasants to seek a more secure future elsewhere. Between 1868 and 1914, about one in four Lithuanians made this choice, with the main exodus occurring in the 1890s and 1900s. It is estimated that, in this period, the Lithuanian community in Scotland increased in size from a few hundred to around 7,000. About 2,000 others settled elsewhere in Britain. It is significant, too, that a considerable number of Lithuanians, perhaps in the region of 15,000, were resident in Scotland only for a short time before moving on elsewhere.

For the vast majority of them, America was the ultimate destination and Scotland was regarded, at least in the early part of this period, as only a temporary stop on that longer journey. There were sound financial reasons for having such a break. Firstly, there were ample opportunities to earn money by working in the expanding coal and iron and steel industries in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. Secondly, employment with some of the larger companies included provision of company-owned housing. And thirdly, for a time, it was cheaper to travel to America via the ports of Leith and Glasgow rather than to go direct. Given the impoverished conditions of most Lithuanian immigrants, these financial considerations must have had an important bearing on the development of a community in Scotland. Once it began to get itself established, it was primarily through the ‘emigrant letter’ home—the immigrants’ continuing contact through correspondence with Lithuania—that growth was sustained.

The sudden emergence of ‘colonies’ of Lithuanian settlement provoked considerable local opposition. As early as 1887, the Ayrshire Miners Union, led by Keir Hardie, demanded their removal on the grounds that: “their presence is a menace to the health and morality of the place and is, besides, being used to reduce the already too-low wages earned by the workmen”. In Lanarkshire, which became the main centre of Lithuanian settlement, similar allegations were being made against them. The powerful Lanarkshire County Miners’ Union (LCMU), for example, focused attention on the threat to employment and safety which the Lithuanian miners posed, and offered official backing to a number of strikes protesting their presence in the mines. One feature of their case centred on the fact that the number of Lithuanians working in the mines was grossly underestimated in official returns because of the practice of changing their surnames at the pithead. When immigrants with names such as Bernotaitis, Sharmaitis and Vilcinskus became Brown, Smith and Miller, they were ‘lost’ as alien labour in official returns, including the Mining Inspectorate’s accident and safety returns.

Concern about the arrival of the Lithuanians, or ‘Poles’ as they were more commonly called, was also expressed in the columns of the local press. The editor of one Lanarkshire newspaper painted the following picture in an article published in July 1900:

On all questions of labour, they are proving to be a menace to the well-being of our own people … Then again—speaking generally—they are most filthy in their habits of life, being a source of danger to the health of the community with their primitive ideas of order and cleanliness … They are fearfully intemperate in their habits [and] appeal to the knife … They are, in short, a most barbarous people, and in Bellshill we seem to have the very scum of their nation.

The not-infrequent accounts of immigrant misdemeanours in the ‘court case’ columns every week seemed to confirm this view. Under such headings as “Pole’s Poker Work”, “Polish Pandemonium”, “The Poles and the Pistol”, and “The Fighting Pole”, the immigrants were portrayed as a community where violence and anarchy were commonplace. The implication was clear enough: the locality would be well rid of them.

Under closer examination, these allegations proved to be largely without substance. In the raw culture of the mining community, fashioned out of periodic bouts of hardship and comparative affluence amid often squalid living conditions, heavy drinking and reckless behaviour were acknowledged to be part of everyday life. On questions of ‘morality and health’, it was easier to direct these at outsiders to emphasise the inadequacies in both within the local community. However, on the most contentious issue between the local and immigrant communities—employment and wages—there were grounds for local concern.

There were a number of occasions when immigrant labour was introduced to break pit disputes and to force down wage rates. The animosity which this created was not lost on those who were trying to organise the workers within the immigrant community. In Vaidelyte (Vestal), which appeared in Glasgow in 1899 and was the first Lithuanian newspaper to be published in Britain, there was editorial criticism of the immigrant labour force for its failure to support local strike action. Six years later, in Laikas (Time), the successor to Vaidelyte, a similar plea was being made:

Lithuanians, through ignorance, sometimes stand in the way of more conscious workers. On July 3rd, [1905], for example, work stopped here [Coatbridge, Lanarkshire] and an increase of a penny an hour was demanded. The Lithuanian workers did not join in and the management refused to negotiate saying that not everybody wanted the increase. That’s why the Scottish hate us so, as we do not unite with the English [sic] workers, and agree to work for lower wages … Men, understand this: the owners exploit us without mercy and make us work long hours for a pittance.

Unionisation was the key to improved relations between the Lithuanian labour force and the LCMU, which had been campaigning for over a generation to establish mining as a skilled occupation with commensurate wage levels and restricted access. Once the Lithuanians began to respond positively to local strike demands, the other allegations made against them were dropped or were simply not discussed.

The adoption of a more class-conscious attitude among the workforce emerged shortly after this appeal during a mining dispute in Lanarkshire towards the end of 1905. Thereafter, in the years to 1914, the Lithuanian miners took a very active part in union affairs. During the 1912 ‘national’ coal strike for instance, they were involved in a number of serious disturbances, including one incident when they took ‘preventive’ action (i.e. violent action) against some of their own countrymen who were strike-breaking. The strength of their new-found loyalty to the union was, in part, due to the fact that the union had taken some positive steps, albeit tardily, to encourage Lithuanian membership, such as printing the rules in Lithuanian and offering entitlement to claim full benefits. It can also be attributed to the work of the small but influential socialist element in the community. This group had formed a branch of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) in Lanarkshire in 1903 and, by 1905, had organised branches in almost all the Lithuanian communities scattered throughout Scotland. Two years later, the LSDP produced its own newspaper, Rankpelnis (Worker) and, on its first appearance, reconstituted itself into the Lithuanian Socialist Federation of Great Britain (LSF).

In the context of British socialist politics, the LSF was closest ideologically to the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and links were established between the two parties. In January 1908, for example, the Glasgow District Council of the SDF invited the Lithuanian socialists to speak at one of their meetings on the subject of ‘Marx and Marxism’. In February of the same year, the LSF were represented on the SDF platform at the commemorative demonstration to ‘Bloody Sunday’ held in Glasgow. LSF meetings were publicised in Justice, the organ of the SDF and, in April 1908, a long article was published on the work of George Turgeloonis (Kleofas Jurgelionis) in Scotland. Turgeloonis was the first editor of Rankpelnis (which it was claimed had a Scottish circulation of 600), and of a monthly illustrated paper with a circulation of 800. Justice warmly praised the work he was doing:

Comrade Turgeloonis has been a great force among his countrymen since he came here [February 1907] … he is holding meetings up and down the country wherever the Lithuanians are employed, preaching to them the class struggle, pointing out to them the benefits of trade unionism, and the advisability of their becoming naturalised subjects as soon as possible … Social Democrats in the various districts should give this young Lithuanian champion all the assistance they can in his noble work.

The link with the SDF was further confirmed by the fact that some Lithuanian socialists decided to take out membership of the party. The Glasgow South Side branch of the SDF, for instance, boasted several Lithuanian members, and described them as ‘martyrs of the l905 Russian Revolution’. It was as a result of this local activity that John Maclean, the leading SDF member in Scotland, first came into contact with the Lithuanian community. Maclean was a committed revolutionary and a highly successful teacher of Marxism to Clydeside workers. Not surprisingly, he was regarded by the authorities with considerable suspicion, as were most of his associates. When he came to the aid of the Lithuanian community after the implementation of the Anglo-Russian Military Convention in July 1917, it was to have serious repercussions for the immigrant community.

It needs to be emphasised that support for socialist politics was confined to a small but extremely active group of class-conscious workers. The majority of the immigrants were primarily concerned with making a living and not with politics, but once it became apparent that this could be facilitated by joining the union, then that was the course of action they followed. Unionisation undoubtedly helped to improve relations with the local community, but it created a serious division among the immigrants. The problem centred on the identification of trade unionism with socialism, which had been condemned in the 1891 Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum, and which was the subject of a great deal of debate in the Catholic church in Scotland after 1906. For the clergy, Scots and Lithuanian, trade-union membership became a matter of spiritual conscience rather than one of labour politics.

It was, of course, anathema to the Lithuanian clergy to have a group of socialists, the bedieviai, or ‘godless people’ as they were commonly called, in their midst. Accordingly, they worked towards challenging the LSF influence, with the result that parallel organisations were developed covering a wide range of activities, both spiritual and secular. These included Lithuanian plays, choral evenings, dances and orchestral concerts, day-trips to the seaside, and sports days. This ideological split extended to Lithuanian insurance societies, Lithuanian shops and, in 1914, to the Lithuanian press. The appearance of Iseiviu Draugas (The Emigrants’ Friend), a weekly Glasgow paper edited by Father Norbutas, the resident Lithuanian priest, was a quite deliberate attempt to counter the influence of Rankpelnis and the LSF. It marked the final stage in the breakdown of the Lithuanian community into two rival factions: those who adhered to some form of socialist doctrine, and those who remained committed to the Catholic faith. The First World War drove these two groups even further apart.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the immigrant community could claim a fair measure of success in providing a specifically Lithuanian alternative to local culture and custom. This was perhaps less important to the males in the community who were in regular contact with other workers; but, to the Lithuanian women, it provided a lifeline that helped offset the danger of disorientation and isolation after arrival. It goes some way to explaining why so few Lithuanian women of the first generation of settlement learned to speak English. It was simply not necessary. Given that the immigrant community comprised a huge majority of impoverished and poorly educated peasants, the plethora of Lithuanian organisations and societies, created within a generation of settlement, has to be recognised as a very considerable achievement.

A great deal of the organisational work was done by the Lithuanian clergy, but equally important was the contribution made by the small handful of political emigres who came to Scotland. Two individuals in particular stand out: Dr Juozas Bagdonas and Vincas Mickevicius-Kapsukas.

Bagdonas was a figure of national importance in Lithuania. He was a prolific writer and, under a variety of pseudonyms, had published a number of political and social critiques of the Tsarist system. At various times he had edited two of the country’s leading newspapers, Varpas (Bell) and Lietuviu Ukininkas (Lithuanian Farmer), which represented the views of the Liaudininkai (Populists), the Lithuanian version of the Russian narodniki. He had been forced to leave Lithuania because of his ‘underground’ activities, and arrived in Scotland in 1904. He launched himself immediately into community affairs and, within the space of a few months, was president of the Sviesa (Enlightenment) Society, which had been established in Glasgow in 1900, and was concerned mainly with the propagation of Lithuanian culture among the immigrants. He also exerted a considerable influence on Laikas, the Lithuanian newspaper, the editorial policy of which was quite explicit:

Laikas is to educate people … We are in exile here for a short time because of Tsarist oppression. But now things look hopeful: things look bad for Tsarism. When it falls we will have a free Lithuania. Then educated people will be needed.

Part of that ‘education’, according to Bagdonas, was to keep informed of the situation in Lithuania. Thus, throughout the period of its existence (July 1905 to February 1906), Laikas provided its readership with a blow-by-blow account of the revolutionary disturbances in Lithuania and reproduced the most important of the political tracts and manifestos in circulation there. It is not surprising that shortly after Bagdonas’ departure from Scotland, Laikas ceased publication.

Of even greater significance was the arrival in Scotland at the beginning of 1915 of Vincas Mikevičius-Kapsukas, leader of the radical, internationalist wing of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, and future president of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. Kapsukas immediately took over the editorship of Rankpelnis and was also editing Socialdemokratus, the theoretical organ of the Foreign Bureau of the LSDP. In both newspapers, emphasis was placed on anti-war agitation and on the issue of internationalism, with Kapsukas adopting a policy similar to that advocated by Lenin at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915.

Unfortunately, there is very little documentary evidence of Kapsukas’ work in the Lithuanian community apart from one report of a speech he gave to the Lithuanian Working Women’s Association (LWWA) in September 1915. The speech identified him as a strong supporter of women’s rights and the cause of female emancipation. Much of his time seems to have been spent establishing contacts with other Russian groups in Scotland and elsewhere. His involvement in the Russian Political Prisoners’ and Exiles’ Relief Committee had serious implications for the immigrant community. The Relief Community was an organisation that had been formed to counter the increasing harassment of Russian émigrés by the British government, and to raise funds for the revolutionary cause in Russia. Kapsukas, on behalf of the LSF in Scotland, is reported to have passed on a sum of money to the fund. The Relief Committee, however, was regarded by the authorities as a society of ‘a dangerous character’, and it seems likely that, thereafter, the LSF and its members came under close police scrutiny. When Kapsukas departed in 1916, he left behind a highly politicised and well-organised party working in a community where the polarisation of views had increased quite markedly since the start of the war.

It was against this background of division and acrimony that the Lithuanians received the news of the signing, on 16 July 1917, of the Anglo-Russian Military Convention. Under the terms of the Convention, all Russian males resident in Britain between the ages of eighteen and forty-one years faced the choice of conscription into the British Army, or deportation for military service in Russia. Opinions varied as to the best course of action to pursue. The Lithuanian priests advocated enlistment into the British Army, while the socialists were recommending that those called up should elect to return to Russia. An added complication was the British government’s decision not to make provision either for the transport of dependents or for their maintenance in Britain. The intention, it is clear, was to force as many Russians as possible into the British Army, as this would avoid the logistical, administrative, and political problems of arranging their return en masse to Russia.

In Scotland, the majority decision of the Lithuanian conscripts was to return to Russia. In Lanarkshire, for example, of the 1,800 Lithuanians called up, 700 joined the British Army and 1,100 chose deportation to Russia. The decision was taken amid a storm of protest from within the community. The LSF, for instance, sent a telegram on 26 July 1917 to the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council in Petrograd asking for their support against the Convention and the lack of maintenance for dependents. Two days later, a second telegram with a similar message was sent to the Provisional Government in Russia. Both telegrams were intercepted and stopped. The Lithuanian women also added their voice to the opposition, as this police report of a meeting held in Bellshill, Lanarkshire on 16 August 1917 indicates:

The feeling of the Meeting was purely Socialist and against Lithuanians joining either the Russian or British forces … Ona Kazlenkis, a local interpreter, gives private information to the effect that about 4:00 pm she was called upon to attend a meeting … She was informed that she had been selected to accompany Mezalauskis to London as a deputation in connection with the Recruiting for the Russian Army … When about to sign her name, however, she was informed that the object was to go to interview a Secret Russian lawyer to protest against the calling up of the ‘Poles’ for the Russian Army. They were also to interview Suffragists and get their assistance in a revolution to be commenced by women, the men to take action later …

After further police enquiries, it was discovered that most of the women were members of the LWWA, which was described as being of “a revolutionary nature”.

Support for the Lithuanians also came from the LCMU, which offered legal assistance to those Lithuanian members who wished to contest the conscription orders. Their threat to call a national coal strike in support of the dependents undoubtedly contributed to the government’s decision on 5 December 1917 to pay allowances at the rate of 12/6d per week for each women and 2/6d per week for each child. But it was the Clydeside revolutionary John Maclean, appointed Russian Consul in Glasgow in January 1918, who became the most prominent spokesman for the Lithuanian women.

Maclean, arrested twice in the early part of the war because of his political views, was persona non grata with the British government, which was becoming increasingly alarmed by the profound changes that were taking place on the political and industrial front in Britain and on the Continent. In this respect, his connection with the Lithuanians did little to help their cause. Nor did support from the LCMU, for the Lanarkshire coal fields had become identified by the government as a centre of industrial militancy.

There was a great deal of suspicion about the loyalty of the dependents, given the political reputation of the Lithuanian immigrants and those who supported them. A Home Office official pointed out that it was “somewhat anomalous” that the government was supporting “Bolchiviki [sic] dependents”, and that it would be “a good riddance” if they could be shipped to Russia. The police maintained their surveillance of the community after the departure of the ‘Conventionists’ in 1917. Some two years later, according to Home Office files, they were keeping watch on “two known Bolshevik agitators” living in the community. In March 1917, they arrested six Lithuanian workers for the publication and sale of Rankpelnis for offences against the Public Meetings Act. All six were deported after a period of about a year in prison.

Little is known of the fate of most of the Lithuanian Conventionists for, by the time they arrived in Russia, the Provisional government had fallen and they were scattered on their arrival to different parts of the country. Fewer than 350 of them are known to have returned to Scotland, and these were individuals who could prove they had fought on the Allied side in Russia, or in the Slavo-British Legion in North Russia in the Allied intervention campaigns. Those who had fought with the Bolsheviks, or could offer no proof of Allied allegiance, were refused permission to return. This meant, in effect, that their dependents in Scotland would become a permanent financial liability, and it was on the basis of these financial considerations that the government officially decided to discontinue the Treasury allowances from 31 March 1920. By withdrawing the allowance, repatriation was, in most cases, made compulsory. The consequence was that a total of about 600 Lithuanian women and children returned to Russian soil by the end of March 1920.

The departure of the dependents, and the Lithuanian men in 1917, seriously undermined the viability of the community. Many of the organisations and societies which had flourished in the pre-war period disappeared. The spirit of the community had been broken. As a first-generation informant has pointed out:

As an immigrant, or an alien as we were called then, you thought o’ yourself as part o’ a big family. You might no’ like the members o’ the family, but you knew them; and you knew what was expected of you. But that Russian business divided folk, and it left you wonderin’ what would happen next. First, it was the men; then it was the women and the bairns. All that we had left after that were memories, aye, and bad memories at that; and work.