Betty the Bedford communist
It’s 1944. A quiet April Sunday evening in Bedford. And if you’d been walking through the town centre a passionate female voice would have struck you.
This was no ordinary woman. Betty Matthews, 31, armed with a megaphone and standing in the Market Square was a Communist. A few years earlier she had been presented at court to King George VI as a debutante.
The Bedfordshire Times reported that she drew a “very large audience”, which was “deeply moved” by her “stirring address”.
She rocked politics in Bedford for a while in a town where the Tories and Labour were used to having things their own way. What’s more women rarely even stood for office. In 1946 there were just 12 women among 136 candidates in the local elections, only three were elected.
Betty had been a student in London and ended up in Bedford after marrying the son of a wealthy local farmer, George Matthews, who was also a Communist.
She was soon clashing with Labour, trying and failing to get them to do a deal on which party should stand in various areas.
A bitter rivalry quickly developed with Philip Pritchard, a tough and seasoned Labour campaigner from the West Midlands.
She accused him of a “whispering campaign” against her. He hit back saying she only represented “a tiny but vociferous body of people whose principles stank in the nostrils of an overwhelming number of decent people.”
Matters came to a head in the 1947 local elections in the Queen’s Park area of Bedford.
Councillor Pritchard, who was the Labour’s chairman, made clear he’d do anything to stop Betty Matthews.
In a telegram to Queen’s Park’s Tory candidate he said: “the choice between your solid, highly specialised service and Communist clap-trap in Queen’s Park should be an easy one”.
“I urge my Labour friends to distinguish clearly between the substance and the red shadow by voting solidly for you.”
Betty Matthews said it was to his “everlasting shame and discredit” that he should try and “stab his own movement in the back”.
And she used a clever tactic to hit back. She got nine Labour supporters - including five councillors - to back a Communist Party leaflet disassociated themselves from Pritchard.
She read it out at public meetings. It gave the impression that Labour was backing a Communist - even though the party strongly denied it.
Betty Matthews got 909 votes to the Tory’s 1723. It was a considerable achievement for someone who had very little active support and was up against a well-oiled and entrenched party machine.
Although she fought several more contests, this was the highest vote she was ever to achieve.
With her husband she moved to London. Both had senior positions in the Communist Party. She died in 2002, aged 88 after a car crash.
For more fascinating insights into Bedford's history go to bedfordiana.com