Griff Maclaurin was one of the first international volunteers to be killed in the Spanish Civil War.
Born in Auckland, he came from a family with strong scholarly traditions. One of his uncles, Richard Cockburn Maclaurin (1870-1920), was a foundation professor of mathematics at Victoria University College in Wellington, and went on to be appointed, in 1909, as President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another of Griff's uncles, James Scott Maclaurin (1861-1939), was New Zealand's foremost analytical chemist, acting as the Government's chief advisor on chemistry from 1901 to 1930.
During his secondary schooling at Hamilton High School and Auckland Grammar School, Griff Maclaurin was a top history student, a skilled debater, and a crack marksman in the Auckland Grammar officer cadets. He went on to Auckland University College, where he won prizes in history and mathematics. After gaining his MA, Maclaurin applied for a Dominion Exhibition at St John's College, Cambridge and, in 1932, was admitted to study for an honours degree in mathematics. Maclaurin found the standard of mathematics was considerably higher at Cambridge than what he had come to expect in Auckland. He was soon struggling to keep up academically, a situation not helped by the development of an active social life.
Maclaurin was politically conservative until, in the summer of 1933, a trip to Germany set him on a new path. Appalled by what he saw of the new Nazi regime, and concerned with the impact of the Depression on working people, Maclaurin moved to the political left. By 1934, he was a paid up member of the Communist Party. He had also discovered the joys of drinking, while the moral and religious strictures of his upbringing were challenged by his reading of James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and Marcel Proust. His academic work was not enhanced by his new found ideals; Maclaurin scraped through his final year at Cambridge with third-class honours.
Maclaurin was fired from a teaching position at the prestigious St Peter's School at York, after he and a friend were observed drinking beer and singing an ‘improper song'. Returning to Cambridge, Maclaurin established a left-wing bookshop, which became a great success both commercially and as a social centre for Cambridge leftists.
In September 1936, Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the British Communist Party, contacted Maclaurin, knowing that he had been trained in the use of light machine guns while in the officer cadets. Pollitt asked Maclaurin to join a small group of British volunteers heading for Spain. Maclaurin agreed without hesitation to help defend the Republic against the fascist military uprising. At Albacete in Spain, the ‘English’ machine gunners were attached to a French unit of the International Column, the forerunner of the International Brigades.
On 8 November 1936, Maclaurin marched into Madrid with the International Column, along with volunteers from all over Europe. Their arrival came as a great morale boost to the Madrileños, struggling to defend their city against Franco's besieging army. Within two days Maclaurin was in action, helping defend the University City in Madrid's north west. Maclaurin and his comrade Steve Yates, also reputed to have been born in New Zealand, were killed at their machine gun covering the retreat of a unit in the Casa del Campo. Madrid was to hold out until early in 1939. Four more New Zealanders would die in the war in Spain, the forerunners of the thousands killed fighting fascism in the Second World War.
By Peter Clayworth
- Mark Derby (ed.), Kiwi companeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2009