The Hong Kong Left 1938-1941: Hilda Selwyn-Clarke Before Hong Kong

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was the best known of the leftists both inside and outside of Hong Kong. In a previous post I’ve discussed her representation in Emily Hahn’s memoir China To Me1 and there’s a lot more to say about her wartime activity and her distinguished post-war political career, but in this post I’ll focus on her life before coming to Hong Kong in 1938. I’ve not been able to find out much, but I think that there’s probably some material in the archives of the Independent Labour Party that someone might use in the future to give a better account.

The post should also be seen as part of two other series: one on the ‘Stanley stay-outs’, people who met the criteria for camp internment, but were allowed to remain in town, and the other on ‘Bungalow D Dwellers’, as she and her daughter Mary lived there alongside my parents after they were all sent into Stanley in May 1943.

Hilda Alice Browning, a ‘country-loving girl from Kent’,2 met her future husband when she organised a trip to Stalin’s USSR for him in 1933. In 1931 she’d stood as candidate for the Independent Labour Party in Clapham, where she polled 7,317 votes (23%)3 coming second to a member of the Mills circus family. She contested the Bethnal Green South West in the London County Council Elections, probably also in 1931. What can we assume about Hilda Browning’s politics from this committed party allegiance?

The ILP was founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie and others and it’s best-known member in the 1930s was Glasgow MP Jimmy Maxton. In 1931 Fenner (later Lord) Brockway became Chairman, a post he held until 1934,4 and at some point Hilda Browning acted or had acted as his secretary.5 The Independent Labour Party tried to position itself as a critical, autonomous but supportive ally of the Labour Party, open to currents of opinion more left-wing than those of the increasingly reformist Parliamentary party. From an early stage the Party had called for the freedom of the colonies, and in 1928 it adopted an eight point domestic programme designed to lead to ‘socialism in our time’. This called for sweeping nationalisation, including of power, transport, land and parts of the banking system, a living wage and increased unemployment benefits.6 I think it would be safe to assume that this reflected Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s political views at least in general tendency. Some important points of the programme were to be implemented in one form or another by the post-war Labour Party, now with Lady Selwyn-Clarke as a member and representative on the London County Council.

The early history of the ILP need not detain us, but after 1917 the party was pulled in two opposing directions by differing forms of socialist success: on the one hand, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia attracted some members who wanted to affiliate to the Third International and the Comintern, while more locally potent was the appeal of the Labour Party, which formed its first Government in 1924 (albeit a doomed minority affair headed by former ILP Chairman Ramsay Macdonald) less than a quarter of a century after its formation in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee. Caught between these rival visions, the ILP was never able to build a large working class base, and by the time of Hilda Browning’s candidacy in 1931 it was small in number, and about to become still smaller after it disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. The ILP lost 75% of members in the wake of this disaffiliation but nevertheless retained some influence – sympathisers included George Orwell, who went to fight in Spain under its auspices.

The rump organisation suffered the fate of almost all far left groupings – it became a battleground of competing tendencies, fought over by Labourites, Trotyskyites and those sympathetic to orthodox Soviet communism (by now thoroughly Stalinized).7 And just as it had been split by the question of WW1 it was also divided between pacifists and those who insisted that an armed response to fascism was necessary – Hilda’s former ‘boss’ Fenner Brockway started in the first camp, but was convinced by events in Spain that force had to be met with force (Brockway wrote a letter of recommendation to the ILP representatives in Barcelona for Orwell and helped him get his disillusioned account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, published8).

Where did Hilda Browning stand in these debates? I can’t be sure, but there is one indicator of her position: when she organised her future husband’s Russian visit she was working for the Soviet Intourist Bureau in London.9 This suggests at the very least she didn’t totally deplore the Soviet Union, and more probably indicates that she was on that wing of the party broadly sympathetic to Russian communism (after the war, she was to openly champion the Chinese communists in the civil war with the Nationalists).

The evidence of her ILP involvement combined with her activity once in Hong Kong lead me to offer this speculative summary of the politics of the woman who was to make such a mark on the life of pre-war Hong Kong: she believed in radical state intervention to improve the condition of the working class and in government control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. Although not herself an advocate of a revolutionary seizure of power by the British working class in any foreseeable future (or she’d have joined the Communise Party), she was comfortable with the Soviet Union and hoped for a socialist economy (rather than a reformed capitalism) in Britain one day. She was an anti-imperialist and perhaps (speculation within speculation!) a little embarrassed by her role as wife of a senior colonial official, albeit one as interventionist, anti-racist and committed to the welfare of all as Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

In any case, in autumn 1935 she gave up or at least postponed ‘the makings of a useful political career’ and married him. The wedding took place in Majorca and the couple returned to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) where Selwyn was acting as director of medical services.10 In September 1936 their only child, Mary, was born, Hilda having returned to Britain.11 A C-section was needed, and Dr Selwyn-Clarke, weighing up the risk of more such procedures, decided that there would be no more children – they’d planned four.

By now he’d been promoted to head of the Health Department in Nigeria, and while there he was offered the post of Director of Medical Services in Hong Kong as a personal selection of Governor Sir Geoffrey Northcote. But ‘while packing’ in January 1938 he and his wife both noticed at the same moment a Piccadilly Circus newspaper billboard:


They agreed to go anyway.12





5Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 52.

6 From an early stage the Party had called for the freedom of the colonies.



9Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 52.

10Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 52.

11Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 53.

12 Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 53.

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