Betty - Bedford's Communist

On the evening of Sunday, April 23rd 1944, the usual quiet of the Market Square in Bedford was broken by a strident megaphone speech. This was no ordinary political event. 

The speaker was a 30-year-old woman who eight years earlier had been presented to the king as a debutante – and she was a Communist. 

The Bedfordshire Times reported that she drew a “very large audience”, which was “deeply moved” by her “stirring address”. She railed against who still supported appeasement and said it was a “scandal” that the troops were paid so little.   

She was Betty Matthews, the driving force behind the new Bedford Communist Party, who was  out to stir up politics in the town. 

This was doubly unusual. There were very few women in politics in Bedford at the time, and very few Communists in the traditional, county town.

She was soon clashing with Labour, trying and failing to get them to do a deal under which party should stand in various areas. A bitter rivalry quickly developed with Philip Pritchard, a seasoned Labour campaigner from the West Midlands. 

She accused him of a “whispering campaign” against her. He hit back saying she represented ”a tiny but vociferous body of people whose principles stank in the nostrils of an overwhelming number of decent people.” 

Things came to a head in the 1947 local elections in the Queen’s Park. Councillor Pritchard urged people to vote Tory saying the choice between their candidate’s “solid, highly specialised service” and “Communist clap-trap.”  

Betty Matthews          JPIMedia
Philip Pritchard           JPIMedia

Betty Matthews said it was to his “everlasting shame and discredit” that he should try and “stab his own movement in the back”. 

She also got nine Labour supporters - including five councillors - to back a Communist Party leaflet disassociating themselves from Pritchard’s action. She read it out at public meetings. That gave the impression to some that Labour was backing a Communist - even though the Party strongly denied it. 

Betty Matthews got 909 votes to the Tory’s 1723. Although she fought several more contests, this was the highest vote she was ever to achieve.   

With her husband George Matthews, the son of a well-off Bedfordshire farmer, she left Bedford in the early 1950s. Both went on to be senior figures in the Communist Party. She as national education organiser, he as editor of the Daily Worker and later the Morning Star.