Jimmy Rutherford

— #07 Annfield Street

Overview Newhaven and Leith Hospital Esther Liston Jimmy Rutherford

Hero of the Spanish Civil War


Jimmy Rutherford’s story is not well known but it should be.  Jimmy hailed from Ann Street from fine old stock, his family being associated for many generations with the Free Fishermen’s Society of Newhaven.  He worked in the Fishmarket for David Dryburgh who was President of the Free Fishermen at the time; another Rutherford was Clerk.   

He left Newhaven in 1936 when he was nineteen years old to fight as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War.   He is still there, but he did not grow old.  Jimmy was executed by a firing squad on Tuesday 24th May 1938.

 The Rutherfords can still be found in great numbers in Newhaven — this, you see, is living history.

How did a young man from Newhaven get involved in this far away struggle?  Like many other volunteers, Jimmy had worked out that if fascism was not confronted in Spain, then bombs in Madrid one day would lead to bombs in London, Glasgow and Leith the next.  His friend, Labour Parliamentary candidate David Dryburgh: put it best.  “This was no sudden impulse.  It was the practical working out of his own theory of life.”

Jimmy’s first stint ended when he and his comrades were captured at Jarama on 13th February 1937.  Amongst his fellow prisoners was Harold Fry from Leith who was also Battalion commander. Both were sentenced to death. They had witnessed fellow volunteers being killed – in one instance for reaching for a cigarette and in another as the preferred choice between serving Franco or death — ninety Republican prisoners a day were taken away from the prison and shot.  Every day, with brutal monotony, the prisoners were warned by their captors, “today you will die.”

However, unbelievably, both Rutherford and Fry survived. They and their remaining comrades were exchanged for prisoners from the other side.  In an infamous news photograph of the day they were seen huddled in the back of a truck whilst being told by the Daily Mail’s pin-up boy of the time, Alfonso Merry del Val, that if they returned
to Spain “they would be shot.”   


A mobilisation banner for the International Brigades of the Spanish Republic in 1938. People's Palace Museum Glasgow Wikimedia Creative Commons.

This chilling warning did not deter them, as both were quick to return, Fry was killed in battle soon after and Rutherford was taken back into captivity.  Despite using an assumed name and his pals covering for him at every turn he had the misfortune to be recognised by the very same Merry de Val, who ordered him to be put before a firing squad and shot. This time there was no last minute reprieve…

Whilst home, Rutherford undertook a speaking tour to let people know about what was happening in Spain. His sister recalled him speaking for an hour and a half in a hall in Ferry Road.  At one point he said, “If all the young men here had seen what I saw out there, then they would do as I am doing.”  This was, as has been noted before, political belief translated from rhetoric into action.  The elected Republican Government of Spain had effectively been usurped by Franco — under the auspices of Hitler and Mussolini who provided finance, logistics, and manpower — so Jimmy’s political beliefs almost insisted he fight for Republican Spain against Franco’s fascists, that and his innate humanitarianism.

Scotland supplied twenty-three percent of Britain’s International Brigade despite only representing ten percent of the UK population at that time.  What was it about the Spain of 1936 that resonated so strongly with Scotland?

Jimmy Rutherford was a member of The Society of Free Fishermen of Newhaven who fought and died to free Spain from Fascism.  Albert Camus remarked that, “It was in Spain that men learnt one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward…”   Above all else, Jimmy would have recognised the truth in these words.  It is a mark of his courage that he fought on, despite and not because of them…

He was one of Newhaven’s own and his name should be remembered with pride by all who live  in the village.

Republican Slogan on a wall in Cartagena Spain. Creative Commons Licence —panoramio