A hotograph of Court Lodge Playing Fields, Horley. It is a large expanse of green grass, with some low buildings lining the horizon. To the right of the frame is a mature tree in full leaf.

Communists in Space

Danny Stalford and Horley Council


The story of Horley's only Communist councillor shows how even the most ostensibly middle-class places can benefit from socialism – and that it’s worth making that case, however lonely or absurd it can seem.

I grew up in Horley, a sleepy satellite town next to Gatwick Airport. On the other side of the airport, and the Surrey/Sussex border, is Crawley, a new town and bellwether seat which swung to Labour in 1997 and back to the Tories in 2010. Horley, on the other hand, has always been solidly Conservative, having been moved between the safe seats of Reigate & Banstead and East Surrey. I felt like an anomaly, if not an absurdity, getting the train to college in the late 1990s and reading Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State or Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and tended to laugh at the futility of my politics before others started (partly to pre-empt them, but also because I knew by then that the revolution probably wouldn’t start in Surrey). Little did I know that, at the time, Horley’s only Communist councillor was living his last days in the town.

Stalford – and his small coterie of local Communists didn’t plot a revolution but focused instead on getting Stalford onto the local council.

When Denzil ‘Danny’ Stalford moved there from London after his father’s dental practice was bombed, Horley was still one of Britain’s largest villages. It only officially became a town in 1974 after expanding to serve the airport (which opened in 1958, having been in use as an aerodrome since the 1920s). The town now has a population of around 22,000, with two large estates, Court Lodge and Langshott, a new set of Barratt Homes-style developments situated on a flood plain to the north-west, and a large secondary school (with no sixth form). When I was growing up, it had a few interesting independent shops—the highlight being a brilliant record shop, Pulse—but these have since been killed off by a combination of Amazon and Tesco. As a teenager, I had resolved to get out as soon as I could. Though I haven’t lived in Horley since 2000, I’ve spent the rest of my life nearby, as it’s halfway between the two cities I’ve lived in since graduation, Brighton and London. Whenever I go back, I’m astonished at how run down its high street has become: perhaps the Conservatives are so sure of the vote that they don’t see it as a concern, reasoning that people will drive to Redhill or Crawley for amenities, and the recent provision of a new library will be enough to keep them in power for another generation, despite the obvious underinvestment and crumbling infrastructure that epitomises contemporary England.

Stalford – and his small coterie of local Communists – envisaged a different future for the town. They didn’t plot a revolution (although Horley, reasonably close to the centres of power but enough of a backwater to avoid suspicion, might not have been the worst place to do so), but focused instead on getting Stalford onto the local council. They knew it would be difficult: he later wrote that ‘Horley was, at this time, solidly Conservative and deeply preoccupied with the middle-class image. The thought of a Communist in their midst was absolutely repugnant to them.’ Despite this, Stalford was able not only to win a seat, but also to bring about genuine and lasting change to improve the lives of the town’s working and lower middle-class people.

Born in Camberwell, London on 15 February 1915, Stalford attended the nearby Wilson Grammar School, where his father refused to let him join the Army Cadets because of the slaughter of the Great War. He became a socialist as a student, amidst the rise of fascism, and trained as a dentist at Guy’s Hospital in London. After moving to Horley, he was conscripted into the Royal Army Dental Corps in May 1941, and was promoted to Captain a year later, leading a mobile dental surgery in the D-day landings. At the end of the war, he was billeted in a German castle with Franz von Papen’s brother, watching the aristocratic family stock up on butter and champagne amidst the carnage that came with the collapse of the Third Reich. He never collected his medals or took part in remembrance events, having sworn a pact with army comrades not to. As he had grown up being told that the devastation and death endured by their parents’ generation would never be repeated, he preferred not to ‘celebrate’ war, but to work to make society a better place.

Consequently, Stalford joined the Communist Party. After the British massacre of partisans in Athens in 1944, he supported the League for Democracy in Greece, visiting political prisoners. In 1948, as a Socialist Medical Association member, he attended meetings about the formation of the National Health Service, having set up a dental practice at his home on Bonehurst Road in Horley. It was the successful establishment of the NHS, along with ‘the courage and resource of the Communist movement both in home affairs and in international campaigns’, which inspired him to go into politics. Stalford was popular with his patients, sometimes paying for holidays for the less well-off, and, partly through his work, he gradually built up an electoral base. In 1964, when he stood as the Communist candidate for the Horley seat on Surrey Rural District Council, he got 395 votes – 20% of the total. Three years later, Stalford got this up to 453 (9%) in the Horley division of the larger Surrey County Council election, and was poised to enter the mainstream of local politics.

‘When I first joined Horley’s Communist Party, it was a lively and courageous body, full of energy, light-hearted and determined to make an impact,’ wrote Stalford in an unpublished autobiography - which his daughter, who still lives locally, provided me with. Its members included painter and decorator Ernie Osbourne, a pacifist who volunteered to cook for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War; Cyril Granger, whose father owned a shoe shop; and Bill Hunter, an Irish-born aircraft engineer at British Caledonian Airways and trade unionist. The town also had a Young Communist League branch, and was able to circulate the Daily Worker across Horley – Stalford personally delivered it to fifty residents, and hosted a bazaar for the paper at his home to raise funds for it. (I spent the first COVID-19 lockdown in Horley; perhaps this legacy explains why I was able, to my great surprise, to find the Morning Star in McColl’s, the high street’s main newsagent.)

Hunter, the last surviving member of the group, still lives in Horley. I met him in The Bull, a pub ten minutes from the house where I grew up. Nikolia, Danny Stalford’s daughter, joined us. I asked them why Stalford, Hunter, and the others had joined the Communists rather than Labour: both agreed Horley was so deeply Conservative that, for Stalford, it made just as much sense to stick with his Communist convictions, formed before the end of World War II and reinforced by a post-war trip to Czechoslovakia, as to compromise by joining Labour. (While the 1945 General Election represented a historic high for the Labour left, it’s worth remembering that there were also three Independent Labour Party MPs elected, and two Communists – Phil Piratin in Stepney Mile End, voted in for the first time, and Willie Gallacher, who held his seat in West Fife, which he had won in 1935.) As for Hunter: “Danny asked me to join, that was good enough. I was a socialist when I was in the forces, but never officially, and never a Labour member. I joined the Communist Party when I came to Gatwick. I was a great admirer of Danny, but thought there was little chance of him getting elected.”

I asked them why they had joined the Communists rather than Labour: both agreed Horley was so Conservative that, for Stalford, it made just as much sense to stick with his Communist convictions as to compromise by joining Labour.

Undaunted, Stalford and the Communist Party campaigned for his election to Horley Parish Council, and to Dorking & Horley Rural Council, focusing on Horley’s West ward, with its concentrated areas of housing. They picked a single issue that cut across party lines: the lack of recreational facilities and open spaces for sporting activities. Provision had been made for taking over substantial areas on the Town Map (a statutory plan for regulating local development), but the Councils ‘had been dragging their feet for many years’, with councillors apparently overheard telling their neighbours that “If people want to swim, let them get on a bus and go to Crawley swimming bath”. The Communists decided to produce a local newsletter to highlight their campaign to reinstate the plan, and for the Council to first take over the largest of the green areas on the Town Map, and then to acquire another 14 acres of open land at Court Lodge Farm to build a pool and football facilities.

In this, the Party had a genuinely popular cause. Their support grew – and not just amongst those who had moved to Horley to work at the airport. ‘A certain element’ of this, wrote Stalford, ‘was undoubtedly the novelty and the notoriety of having the Communist presence in Horley.’ This disjuncture was the stuff of classic British sitcom; Stalford recalled serenading a man with his case for changing the village:

The good man nodded from time to time and occasionally grunted his approval, but all the time went about the care of his lawn … As I got into my stride and painted a picture of the future, it suddenly struck me that [the man] had already achieved his own idea of Paradise. He was occupying a modern, well-proportioned house, had a well-paid job, a wife and young family, and, above all, he had his own garden. Who was I to arouse dissatisfaction in his soul!

Stalford ‘discreetly retreated’ from that encounter. But by sheer determination, force of personality and organisational graft, he was eventually elected in the late 1960s. To celebrate, he held a party with his wife Maria – who he had met through the League for Democracy in Greece – his children, and his friends, at which they danced to Greek music.

Having promised to secure land for recreation, Stalford now had to persuade the reluctant Rural Council to part with it. Bureaucratic delays were institutional: he wrote in his memoirs that the Parish Council, ‘whose very existence was dedicated to delaying or preventing anything which involved expenditure on the Rates, took great delight in encouraging the delay.’ It took nearly six months for the two local bodies to correspond about cutting the grass and levelling the land before the Parish Council would accept it, despite Stalford’s efforts to hasten the process. In typical Home Counties fashion, he found himself on the end of constant micro-aggressions: for example, the minutes did not record Stalford’s presence at the Annual Parish Meeting in 1970 — at which the Council presented its plans for the land — despite naming 40 members of the public. This made him appear less committed to his role than he was. Another councillor told him that they would decide how they would vote on an issue before the meetings, effectively excluding him from the democratic process. A frequent traveller, especially to Greece, he was often aggressively questioned on his destination and plans when departing Gatwick Airport. When a friend, Frank Schaffer – the secretary to the New Towns Committee who lived in nearby Smallfield – disclosed confidential information to Stalford over the telephone, it rapidly spread around Whitehall, confirming his suspicion that his phone had been tapped.

Nonetheless, Stalford kept pressure on the Parish Council, which became ‘all the more intense for the fact that rank-and-file Tories … were behaving as if it were they who had initiated the plan’. By 1970, the Council were designing the layout of football pitches and cricket fields on the Court Lodge site, and planned to build a pavilion with a bar. But the project needed funds. A special meeting was called, seeking public approval for a 1d rate which would finance the project. The meeting was suspiciously packed: ‘It seemed as though every die-hard and backwoods man in Horley had got together to sink the plan,’ Stalford wrote. ‘The whole atmosphere … was of negative support and opposition … To my dismay, I saw that several [councillors] were looking very happy at the turn of events’. After much was made of the cost, Stalford asked: “Are [these plans] too good for Horley? Is this what you want for your children, or do you want them hanging about the streets with nothing to do and nowhere to go? Is a penny rate too much for you to sacrifice for the sake of your children?” The 1d rate overwhelmingly won the vote, and Horley got its swimming pool, football and cricket pitches, tennis courts, and pavilion with a clubhouse.

Stalford asked: “Are [these plans] too good for Horley? Is this what you want for your children?" The 1d rate overwhelmingly won the vote, and Horley got its pool, football and cricket pitches, tennis courts, and pavilion.

After this success, Stalford was re-elected to the Council. As well as taking on the campaign for leisure facilities, he devoted plenty of time to helping individual constituents – a friend of Hunter’s who wanted to move from his dilapidated council house into a better one, or a sex worker who enlisted his help in persuading social services not to take away her children. Even some local Tories became his friends, as the town was small enough for social ties to outweigh political ones. Hunter recalls that, drinking in The Black Horse one evening, it was proposed (by Tories who noted how much Stalford enjoyed serving the local community) that Stalford become mayor of the town for a year, but the Conservatives’ regional office got wind of this and, as Hunter put it, “had a fit”. The other parties, including the less sympathetic members of the Conservatives, were determined to stop him: they looked into gerrymandering the ward boundaries to split his base, and encouraged opposition parties not to stand, in order to unite the anti-Communist vote under the Tories. Stalford’s own attempts to persuade Labour to stand down and unite the left vote were less successful. Meanwhile, Hunter made several attempts to get elected in another ward, but kept missing by tiny margins – “sometimes five or ten votes”, he recalled – and Horley never elected another Communist.

After six years, ill health led Stalford to retire from active politics He focused on his dental practice on Massetts Road, only retiring at 76, when he handed it to Nikolia. He remained a Communist, but fell out with the Party over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – although he continued to support Soviet workers by driving a Lada, to the surprise of the locals. ‘Finally, the Horley branch of the Communist Party lost touch with the people … and died a natural death’, wrote Stalford, and he focused his later political activity on his opposition to the Greek military dictatorship of 1967-1974, hosting refugees including the radio broadcaster Dr Kanavos and classical actress Aspasia Papathanasiou- who performed at the National Theatre- at his home. A lifelong member of the Ramblers Association, he spent time looking over Ordnance Survey maps to make sure routes had not been illegally diverted or blocked, and was chairman of an army veterans’ football team, Border Wanderers. He died in 1999 after a long illness: according to one obituary, ‘there was a massive wave of respect offered to his family from the grateful people of Horley … from all political shades of opinion’ who recognised the work Stalford had done in making it a better town. ‘After all, he was their conscience.’

As Horley’s conscience, Stalford doubtless wasn’t listened to enough, but his legacy in making the town better is undeniable. There wasn’t much to do nor many places to go when I grew up there, and lots of my free time was spent at the Horley Anderson Leisure Centre at Court Lodge, either in the swimming pool, or playing football in the surrounding fields. In 2003, Horley Town FC moved to a new ground on the site, with a genuinely impressive (by non-League standards) main stand, and a pavilion and clubhouse that hosts wedding receptions and other social occasions. The ground is situated next to a new pool, with the public football pitches preserved behind it. One wonders how much the rest of the town might have been improved if a similar attitude were taken to its shops, youth services, or other forms of entertainment – especially when comparing Horley to Reigate, just up the A23, which still has its cinema, as well as independent stores on a well-maintained high street. As an indication of Reigate’s reactionary tendencies, its selective school, Reigate Grammar, gave us the current leader of the Labour Party– Hunter recalled that the two Grammar schoolboys who helped with Stalford’s campaigns turned up at the New Labour office in Crawley in the 1990s. “I suppose I ought to be surprised, but not really,” he told me, laughing cynically.

As Horley’s conscience, Stalford doubtless wasn’t listened to enough, but his legacy in making the town better is undeniable.

All this, to me, is an interesting story. I present it as an illustration of the possibilities of local government and municipal socialism in an unlikely venue, and – more depressingly – to show the level of opposition and opprobrium that can be provoked by even the most small-scale attempts to use electoral politics to change anything. Neither I nor New Socialist readers need reminding of that, though, so why focus on Councillor Danny Stalford? His story demonstrates the virtues of adapting tactics and strategy – including which parties and institutions one works with, and through, in an ostensibly two-party system – to your surroundings. It also shows the value of approaching the seeming hopelessness of a situation with a stoic mixture of humour and resilience. At a time when our hopes of radical, nationwide change look bleak, after more than a decade of public services being torched, and with nothing but austerity on offer at the next election, such localism might provide confidence-boosting victories – and genuinely better communities. It’s also a nice reminder that even the most ostensibly middle-class places can benefit from socialism – and that it’s worth making that case within them, however lonely or absurd it can sometimes feel.


Juliet Jacques

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her books include Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015) and her short story collection Variations (Influx Press, 2021), Front Lines: Trans Journalism 2007-2021 (Cipher Press, 2022); and a novella, Monaco (Toothgrinder Press, 2023). She teaches at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere.