On 2nd November, 1957, the New Statesman published an article by J. B. Priestley entitled Russia, the Atom and the West. In the article Priestley attacked the decision by Aneurin Bevan to abandon his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The article resulted in a large number of people writing letters to the journal supporting Priestley’s views. As Canon John Collins pointed out: “Whether other events may have contributed to the emergence of CND, J. B. Priestley’s article exposing the utter folly and wickedness of the whole nuclear strategy was the real catalyst.”
Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, organised a meeting of people inspired by Priestley and as result they formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Early members of this group included J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Wilfred Wellock, Ernest Bader, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, E. P. Thompson, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, Stuart Hall, Ralph Miliband, Frank Cousins, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot.
In November 1957, Hugh Brock suggested that the Direct Action Committee (DAC) should organise a march to Aldermaston. The first Aldermaston march took place the following Easter when 4000 people left Trafalgar Square on the four day journey to the atomic weapons establishment.
The first major Aldermaston march at Easter (4–7 April), 1958, was organised by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) and supported by the recently formed CND. Several thousand people marched for four days from Trafalgar Square, London, to the Atomic Weapons Establishment to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons.Hugh Brock, one of the organisers, records that he was one of thirty-five people to have marched to Aldermaston six years before in 1952 as part of Operation Gandhi.
A phenomenally patronizing article of the time from the Guardian (some things have not changed entirely!) covered some of the marchers and their motivations:
“Some five hundred men, women, and children were spreading out sleeping-bags and thankfully washing their feet in various church halls in Hounslow last night after marching the eleven miles from Trafalgar Square on the first lap of their descent upon Aldermaston. About a thousand more had returned to their homes in London, perhaps to march again to-day. A lamplight meeting in the well-named Treaty Road, Hounslow, had evoked the first really lusty cheers of the day as Mr Michael Foot denounced the recent Defence White Paper as “the most shameful statement ever made by a British Government.”
It was Mr Foot who had cried from the plinth on Nelson’s Column in the morning, as a cold sun played on some four thousand faces: “This can be the greatest march in English history.” Whatever the march may turn out to be, it had already by then called out a splendid array of English faces, most of them intent on making clear their conviction that nuclear weapons are evil and should be controlled or done away with.
It was a happy crowd, a London holiday crowd, in benign mood – as benign as the weather that favoured it until the afternoon grey chill came down, no more combative than the empty London streets through which the long procession made its way across Trafalgar Square to the Albert Memorial and then to Chiswick and Hounslow, the first stop in the four-day march to the Atomic Energy Authority’s weapons establishment at Aldermaston. The nearest thing to an incident was the cheerful booing as a policeman stopped a troop of folk-dancers from entertaining the lunch-time picnickers with an eightsome reel in front of Albert’s statue.
The march bore the signs of careful planning. The column with its banners – “Which is to be banned, the H-bomb or the human race?” – got off on time, and the long snake that slid down Piccadilly, Kensington High Street, and Chiswick High Road, managed with only discreet help from the police, not to obstruct what little traffic there was. Mothers wheeled children in prams, while Mr Kenneth Tynan, cigarette authoritatively held at the ready, towered above his neighbours. Behind came a troop of some fifty cars and coaches, one of them bearing that essential morale builder, the tea-urn. “We’ve got 500 mattresses behind there,” said Miss Pat Arrowsmith, a pretty large-eyed girl in a white pea-jacket and carrying a rucksack, the organiser of the whole well-mannered outing.
In the morning, though, the march was supposed to be silent, so as not to break in on religious thoughts. Somewhere in Knightsbridge this proved too much for a gay band of young people from Bermondsey, the boys in bowlers and camouflaged jackets and jeans, the girls in pony-tails and high heels and men’s bright shirts hanging over their skirts. They struck up “Tannenbaum” on a handy trumpet and banjo.
Miss Arrowsmith dropped back and explained about the silence. “We should be delighted to have any sort of music after lunch, but meanwhile we should be obliged if you would conform with us.” “Never mind, never mind,” cried one of the elegant ones in bowler hats. “The music’s in our hearts.” They were there, it turned out, as fans of the jazz band which was going to play the march through Kensington and Chiswick.
Sticking it out all the way to Aldermaston, or so she hoped, was Mrs Anne Collins, of Gillingham, encumbered with a pack and with her small daughter in a push-chair. “I’ve been thinking about this for ten years,” she said, a humble yet fixed light in her eye. “If I become a grandmother I don’t want a bomb to drop on her and her children – I don’t want to drop bombs on the Russians, either. I’d rather let the Communists take over.” A trifle falteringly she walked on. The same sentiment came, gently and tentatively from Miss Jean King, a doe-eyed sixth-former from Enfield with a pack on her back, and bubblingly from Mrs Frank Manning, of Barnet, a housewife with a white angora beret on her head, a firm intention of marching all the way in her heart, and a husband and two small children in a car behind. They had all seen some revelation, it seemed-some two years ago. Miss King only on Tuesday. “Normally I’m very lazy; I stay in and read,” she said apologetically. “We feel nothing else matters,” proclaimed Mrs Manning, who is secretary of the Barnet Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and was surrounded by three other purposeful women, all of whom had been seen off by their friends that morning from Barnet car-park.
Yet others had a more carefully shaded view of things. A King’s College lecturer in geography thought we should merely offer to renounce the bomb and use this as a means of inducing other nations to do so. He was non-violently contradicted in this by the young conscientious objector who squatted next to him at Chiswick, but upheld by a passing group that chanted, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want war; five, six, seven, eight, Negotiate.” “One two, three, four, we don’t want war,” echoed two urchins up in a tree.
By the time the marchers had left Chiswick they numbered less than two thousand. Above them bobbed the signs of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a sort of formalised white butterfly which, it appeared, was the semaphore sign for “N.D.” Skiffle groups burst here and there. At Hyde Park Corner a counter-service, held by a Lutheran minister (a former inmate of a Russian prison camp) by the Artillery war memorial, had drawn only some thirty people, and his words never reached the marchers at all. More successful was a passing car driver in Chiswick who leaned out and cried “Ostriches! Ostriches!”
The political complexion of the march was clearly mixed. Some declared themselves Labour supporters, and much in evidence were some well known ex-Communists, among them the friends of Mr Peter Fryer, the journalist. On the grass of Kensington Gardens lay sprawled a young man reading from “Further Studies in a Dying Culture.” Obvious Communists were few – if any.”
A more recent Grauniad article has an interesting slant on the links between the Aldermaston marches and the English folk revival.
On the 1963 Aldermaston march, a group calling itself Spies for Peace distributed leaflets as the March assembled about a secret government establishment, RSG 6, that the march was passing. A large group left the march, much against the wishes of the CND leadership, to demonstrate at RSG 6. Later, when the march reached London, there were disorderly demonstrations in which anarchists were prominent. No Aldermaston March took place in 1964, partly because of the events of 1963 and partly because the logistics of the march, which had grown beyond all expectation, had exhausted the organisers. It was resumed in 1965. In later years there were revivals in 1972 and in 2004.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online