Today in London’s radical history: anti-nuclear sitdown in Whitehall, 1961

The Committee of 100 formed in 1960, with the aim of stepping up protest against the use, testing and development of nuclear weapons. The Committee’s first demonstration, announced by Committee luminary Bertrand Russell, was to be a four-hour sit-down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall on 18th February 1961, timed to coincide with the arrival of nuclear warship ‘Proteus’ in the Clyde.

The Committee had resolved only to go forward with the demo if they had a guarantee that a sizable number of people would take part. To this end they attempted to get anti-nuclear activists to pledge to take part and sit down, risking arrest for obstruction. A minimum of two thousand pledged was agreed on – although a number of the organisers seriously doubted this would be reached. By 21st January only 500 had pledged, and there was talk of calling the sitdown off…. But in the event 2000 did pledge to take part by Feb 11th, and on the day, over 2000 participated in the sitdown protest, with another 3-4000 supporting. This was a large event for the anti-nuclear movement. Bertrand Russell attached a notice to the door of the MoD, demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain, an calling on people everywhere to “rise up against the monstrous tyranny… of the nuclear tyrants, East and West.”

On the day the police backed off, and there were no arrests. Press reports were largely sympathetic. However, a build up of support for the Committee, and a sustained campaign of direct action over the summer, led to a hardening of attitudes. At the next sitdown in Trafalgar Square there were mass arrests…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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