Although in the run-up to the outbreak of World War 1, trade unions and Labour movement figures had produced a lot of hot air about resisting the war, but when the conflict began, the Labour Party, like many socialist parties across Europe, fell in with the nationalist fervour and war fever. Overwhelmingly working class organisations capitulated to the war effort.
But from the start small minorities in all countries opposed the war; on moral grounds, or because they saw it as was – a struggle for power between rival capitalist gangs, that meant nothing to their lives. Brave groups and individuals spoke out against the war, or refused to be forced into the army.
As the war progressed and its true horror in terms of carnage on the battlefield and deprivation at home became apparent, the courageous stand taken by relatively few at its start began to strike a deep chord among the working class. It was this wider movement which in its turn became the basis of the massive wave of industrial and social unrest which shook British society to its foundations in the first years of peace.
And resistance grew as the war dragged on. Soldiers of all armies, all sides, mutinied, deserted, refused to fight, who shirked and dodged and avoided fighting. Strikers defied calls for sacrifice to fight for better wages and conditions (despite mass repression); thousands refused to pay rent, rioted at high food prices, demonstrated against the hardships the war was causing. The war ended in revolution in Russia, in Germany, and elsewhere; in mass strikes and mutinies all over the world…
On the ground, the resistance to the war had from the start been based in localities; in local networks of socialists, or class conscious workers, in some places suffragettes… In many places these groups overlapped and merged with one another, as the war drove on.
In the North London borough of Islington, an overwhelmingly working class area then (don’t laugh), a strong anti-war movement grew up. This was most notably manifested in the North London Herald League, a broad-based socialist grouping… But the NLHL was not the only centre of the anti-War movement in North London. Another was the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road (Since demolished: the site is now occupied by a Tesco Express. Grim). (We will return to some of this lost centre of Christian socialism on March 18th…) Briefly, it was a seventeenth century chapel converted in 1892 into a christian socialist and pacifist space, influenced by figures as diverse as Tolstoy and William Morris and strongly part of the local socialist scene.
Ken Weller takes up the story:
“In the month that World War 1 broke out the Church had its first anti-War meeting, at which the main speaker was [veteran socialist] Herbert Burrows. From then on the opposition of the Brotherhood Church to the War remained constant, although its attitude was pacifist rather than militant. By and large the importance of the Church during the War was as a place for meetings. Those involved in the anti-War struggle found it very difficult to obtain halls for meetings and the existence of the Brotherhood Church as a friendly reliable venue made it much in demand, so much so that George Lansbury described it as ‘the Mecca, the meeting place of those who wanted peace.
As an illustration of what this meant, we can take the first six months of 1916. On January 16th, a ‘Stop the War’ meeting at the Church was attacked by hooligans who, as well as assaulting individuals, pelted the meeting with thunderflashes and other missiles. On January 30th, the ‘Anti-German League’ held a meeting of about 700 people outside the Church, calling on the authorities to close down peace meetings there. The Chairman of this meeting was Alderman Vorley.
On March 10th, Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a meeting organised by the WSF. This meeting was attacked and broken up by a mob which included many soldiers in uniform led by an officer; Canadian troops were prominent. An interesting feature of this meeting, and perhaps an omen of things to come, was that quite a few of the soldiers who had come to disrupt found that they were in agreement with the WSF’s case. Finally in June 1916 there was a series of large meetings at the Church called by the No-Conscription Fellowship at which the main speaker was Clifford Allen. There seems to have been no substantial disruption of these meetings.”
Attacks on the Brotherhood Church continued through the war. In July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church. However when it took place it was attacked by a mob, stirred up by stories of ‘pro-Germans’ plotting there, placed in the rightwing press by Basil Thompson, head of Special Branch, under whose remit fell sabotaging and undermining anti-war protestors and the left generally.
The Church was heavily damaged and many of the 250 delegates at the meeting savagely attacked. Another anti-war meeting took place on an anti-war meeting in September 1917.
Much more on the North London anti-war movement can be found in Ken Weller’s excellent Don’t Be A Soldier – probably your writer’s favourite book ever…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.