Today in legal history: six Committee of 100 activists go on trial, for breaching Official Secrets Act, 1962.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War arms race increased stockpiles of nuclear missiles across the world, and superpower tensions brought us to the brink of World War 3, movements arose protesting the existence of such irrevocable weaponry and campaigning for disarmament. In Britain, organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament focused on marches, petitioning and demonstrations. However, a more radical wing emerged, dissatisfied with this approach, which launched campaigns of direct actions to blockade and disrupt nuclear missile bases and the government institutions responsible for ‘defence’. First through the Direct Action Committee, from 1957, and through the more high profile Committee of 100, from 1960, this more radical wing of the anti-nuclear movement organised sit-down protests in Whitehall and outside the US embassy, and at missile bases.

Police were ordered to take a hard line against them from the start. Hundreds were arrested on the demos in central London; but the 1961 campaign targeting bases brought fiercer repression.

ON 8th December 1961, six leading activists from the anti-nuclear direct action organisation, the Committee of 100, were arrested as they prepared for demonstrations at Wethersfield NATP base and other nuclear sites. Ian Dixon, Helen Allegranza, Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Terry Chandler and Trevor Hatton were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and remanded on bail.

Their trial began on February 12th 1962.

“Despite the Attorney General’s assertion at the outset that it was not a ‘political prosecution… They are being prosecuted… on account of their conduct which…. Amounted to the commission of a criminal offence,” the trial was above all else a highly charged confrontation between the ideology of the Committee of 100 and the ideology of the state. The contrast between the refusal of the judge to allow evidence relating to the beliefs and motivations of the Committee and the overtly political nature of the prosecution’s case brought into sharp relief the already extant move of the Committee activists towards an anarchist or libertarian socialist analysis.

… Early in the trial the Judge ruled that, whilst the purpose of the accused in going to the base was relevant, their motives of beliefs were not. In his opening statement the Attorney general had outlined three questions for the jury to decide, the last of which was to decide whether the protestors’ purposes were prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State. In his submission, he had added, any interference with the defence system of the country must obviously be so. Mr Jeremy Hutchinson, who acted for all the defendants save Pottle, based his defence on three basic points: that the defendants did not intend to prejudice the safety and interest of the State by their actions; that their beliefs were reasonable and well supported by the evidence; and that their actions were not in fact prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State.

By his ruling that evidence relating to motives and beliefs was inadmissible, and his further statements that any evidence which sought to challenge the defence system of the country, and any evidence about the effects of nuclear explosions, dangers of war, etc., were also to be disallowed, the judge effectively ruled out of order the whole defence case.

The defence case rested ultimately on the moral duty of using non-violent resistance to oppose genocide through nuclear war. Parallels were drawn with Nazism and the Nuremberg judgments. (In the circumstances, Pat Pottle’s achievement in establishing that the prosecution witness, Air Commodore Magill, would, if ordered, ‘press the nuclear button’, was nevertheless a telling point in the defendants’ case.)

In an exchange with the judge, for example, Randle argued:

Every individual must finally decide whether millions of lives are threatened by a particular act, and in that situation I think they have the right to make that decision… There were people in Germany during the Nazi regime who were ordered to commit what have since been defined as crimes against humanity. They would have ben going against the law of their country by disobeying their order. I feel they have a moral duty to disobey that order in that situation.

Judge: As far as I can see it means this doesn’t it, if you disagree with the law you break it?

Randle: Not in general, only in particular situations… Where I think it is flouting basic human rights I will certainly disobey it, and I feel it would be a moral obligation to disobey… I feel that the use of nuclear weapons is always contrary to basic human rights. I cannot see any situation in which they would be justified against human beings.

Randle went on to put forward the Committee’s objective of filling the jails so that the Government ‘would have to face up to the logic of being prepared to commit genocide, If they are prepared to do it against people they must be prepare to do it against us. That is the position we want to put them in.’

There was a conceptual, ideological and cultural gulf between the Attorney-General and the defendants that was unbridgeable. Sir Reginald [Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General] appeared genuinely baffled: ‘What he [Randle] said amounted, did it not, to this: “we have decided what laws we broke, after very careful consideration… And where we see fit, we break the law.” It really is an admission of rather an astonishing character.’

Ultimately the case turned on these rival conceptions – which were fundamental, moral, and political – and not upon legal niceties. The legal smokescreen merely disguised, somewhat ineffectively, the clash of ideologies and cultures. There was never any doubt that the judge would virtually direct the jury to find the defendants guilty. Even so, the jury was out for four hours before entering a ‘guilty’ verdict, and even then recommended leniency. The sentences were harsh… All five men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison and Helen Allegranza to one year.”

Although the six defendants acquitted themselves well in court, the trial had a disastrous effect on the movement. “Not only was the movement deprived of its most able and experienced leaders for a long period, but the deterrent effect of the sentences was certainly a major factor in the Committee’s decline during 1962. The trial brought home to the Committee its inadequacy when faced by the might of the state. It was probably this more than anything else which brought about the demoralisation which… affected the Committee increasingly through 1962 and into early 1963. The trial indicated that the use of Non-Violent Direct Action alone, on the lines advocated and practiced by the Committee of 100, was neither powerful nor sophisticated enough to challenge seriously and in the long term the power of the State.”

Many of the leading elements of both the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 identified themselves as coming from an anarchist or libertarian socialist standpoint, and this influenced their emphasis on direct action, rather than the appealing to the state that had characterised CND. Committee of 100 activists would go on in 1963-4 to investigate and release details of the secret command systems for civil defence, under the name Spies for Peace.

Well worth reading: Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1964, Richard Taylor, from which quotes in this post are taken.

A parliamentary publication on the history of the Official Secrets Act.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.


Today in military history: 14 pacifists acquitted of incitement to disaffect soldiers, 1975.

In 1975 14 peace activists were charged under the Incitement to Disaffection Act 1934 with conspiracy to incite disaffection. They had distributed leaflets produced by the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign (BWNIC) entitled ‘Some Information for Discontented Soldiers’, encouraging soldiers not to serve in Northern Ireland and providing details on how to avoid service there.

The trial lasted 51 days, at of the end of which the jury acquitted all the defendants.

The British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign advocated a political solution by the Irish and not a military one imposed by the British. The group issued a statement in June 1973 and published a leaflet “Some information for British Soldiers”, targeted at those who had already decided to leave the army.. Peace campaigner Pat Arrowsmith was arrested and charged with incitement to disaffect and in May 1974 was sentenced to 18 months. The leaflet was re-worded and re-issued as “Some information for Discontented Soldiers” and activity increased – with leafletters from different parts of the country subsequently arrested.

Fourteen people were charged with conspiring to contravene the Incitement to Disaffection Act of 1934, including possession of the leaflet. The wording of the Act made the attempt to ‘seduce’ a member of HM Forces from their duties an offence. The case did serve to highlight issues surrounding the use of conspiracy charges and the fact that many of the conspirators had not met or communicated with each other until the trial. The maximum punishment for incitement was two years, but conspiracy to incite carried a life sentence.

The 14 were, in alphabetical order: Albert Beale (journalist, London); Wendy Butlin (secretary, London); Phil Cadbury (student, London); Bill Hetherington (social worker, Walsall); Juliette Hornsby (secretary, Chelsea); John Hyatt (journalist, Nottingham); Frank Keeley (unemployed, Liverpool); Ronnie Lee (soliticor’s clerk, Luton); Chris Roper (aeronautical engineer, Essex); Paul Steed (student, London); Bob Thomas (factory worker, Cardiff); Rick Walker (unemployed, Liverpool); Mike Wescott (make-up artist, Birmingham); Gwyn Williams (social worker, London); Two of the 14 were also charged under the 1955 Army Act with helping soldiers who were absent without leave. Other individuals were then charged with related offences including distribution of leaflets and supporting the 14 which is why it became the ”Defend the 14+ Campaign”.

On 10th December after a 51 day trial and an estimated cost of £250,000, the jury took just 30 minutes to return a unanimous not guilty verdict on all 31 charges. (This was conspiracy against all 14 and other charges under the Incitement to Disaffection Act. The two individuals who had pleaded guilty to assisting a soldier who was absent without leave were both fined.

BWNIC had its roots in the pacifist movement and came to prominence following some court cases around the leaflet “Some Information for Discontented Soldiers”. Supporters of BWNIC had been leafleting serving soldiers giving them information on their rights of conscientious objection. Many soldiers were unhappy about the war in the Six Counties and there was a steady trickle of deserters.

The defendants argued that they were not trying to disaffect soldiers but to assist those already disaffected. Most of those arrested were in the libertarian/Peace News milieu rather than supporters of physical force nationalism.

The affair fatally damaged BWNIC though as few people had the energy to rebuild the campaign. It did, however, become a little easier for soldiers who had developed a conscientious objection to war to get out the army so some progress was made.

This was the second such prosecution of BWNIC members. In an earlier case Pat Arrowsmith was convicted and given an 18-month custodial sentence, later reduced on appeal. Arrowsmith subsequently brought a case against the government — Arrowsmith v UK (1978) — arguing that the 1934 Act breached Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of religion) on the basis that the 1934 Act prevented her from expressing her pacifist beliefs. The court ruled that such restrictions could be justified in the interests of national security and to protect public order.


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

Today in London’s radical history: Black communist Paul Robeson speaks & sings at anti-nuclear rally, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

“Shall we have atom bombs and hydrogen bombs… the hellish destruction of men, women and children… or shall we have peace in the world?”
Paul Robeson, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

On 28th June 1959, 10,000 demonstrators marched to Trafalgar Square from Hyde Park for a rally against the use and development of nuclear weapons. The procession was made up of groups and trade unionists and peace organizations and left-wing political groups.

There were a number of speakers: the most famous was Paul Robeson, the black American singer and actor, internationally renowned, a campaigner for civil rights and international peace. He was confined to the US in 1950, so that he would not be able to speak out abroad about civil rights issues in the United States and his passport was not returned to him until 1958. He ended his speech with a song, “delighting the demonstrators by ending with his beautiful singing voice rolling out across the hushed crowd and passers-by.”

We aren’t generally into Soviet nostalgia, and have many reservations about many Communist Party fellow travellers, being anti-state communists or thereabouts. However Robeson, like Woody Guthrie, transcended the genre into a whole different stratosphere. A favourite evocative image related to him is when he sang at an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine, when he was banned from travelling outside the States. An anti-racist rendering literally rendering nations and their borders irrelevant, if only for a moment… thinking about it makes my fingers tingle and my heart soar. Worth a mention this week, post-Brexit vote, with racism and nationalism on the rise, and borders going up in many hearts.

“The extraordinarily multitalented Robeson was not only a world-famous singer and actor, but became a political activist during his peak performing years. Robeson’s father, a runaway slave who became a minister in Princeton, New Jersey, exerted a strong influence on the young Robeson, instilling in him a quiet dignity, a love for African-American culture, and an all-embracing humanism.

An outstanding scholar-athlete at Rutgers University in 1915-19, Robeson went on to become one of the world’s leading concert singers, stage actors, and film stars in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. During the period 1927-39, when he was based in London, his artistic growth led him to study world cultures and to support social and political movements. He sang concerts to benefit trade unions, especially the Welsh coal-miners’ union, and he came to see the connection between the struggles of the British working class and those of the oppressed colonial peoples. Robeson was introduced to socialist ideas through his friendship with George Bernard Shaw and his acquaintanceship with several leaders of the British Labour Party. As a result, Robeson studied the classic Marxist writings and became attracted to the basic premises of communism.

In the early 1930s Robeson met many African students in London and developed a deep appreciation of the close links between the African and African-American cultures, learning several African languages. He also met Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru of India, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Prompted by the desire to extend his artistic range, Robeson studied many other languages and cultures throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mastering Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, and most European languages. This focus on the centrality of culture went hand-in-hand with Robeson’s increasing radicalism – a duality that continued for the remainder of his career.

Robeson responded to the rise of German fascism by becoming one of the world’s leading antifascists. Invited to the Soviet Union in 1934 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Robeson was almost assaulted by Nazi storm troopers in Berlin as he changed trains on his way to Moscow. In the USSR he was deeply impressed by the lack of racial prejudice and by flourishing diverse cultures in the Soviet republics. These experiences and the communist leadership of the worldwide antifascist and anti-colonialist struggles were the basis of his unwavering support for the Soviet people in their attempts to build socialism. The fact that Robeson viewed the Soviet Union and the world communist movement as reliable allies of the colonial liberation movements led him to form a close alliance with Communists despite his private misgivings about the Stalinist purges of 1936-38 and his disagreement with the Communist Left’s exaggerated emphasis on class priorities over “nationalist” priorities in the Third World.

In 1938 Robeson demonstrated his commitment to the fight against fascism by going to Spain to sing and speak in support of the Spanish Republic in its civil war against General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion. The profound effect this experience had on Robeson’s radicalisation was reflected in his dramatic statement at that lime: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice; I had no alternative.” By 1939, Robeson was a key figure symbolising on a world scale the unity of the antifascist and anti-colonial struggles.

In the fall of 1939 Robeson returned from England to the United States, where he continued his highly successful concert and theatre career while simultaneously becoming a leader of the civil rights movement and a spokesman for left-wing causes. He was the first major performing artist to refuse to perform for segregated audiences and to lead voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Robeson also played an important role in support of the union-organising drive of the CIO in the early 1940s, and in bringing black workers into the unions.

In 1946 Robeson challenged President Harry S Truman’s refusal to sponsor legislation against lynching by telling him that in the absence of federal protection blacks would exercise their right of armed self-defence. An opponent of the Cold War from its inception, Robeson attended a world peace conference in Paris in 1949 and expressed the view that black Americans should not fight an aggressive war against the Soviet Union on behalf of their own oppressors. In the wake of those remarks, the U.S. government and the media launched an attack of unprecedented ferocity against Robeson that lasted for nine years.

Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 and was not restored until 1958. Inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and numerous other U.S. government agencies compiled tens of thousands of documents on Robeson and illegally harassed him over a period of more than twenty years. Robeson was also blacklisted in the entertainment industry and prevented from appearing in professional engagements until 1957. Despite this persecution, Robeson continued to sing and speak in black churches and in the halls of the few surviving left-wing trade unions. He also wrote a book titled Here I Stand in collaboration with the black writer and journalist Lloyd I. Brown in which he outlined the program and strategy subsequently adopted by the civil rights movement and foretold the advent of the movement for economic justice.

During the anticommunist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Robeson defended the rights of Communists and defied congressional committees when they compelled him to testify before them. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, he refused on constitutional grounds to answer any questions concerning Party membership or affiliation.

Robeson remained publicly neutral concerning the USSR-China rift that began in the late 1950s, maintaining his cordial relations with both countries, and expressed no opinion about Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes However, Robeson’s political attitude on these issues was conveyed indirectly by his personal friendship with Khrushchev and his enthusiastic support of Khrushchev’s domestic and foreign-policy reforms.

In 1958 Robeson’s passport was restored on the basis of a Supreme Court decision, and he traveled abroad for five years to reestablish his artistic career. After a successful comeback, Robeson became ill with circulatory disease, and in 1963 he returned to the United States to retire. Contrary to the claims of the media, Robeson was not disillusioned or embittered. As he put it in 1973, three years before his death from a stroke: “Though ill health has compelled my retirement, you can be sure that in my heart I go on singing.” Drawing upon lyrics he had made world famous, he continued, “I must keep laughing instead of crying, I must keep fighting until I’m dying, and Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along.”

We stole this from here

Sometimes we nick things because they say we wanted to say, better than we could, and to be honest sometimes because we just run out of energy. Posting (nearly) every day is a bit exhausting, when you have to get the kids out of bed and to school and slope off to work as well. We’re not historians, just talentless amateurs. So if we aren’t always totally original, we apologise…


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

Today in London’s rebel history: Brian Haw sets up peace camp, Parliament Square, 2001.

Copper: “How long are you going to be here?” Brian Haw: “As long as it takes!”
(June 2nd, 2001)

In the end, he camped outside Parliament for ten years.

On 2 June 2001, Brian Haw set up camp in Parliament Square, over the road from the UK’s seat of government, in a one-man political protest against war and foreign policy. In the beginning, his protest was sparked by the suffering inflicted by UK/US-sponsored sanctions against Iraq), though the focus became the insane blood and profit-fest that were the Iraq and Afghan wars. He only left his makeshift campsite in order to attend court hearings, surviving on food brought by supporters.

Originally camping on the grass in Parliament Square, after the Greater London Authority took legal action to remove him, he moved to the pavement, the responsibility of administered by Westminster City Council instead. In October 2002 Westminster’s attempt to prosecute Haw for causing an obstruction collapsed – Haw’s banners did not prevent people walking along. However Haw’s continuous barrage of vocal protest through his megaphone got on the nerves of MPs who whined that it distracted them and made them lose count when filling in their expenses forms.

A rushed House of Commons Procedure Committee inquiry in summer 2003, which heard ‘evidence’ (not in any way written by the respected ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ Unit) that permanent protests in Parliament Square could be exploited by terrorists who would smuggle in explosive devices (probably under Brian Haw’s famous fishing hat). As a result, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (sections 132 to 138) was passed, banning all unlicensed protests, permanent or otherwise, in the Square. Red faces all round, though, when they realised they’d failed to make the legislation retrospective, and so the law couldn’t be applied to Brian Haw because his camp preceded this law. Bright aren’t they?

In the 2005 general election Haw stood as a candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster in order to further his campaign and oppose the Act which was yet to come into force. He won 298 votes (0.8 percent), making a speech against the ongoing presence of UK troops in Iraq at the declaration of the result.

Haw was joined in December 2005 by Barbara Grace Tucker who since his death in June 2011 has continued her presence opposite the Houses of Parliament. In the seven years or so since her arrival she has been arrested 47 times – usually on a charge of “unauthorised demonstration”.

After a good deal of legal shananigans, eventually a Judge in the Court of Appeal ruled that the law did apply to him: “The only sensible conclusion to reach in these circumstances is that Parliament intended that those sections of the Act should apply to a demonstration in the designated area, whether it started before or after they came into force. Any other conclusion would be wholly irrational and could fairly be described as manifestly absurd.” Manifestly absurd? Serious reality check needed for THAT judge.

In the meantime Haw had applied for permission to continue his demonstration, and received it on condition that his display of placards is no more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide (among other things). Haw was unwilling to comply and the police referred his case to the Crown Prosecution Service; a number of supporters began camping with him in order to deter attempts to evict him.

In the early hours of 23 May 2006, 78 police arrived and removed all but one of Haw’s placards citing continual breached conditions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 as their reason for doing so. Ian Blair (head of the Metropolitan Police at the time) later admitted that the operation to remove Haw’s placards had cost £27,000. Haw appeared at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court on 30 May, when he refused to enter a plea. The court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, and he was bailed to return to court on 11 July 2006.

At a licensing hearing at Westminster City Council on 30 June 2006, Haw was granted limited permission to use a loudspeaker in the space allowed to him. On 22 January 2007 he was acquitted on the grounds that the conditions he was accused of breaching were not sufficiently clear, and that they should have been imposed by a police officer of higher rank. District Judge Purdy ruled: “I find the conditions, drafted as they are, lack clarity and are not workable in their current form.” However, Brian was repeatedly nicked, harassed, beaten up by ‘patriots’, squaddies, mental yanks from the US embassy (who were given diplomatic protection). None of which put him off.

In September 2010 Haw was diagnosed with lung cancer. On 1 January 2011 he left England to receive treatment in Berlin, buy died in Germany in the early hours of 18 June 2011 of lung cancer.

lots more on Brian’s protest


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

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

First Today in London radical history: first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons sets off, 1958

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