Today in London anti-war history, 1919: Strike of conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison gets them released

Wandsworth Prison, in South London, was built in 1851. During World War 1, it had been divided into two institutions, one a civil prison housing conscientious objectors, and the other a military wing for the detention of army defaulters from the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies. Each of these prisons had its own Governor and administration. In theory they were quite separate, but in fact the military section overflowed into a part of the civil prison. Sometimes the two factions of alleged delinquents came into contact. This was stopped when the conchies, appalled at the brutal treatment meted out to the soldiers, made protest demonstrations. This reached a climax when R.M. Fox and others raised a vigorous protest when a youth was chased naked along a corridor by prison guards armed with ticks with which they proceeded to beat the young soldier. But the windows of the civil cells overlooked by the military parade ground, and from there much abuse was hurled at the guards, and much incitement to revolt aimed at the soldiers.

The stirring of unrest among the Conscientious objectors in Wandsworth began in the early months of 1918. In February, Conscientious objectors refused to wash military uniforms as part of their prison work. They would not wear them: was it considered they should wash them? The Governor conceded the point.

By June 1918, the noise created in the establishment of deathly silence was such that it upset the subservient faction of the inmates, and harassed the warders. That month a work and discipline strike was planned, but it was betrayed beforehand by one of the conchies who did not believe in making a disturbance.

The nine ringleaders of the alleged plot were brought before the Visiting Magistrates and sentenced to forty-two days No 1 punishment. That meant seven weeks in solitary confinement with three days on and three days off bread and water, in unheated basement cells with no furniture, except bedboard, stool and sanitary bucket. Among the nine were Guy Aldred, Frederick Sellars, Ralph Morris and R.M. Fox.

[Guy Aldred (1886-1963) was a long-time anarchist-communist. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he first became a boy-preacher, then a freethinker and secularist speaker, rapidly progressing to socialist politics. An eccentric individual all his life, he adopted an anarchist and anti-parliamentarian stance before WW1, but for decades was famous for standing in elections, as a tactic for spreading propaganda. A noted public speaker, he saw himself very much in the tradition of nineteenth century freethinkers and radical publishers like Richard Carlile. During WW1 he refused to submit to conscription, and was imprisoned in labour camps and various prisons several times, but continued his anti-war campaigning inside and outside jail. After the war he moved to Glasgow, and lived there for the rest of his life, continuing to issue anarchist propaganda.
Richard Fox, known as Dick, was a founder and leading member of the North London Herald League, one of the main groups in London to oppose WW1 from a socialist perspective. The NLHL was formed initially as part of a nation-wide support and distribution network for the leading leftwing paper, the Daily Herald. It united socialists, anarchists and communists of varying ideological backgrounds, and organised constant anti-war propaganda and public meetings throughout the conflict. Its members were also involved in every conceivable theatre of struggle – resisting conscription, helping to smuggle draft-dodgers out of the country, strikes, and much more. Before the war Fox had been an engineer and a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; from 1913 he was a member of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World’s British section, and had edited its paper Industrial Worker. He was arrested in 1916, forced to go before a Tribunal when he refused to obey orders, and went to prison.
Fox was released in 1919, and became a writer and journalist. He eventually moved to Dublin where he died in 1969.]

When the nine had been on bread and water for three days, the Governor sent for them and told them he was transferring them to Brixton Prison…

Brixton at this time held remand prisoners, convicted men on short sentences (as it does today) as well as political detainees and some conscientious objectors. At this time, several IRA men (1918 being the early days of the Irish War of independence) were held there; they were not subject to the usual rules of silence or locked in their cells. Another inmate was Tchitcherin, a Russian socialist soon to be appointed the Soviet representative in Britain. When the Wandsworth rebels were transferred to Brixton Prison, they made it clear to the Governor there that they would do no ‘punitive work’, but agreed to work in the kitchens so long as they were allowed to speak and had minimal supervision. To save face, the Chief Warder made an agreement to deliver the required allotment of mailbags in each man’s cell each day, though Aldred and the others made it clear they would not sew them… A blind eye was turned. The nine also managed to force some concessions regarding the conditions in which they received visits.

Working in the kitchen, exempted from the silence rule, the nine held political discussions; RM Fox recalls Aldred standing behind a table, making some political point, illustrating it by prodding the air vigorously with a bread knife! They also held clandestine study sessions, and Aldred wrote and smuggled out articles for The Spur (via sympathetic prison warders?!?)

While the men were in Brixton (in August 1917), the sentences on Aldred, Frederick Sellar and Ralph Morris ended, but instead of being released, they were transferred to Blackdown Barracks, given orders, which they were bound to refuse, and court-martialled again. As a result they received further sen­tences of two years hard labour.

The first of these prisoners to return to Wandsworth from Brixton, on September 4th 1918, was Guy Aldred, with another two years added to his (two-year) sentence. He had openly stated at his court-martial note here and in the columns of his paper The Spur that he would neither work nor take orders while subject to this illegal imprisonment. He later maintained, not in self-defence, but as a matter of fact, that he was not the leader, but there is no doubt that his attitude would stir up the latent unrest, which had not been entirely inactive while he was away.

As the trouble got worse, sometime in October the Governor gathered the twenty most obstreperous men into his office and offered a truce. All punishments wiped out, several concessions granted, if the men would co-operate in running the prison properly. Aldred was among the twenty. It is not recorded who was their spokesman, but the reaction was unanimous. Their liberty was not up for bargaining. They were not objecting to the conditions of imprisonment but to the fact of imprisonment. So the peace bid failed.

The Governor retaliated by confining the worst offenders, including Aldred, to their cells, canceling all visits, all letters and library books. Cell ‘furniture’ (bedboard and stool) were removed during the day.

By this time the men were on strike. The demands were for the release of the locked-up men, the resumption of letters, visitors and books, and one hour (increased to two hours, on second thoughts) of free talking every day. These demands seem to have been met, with the exception of the release of the locked-up men. They, it was said, would stay permanently under lock and key.

R.M. Fox returned to Brixton at that time. He had been kept in Brixton till the expiry of his two-year sentence, then on November 10th, the eve of the Armistice, he was released and taken back to the headquarters of his Army unit – which he was deemed to have joined – stationed at Mill Hill military barracks, not to be dismissed from the Army, as prescribed in the Regulations, but to face his fourth court-martial.

The guard room at Mill Hill Barracks was packed with very drunk soldiers. They had been celebrating victory over the Germans and smashing up the West End. Now they were confined to barracks, and they were celebrating. They sang the old war-time songs beloved of all soldiers: ‘Take me back to Dear old Blighty’, ‘If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind!’, and the parody on a hymn, ‘Wash me in the water that you washed your dirty daughter, and I shall be whiter that the whitewash in your wall.’

A few days later Fox faced his fourth court martial. Fox was an engineer by trade, an author by profession, and a socialist by conviction. He had delivered many an anti-war speech at open-air meetings before hostile audiences. He took this opportunity to harangue the officers of the court, since they had probably never listened to an open-air meeting:

“Gentlemen, you think you are trying me. You are in error. It is you who are on trial. The havoc you have wrought in the past years is there to condemn you. It is not German militarism, nor English militarism, which is responsible for this. It is Militarism, without qualification, and the militarists are only the agents for the capitalists who coin money out of blood. I stand as spokesmen for that rising body of men and women who are about to condemn you. The war was a war of greed and plunder. Profiteers have plundered the people unmercifully since the war began…Thousands of honest poor people have been murdered and maimed to swell the moneybags of the vultures who made the war …. Thousands of working men, sick to death of the horror, greed and hypocrisy of their present rulers are taking control of the world into their own hands….”

He could have saved his breath. The sentence of the court was automatic, as the members of the court were automatons, programmed to a War Office response. Two years’ Hard Labour. A few days later Fox and five others were taken by an escort of ten soldiers to Wandsworth Prison.

The sergeant in charge halted his men outside a West End tearoom and proposed that they all meet again therein two hours’ time. Fox looked up some friends and had tea and a chat. At the end of two hours, more or less, the prisoners had all assembled. Presently the sergeant arrived, but no escort. In some alarm the sergeant asked the prisoners to help find them. So, after an organised search of nearby pubs they were all together, the escort very merry, and some very unsteady. When they arrived at the gates of Wandsworth they were really being escorted by the prisoners.

Wandsworth, according to Fox, was like a cold damp scullery. ‘My heart sank when I saw the grim entrance to Wandsworth again, and heard the key grate once more in the lock. A little band of pacifist women, led by Clara Cole, greeted us at the prison gate, where they were tireless in their demonstrations.’

[Clara Gilbert Cole (1868-1956) was a suffragist before World War 1. During the war she became an ardent pacifist, founding a League against War and Conscription. She was jailed for six months in 1916 with Rosa Hobhouse for distributing thousands of anti-war leaflets in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. Later she was associated with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation, another of the main London anti-war groups. Becoming involved in the post-war unemployed movement, she was nicked again in 1922 on an unemployed action in Camberwell, South London. She gravitated towards anarchism, with which she identified until her death.

Another of those women was Lady Clare Anneseley.  [Lady Clare Annesley (1893-1980), pacifist and socialist, was daughter of the 5th Earl Annesley, but became a member of the Independent Labour Party. When the war broke out she was heavily involved in the No Conscription Fellowship. She later stood as a Labour Party candidate in the 1920s and ‘30s. But she became interested in the Social Credit movement in the early 1930s, and its possible that she also flirted with fascism at this time…? I cannot be sure of this however.]

Both were active in keeping a constant vigil outside Wandsworth, carrying placards in support of the C.O. s inside, and laying themselves open to much public abuse. Both Clara Cole and Lady Clare Annesley were associated with Guy Aldred in his opposition to the Second War, though in a quieter role. During the First War they also organised concerts of popular songs and music outside the walls of Wandsworth. Inmates were forbidden to listen. Seven men who gathered under a landing window to listen to one such Christmas Eve concert were seen, and promptly sentenced to one day on bread and water to see them over the Christmas celebrations.

Fox found that the prison was completely out of hand. Now that the Armistice was signed, long pent‑up feelings demanded an outlet. One body of prisoners, who were known as the ‘All‑Out Strikers’, had declared that they intended to disregard all prison rules. Those men were in permanent lock‑up. They kept up a constant din all day, rattling their mugs along the doors of their cells and shouting abuse at the warders. Guy Aldred probably took part in this uproar, though it was quite out of character. He would rather have been reading or writing, or speaking. The din told on his nerves, and he was not the only sufferer. Only about a third of the C.O.s were in revolt. The others just wanted to finish their time and get out. They complained to the Governor that they could not read the extra book the concession had granted them, because of the din. The old lags – according to Fox there were still some in the prison – did not know what to make of it all. Jail had never been like this.

In the evenings the locked‑up men held concerts, with songs and recitations echoing through the spy‑holes, and Guy Aldred had his chance: he lectured. On at least one occasion the warders tried to drown his words by rattling on trays. On December 4th the Governor ordered the ‘All-Out Strikers’ to be taken down to the basement cells. R.M. Fox was not among them at that time: he was with them a few weeks later, so we can use his description:

“Those basement cells were appalling. They were half underground dungeons. Not only were they gloomy, but everything in them was coated with an unbelievable filth. Grimy cobwebs hung in the corners, the dirt of years was plastered on the small barred window through which I could just seethe feet of men on exercise at ground level. Even the can of drinking water was festooned with dirt and grime. It was as if I had been thrust in among old forgotten lumber to die…

The “All‑Out Strikers” occupied similar basement cells. Nearly opposite my cell was a Scottish lad, Jack Hodgson, who had been down in this horrible dungeon for months. He was not allowed out for exercise for he refused to obey the prison rules. He was nothing but a bag of bones, with a pale, hollow cheeked face, and an indomitable spirit. I heard his thin treble voice singing revolutionary songs far into the night. His voice cut across the brooding silence of that terrible time.”

The furniture consisted of a bed‑board, three blankets, a backless stool, a fixed table‑bench, and a sanitary bucket, sometimes left for two days unemptied. Twice a week a convict barber came around and as each man in turn sat on his stool drew a torturously blunt old ‘cut-throat’ razor over his face. There were no washing facilities and no exercise. There was no heating – and this was mid-winter. The light should have been supplied from the gas jet, which shone through a frosted glass panel from the corridor. This was not lit on the first night, and as a protest the men smashed the glass panels, an action for which they were awarded one day on bread and water. The broken panels made a good opening for speaking to each other, and by that means the prisoners agreed to reject the punishment by throwing the bread back into the corridor. The light was then restored, but withdrawn again when the unwisdom of giving desperate men access to a gaslight was realised. Thereafter the ‘Basement Men’ spent their days in gloom and their nights in darkness for many weeks.

As a protest against the treatment of the Basement Men, the other conchies on strike decided to hold a meeting in the exercise yard on a Sunday, when most of the warders were off duty. It was arranged that four men, Beacham, Knight, Spiller and Fox would speak in turn from a parapet: others would follow as each was dragged off. So, instead of marching round in the prescribed manner, they gathered in a group round the speakers. There was no interference, and the meeting proceeded. There were only two warders on yard duty, and they probably felt the situation was beyond them, especially as these were not ordinary convicts, and the warders themselves were not quite immune from the radical tendencies that were gathering strength outside. From that meeting a Prisoners’ Committee of five members was elected. This reported to the prisoners in the exercise yard. A proposal of cell-furniture smashing was rejected, and a policy of ‘massive deputation’ was adopted. If a grievance was not dealt with to their satisfaction, they would march to the centre of the prison and squat there till agreement was reached between them and the Governor.

Next morning fifty men made application to see the Governor. He accepted only five. The Chairman of the Visiting Magistrates was present. The magistrates had arrived to hear charges against the basement strikers. Fox read out a resolution passed at the meeting condemning the incarceration of the Basement Men, and demanding their release. The Governor said those complaints had no personal bearing on the men making the complaints, and were therefore invalid. He would run the prison as he thought fit. Fox was permitted to speak to the magistrates, and did so with the satisfactory result that they took no action on the charges made, and so no further punishments were handed out.

Concerts were held in the evenings, both above ground and at basement level. The men above recited or sang from their windows, standing on their stools. Fox describes one such entertainment in which there were twenty items of song and recitation, ending with the ‘Red Flag’. Prisoners from an opposite wing climbed on their stools to listen and applaud. So did the soldiers, some of whom joined in the singing of rebel songs. And so did the inhabitants of the nearby houses. They did not applaud or join in, but they listened, leaning on their elbows on the window sills.

The basement men held lectures. The most popular were delivered by Guy Aldred. Speaking through the still unrepaired corridor window, with his bed-board to act as sounding-board, he delivered on different occasions lectures on Karl Marx, Michael Bakunin, Jesus, Womens’ Freedom, the Revolutionary Tradition in English Literature and Richard Carlile. On several occasions off-duty warders gathered at the foot of the stairs to listen.

Wandsworth COs also produced an underground journal, the ‘Old Lags Hansard’. According to inmate Harold Blake, “this periodical was written by hand in block characters on sheets of toilet paper, and sewn together with thread; and on account of the labour involved, only one copy of each issue was published. However, it went the rounds passing from hand to hand, and finally when it had fulfilled its purpose, it was contrived that it should fall into the hands of Mr Walker, the Chief Warder. The vastly amusing part about the whole business was that the last page always con­tained the announcement ‘Look out for the next number, to be published on date x, and in spite of all the efforts of the authorities to trace its origin, we were not disappointed. Once indeed it was a day late, as they made the declared date a search day; but the editor presented his apologies in his editorial to the effect that he was a day late in publishing ‘owing to an official raid on our offices.’ [i.e. his cell!]

COs interned in several work camps and prisons circulated such samizdat journals.

News seeped into Wandsworth that a ‘Hunger-strike policy’ was being advocated in several other prisons. It was proposed that this should start with a wholesale refusal of work or eating on New Years Day. R.M. Fox was one of those who disagreed with the hunger-strike policy. There were those who were opposed to the whole campaign of objection. One such, named Leonard J. Simms, acquiring a plentiful supply of coarse brown toilet paper, wrote and circulated an attack on the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, whose influence and noise kept the prison in a state of uproar. The Chief Warder did not help in the direction of calm and order when he jeered at several of the acquiescent men, calling them cowards who were prepared to accept all the concessions gained by the strikers, but were not prepared to participate in their protests. This led to a spate of cell smashing. One person, being particularly incensed at this accusation, reacted so violently that he was put into a straitjacket.

There had been hunger strikes for varying periods from the beginning of December. There is no way of knowing how many fell in with the Prisoners’ Committee resolution to fast on New Years Day, but fourteen of those who did continued the strike, declaring that it would be maintained till they were released, which they were, on January 7th.

Amongst them were Aldred and Thomas Ellison. [Thomas Ellison had been called up to the 7th London Regiment on April 27th, 1916 and on June 9th was charged at Sutton Mandeville Camp near Salisbury with refusing to put on military clothing. At his court-martial on June 14th, he refused to call witnesses, instead making a speech that was reported in The Spur. He was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, later reduced to 112 days, and sent to Winchester prison on June 19th. In early November Ellison was ordered to Wakefield work camp. On December 27th a letter ordered him to report to the London Regiment. He was arrested in Crewe and taken to Sutton Mandeville, then to Dartmouth (the 7th having moved to South Devon), where he was court-martialled on January 17th and sentenced to two years. He was taken to Exeter Prison on the 26th, spending five months there before his release (in June 1919?).]

However, the releases on January 7th didn’t end the strikes, as not all the strikers got out.

Five who resumed the hunger strike after a break were not included in the release, nor were the non-strikers, that is, those who were non-Participants in the All-Out Strike Campaign. These were men incensed at the jeers of the Chief Warder. Some of them were forcibly fed.

The releases of January 7th were also not final. It was in terms of the Cat and Mouse Act. They were out on licence for twenty-eight days, due to report back on the 6th of February.

The London Star, giving a description of the upheaval in Wandsworth, made it a matter for fun and ridicule at the expense of the C.O.s, implying that they were having as great time at the expense of the taxpayer – having a very happy time altogether. Thomas Henry Ellison replied… in the inaccurate and insulting screed in the columns of The Spur for February 1919: “The article gave no indication of the stern aspect of prison life as known to those who have served from two to three years imprisonment with hard labour – the most rigorous punishment known to English law. It is true that there is a humorous side to prison life. If there were not, most of us would have been transferred to an asylum long before now. Nevertheless there is a tragic side, which the Star did not touch upon. It did not give the number of C.O.s who have been driven insane. It did not tell of the hours of silent torture in which they braved the world, braved it unfalteringly, with soul undaunted by the invective of the Prussianised press, and its lovely bride and supporter, the misled mob.”

Aldred’s physical condition was poor, as must have been expected… The Daily Herald had expressed concern over Aldred’s health the previous August when he had face his fourth court-martial: “We are informed that Aldred’s state of health is such that another term of imprisonment would be highly dangerous; but, indeed, this endless torture would break the health of the strongest man… We call upon the Labour Movement to do something about these outrages.” Now the paper returned to the subject, and the Daily News, West London Observer, and Forward [a news-sheet produced by the Independent Labour Party] also mentioned Guy Aldred’s temporary release, and the effect the long dungeon confinement had had. The editor of the Merthyr Pioneer [a South Wales socialist paper, again run by the ILP.] declared that the sufferings imposed on Aldred and his fellows were not mob violence, but legal crimes. The Glasgow Anarchists in a manifesto demanding the release of all C.O.s, concluded: “The condition of Guy Aldred is one of mental relapse. An active mental worker, a journalist by profession, the bare prison wall with its blank suggestion is fast bringing about in him a serious condition of mind.”

The ferment had not abated in Wandsworth during Aldred’s absence. It had perhaps got even worse. The non-strikers had taken to disobedience. They laughed and talked in the mornings as they were marched to the work shed, and they sang on the way back at 4pm. If any one of them was reprimanded for talking at work they all burst into song. It was not just defiance and protest. Those men were being subjected without a break to a double term of what was considered the harshest sentence allowed by British law. Some of the laughter, coming from half-empty stomachs and torn nerves, was the release of hysteria.

On February 17th, 1919, some of the military prisoners confined on the civil side of the prison attacked their warders. The Prison Report issued later stated: “There can be no doubt that the conduct of the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors and their direct incitements to their fellow-prisoners to set the prison authorities at defiance, was one of the main causes of this outbreak.”

Now it was the warders turn to hold a meeting. They reached the conclusion that their lives were in danger, and petitioned the Home Office for support and protection. The result was that the Governor and the Chief Warder (the one who loved to provoke inoffensive prisoners) were each given a month’s leave of absence. The Governor’s place was taken by a Major Blake, who was a noted disciplinarian. He has served in several penal institutions, including Borstal, as a time when the rod was used more frequently than the psychiatrist. The cowardly conchies gave him a rough ride, and a month later an enquiry was held into his conduct. He had overlooked the fact that conchies were more articulate, less over-awed by authority, skilled in exposures, and righteously indignant. The common criminal or Borstal Boy was beaten before he started, by his self-estimation of subservience and fear.

The enquiry into the Major’s misconduct was held in Wandsworth Prison on 15th, 19th and 22nd March 1919. The Report was issued as a White paper on May 7th, and was available to the public at two-pence a copy. Among other interesting observations, it said:

“By this time (the arrival of the major) all attempts to enforce discipline in the prison among the disorderly section of the Conscientious Objectors had been abandoned.

While the promoters of the disorder in the prison belonged exclusively to the prisoners classed as conscientious objectors, it is right to point out that there is a considerable number of conscientious objectors who have from the first refused to take part in the disturbance, and have used their utmost effort to prevent it.

The truth is that the prisoners in Wandsworth Prison classed as conscientious objectors belong to schools of thought which are widely separated. They may be divided into three classes: the first consisting of those who have a sincere objection to any form of military service, the second those who falsely pretend to hold religious views in order to escape from its perils, and the third composed of men who profess anarchical doctrines, who deny the validity of the law and the right of the State to trench upon individual freedom. It was to the last class that the disorder in the prison was mainly due.”

When he first arrived at the prison entrance, the major was led by the new Chief Warder into the main hall. There they encountered a ‘gang of men’ drawn up and singing and making an awful noise such as the major had never heard in any prison of his experience. The Major called out ‘Silence!’ Somebody shouted out ‘Get your hair cut!’ (a popular catch-phrase at the time). Somebody else made an offensive and disgusting noise with his mouth and voices from the back called ‘Who is this bloody swine?’ and ‘Listen to the bloody swine!’

The Major said at the enquiry that the most impertinent person in the crowd of prisoners was a man who said nothing, but kept up an aggravating grinning and giggling. This was blatant dumb insolence. He ordered the warders to take that man to the basement and ‘Iron him if necessary.’ So the poor fellow was dragged to the basement and fastened into the cruel figure-of-eight irons, which were not normally used in those enlightened times.

This was the first man to be punished by the Major, and the sad thing is that this was Ralph Frederick Harris, who, the previous June, had humbly petitioned the Home Office to protect him from the outrageous conchies. Now his deliverer had arrived, perhaps at last in reply to his petition – and not before time, for things had worsened. Doubtless the Home Secretary had mentioned the petition and its author. What the Major crassly mistook for grins and giggles were knowing smiles of welcome. But understanding did not shine from the Major’s face. He thought the fellow a fool.

The tour of inspection proceeded to the workshop. About 450 men were sitting quietly getting on with their work. About 100 of them were conscientious objectors. ‘I was nor particularly interested in the conscientious objectors,’ said the Major at the Enquiry. The officer in charge had just said “all correct, Sir’, when through the opposite door burst a gang of men singing The Red Flag. The flabbergasted Major had never seen anything like it in his life. Recalcitrant old lag, yes, obstreperous borstal boys, certainly, but never a revolutionary tableau complete with vocal chorus in his own prison. He was outraged.

He ordered the warders to drive the mutinous swine back to their cells. He thought the leader was the notorious Guy Aldred, and called him a Bolshevik, with a few adjectival garnishes. Guy was, at that time, holding meetings not far from Wandsworth… [on Clapham Common]. The conchie favoured with the Major’s abuse was R.M. Fox.

‘It is right’, read the Enquiry Report, ‘to observe in connection with the last named man (that is, Guy Aldred), that he had been previously convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for seditious libel, and in connection with a paper which propagates anarchical doctrines.’

The Enquiry also considered complaints of physical ill treatment made by the prisoners. In one case, the doctor was reported as saying to a man-handled convict that it ‘served him right’. The best the report could offer in the ay of whitewash was that the reason the major had transgressed on all counts was that he had failed to exercise reasonable restraint in his judgments.

The rowdy songsters were hustled back to their cells that first day, but some must have escaped the net, for that evening the Prisoner’ Committee held a meeting in a secluded corner of the Prison. Victor Beacham was speaker and chairman.

[North London Herald League (NLHL) member and speaker Victor Beacham, a glass blower, had been an anarchist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World before the War, as well as being one of the earliest members of the NLHL. Like Fox he was jailed after taking an ‘absolutist’ position – refusing to co-operate in any way with the war effort. After the War, Beacham joined the Communist Party and became a trade union official in the Painters’ Union. He left the CP in 1929 and joined the Labour Party. He died in 1961, aged 72.]

They considered tactics to defeat the Major. Next morning at exercise it was discovered that all those who had taken part in the secret meeting had been confined to their cells indefinitely.

Leonard S. Simons, the man who had published the toilet paper manifesto denouncing the ‘Basement Oligarchy’, demanded that action should be taken on behalf of the locked-in comrades. A warder of the new regime seized him and dragged him inside. Fox called for an immediate return to the cells as protest. Two men stepped out of the silent parading circle and joined him. The rest did not hear.

Next morning the three of them were marched, one at a time, into the Governor’s office. Fox was first. The Governor banged the table and roared that Fox was guilty of mutiny, and that he had a good mind to order him a flogging. But he changed the good mind to a better one and ordered two days bread and water instead. The other two were awarded the same.

Everything was taken out of Fox’s cell – bedboard, blankets, stool and table – and he was left standing in an echoing emptiness. Next morning he was given a tin mug of water and a hunk of bread. He heard through the whispered information of the landing cleaner that the other two were handing back their bread, so he did likewise. He did the same the next morning, but on the third morning he fell ravenously on the prison breakfast, and was told, when he had finished, that his friends along the landing had decided to continue their fast. Fox then resumed his fast. If he had not broken it, he may have been released after three more days, under the Cat and Mouse Act, as his companions were, along with nine others who had been on a prolonged hunger strike.

The Major’s response to Fox’s resumption of the strike was to have him taken down to the basement, which Fox described as damp, dark, filthy, and crawling with insects. Evidently he had a mattress, for he says the insects crawled over it. After four days Fox and others on hunger strike were taken into the exercise yard, supported by warders and marched around. A few were barely able to stand, but were dragged along.

Then they were forced into what a jolly warder called a ‘Feeding Queue’. He also expressed the hope that they all had their life insurances fully paid up. At the head of the queue was a barber’s chair. Into this each man was placed in turn, his arms held behind him by two warders. Into his mouth a wooden gag was forced – the same gag for everybody. This gag had a hole in the middle through which was passed a tube, all the way into the stomach. Fox, in his autobiographical work Smoky Crusade wrote:

‘I had all the sensations of suffocation. Every choking breath I took drew the rubber tube further in. I felt it right down in the pit of my stomach. A funnel, as if for oil, was put over the tube and liquid food poured in. I choked again when the tube was withdrawn, and staggered, dazed and sick, back to my cell.

‘Each morning we had a roll-call of hunger-strikers from cell to cell, and we heard, day by day, the voices we knew growing fainter and fainter.’

On the eleventh day it was whispered that the conduct of the new Governor was to be the subject of a Home Office Enquiry, to be held in the prison.

Colonel Wedgewood had raised the matter of the inhuman treatment of C.O.s in Wandsworth in the House of Commons. [Colonel Wedgewood: a longtime Liberal MP, (grandson of the ceramics pioneer Josiah Wedgewood), who, though he volunteered to serve in WW1, supported the rights of conscientious objectors and raised questions in Parliament complaining about their ill-treatment. In 1919 he defected to the Labour Party, becoming a minister in the first Labour government. Apart from the COs, he was well-known for supporting unpopular causes, including the treatment of refugees, including some political exiles, and Indian independence.]

The Major had only been on a temporary assignment to Wandsworth, and probably left there after the Enquiry. He did not leave the Prison Service though, for in 1926 he was the subject of another Enquiry. He had revealed to the press the personal confidences of a condemned murderer.

The hunger strikers gave up their strike after the Enquiry. Guy Aldred arrived back in Wandsworth in the middle of the proceedings. He commenced his strike, as he had said he would, and determined to continue it indefinitely. But the authorities had had enough of hunger strikes, and of Guy Aldred. After four days they released him. Fox had to wait a few more weeks, but on April 19th he was also set free.

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More information can be found in Smokey Crusade, RM Fox’s autobiography; Don’t Be a Soldier, The Radical Antiwar Movement in North London 19141919, by Ken Weller; ‘Come Dungeons Dark’, The Life and Times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow Anarchist, by John Taylor Caldwell, (from which this text is lifted.)
See also this on Clara Cole

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2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London’s anti-war history, 1900: meeting against Boer War attacked by police.

For socialists the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a prefiguration of their experiences in the First World War, and in many ways the similarities are quite marked. Jingoism had been growing for years, imperialism was at its height, the ‘rush for Africa’ – of which the Boer War was the culmination – all had contributed to a climate of the most extreme chauvinism.

War finally came on October 9th, 1899.

On October 22nd, the socialist movement around Islington, North London, a vocal and growing prescence on the streets, had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘We are Soldiers of the Queen’. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.

But the meetings, and the attacks, continued. On March 5th, 1900, a ‘pro-Boer’ meeting at Highbury Corner was attacked by a mob which had gathered in response to leaflets calling on ‘all loyal Englishmen’ to turn up and oppose it. On March 11th and 19th there were further socialist meetings at the same venue, both of which were broken up by the police after there had been serious fighting. It was probably one of these meetings which is described in W. S. Cluse’s entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

Will Cluse with other socialists was on one occasion holding a meeting at Highbury Corner, and the crowd were becoming hostile. The socialists decided it was time to go, if they wanted to escape manhandling. Making a sudden rush, they boarded a horse-bus at the junction of Holloway Road and Upper Street, with the crowd at their heels. They climbed the steep ladder to the top deck, and kept their opponents at bay by stamping on their fingers as they reached the top rung. Finally they were able to put themselves into protective custody at the police station in Upper Street.

T.A. Jackson, in his autobiography Solo Trumpet, described another of this series of Highbury Corner meetings which had a rather different outcome:

The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up; the radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club [Newington Green] to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local SDF, who when the fight started were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting the socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them with ‘great slaughter’. 

The active participation of the Mildmay Radical Club on Newington Green (still there, btw!!) in the agitation against the Boer War was no accident. The Club was one of the few remaining working mens’ political clubs which retained some remnants of the spirit they had embodied in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular these working-class radicals had a formidable record of anti-imperialism.; The regular and systematic attacks on ‘pro-Boer’ meetings were an ominous foretaste of the World War, as was the fact that it appears there was not a single arrest of those who attacked the anti-War meetings in North London. Another parallel with future events was the split in the ‘socialist’ movement. Both the Fabians and the Clarion newspaper supported the War. Robert Blatchford, the editor of the latter, which had by far the largest circulation of any of the socialist movement’s journals, wrote in its October 1899 issue:

I cannot go with those socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British Troops. . . until the war is over I am for the Government.

After the Boer War the socialist movement underwent a whole series of convulsions which reflected widely different approaches as to what socialism was and how it would be achieved. These divisions had deep roots, going back to and even beyond the formal emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) all shared – although there were countervailing forces within all of them – a vision of socialism in which the main emphasis was on taking over the commanding heights of the economy by the state or municipal authorities.

(This post is a slightly edited excerpt from Ken Weller’s Don’t Be a Soldier).

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in anti-war history, 1917: spycops’ fit-up! Alice Wheeldon & her daughters go on trial for ‘plot to murder’ Prime Minister Lloyd George.

“Alice Wheeldon and her family were commie scum
Denounced World War 1, sheltered deserters on the run
Fitted up by MI5, died from the prison damp –
You won’t see Alice’s head on a stamp!”
(‘Spycop Song’, Dr Feelshite)

If you thought that revelations of the last few years about undercover police officers infiltrating campaigning and political groups, trade unions, families of people killed by racist and the police (just a few examples), and in some cases acting as agent provocateurs, had been going on for just 50 years, since the founding of the Special Demonstration Squad, and was some kind of aberration from our democratic traditions – think again. In one form or another, this practice has been an integral part of policing dissent and controlling or disrupting movements for social change – for hundreds of years. It is literally the norm, not a deviation.

101 years ago today, Derby socialists and war resisters Alice Wheeldon, her daughters Hettie, Winnie and Winnie’s husband, Alfred Mason, went on trial at the Old Bailey, all charged with conspiracy to murder the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party cabinet minister Arthur Henderson.

In fact the supposed ‘plot’ was a fit up, set up by a spy working for the intelligence unit of the Ministry of Munitions.

Alice Wheeldon lived in Derby, with her four children Nell, Winnie, Hettie and Will; the family were all active campaigners for many social issues of the time, notably women’s rights, pacifism and opposition to conscription. Alice and Hettie were activists for women’s suffrage, members of the Women’s Social & Political Union before World War 1, as well being involved in socialist propaganda. To make a living she sold second hand clothes in the market and later from a shop.

If enthusiastic support for the pointless carnage of the First World War was still by far the view of the majority of the population, opposition had grown over the previous two and a half years. The mass deaths, privations, hunger and hardships at home, forced conscription into the armed forces, as well as mass government repression, had sparked hatred and demoralisation, resentment, and resistance. Soldiers were passively and actively avoiding combat and would soon by mutinying; strikes were multiplying, organised by grassroots shop stewards movements, (as the trade union leaders mostly supported the ban on workplace struggles during wartime); food riots and rent strikes had broken out in 1915 and 1916. And refusal to be conscripted, resistance and draft-dodging, had given birth to underground networks of war resisters, mostly young men on the run from the authorities, often sheltered by sympathetic pacifists, socialists and anarchists. A plethora of organisations – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, parts of the Union of Democratic Control, the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Socialist Federation in East London; parts of the Independent Labour Party, the Women’s Freedom League, the shop stewards networks, anarchist groups and christian pacifists… and so many more…  

The government feared all these movements were linked, and to some extent there were rebel networks, with loose origins in the workers’ movements that had erupted before the war, the militant suffragettes who had rejected jingoism when war broke out, and the leftwing political groups who denounced the war on internationalist grounds. From the outside it could also appear that this opposition could link up to wider discontent among the ‘general population’, and that a serious rebellious threat could arise to the war effort and even to the state and the vast capitalist interests that had needed the war.

The government was determined to disrupt and discredit the growing opponents of the war, and pretty much allowed the secret state to operate freely, with carte blanche to use whatever methods seemed necessary. The press was already happy to trumpet that strikers, pacifists, etc were passively doing ‘the Kaiser’s work’, if not actually being paid by Germany; the more evidence could be drummed up that honest and peaceful opposition to the conflict was in fact a cover for more sinister, treasonous and violent intent, the more potential support for opposition they thought could be warded off.

The Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit, a branch of an organisation that was to partly evolve into MI5, faced with an immediate threat of being dismantled, conceived a strategy of discovering a treasonable plot in Derby, which with its munitions factories, was a heartland of Britain’s war effort. 

The Wheeldons were on the one hand a typical anti-war family with William Wheeldon and Alf Mason (Winnie’s husband) both facing conscription, (William was an anarchist ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector), and all of the family including Alice’s sons-in-law were heavily involved in both overt and underground resistance: in the above ground activities of the No Conscription Fellowship, but also in hiding men on the run, helping them escape the country in some cases. They sat also in the middle of the networks the authorities and military intelligence an Special Branch had in their sights: Arthur MacManus, (then ‘courting’ Alice’s daughter Hettie, and a friend of her son William), was heavily involved in the shop stewards meetings and planning class struggle in the factories, particularly in nearby Sheffield, the stronghold of the shop stewards committees since the pioneering Glasgow stewards had been largely broken up by arrest and repression in 1916. Their friends and comrades spread across the midlands and the north of England. 

An MI5 agent, using the name Alex Gordon, and posing as a conscientious objector on the run from the authorities. He had turned up in Sheffield, just as 10-12,000 skilled engineers and other workers came out on strike against the conscription of a fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, at Vickers plant there, in what appeared to be a case of the employers breaking agreements with the unions to not force certain grades into the army. the strike terrified the government, who backed down and released Hargreaves. (It’s worth noting that bitter divisions were opening up in the working class, as unions representing skilled workers were prepared to strike over such actions, but less skilled workers were often not supported.) ‘Gordon’ was not the only spy around – several other ministry of munitions agents were reporting on the strike, the socialists and other workers opposing the war in Sheffield and nearby towns. The reports of the spies tended to focus on prominent individuals like the Sheffield shop stewards activist and later communist theorist, J. T. Murphy, Arthur MacManus, and others, as being largely responsible for anti-war and workers agitation – missing the point that both movements were made up of grassroots networks based on daily grievances and built horizontally, not hierarchically. But the spies fed into their handlers view that taking out some of the prominent faces would crush the movements entirely. 

Alex Gordon was really Francis Vivian, who had been involved in the British Socialist Party before the war, so may have been known (if only by repute) to some of his targets, building trust. He moved across to Derby, in late 1916, supervised by another spy, known as Herbert Booth, who reported to Major Melville Lee at the Ministry of Munitions. Booth and Gordon seem to have played on the Wheeldon family’s angry desire to strike back at the warmongering government they hated, and a plot was hatched, according to the Wheeldons later, to poison dogs guarding prison camps where arrested ‘conchies’ and war resisters were being held, so they could be helped to escape. However, Gordon and Booth presented the poison, which was ordered, as evidence of a plot to poison the new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They reported a succession of conversations, a mix of invented and real talk, no doubt, of threats and plans to off the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleague, Labour’s Arthur Henderson, who was widely vilified by anti-war socialists; as well as unnamed others.

Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon, her daughter Win Mason and Win’s husband Alf Mason were all arrested at the end of January 1917. William Wheeldon was picked up but managed to escape and disappeared. 

The four were tried at the Old Bailey with the Attorney General, the trial beginning on March 6th 1017; future Lord Chancellor, the rightwing politician F.E. Smith leading the prosecution. The legal profession was apparently leant on heavily not to defend them, and the lawyers who did were not very effective. The accused were brow-beaten and their case was not really presented; the dice were loaded against them. The government were determined to use them as a example. Whether or not the spies’ superiors believed the plot was real, or their political bosses really feared for their lives, the trial was a useful weapon to beat the anti-war movement with, at least to split moderate critics of the war from the more radical elements.

Gordon was not present to testify in the trial so the defence could not cross-examine him on his evidence.  The court proceedings show that the evidence was flimsy and that the intention of the prosecution was to publicly destroy the reputations of the accused and then to convict them on that basis.

Hettie Wheeldon was acquitted but the others were sentenced to varying prison terms and their application to appeal was refused. Alice received ten years imprisonment, Alf Mason seven years, Winnie five years. 

Alice went on hunger strikes in Aylesbury Prison, which severely affected her health. Conditions inside were harsh and she was over fifty. Given her failing health and officialdom’s fear that she might die in prison, which could rebound badly on them, she served less than one year of her 10-year sentence. Doubts had also started to arise about the trial and the authorities may have thought they would settle if she was quietly released. From Holloway Prison she was released on licence at the instigation of the Prime Minister – the same Prime Minister she was accused of conspiracy to murder. Her daughters Nellie and Hettie accompanied her back to Derby but her life was made impossibly hard. She was ostracised by many neighbours, and her clothes business was ruined. She and Hettie (who had lost her job as a teacher despite her acquittal) tried to grow and sell veg to survive. They tried to pick up their political activism, re-establishing links with some of the comrades. But both Hettie and Alice caught the flu in the terrible 1918-19 epidemic that struck at a weakened Europe after the war, and for Alice, worn out by prison, it was fatal. She died in February 1919. 

Win and Alf Mason were released unexpectedly at the end of the war, having also gone on hunger strike. After their release, in 1919, Winnie and Alf moved to London where they lived for a number of years with Winnie’s other siblings. Eventually they moved to Hampshire where Winnie was noted for raising awareness of the rise of Fascism. In 1949, shifted to Welwyn Garden City where Alf had built a modern house in the new town. Win was diagnosed with lung cancer and died there in 1953; Alf died in 1963.

Hettie married Arthur MacManus, in 1920 and they had a stillborn child, but she died from peritonitis following on from appendicitis the same year. Arthur became a leading member of the new Communist Party of Great Britain (Alice’s other daughter Nellie also became a CPGB activist). William Wheeldon’s story is perhaps the most poignant in the story of the anti-war movement, in Britain and internationally, and where it ended; he became a communist, moved to the Soviet Union and made there, believing in and working for the Soviet project for many years, Until Stalin had him arrested and shot in the purges in 1937, where he was forced to confess to being a longtime British spy.

A hundred years after the frame-up of Alice and her family, after the profit-ridden carcass-fest of World War I, there is a campaign growing to remember the Wheeldons and the Masons. Derby people and the family have long been convinced that the impact of these outrageous charges has reverberated down the generations. Now Deirdre and Chloë Mason, great grand-daughters of Alice Wheeldon and the grand-daughters of Alf and Win Mason, are seeking to clear their ancestors names so history will record that this was a miscarriage of justice… 

Check out the website of this campaign

A plaque was placed on Alice’s shop in Derby a couple of years ago to mark the plot.

Sheila Bowbotham’s excellent history/drama crossover, ‘Friends of Alice Wheeldon’ is a great book, and worth reading if you can get hold of it.

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The machinations of the secret state that backed the fit-up of the Wheeldon family is complex and we would like to write about it, especially given the relevance of spies infiltrating movements for social change to our own time. This will have to wait for another time; but sufficient to say, spies sponsored by both Special Branch and the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit were both operating against socialists, strikers, anti-war activists. But they were also competing against each other for influence, and reported to rival power centres in government. The spies themselves were part fantasists, part telling their handler what they wanted to hear, and part freelance self-interested opportunists. Some of them experienced half-regret for their actions: ‘Alex Gordon aka Francis Vivian attempted in some bizarre way to re-ingratiate himself with socialists after the trial, part-justifying and part apologising for his part in it. This dynamic is familiar to those of us targetted by modern spycops, some of who have publicly blown the whistle on their former bosses, some of who have returned to friends and lovers after their deployment ended, torn between their ‘job’ and the attraction of the life of rebellion and love that our movements at their best are capable of… But many more hide behind the walls built by the police and secret state, fearing exposure, claiming they are afraid of our revenge, or more honestly, the embarrassment of people they now finding out the glorious war they fought against environmentalists and families of racist murder victims, while deceiving women into sex.

As a heavily restrictive Inquiry into Undercover Policing attempts to cover up most of the history of political spying of the last half century, under the guise of pretending to uncover it, some of those spied on are attempting to push for as much information on those who spied on us and those who controlled them as we can get. Results so far are not encouraging; most of the names revealed so far have been brought into the open by us.

For more information about current campaigning vs undercover policing, check out:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Undercover Research Group

Police Spies Out of Lives

The Network for Police Monitoring

http://spycops.info/

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The massive potential of the rising anti-war movement, the rebel networks of which Alice and all her family and friends were part of, was in the end broken, partly by the repression of the state, both open and secret, But also by the divisions of he movements themselves. The shop stewards movement launched strikes in 1917, but they were crippled by the splits between skilled and unskilled workers. The coagulating brilliant links that the conchies, suffragists, socialists and the class-conscious workers were forging did produce the Leeds Convention in June 1917, influenced and cheered by the Russian Revolution, attempting to unite trade unions and protest against the war. But it allowed itself to be dominated by the Labour Party and union leaders, who helped to derail its revolutionary potential. The powerful links developing through the war did continue to grow, and produced massive strikes in 1919, which in parallel with mutinies in the army could have led to a more fundamental social change – but was sold out by unions leaders, and hamstrung by people’s own doubts and lack of desire to push forward.

This post could have covered much more of this interesting period and the fascinating people and groups evolving at this time, and resisting the capitalist war machine with heroic but grounded love for each other, as well as clear-sighted hatred for the classes that profited from the slaughter.

Across the years we salute Alice, William and Hettie Wheeldon, Win and Alf Mason, their friends and comrades, and the movements they played a part in. If the world they hoped to build has not yet come about – tremble on your thrones, powers of the earth! Just you wait, you bankers!

 

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Yesterday in suffrage/anti-war history, 1915: the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies splits over support for WW1.

This should have gone out yesterday… but we were partying with Lady Stardust…

By the 1890s there were seventeen individual groups that were advocating women’s suffrage in the UK. This included the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, Liberal Women’s Suffrage Society and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage. On 14th October 1897, these groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Millicent Garret Fawcett was elected as president. Other members of the executive committee included Marie Corbett, Chrystal Macmillan, Maude Royden and Eleanor Rathbone.

The NUWSS held public meetings, organised petitions, wrote letters to politicians, published newspapers and distributed free literature. The main demand was for the vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men. It was thought that this proposal would be “more likely to find support than a broader measure that would put women into the electoral majority, and it might nevertheless play the part of the thin end of the wedge.” (Remembering that up to two thirds of men were also unable to vote up until the twentieth century). Its message was directed at the Liberal Party, who it was hoped would win the next election. However, as one historian pointed out, the NUWSS’s achilles heel was that it remained “irrationally optimistic about the Liberal Party”. Liberal thinkers had been very supportive of votes for women individually, and Liberal-oriented groups had formed the original backbone of the movement that produced the NUWSS. But Liberal Party leaders consistently failed to implement women’s suffrage, gradually alienating many activists.

Dissatisfaction among women activist with the slow progress of support for women’s suffrage within the Liberal Party coincided with the increasing strength of a working class movement with an ambivalent attitude, at best, to women voting. While many Independent Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation members and trade unionists were supporters of female suffrage, just as many were opposed. However, many suffragists, both among what were later divided into the militant and constitutional camps, also became socialists, members of the Labour Party and trade unionists… If there is a tendency to portray suffragettes as posh (especially in fiction, films etc), the movement was in fact broad based, with mass working class membership; although in common with many other social movements, the power structures of the existing society were reflected in their organisation (a dynamic not unknown today…) and middle class women tended to dominate the leadership positions.

Though initially supportive of the militancy of the Women’s Social & Political Union when it was founded in 1903, including prison hunger strikes, NUWSS leaders like Millicent Garret Fawcett increasingly disagreed with the Pankhursts over their ‘violent’ tactics, especially deliberate property damage, which she thought were alienating MPs and the ‘voting public’. She favoured lobbying, education and gradual winning people over by persuasion, and focused efforts on Bills in Parliament, such as the 1912 attempt to give votes to all heads of households.

As growing political tension in Europe slid into World War One, in common with trade unions and socialists groups, the NUWSS campaigned against the possibility of war. IN Summer 1914, Millicent Garrett Fawcett issued a statement on behalf of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. “We, the women of the world, view with apprehension and dismay the present situation in Europe, which threatens to involve one continent, if not the whole world, in the disasters and horrors of war… We women of twenty-six countries, having bonded ourselves together in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance with the object of obtaining the political means of sharing with men the power which shapes the fate of nations, appeal to you to leave untried no method of conciliation or arbitration for arranging international differences to avert deluging half the civilised world in blood.”

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany (on 4th August 1914), the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. That night Millicent Fawcett chaired a meeting against the war. Speakers included Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Mary Macarthur, Mabel Stobart and Elizabeth Cadbury. Fawcett said there were millions of women who thought that war was a “crime against society”. She added: “A way must be found out of the tangle… In the first place they should try and avoid bitterness of national feeling. They should on the one hand keep down panic and on the other the war fever and Jingo feeling.”

However, in common with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the WSPU leadership, when it came down to it, Garret Fawcett and many NUWSS leaders supported the War effort, partly pragmatically, believing mass women’s support for the war effort would lead a grateful granting of the vote for women in response. But also, because the movement reflected the wider society, and if for some, the struggle to win the vote was just part of a wider program to change society for the better, there were others who wholeheartedly bought into the nationalist and imperialist mindset of the time. And that wasn’t just the suffragettes – millions of socialists, trade unionist and even some anarchists fell in behind the war myth.

Although Fawcett supported the war effort she refused to become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. The WSPU under Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s leadership took a very different view. After secret negotiations with the government, on the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst, arrived back in England after living in exile in Paris. She told the press: “I feel that my duty lies in England now, and I have come back. The British citizenship for which we suffragettes have been fighting is now in jeopardy.”

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as “We Demand the Right to Serve”, “For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work” and “Let None Be Kaiser’s Cat’s Paws”. At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. She told the audience: “What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!”. Emmeline would go on to spearhead campaigns to shame men who had not volunteered into signing up, carry out vitriolic attacks on pacifists and opponents of the war, denouncing any opposition as treason and accusing anti-war activists of being German spies. (She went as far as specifically making lists of trade unionists who went on strike, passing the names to the army and demanding they be forcibly enlisted and sent to the trenches. On at least one occasion this was carried out.)

Despite not going anything like this far, Millicent Garret Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: “I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace.” Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: “She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union.”

The NUWSS contained probably more pacifist feminists than the WSPU; as a result the organisation’s support for the War was less strident, (and unlike the WSPU they continued to campaign for the vote throughout the slaughter). There was a tussle in the organisation over whether to support or oppose the war, though, and many pacifists were forced out, after they tried to push the NUWSS towards an anti-war position. On March 4th 1915, this split came to a head at an NUWSS executive meeting, and while the majority of the executive – and possibly the activists – were anti-war, the pro-war leadership managed to mobilise the mass of the (mostly passive) national membership, in support of their position.
Ray Strachey, a leading acolyte of Millicent Garret, and definitively pro-war, wrote to her mother: “We have succeeded in throwing all the pacifists out… They wanted us to send a delegate to the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague, & we refused. Then they resigned in a body – and they included the majority of our senior officers and committees! It is a marvellous triumph that it was they who had to go out and not us – and shows that there is some advantage in internal democracy, for we only did it by having the bulk of the stodgy members behind us.”

After a stormy executive meeting all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned over the decision not to support the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Margaret Ashton, Kathleen Courtney, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden. “Wounding language was used on both sides. Mrs Fawcett did not normally turn disagreements among friends into quarrels but this one she experienced as a personal betrayal. It became the only episode in her life that she wished to forget”.

Kathleen Courtney wrote when she resigned: “I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way.” According to Elizabeth Crawford: “Mrs Fawcett afterwards felt particularly bitter towards Kathleen Courtney, whom she felt had been intentionally and personally wounding, and refused to effect any reconciliation, relying, as she said, on time to erase the memory of this difficult period.”

In May 1916 Millicent Fawcett wrote to Prime Minster Herbert Asquith that women deserved the vote for their war efforts. In August he told the House of Commons that he had now changed his mind and that he intended to introduce legislation that would give women the vote. On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: “Personally, I didn’t vote for a long time, because I hadn’t either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30.”

The Qualification of Women Act was passed in February, 1918. The Manchester Guardian reported: “The Representation of the People Bill, which doubles the electorate, giving the Parliamentary vote to about six million women and placing soldiers and sailors over 19 on the register (with a proxy vote for those on service abroad), simplifies the registration system, greatly reduces the cost of elections, and provides that they shall all take place on one day, and by a redistribution of seats tends to give a vote the same value everywhere, passed both Houses yesterday and received the Royal assent.”

The First World War ended in November 1918. Millicent Fawcett lost “no fewer than twenty-nine members of her extended family, including two nephews” in the war. Whereas the WSPU “were prepared to accept votes for women on any terms the government had to offer… the NUWSS continued to press its old case for equality with men”. Garret Fawcett was urged to stand for Parliament in the 1918 General Election, but aged seventy-one, she decided to retire from politics.

After the granting of the franchise for women under 30 in 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, working mainly for a lowering of women’s voting age to 21 to match men.

Read a PDF of The British Women’s Peace Movement during World War I. 

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London’s anti-war history: women’s rally against the Boer War, 1900

Although she was a British citizen, Emily Hobhouse was later awarded an honorary South African citizenship because of her courageous and sacrificial actions, which exposed the cruelty of the concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

Emily was born 9 April 1860, and raised in St. Ive, in East Cornwall. Her father was a Church of England pastor for 51 years. Her mother was the daughter of Sir. William Trelawney, a Member of Parliament for East Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Emily cared for her father until his death in 1895.

Then she travelled to the United States to undertake welfare work amongst miners in Minnesota. Her engagement to John Carr Jackson was broken off in 1898, and she returned to England. Emily was involved in social actions and was a member of the Women’s Industrial Committee. As the Anglo Boer War broke out October 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee. As Secretary, she organised protest meetings against the war.

During the Second Boer War (October 1899- May 1902) Great Britain attempted to impose its control over South Africa by invading the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, inhabited mainly by the descendants of Dutch settlers, known as ‘Boers (meaning farmers). Britain already controlled the Cape Colony, and the Colony of Natal.

Although the British forces with their superior military might overran the ‘Boers’ (after some initial reverses), the latter reverted to guerrilla warfare, merging into the civilian Boer population. The British government responded by setting up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. This allowed the British mounted infantry units to systematically track down the Boer guerrilla units.

Public opinion in many countries was largely hostile to Britain, and in Britain and its Empire the Boer War aroused significant opposition, especially outrage at the concentration camp policy.

In April 1900 Emily and her friend Kate Courtney organized a women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, under whose auspices they then called a women’s protest meeting at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, London, for 13 June 1900. On the platform appeared a pantheon of Liberal and radical figures – Lady Mary Hobhouse, the Countess of Carlisle (president of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the North of England Temperance League), Mrs SA Barnett, Mrs Bryce (chair of the Women’s National Liberal Association), and Mrs Frederic Harrison. Emily herself had previously been excluded from a Liberal conference in Manchester which discussed the wrongs of the Boer War which enraged her. “We [female Liberals] longed to protest… it occurred to me that women, at least, might make a public protest without rousing undue criticism.”

Opponents of the Boer war were being fiercely denounced by ‘patriots’ as traitors, anti-British, and public events such as rallies being held against the war were often attacked by jingoistic crowds.

In organising the Queens Hall protest Emily Hobhouse was attempting to both counter and take advantage of women’s formal exclusion from political life. It is generally held that the rally, and Hobhouse’s subsequent campaign against the British concentration camps in South Africa, had a significant impact on the development of the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, in 1902, the Women’s Liberal Federation, who had played a part in the Boer war protest movement, moved towards support for women’s suffrage.

Emily Hobhouse went on to spend much of the next two years campaigning against the British concentration camp policy, and organising aid for the Boers, especially interned women and children. Learning in the Summer of 1900, that hundreds of Boer women that had become impoverished and driven from their homes, she launched the South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled to South Africa to deliver aid to the Boer women and children, who were suffering because of the war.

Arriving in Cape Town, in late December 1900, she began to learn of concentration camps in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and elsewhere. As Martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony, she needed the permission not only of Lord Milner, but of General Kitchener, to visit these camps. Because of her persistence and perseverance, she finally received permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein.

Emily described arriving at the concentration camp outside Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901: Two thousand people had been dumped on the slope of a kopje with inadequate accommodation, massive overcrowding of ten to twelve people in a tent, no soap, inadequate water, no beds, or mattresses, scarce fuel, extremely meagre rations, and (the actual quantity dispensed, fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.) all kinds of sicknesses festered in the camp, including: measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. Almost every tent housed one or more sick persons. When she requested soap for the inmates, she was told by the authorities that soap was “a luxury!”

Emily went beyond Bloemfontein to investigate other concentration camps. When informed by the Administrator of the Orange River Colony that she showed “too much personal sympathy”, Emily replied: “That was the precise reason why I came out to show personal sympathy and to render assistance in cases of personal afflictions.”

Emily published a “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies”, relating the result of the policy: Children were dying at a rate of 50 a day in these overcrowded and unhygienic camps. As Emily wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty to keep these camps going is murder to the children the women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety, seems to lift them beyond tears the nurse, underfed and overworked coping with some 30 typhoid and other patients a six month baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee A girl of 21 lay dying on a stretcher The mother watching a child of 6, also dying. already this couple had lost 3 children in the hospital. like faded flowers thrown away a splendid child dwindled to skin and bone a baby so weak it was past recovery it was only three months, but such a sweet little thing it was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out.
“To me it seemed a murdered innocent. In an hour or two after, another child died. At Springfontein a young lady had to be buried in a sack it is a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the state, large uncomfortable communities of people, whom you call refugees, and say you are protecting, but who call themselves Prisoners Of War, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection. Those who are suffering most keenly and who have lost most, either of their children by death, or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those re-concentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience and never express a wish that their men should be the one’s to give way. It must be fought out now, to the bitter end.

“It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost, hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared about them and their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I have fought my way here, if only for that reason.”

Emily Hobhouse campaigned tirelessly against the concentration camp system, the war carried out against Boer women and children, the scorched earth campaigns, burning of farm houses, poisoning of wells, slaughtering of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and destruction of food supplies. Her reports helped to spread news of British military policy and contributed to an outpouring of revulsion in England, which did lead to pressure on the government to improve conditions in the camps. One of the first successes of Emily Hobhouse’s campaign was that soap began to be issued amongst the meagre rations and conditions began to improve in the camps.

She received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many in the media upon her return to Britain. However, the opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced the methods of barbarism and forced the government to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims.

However, Emily Hobhouse was not allowed to be part of the commission, and upon her return to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and was deported. But her reports continued to circulate. She moved to France to write the book: The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, which mobilised even more outrage and action. The Fawcett Commission confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s reports.

In spite of fierce opposition from the British newspapers supporting the government’s war, Emily continued to address public meetings about the plight of women and children in South Africa. There is no doubt that the initiatives and energetic actions of Emily Hobhouse shortened the war and saved countless lives. She also gave hope to mothers who had lost all hope.

Emily Hobhouse’s courageous campaign to speak up for the forgotten Boer women and children, who had been brutally treated, played a major role in undermining popular British support for the war. It also forced the government to offer massive concessions to the Boer forces.

She returned to South Africa in 1903 to set up Boer home industries, teaching young women spinning and weaving. Through her efforts, 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the Inauguration of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, but had to stop at Beaufort West, due to ill health.

Emily was also an avid opponent of the First World War and vigorously protested against it. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria, because of the British naval blockades, were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.

Emily Hobhouse’s remains are buried in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein.

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

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Yesterday and today, in London history: Dockers refuse to load munitions for anti-Soviet forces, 1920.

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of fighting had largely engendered a widespread cynicism and disillusion – with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. And the British government, for one, was determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – but against former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also scared the pants off governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilization in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere… The soldiers’ protests led to a swift acceleration of demobilisation, in order to scotch further rebellion in the ranks.

It also did make the government think more carefully about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was also heavily against intervention in Russia…

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. But it wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks.

And just as soldiers put their twopennorth in, organised workers would also have something to say on the matter.

From the early days following the Russian Revolution, British socialists of various stripe were enthused by the idea that workers were taking control of a major world power, and inspired by the thought of this spreading worldwide. The clear attempt by the British authorities to aid in smashing the revolution (while at the same time coming down hard against strikes and socialist movements here) drew fierce opposition from the British left.

In early 1919 the Hands Off Russia movement was born, an umbrella group uniting almost all sections of a (usually fairly fractious) left, to build resistance from within to any military campaign against Russia.

In fact, it united the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (the British version of the famous ‘Wobblies’), the London Workers’ Committee (the capital’s equivalent of the Clyde Workers’ Committee – the shop steward-based organisers of the Red Clydeside era) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s (anti-parliamentary communist) Workers’ Socialist Federation A great deal of support was also given by George Lansbury’s Daily Herald (left labour) and its associated Herald Leagues, also then at their height.

As well as vigorous campaigning, some in the movement recognised that large amounts of munitions and other materials were likely to be needed for any Russian war. Even after the authorities reluctantly drew back from sending large forces of men to fight, they promised arms and other military supplies to the white Russian armies. This would have to be transported through the docks.

The Hands Off Russia movement involved lots of trade unionists and socialist activists: and especially in London, they had strong links with dockworkers in the East End; socialism and unionism was strong in the docks, and dockers were particularly militant around this time. The Hands Off Russia Campaign made a point of holding meetings around the docks, not just because there was a good receptive audience, but because these were workers who might be able to actually hold up the supply of munitions to the Russian reactionaries:

“Many of the comrades could be seen outside the London docks and shipyards selling ‘Hands Off Russia’ literature and our members were also selling inside. Day after day we posted up placards, stick backs and posters on the dockside, in ships and lavatories.” (Harry Pollitt)

Harry Pollitt, later Communist Party supremo, then a member of the Workers Socialist Federation, was an East End socialist activist, involved in this campaign. According to Pollitt after Lenin’s ‘Appeal to the Toiling Masses’, a call for international solidarity with the Soviet state – reprinted in Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, the Workers Dreadnought, but banned by the Home Office – he kept hundreds of copies inside his mattress to avoid seizure if he was raided. Pankhurst handed out 1000s of copies around the docks and the East End. Pollitt credits Melvina Walker, a leading WSF member, as an important and tireless propagandist in the agitation against intervention: “She toiled like a Trojan. If on a shopping morning you went down Chrisp Street, Poplar, you could rely upon seeing Mrs. Walker talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution.”

The campaign slowly built up, including a one-day strike against intervention in summer 1919, co-ordinated with workers in other western countries, though only patchily supported. British aid to the reactionary forces continued. But subversive efforts to sabotage this process were at work…

In February 1920, Hands Off Russia meetings were widely reporting rumours recently printed in the Workers Dreadnought (though originally hailing from the German communist paper Rote Fahne) that the recent defeat of the white Russian reactionary general Yudenich had partly been due to the fact that British guns supplied to his forces had had parts removed – by workers in British armaments factories.

In March and April, learning that barges in the London docks were being loaded with munitions destined for ships bound to supply anti-Soviet forces, Hands Off Russia activists approached dockers to ask them not to load them. According to Pollitt, they seemed to ignore his pleas.. but an old docker approached him and told him not to worry. As the barges reached the ships in the North Sea, several cable ‘mysteriously snapped’, and much of the cargo was lost in the sea!

This was the immediate prelude to the best known action around this issue – the dockers refusal to load munitions on the Jolly George, in May 1920.

On 10 May, as the ship Jolly George was being loaded with a cargo labeled ‘OHMS Munitions for Poland’ in the East India Dock. Poland was at war with the Soviets and Polish armies had advanced deep into the Ukraine. The dockers at work there realised it was destined for the white Russian Armies. By this time, much of the guns had gone on board; but the coalheavers refused to stock the ship up with coal, unless the munitions were removed. While this situation led to a stand-off on the dockside, a deputation of dockers went to visit the Dockers’ Union general Secretaries, Ernest Bevin and Fred Thompson, and received assurances that the union would back a strike if the cargo remained on board.

The following day, the export branch of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Workers Union passed a resolution calling on the Transport Workers Federation and the Labour Party to support them in preventing the Jolly George from sailing… The Jolly George could not sail. Four days later the munitions were unloaded back onto the docks.

The dockers were not necessarily all in sympathy with communism, though many were inclined to some form of socialism. The Hands Off Russia had, however, tapped into a general feeling of revulsion at the idea of further warfare, and a sense that any cause the government was supporting was worth opposing… Without a doubt, the January 1919 mutinies and the campaign against the shipping of munitions helped to prevent the smashing of the Soviet Union (even if the dreams and aspirations of the Russia workers were soon to be channelled into the dead ends of repression, the Kronstadt massacre, state capitalism, Lenin, Stalin and 70 years of gulag and betrayal… Interestingly, the Jolly George incident was long-remembered in the Soviet Union -commemorated by the stamp shown at the beginning of this post, printed in 1970).

For the moment, though, the actions of the dockers in May 1920 struck a blow that had huge significance.

According to Harry Pollitt, as the unloaded cases of munitions sat on the dock, on May 15th, “on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”

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

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This week, and in 2006, trouble at parliament.

This post rambles from the immediate present to the past. Bear with us. It comes together in the end.

Seems like a good week to talk about Parliament…
Some thoughts (not comprehensive, or even maybe coherent) :

  1. As a project trying to link past present and future, we are generally opposed to random acts of terror involving passers-by; but it would be hard to deny Parliament has made itself a target by a number of its actions.
  2. An attack on Parliament is not an attack on OUR democracy – our democracy is of a different more direct kind (if it is democracy at all. Jury’s out).
  3. We’re broadly opposed to organised religion and specifically to religious fundamentalism of all kinds, and attempts to impose it by force.
  4. We’re also opposed to attempts to impose the aims of the US/UK capital-political-military complex on other people around the world by force. Which has killed a few more people, though its not a competition.
  5. Religious fundamentalists are leeches, particularly adept fastening onto vulnerable people with mental health problems, grooming them and pointing them at supposed enemies. This dynamic is present in some forms of Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. And Hinduism. And Buddhism (Other whacko faiths are available).
  6. We think religion is something we have dispense with as a species, but we’re unlikely to convince everyone soon; however, we don’t think its racist to say ‘religion is possibly not sensible’ because some people who are religious are Black or Asian. Some people use attacks on one or more religions as a human shield for basic racism. Some others use the defence of ‘don’t oppress me for my beliefs’ to cloak their misogyny, social control and hierarchical position within a given community. This makes saying what you think about things complex and fraught with pitfalls. Is this why we’re writing in this simplistic way? Or is it that we’re hung over? Who knows. Some leftist ‘anti-racists’ and even some ‘feminists’ have attacked ex-muslims for speaking openly about the abuses in Islam, deciding that if there’s a ‘hierarchy of oppression’, people resisting the religion they grew up in should remain somewhere near the bottom. Now I know why we got so drunk last night in the first place.
  7. Nationalists, like fundamentalists, justify people mowed down in your path as you attack the perceived enemy as collateral damage. Or lump them in with the enemy because they’re non-believers, come from the same part of the world as the people ruling them, etc. Are you complicit in the crimes of your bosses, monarchs, parliaments, because of the borders you ‘share’? Is it your responsibility to differentiate yourself, and (whether you do or don’t), is it your lookout when the bombers (etc) come? On the other hand I heard a well-informed caller on the radio saying we should bar any Syrian refugees from Britain on the grounds that they were ‘all cowards’ who had failed to stay and fight Assad. Genuinely. “What would have happened if WE had done that with Hitler”? (NB, this person was not alive in WW2 so the ‘we’ must have been channelling a Blitz Spirit.)
  8. And irrational fear and hate can be secular too…
    But there’s also rational fear and hate. We prefer that kind. We are, we think, rationally afraid of what people can be persuaded to do in the name of this god or that, just as we are quite reasonably opposed to using these acts to justify locking up refugees, racism, xenophobia, sometimes drowned with lashings of secular Western superiority (paid for in the blood of millions sacrificed on the altar of slavery and imperialism over the centuries). We are afraid of what nationalist dickwaving can unleash (more than one former resident of Yugoslavia has compared the post-Brexit vote atmosphere to 1990 in that ex-progressive state, just before the war); as we are opposed to swivel-brained little Englanders who have to pretend they wouldn’t like to re-introduce the birch, abolish abortion, ban women from going out to work, jail gays and reduce the minimum wage to £2.13, so as to have a swipe at ‘darkies’ who ‘won’t accept our values’. Integrate on this, you halfwits.
  1. London is differently composed to much of the ‘UK”; there has been an element of ‘Keep Calm and Carry on, Londoners Won’t Be Cowed, etc. in the wake of this week’s attack. Appeals for a sort of cosmopolitan unity; which has a kernel worth discussing, but would be debateable, if not ridiculous in the face of the massive class cleansing taking place in this city. A process not devoid of the notable dynamics, that it is increasingly migrants doing the shit work that keeps the fabulous wealth of the capital comfy, and that they and older working class communities are in danger of being shifted out en masse to the midlands to make room for more wealthy muckyfucks. No obvious sign of ‘Keep Calm and introduce Rent Controls’ posters on the tube. Fake News? Fake Unity!

To stand against religious insanity AND racist foreigner bashing AND lefty fear of calling religion daft is strangely hard for many folk at the moment, and at the risk of being labelled liberal bleaters, the times they are a wee bit grim. Maybe all we can do is continue to oppose both where we can, avoid being hustled into kneejerk bollocks, try to talk and work out alternatives in as many arenas as we can, live in a way that is open and welcoming but not afraid to ask awkward questions. And bring up our kids to think for themselves, not take any faiths on wholesale.

And punch Nazis and Nigel Farage when you can. 

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Police and parliament are likely to seize on the atmosphere generated by the attacks to introduce measures that will help them with surveillance and control, to an even greater extent than they do already. Bearing in mind the revelation in recent days that the Met employed Indian hackers to break into the email accounts of a number of activists – mainly revealed to be from the environmental movement, so far, though who knows what’s more to come? This kind of info often drips into the public arena, if it ever emerges at all. Support your local Netpol, COPS, Spies Out of Lives, and so on…

Another likely upshot could be further extension to powers to block, prevent and exclude protests from the immediate neighbourhood of Parliament (one glaring oversight in the security ring around the building being the lack of bollards that prevent drivers veering onto the pavement on Westminster Bridge, though some in the press also gleefully called for an end to cycle lanes as the attacker drove along the one on the bridge. Mysterious, the lack of calls for banning of 4x4s because he was driving one. Weird, that.)

Of course restrictions can be got around… The exclusion zone around Parliament was brought in in 2003, as we have previously discussed, as MPs cheerfully voting for mass murder of Iraqis pretended to be concerned that terrorists could infiltrate protests with the aim of an attack on Parliament. In reality this was aimed specifically at Brian Haw’s famous permanent picket protesting sanctions and war against Iraq, in Parliament Square. Iraq war, state violence, individual violence, Islamism – told you it was all connected.

Brian’s megaphone constantly echoing across the road was notoriously disturbing MPs and peers’ enjoyment of the subsidised bars and interfering with their family life (as they dictated letters to the members of their family hired on inflated wages and living rent-free in expenses-paid Mayfair flats). Their blunder, in failing to make the law to ban protests near Parlymental retrospective had us pissing ourselves, as Brian’s picket pre-dated the Act, and he managed to stay put and beat any number of court appearances and attempts to get round this loophole. Till a judge finally ruled the law WAS in fact retrospective, despite not saying so, and calling the idea that it wasn’t “manifestly absurd”, although in, like EVERY OTHER CASE acts of parliament state clearly when they apply from. We Are At War With Eurasia. We Have Always Been At War With Eurasia.

In the meantime Brian Haw and others who joined him were nicked repeatedly, usually for ‘unauthorised demonstration’, obstruction, refusing to surrender a megaphone or banner…

For instance, on this date 11 years ago, (March 26, 2006) Brian was arrested when he refused to give one of his banners to the police. The banner had been held by a supporter, Barbara Tucker (while holding a pink sequinned banner “Bliar War Criminal”), who was protesting with Brian and was arrested under Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Both were later released without charge but were ‘reported’ to the CPS. Throughout the process Brian refused to hand over the banner or any of his other possessions. A Formal Complaint over this arrest was never investigated. They were both issued with a Summons to court, served on 9th May 2006, but on 14th September that year Police & CPS lost this one – the case failed because of abuse of process.

Brian Haw continued, with others, to protest in Parliament Square. He died in June 2011.

Lots more on Brian’s protest 

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

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Today in London’s radical history: jingoistic mob break up anti-war meeting, Islington, 1917.

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…

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

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This week in London radical history: Women blockade Parliament, 1642, protesting against war, recession and poverty.

The English civil war of the 1640s exposed and encouraged an explosion of radial and pioneering political and social thought. A substantial driver of the conflict had been ideology – a striving for freedom of religious worship. But economics was also heavily involved – restrictions on the ability of the middle classes to better themselves through trade, maintained by monopolies licensed by the king and bolstered by custom and autocratic rule, were hampering the rise of the bourgeoisie.

But Parliament acting on behalf of the moderate bourgeois interests, called on the lower orders to fight, enlisting them with appeals that seemed to offer them the fruits of the struggle – greater freedoms, religious tolerance… However this opened up many cans of worms, as the war agitated maelstroms of ideas and produced a surge of aspiration from below, much to the horror of the moderate leadership.

But the war had also been partly emerged from a lingering trade recession, and the war economy was to worsen this. And this was to open up the worst of nightmares for the Parliamentary worthies – rebellious women.

Women had been a major part of the crowds who had mobilised against the king in 1640; they had formed a substantial contingent of the volunteers who had build a ring of forts around the whole city when the king’s army threatened it in 1642. But rage and poverty would set them against Parliament; not just against the king and his party, but against all “the haves… set up for themselves, call parity and independence liberty… destroy all rights and properties, all distinctions of families and merit.” As Stevie Davies put it, “they were driven not by ideology but by pragmatic hatred of war.”

In the very earliest days of the war, a reaction in London was already beginning – among women of the City. On 31st January 1642, as Parliament and king Charles were only just marshalling their armies, crowds of women protested at Parliament. “They were hungry; the economy had nose-dived into depression, and mobs of the ‘rabble’ were daily clamouring for relief at the House of Lords (’popish Lords’ whose lack of co-operation they blamed for their present catastrophe). What the women wanted was bread for their children, who they threatened to plant on the Lords to mother.”

When as several hundred women surrounded Parliament, the king’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond, (who they waylaid as he rode up in his coach), laid into them with his ducal staff, crying ‘Away with these Women, we were best to have a parliament of women!’ Angry women grabbed his staff and it got broken in the tussle. The Duke was regarded as a ‘dangerous malignant’, a prominent supporter of the king and enemy of parliament and people.

Another aristo, Lord Savage, despite his name, tried a more conciliatory approach, delivering the women’s petition to the Lords, who agreed to see representatives of the crowd to hear their grievances.

But immediate respite was not forthcoming, and on February 1st a crowd of women surged around the House of Commons: “great multitudes of women at the Houses, pressing to present a Petition to the Parliament; and their language is, that where there is One Woman now here, there would be five hundred tomorrow; and that it was as good for them to die here as at home.”

The crowd were persuaded by Sergeant-Major Skippon, commander of the City Militia, to leave the Commons to consider their pleas…

The next day also a blockade of Old Palace Yard, protesting that the recession was driving them to poverty.

On the 4th, however, another group of women assembled, bringing a petition against the Bishops (also seen as supporters of the king and oppressors of the people). Anne Stagg, ‘a gentlewoman and a brewer’s wife’, led a deputation of women of like status, addressing parliament in a more genteel manner, and received a much friendlier welcome…

By August the following year, crowds of distressed women had become ‘Peace Women’, who flocked to Parliament, wearing white ribbons, and demanding and end to the war and the privations and death it was bringing. This time, the women were beaten by soldiers and driven from Westminster violently, and denounced as “oyster wives, and other dirty tattered sluts…” or “whores, bawds… kitchenstuff women… the very scum of the suburbs”, who were the willing or unconscious dupes of the royalists. The Peace women may have called for peace, but peaceful they were not, targeting figures of authority, roughing them up; they also beat up the Trained Bands, the citizen volunteers, and derided the lying promises of the officials. They besieged Parliament and barred the doors; pelted the soldiers with brickbats, and threatened to duck the Parliamentary leaders in the Thames (traditionally a male punishment for ‘scolds’).

Again they were driven violently off by soldiers, some were cut by sword-wielding cavalry, others arrested and jailed in the Bridewell.

Women would continue to erupt into the male-dominated world of the civil war, while the men essentially attempted to block them from having a voice. They would begin to preach in the streets (outraging conservative opinion beyond belief), campaign in support of the Levellers, even as the Levellers drew up plans for a wider franchise that continued to exclude all women; would form vital elements of the ranters, quakers, and other sects and groupings; Fifth monarchist women would issue prophesies and call Oliver Cromwell to account. And just as many of the gains of the English Revolution would, at least for a while, be lost and driven backward, women’s part in these events would be ignored and marginalised by historians.

Much of this is lifted from the wondrous ‘Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution’, by Stevie Davies, which uncovers some of these women’s stories… Essential reading.

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An entry in the
2017 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

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