Monday, May 18, 2015

Peace meetings in First World War Lewisham

Opposing the First World War was a difficult business, with harassment from the authorities and from pro-war mobs. In 1916, Nellie Best of the Women's Anti-Conscription League was jailed for 6 months for deterring recruiting, and the Lewisham Borough Peace and Anti-Conscription Council passed a resolution demanding her release (Daily Herald,15 April 1916).

Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical socialist and suffragist, was active in the anti-war movement, as a key figure in the Women's Suffrage Federation/Workers Suffrage Federation (after 1917 name change)/Workers Socialist Federation (from 1918). The WSF was particularly active in the  East End of London, but sometimes south of the river, as this report of a 'GREAT PUSH" FOR PEACE' (Daily Herald, 6 October 1917) demonstrates: 'The Workers' Suffrage Federation's " Great Push" for Adult Suffrage, Socialism, and, above all, for Peace by Negotiation, held on Saturday, September 29, in Greenwich and Lewisham, where all the speakers met with good reception. Men in khaki and wounded soldiers from the local military hospital took Peace leaflets and bought the Workers' Dreadnought. A good collection was taken...  Volunteers for these parades should write to Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, 400, Old Ford Road, Bow, E3'.

Sylvia Pankhurst
A planned meeting the following month by the pro-peace Fellowship of Reconciliation received a more hostile response. Those opposing the war were likely to be labelled as pro-German as the headline to the following article from the Nottingham Evening Post (9 November 1917) makes clear:


A meeting under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at Lime Hall, Lime-grove, Lewisham, to be addressed by Mrs. Swanwick, was cancelled at the last moment yesterday owing to the presence of a large and hostile crowd. Cheers were given for the "Boys in Khaki" and the Lads in Navy Blue,” and several of the promoters of the meeting were rather roughly handled. An impromptu patriotic meeting was held outside the hall, at which a resolution was passed in favour of refusing to allow any more peace meetings to be held'.

'Mrs Swanwick' mentioned here was presumably Helena Swanwick, the first Chair of the Women's International League, an organisation set up by pro-peace suffragists (she was also, incidentally, the sister of the artist Walter Sickert)

Helena Swanwick - stopped from speaking in Lewisham, 1917

Ken Weller's book 'Don't be a soldier!' The radical anti-war movement in north London 1914-1918 is an excellent account of this period. As the name suggests it is primarily about north London, though he mentions the WSF making  'occasional forays into the transpontine wastes of South London'!. Wish I had the time to research a South London version.

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