- a natural rebel
- opposing war
- opposing conscription
- first imprisonments
- hard labour
- breaking the rules
- opposing the prison system
- No More War
- onset of war
- anti-war, anti-Nazi
- war work
- the Cold War
- working to the end
Fenner Brockway was born in Calcutta in 1888. In his remarkable long life (he died just 6 months before his 100th birthday) he experienced some of the most significant, and horrific, events in 20th century history: two world wars, the Cold War, the development of nuclear weapons. For over 80 years he worked in every way he could to promote peace.
A natural rebel
Fenner Brockways parents were Christian missionaries working in India, but they sent their son home to England for his education. The only thing I learned to do well at school was play Rugby football. He was a natural rebel, and by the time he was 16 he was spending his homework hours writing political pamphlets complete with covers of his own design. There was only one other boy who ever read them, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of them myself.
Among other things (learning to breed racing pigeons and winning an essay prize) Fenner Brockway learned to overcome a stammer and make speeches in school debates. He even managed to slip regularly out of school to deliver election leaflets for the local Liberal candidate. Eventually he was caught, and the headmaster promised him a very poor end-of-school reference when he left. But Fenner Brockway took this on the chin. I regarded myself as a martyr in the cause of progress, victimised for my political activities.
Sport, however, made a difference. The headmaster, hearing that Fenner Brockway wanted to become a journalist, told him he could attend shorthand classes at the schools expense - if he stayed on to play for the school Rugby team. He did.
But in 1906 he had left school and was alone in London, looking for work in politics and journalism, and a room to live in, wherever he could find them. By degrees I began to learn some of the realities of life, including trying to make ends meet.
It wasnt long before he realised that socialism had become the passion of my life. In 1907, just after his 19th birthday, he joined the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) and immediately felt at home. He began public speaking on the socialist issues of the day, and wore a red tie as a sign of his commitment to left-wing opinions. By 1911 he had become the editor of the ILPs paper, the Labour Leader, based in Manchester.
The Labour Leader of July 23 1914 carried an article by Fenner Brockway on the front page, with the headline THE WAR MUST BE STOPPED.
A few weeks later the paper published an article by Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the ILP in Parliament. The article included these words: It is a diplomatists war, made by about half a dozen men. Up to the moment ambassadors were withdrawn [from the countries embarking on war] the peoples were at peace. They had no quarrel with each other, they bore each other no ill-will. A dozen men brought Europe to the brink of a precipice and Europe fell over it. This declaration, said Fenner Brockway, was the best anti-war propaganda we could have.
On August 6, Fenner Brockway covered the whole front page of the Labour Leader with an anti-war manifesto. The slogan DOWN WITH THE WAR was printed at the top and bottom. Workers of Great Britain, he wrote, you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. The quarrel is between the RULING classes of Europe. Dont make their quarrel yours.... The future is dark, but in the solidarity of the workers lies the hope which shall, once again, bring light to the peoples of Europe.
But by the autumn of 1914 opposition to the anti-war protest had grown, and was getting aggressive. At one meeting Fenner Brockway was shouted down by a hostile audience for two hours, and had to be protected by police when he left. Another time, five men waited for me at a lonely place on the canal bank, and beat me up. I must have been a pacifist in temperament as well as conviction, for even when the first blow came I did not lift a hand in retaliation. Fortunately a passer-by appeared and the attackers fled.
In 1914 Fenner Brockway co-founded the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) to resist the introduction of compulsory service in the army, and in support of the principle of the sacredness of human life. At first the NCF (which Fenner Brockway acknowledged had been his wife Lillas idea) was based in their house in Derbyshire, but membership grew fast and a London office was opened. At that time a national recruiting campaign was in full swing. Men who agreed to be called up were given khaki arm bands, and men without them were accosted in the street and handed a white feather, a silent accusation of cowardice. The NCF, of course, met with a storm of abuse from the press, who called them the save-their-own-skin brigade, the wont-fight funks, and worse. Yet membership went on growing.
Early in 1916 conscription came into force. Now Fenner Brockways Labour Leader office was raided by the police and the paper was taken to court for printing anti-war material. Fenner Brockway went into the witness box and enjoyed myself immensely though there were few people present to hear him demolish the prosecution, who had demanded that the case was held in private (no doubt to stop anti-war ideas getting any further publicity). The defence won. Im not sure that the judgement was a political compliment, remarked Fenner Brockway: if we werent dangerous to the government we were failing in our duty! Labour party bookshops were also raided and lorry-loads of seditious books and leaflets removed.
With conscription now made law, the NCF embarked on a full-scale campaign of political opposition to it, and met plenty of opposition themselves. On the way to the NCFs second assembly in London, someone handed Fenner Brockway a paper - there was a full page article demanding my arrest and execution.
The gate to the building where the meeting was held was locked, but a few angry sailors managed to climb over - and were astonished to be greeted with handshakes and cups of tea. They also heard the chairman ask that there should be no cheering of the speakers - the sound would rouse the hostile crowds outside: the audience should show their appreciation silently. No-one who was present will forget the effect of this; and the distinguished speakers were greeted with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the soft sound of a rising and falling breeze.
Despite government hostility the NCF was never banned. But they were persecuted - and were well prepared for it: a duplicate organisation had been set up to carry on the work if necessary. Attempts were made to stop the publication of the NCFs journal The Tribunal (which among other things reported on the trials of conscientious objectors) [link to CO stuff]. But these were foiled. The NCF had a duplicate printing machine, which came into use when the police destroyed the first, and several hidden caches of paper. Members of staff and contributors became expert at eluding the polices efforts to arrest them.
Once there was an anxious few hours after Fenner Brockway left a bag of documents about the back-up arrangements in a taxi: never have I felt more humiliated than when reporting this disaster. But the NCFs political secretary, Catherine Marshall - a clever, determined and committed member - contacted her brother who was a police officer and persuaded him to help a young friend of hers who had lost his briefcase. The taxi driver had handed the case in to a local police station, and in due course it was recovered - unopened.