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Bristol Independent Labour Party: Men, Women and the Opposition to War by June Hannam

October 11, 2017

Unlike other books in this series, this one is well-written and edited, as befits the profession of the author.

It is a surprise to learn that Bristol university was a hotbed of radicalism. Now, conservatism holds sway.

During World War One a significant minority of women and men throughout the country took part in a peace movement. They demanded the democratic control of foreign policy, a negotiated peace and a just, non- punitive settlement at the end of the conflict. They also joined with the wider labour movement to oppose conscription. The nature of the anti- war movement, its leadership and the alliances made varied from city to city. In Bristol it was socialists of the Independent Labour Party who provided much of the energy and personnel for the campaign. This pamphlet explores the activities and ideas of women and men of the ILP, including Walter Ayles, Annie Townley and Mabel Tothill. It examines the significance of friendship ties and cross party alliances, some of which were forged in the pre-war suffrage campaign. It also assesses the impact of peace activism on labour and gender politics in the city.


she said that war ‘was the greatest set back to progress and social reform…the destruction of life was an insult to the mothers of all nations. The enemy were God’s people as well as ourselves’. In an impassioned speech she pleaded ‘let us tell the men that we will not bring babies into the world to be killed….They should tell the conscriptionists that unless they could have free born babies they would not have them born slaves’.

Later in the year the University of Bristol also came under attack for ‘pro­-Germanism’. A petition was sent to the City Council complaining about .pacifist propaganda amongst the staff, while Dr Geraldine Hodgson expressed similar views in a letter to the press in which she criticised staff at the University Settlement at Barton Hill, including Mabel Tothill, for using the Settlement for ‘semi-secret’ peace activities.”

When the press refused to publish correspondence referring to ill treatment at Horfield prison the committee distributed a leaflet detailing the complaints. These included solitary confinement, a diet of bread and water, the removal of Bibles and being forced to wear Khaki…. Mabel Tothill, who wrote the circular, was anxious to draw attention to the fact that the difficulties that the men had endured showed how serious their beliefs were.'” During 1916 peace campaigners encountered even more hostility than before. Outdoor meetings were smashed up and the ILP offices were raided by police who took the minute books……, there were emotional as well as physical costs to opposition which were felt by family and friends, and the human costs can be seen time and again through individual stories. Thus Isaac Britton was fined 40/- for harbouring his son, a bootmaker of the same name, who was viewed as an absentee when he refused to turn up for military service.n8 The younger man then served two sentences, one for a year in Maidstone. When Walter Ayles was imprisoned Bertha had to bring up their young son on her own for over two years, while also making long journeys to visit her husband as he was moved from prison to prison. The health of Annie Townley’s husband, Ernest, was damaged when he was ‘knocked about’ at a demonstration in London in 1916, and the Labour Leader reported that he ‘has never been quite well since’.119 He was later arrested as a conscientious objector and some indication of the life of a married couple who were also political activ­ists can be glimpsed when Ernest asked for a few hours remand because his `wife was attending the Labour Party conference in Nottingham. He was granted 24 hours.

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