Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Lester, 1883-1968

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Muriel Lester, a social reformer and pacifist.


Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Muriel Lester was a social reformer, pacifist, feminist and non-conformist. Like Charlotte Despard, she turned away from her privileged life, dedicating herself to helping the poor and advocating peace. Born in Leytonstone on the 8th of February 1883 to a wealthy Baptist family, by the time of her death aged 83 she had travelled the world, founded a social centre that still exists today, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice.

Muriel moved to Bow in East London with her sister Doris in 1908. At the start of the twentieth century the East End was crowded and very poor. Many middle- and upper-class humanitarians were embarking on charitable projects in the area around this time, such as the lesser-known Pankhurst daughter Sylvia. In 1915, with money from their father, the Lester sisters bought a disused chapel and opened it as a ‘teetotal pub’, so that local people could have a place to meet in the evenings. They named it Kingsley Hall, after their brother who had died the previous year.

Between 1922 and 1926 Muriel was an Alderman on the radical Poplar Borough Council, and she chaired the Maternal and Child Welfare Committee. In 1928 a new purpose-built Kingsley Hall was designed as a community centre and place of worship. Muriel herself took on the role of vicar. Her spirituality was an important part of her campaigning throughout her life. In 1929 Muriel and Doris set up a second Kingsley Hall in Dagenham, where many Bow residents had been relocated after huge slum clearance programmes in the East End. Both Halls are still going strong today.

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

But community work in the East End was not the only way in which Muriel tried to make the world a better place. She was also a dedicated pacifist, and in 1914 was a founding member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), a Christian Pacifist organisation which is also still active today. In 1926 she travelled to India and met Gandhi, with whom she developed a strong friendship. When he travelled to London for a conference in 1931, he stayed at the Kingsley Hall in Bow.

In 1934, Muriel began working as a secretary for the International FoR. She travelled the world spreading the message of non-violence. During a trip to Japan she was dubbed the ‘Mother of World Peace’, and she was detained in Trinidad in 1941 because of the success of her pacifist speeches in the US.

Muriel and Doris Lester

Muriel and Doris Lester (Source: Womb Magazine).

Muriel Lester was a woman who never stopped trying to help people. This mission continued even in death, as her body was donated to science. She used her privilege to benefit others, and demonstrated incredible bravery by taking the unpopular and frequently dangerous position of pacifist during two world wars. I make a point of featuring admirable women in the Turbulent Londoners series, and Muriel Lester would certainly make a good role model for any young woman.

Sources and Further Reading
Anon. “Lester, Muriel.” Bishopsgate Institute. No date, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-and-Archive-Collections/Protest-and-Campaigning/Lester-Muriel
Anon. “Muriel Lester.” Wikipedia. Last modified 15th May 2015, accessed 13th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Lester
Anon. “The East End’s Global Peace Messenger.” BBC. Last modified 10th October 2008, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2008/10/08/muriel_lester_feature.shtml

Book Review: ‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley

'March, Women, March' by Lucinda Hawksley.

‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley.

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March. London: André Deutsch, 2013.

Lucinda Hawksley’s March, Women, March, recently released in paperback, serves as a fantastic introduction to the history of the women’s movement in the UK, introducing the reader to all the key players from Mary Wollstoncraft through to Christabel Pankhurst, including quite a few who are not so well known nowadays. The book traces the struggle for women’s rights and female suffrage from the end of the eighteenth century to the late 1920s, using extensive quotes from those directly involved to help tell the story.

Hawksley uses numerous extracts from the diaries, letters and publications from those directly involved in the events she describes, so much of the story is told in the words of those who were there and took part. Not only does this act as proof of the huge amount of research that must have gone into the book, it also gives it a personal feel; you can almost feel the determination and strength of the women emanating from the pages.

One of the great strengths of this book is the fact that it tells the whole story of the women’s movement, putting the well-known suffragettes into the context of their predecessors and contemporaries. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the suffragettes did not spring up out of nowhere- they were inspired by, and worked alongside, vast numbers of other women such as Caroline Norton, Clementina Black and Charlotte Despard. March, Women, March acknowledges and celebrates the whole of this history, not just the bits that have successfully made their way into the collective consciousness.

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that I would have liked more detail about the early pioneers of the women’s movement. Women such as Caroline Norton, who railed against the way that she was treated by both her husband and the law after her marriage, and campaigned tireless for the rights of married women to see their children and control their own income, are much less familiar to me than the Pankhursts, and I would have liked to hear more about them.

March, Women, March also puts the campaign for suffrage into the context of other campaigns that aimed to benefit women, such as attempts to raise awareness about sexual health and contraception, and the ‘rational dress’ movement, which sought to free women from the physical constraints of tight corsets, high heels and excess frills and bows. These campaigns made social pariahs of their champions, appalling mainstream society with their frank and radical opinions. Many of the campaigners, such as Clementina Black who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of working women, believed that the situation would not truly improve until women were granted the vote, for why should politicians listen to them when they could not influence the outcome of elections? Everything came back to suffrage.

If you are acquainted with the events and figures of the women’s suffrage campaign after 1900, much of this book will feel familiar, although you will probably still learn something new. If you are not familiar with the activities of the WSPU and others, then this book is an ideal introduction to the topic. Either way, March, Women, March is a very enjoyable read, and I would highly recommend it.

Book Review: ‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

'To End All Wars' by Adam Hochschild

‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars. London: Pan Books, 2011.

By the time we reach the centenary of Armistice Day in 2018, I get the feeling that we might be suffering from a certain degree of World War 1 fatigue. The sheer number of  documentaries, dramatisations, books, ceremonies and art installations will likely make it difficult for any one thing to stand out. I think that To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild has a good chance of leaving a lasting impression.

The story of the first world war is familiar to most of us, but To End All Wars tells the narrative from an unfamiliar perspective; it is about those people who spoke out against the war. Opposition is not discussed in the traditional narratives of the war, the general perception appears to be that it wasn’t criticised until years afterwards. Admittedly critics of the war were few, tested as they were by the “mass patriotic hysteria” (Hochschild, 2011) but they most certainly did exist. On the 2nd of August 1914, there was a huge anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, with calls for a general strike if war was declared. Prominent campaigners like Keir Hardie, Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst continued to oppose the war, with Pankhurst proposing a Women’s Peace Expeditionary Force, where 1000 women would march into no-man’s land between the two armies.

Publicly criticising the war required a great deal of bravery. Those that did were almost instantly ostracised, derided or accused of treachery, labeled as German spies trying to undermine the war effort. Many paid a heavy price for their defiance. For example, the Wheeldon family, socialists who hid soldiers escaping conscription, were convicted in 1917 of the completely false charge of attempting to murder Lloyd George and another member of the war cabinet, victims of a government attempt to disgrace the anti-war movement. 3 family members were sentenced to 5-10 years hard labour after a sham trial that didn’t even last a week.

To End All Wars is arranged chronologically, making the tragic progress of the war appear even more inevitable as the reader can do absolutely nothing to prevent the horrors that we know full well are coming. The style of writing is dramatic, and the book often reads more like a novel than non-fiction. Charlotte Despard, the famous suffragette and anti-war campaigner, was actually the sister of John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until 1915. Hochschild hides this connection though, revealing it like a plot twist at the end of a chapter. The first chapter is spent introducing the key players in the book, developing them like characters. Whilst the approach felt a bit unusual at first, it makes for an engaging and accessible read.

Admittedly, Hochschild does spend a lot of time describing the events of the war, and whilst this is generally useful context, it does sometimes feel like filler, padding out the relatively rare examples of opposition to the war. However on balance this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, that provokes thought about the nature of war and opposition to it, as well as providing a rare new insight into the First World War.

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.


 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.

Sources

History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).