Turbulent Londoners: Peggy Duff, 1910-1981

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. 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 Peggy Duff, who worked as a peace campaigner for three decades.


Peggy Duff

Peggy Duff was a prominent peace campaigner and the first General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) (Photo: Ken Garland).

Born to a stereotypical middle class family in suburban Middlesex on 8th April 1910  Margaret Doreen Eames (known as Peggy Duff after her marriage) probably didn’t anticipate that she would grow up to become one of the most prominent peace campaigners of the twentieth century and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which is still going strong more than 60 years later.

Peggy attended Hastings Secondary School for Girls. The headmistress hinted at her future path by describing her as “very public spirited.” She read English at Bedford College, and worked as a journalist after her graduation in 1932. In 1933, she married Bill Duff, a fellow journalist. The couple had 2 daughters and a son. Peggy started to get involved in peace campaigns in the late 1930s.

Tragically, Bill was killed in November 1944 whilst covering a American air raid on the Burma Railway. In order to support her family, Peggy worked full-time during the Second World War for Common Wealth, a socialist party to the left of Labour. The party performed very poorly in the 1945 General Election, and Peggy went to work for Save Europe Now, an organisation which sent food and clothing to occupied Germany and Austria. They also campaigned for the repatriation of German and Italian prisoners of war. This must have been a very difficult job at a time when they would have been very little sympathy for the soldiers and civilians of countries that lost the war. Peggy worked for Save Europe Now until 1948.

Peggy Duff Plaque

The plaque on the house where Peggy Duff lived in Albert Street, north West London (Photo: London Remembers).

Between 1929 and 1955, Peggy was the business manager of Tribune, a socialist magazine that would later describe itself as the “official weekly” of the CND. Between 1955 and 1957, she was the Secretary of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (not the catchiest name ever). Capital punishment was not abolished for murder in the UK until 1965. In 1965, Peggy was elected as a Labour member of St. Pancras Borough Council. She fought hard for the rights of council tenants, who were being squeezed by the post-war housing shortage and rising rents (some things in London never change!). Her methods of achieving this were not always popular, however; she supported controversial redevelopments and slum clearances.

At the Labour Party Conference in 1957, Aneurin Bevan (the driving force behind the National Health Service, but at this point he was Shadow Foreign Secretary) shocked his supporters by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world was a controversial issue, but Bevan dismissed calls for Britain to disarm with the argument that it would weaken Britain’s negotiating position on the international stage. That November, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, with Peggy as General Secretary. One of the CND’s best-known tactics is the Aldermarston Marches, when activists marched between London and Aldermarston in Berkshire, where nuclear bombs were being produced. Peggy organised the second Aldermarston march in 1959, and all of the others that followed until 1963. She was known amongst fellow activists for her energy and resilience.

CND London-Aldermaston

A photo from one of the Aldermarston marches, most of which were organised by Peggy Duff (Photo: CND)

Peggy resigned from the Labour party in May 1963 over Harold Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War and his refusal to condemn the dictatorship in Greece. Peggy’s commitment to peace outweighed her political allegiances. In 1965, Peggy stepped down from her role in the CND and began working for the International Federation for Disarmament and Peace, an alliance of peace groups from around the world, including the CND, who refused to take sides in the emerging Cold War. She published her memoirs, called Left, Left, Left, in 1971.

Peggy died on the 16th April 1981, aged 71. She had dedicated most of her adult life to campaigning for the peace, as well as bringing up 3 children on her own. The CND, which she helped to found, is still going strong and arguably one of the best-known campaign groups in British history. That is a legacy to be proud of.

Sources and Further Reading

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “60 Faces: Peggy Duff.” No date, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://cnduk.org/60-faces-peggy-duff/

Mathieson, David. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.

Oldfield, Sybil. “Duff [née Eames], Margaret Doreen [Peggy].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 22 February 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70428 [requires a subscription to access]

Wikipedia. “Peggy Duff.” Last modified 3rd February 2019, accessed 22nd February 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_Duff

We Are Many Review

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many—they are few!”

The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Shelly, 1819.

We Are Many Landscape

Many of you who has ever been to a protest will be familiar with at least part of the above quote, the final stanza of a poem written by Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre. We Are Many, a documentary film that tells the story of the Stop the War protests on the 15th February 2003, takes it’s name from the final line of this evocative poem. The film is not unjustified in borrowing such powerful words; it is a forceful and effecting documentary.

Directed by Amir Amirani, and first released at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2014, We Are Many tells the story of the global protests against the imminent Iraq War on the 15th of February 2003. Up to 30 million people in nearly 800 cities took part, many of whom had never been to a protest before. The film uses news footage, interviews with participants, experts, and journalists, footage of protests, and clips of political speeches to tell the narrative of the protests themselves, as well as the events that led up to them, and the political movements they helped to inspire (you can see the trailer here).

Starting with 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror; the documentary traces the foundation of the Stop the War coalition; the growing opposition to military intervention in Iraq; the protests themselves; further attempts to prevent Western intervention in Iraq; the war itself; and the Tahir Square protests in Egypt. It ends with the vote by British Parliament in 2013 in which they decided against military intervention in Syria, an indication that, although the Iraq War was not prevented, the protest was not necessarily a waste of time. It is a comprehensive account, and I think it could have benefited from doing less, the last half and hour or so does drag somewhat.

2003 Stop the War March

The Stop the War march on the 15th March 2003 was one of the biggest marches London has seen in decades (Source: Channel 4).

Overall, however, I thought it was a brilliant documentary. The interviews were particularly effective: a US air force veteran who came to oppose the war and US government officials admitting the war was wrong make for convincing viewing. The documentary also featured footage of the interviewees speechless. When the narrative arrives at the 19th of March when the war started, many of the interviewees were lost for words, even after a decade. That was pretty powerful.

When a protest doesn’t result in direct changes, it can be difficult to assess its impact. We Are Many admits that the Stop the War protests failed in their primary objective, and left many so demoralised that they withdrew from political engagement. The documentary does, however, make the argument that the 2003 demonstrations had long-term, positive impacts. It argues that the democracy movement in Egypt in 2011 was the product of the global anti-war movement, and highlights that when Britain faced the choice to invade Syria in 2013, MPs made a different decision than the government made a decade before. It is an interesting attempt to assess the impacts that a protest can have.

We Are Many is a comprehensive and emotive account of the events of the 15th February 2003. The global day of protest is thoroughly contextualised in both the events leading up to it, and the possible impacts it may have had. I would recommend this film as a teaching resource about both dissent and the Iraq War, or for those who are just curious about one of the biggest globally coordinated protests the world has ever seen.