The Conscientious Objectors’ Stone in Tavistock Square – and how it came about

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

This is the third of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In the first blog, she told of her early attempts to create a memorial through the Greater London Council (GLC) and how they failed when the GLC was abolished. In the second, she detailed her subsequent, successful, efforts to get support and money for the project. Now she explains how the stone itself came to be. 

In the meantime, the proposed venue for the memorial shifted from the vicinity of the now defunct London County Hall to what was becoming a peace garden in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury; and the concept changed from a sculpture to a rock, symbolic of those who refused, against the odds, to fight. Hugh Court, of Architects for Peace, was brought in as designer and suggested slate as more durable than granite. He went to Cumbria with Paul Wehrle, sculptor, in search of such a stone, and they were so attracted by a naturally shaped piece of grey green volcanic slate (some 400m years old, and rather larger than the size we had planned) that they chose that.

Paul Wehrle inscribed a tablet inset in the rock bearing words written by Bill, with the addition of ‘Their foresight and courage give us hope’, and it was unveiled at 2pm on 15 May 1994 by the composer Sir Michael Tippett, President of the PPU, who was imprisoned in the Second World War as a CO. All donors had been invited, and about 200 people were present, the occasion going impressively well, followed by refreshments at the then nearby PPU office. A Guardian reporter was there, whom I unfortunately did not manage to meet.

But I had wanted not only the stone, but a gathering of people around it to remember and celebrate the COs, just as, in the case of the Cenotaph, people are present there each November, remembering armed forces men and women killed during two world wars. I mentioned this to Bill, and suggested we do this the following year. He pointed out that the following year, 1995, people would be marking 50 years since the end of WW2. He had a point, and of course I agreed. I set about getting together a group of people keen to organise an annual celebration around the stone in future years.

My first task was to write to organisations that would appear, by their name, to be either definitely, or possibly, interested in coming to a meeting to discuss the possibility of an annual gathering around the stone. I wrote to just over one hundred, and about eight came! Not very many – disappointing – but enough to ‘set the ball rolling’, I thought.

The BHA and NSS were both at the time at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, Holborn. They agreed with my suggestion that we hold the meeting of interested people at Conway Hall, and kindly offered the Bertrand Russell Room. Of course, I eagerly accepted! Those who came all agreed to try out the idea the following year (that would now be 1998), to see whether it would be successful, and inviting as many as possible.

Robert Ashby, Secretary of the BHA at the time, was extremely helpful. He publicised the event, organised it, had leaflets printed, and a programme, of the event. And so the group of eight from various peace organisations, and others, met regularly, along with Robert, at Conway Hall to plan the celebration around the stone, which, indeed, proved to be a success.

Find out what happened in subsequent years in the final part of this blog series, coming next week.