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 full account by Edna Mathieson of how the conscientious objectors memorial in London was conceived and created. It has previously been published in four sections: one two three four

In 1976, my uncle, Joe Brett, died. He had been a life-long socialist, and because of those principles, had been a conscientious objector (CO) in the First World War. He had chosen Tom Paine’s ‘simple’ words to express what he believed: “The world is my country, all men are my brothers, to do good is my religion”. He had been an absolutist, that is, did not believe in killing, or helping in any way which might enable some-one else to accept military service and thus kill in his, my uncle’s, place. It was said that to be a CO on political grounds was considered to be less acceptable than on religious ones.

I had asked the Secretary of the National Secular Society (NSS), Bill McIlroy, to speak at my uncle’s funeral. I am a member of both the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA). He had agreed and spoke, mainly, of my uncle’s experience as an absolutist. Bill went on to say that, one day, people would acknowledge the courage and foresight of COs as they had, and do, recognise those who fight in wars – and had set up a memorial to them, the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

I thought that a great idea – so obvious, really! But “Never”, I also thought, “in my life time!”

In 1981, I became a Member of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), a subgroup of the Greater London Council (GLC). I was on many committees and chaired two, and was somewhat overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all – so much to learn to do. But by 1984, becoming more used to it all, it suddenly occurred to me that I had a degree of power/influence … Uncle Joe and a CO commemorative stone … Bill McIlroy’s almost chance remark at my uncle’s funeral! This might now be possible. I put this to the GLC’s Labour Group. All agreed, except one: Andy Harris insisted on a motion, suggesting a commemoration of COs, going to London Regional Labour Party.

This would take time – it always did – and we had heard the rumour of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s intention of abolishing the GLC/ILEA! Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier? Then, suddenly, I realised that John Carr (GLC/ILEA Member) was the husband of Glenys Thornton, then Chair of London Region Labour! This might be the short-cut I needed – he might be interested. The reply from Region, instead of being very slow, was only slow, much to my relief!

It was not merely a rumour that Thatcher intended to abolish the GLC, but abolition was more of a fight than perhaps some had thought – the Church, the Lords and a member of the Royal Family were against it – much to some people’s surprise. But what about my CO motion – would that ‘fall by the wayside’?

The London Residuary Body (LRB) was set up after abolition to take care of all agreements, contracts etc the GLC/ILEA had made. So, as my motion, or any action accruing to it, had not appeared, I wrote to the LRB, asking them where the agreement was that had been made to have some commemorative object dedicated to COs. Nothing so far had been made public, whilst other agreements and contracts had been. I had guessed that this particular one would not have been very popular. Their reply confirmed what I had thought might happen – the agreement by Labour Group could not be found! But now what do I do?

The GLC headquarters at County Hall is in the London Borough of Lambeth, so I contacted Lambeth Council. They were sympathetic and supportive. As it happened, they had just set up a small section within the Council which was to help local people wishing to carry forward ideas they had for their local area. I met the new post-holder heading this small section and we decided that an art competition would be set up, to include all London art schools/colleges. It would ask for a figurative or abstract piece of sculpture, to be situated somewhere in the space next to County Hall, dedicated to all COs.

We got as far as drafting letters to the schools and colleges and others we thought might be interested, and finding addresses, when the government began its first series of cuts of local authority budgets. This post was one of the first to go. Back to square one!

I decided to get funding myself. I could only send a letter to newspapers, explaining what I hoped to do and asking for financial help and perhaps general support. Charities are excluded of course from giving funding to groups for political – in the broadest sense – purposes. A lawyer friend pointed out that my proposed course would be illegal – I had to be part of an organisation.

I had been a member of CND but no other peace group. I decided to contact them. Bruce Kent, then Chair of CND, rang me at home, after receiving my letter asking for help. He pointed out the obvious, really – CND is against nuclear war. I wanted to say that non-nuclear bombs also kill and maim, but thought better of it. I didn’t think it would help – not for probably a short, fairly casual, telephone conversation.

The Quakers! Of course! They are against war in both thought and deed. My uncle had met many Quakers while in prison. Their central offices at Friends House in Euston told me that the Society of Friends was similar to a federation – each Meeting had its own aims and ways of acting. I needed to contact a Meeting – maybe my local one. I knew of none in south east London where I lived, so I went south west – in particular, Streatham. It was fairly close.

I contacted them, and was invited to speak to them about the idea. I did. My reception was rather chilly, but food had been kindly laid on so that it might be rather an occasion. I simply put forward the idea of having a stone dedicated to all COs. Their first question was how much did I think it would cost? I had not the foggiest – it would obviously depend on how much a stone cost, how much we received, etc, but I suggested £2/3,000. It was pointed out that many people in Africa and India were starving, surely such a sum would be best spent on them? I replied that Christ had said Man does not live by bread alone (I had gone to church schools!). They were refusing, of course, so I added that, as they were naturally and rightly concerned with people in Africa and India, they might consider asking the National Gallery to sell one of their less famous pieces of art and use that money for the starving. They would get so much more than £2/3,000! I thanked them for listening, and left.

The question then was who else to contact. As I have said, I was not – am not – very familiar with peace organisations.

But I did recall the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) being mentioned when talking, or hearing, of my uncle’s experiences. I made an appointment and saw Bill Hetherington and Lucy Beck. After a consultative meeting with representatives of other peace organisations, it was agreed that Bill would negotiate with the Guardian newspaper for a letter drafted by him in the name of the PPU to be published on International COs’ Day, 15 May 1993, inviting donations. We got support and funding. Of course, I gave, as did friends and relatives of COs.

In the meantime, the proposed venue 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.

In later years Bill Hetherington provided a varied and interesting list of COs from different countries and in different epochs, to be read out; Sue Gilmurray wrote the lyrics and music of several songs, two of which have been sung, with the help of the Raised Voices choir. Tony Kempster from the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship brought his guitar and sang along with choir. Jess Hodgkin, a Unitarian, called the group the Right to Refuse to Kill Group (taken from the wording on the Stone), which name the Group accepted and kept. Denis Cobell, one-time President of the NSS, and Bob Russell, Chair of Christian CND, gave considerable support to Robert Ashby. Richenda Barbour from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom bought the flowers (white carnations) to lay on the stone: as Bill called a CO’s name, a member of those gathered would lay a carnation, bearing the name, on the stone. Pax Christi member, Peggy Attlee, daughter-in-law of Tom Attlee, WWI CO and brother of Clem Attlee, wrote Tom’s biography, “With a Quiet Conscience”. In it, she suggests that the COs of WWI, through their strongly held convictions and the courage needed to uphold them, helped, much later, to change attitudes and actions of people, and governments, around the world towards conscientious objectors.

This may be seen in the experience of George Cox, a WWII CO, who spoke at the 1998 ceremony: “It was a fundamental moral and ethical objection. I had great loyalty to my country but a greater loyalty to humanity as a whole”. (Rather like Tom Paine’s “all men are my brothers”). At his tribunal he was unconconditionally exempted rather than refused outright, as he had feared (which could have led eventually to a prison sentence). He said he had encountered little of the social stigma that others had suffered. “I got the odd joke but no nasty remarks”. (Independent https:// remembered-those-who-said-no-to-war-1160129.html).

After some time, Robert Ashby moved to another post. Then the RRK Group met at various places – the Unitarian office, the rooms above Housmans Bookshop, finally, BHA offices then in Gower Street.

While the RRK were organising the annual 15 May event around the CO stone, I also thought that, again, like armed forces men and women, COs should also be celebrated throughout the UK, around plaques, trees … I initially contacted Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast. All were keen. Belfast was then in the midst of ‘The Troubles’ and people there thought it might be unsafe at that time. Cardiff held meetings at the Temple of Peace and received a very large grant to do ‘peace things’. However, they were contacted by a PhD student who wanted to do research on COs in Wales. They helped and supported him. Now – mid-2018 – Edinburgh is planning to have a sculptor craft a CO memorial, to be set either on Calton Hill or in Princes Street Gardens.

In the 1990s I also contacted Birmingham, Orpington, Oxford. Orpington did not manage to hold a celebration – the local authority was not keen on the idea. Birmingham held events for some years. Now, about eight towns/cities hold some kind of ceremony.

Further, Goldsmiths College (University of London) wrote a play based upon three CO tribunals, which were held in the old Deptford Town Hall in 1916. This has been made into a film to be taken around the UK. The Peace Museum at Bradford has written a piece based on ‘Oh! What a Lovely War – Resistance!’

There are probably other ideas, thoughts, happenings, which no-one as yet has heard about, but, no doubt, will later. May it continue … !

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