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Fenner Brockway

    Statue of Fenner in Red Lion Square, London


Fenner Brockway was born in Calcutta in 1888. In his remarkable long life (he died just 6 months before his 100th birthday) he experienced some of the most significant, and horrific, events in 20th century history: two world wars, the Cold War, the development of nuclear weapons. For over 80 years he worked in every way he could to promote peace.

A natural rebel
Fenner Brockway’s parents were Christian missionaries working in India, but they sent their son home to England for his education. ‘The only thing I learned to do well at school was play Rugby football.’ He was a natural rebel, and by the time he was 16 he was spending his homework hours writing political pamphlets complete with covers of his own design. ‘There was only one other boy who ever read them, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of them myself.’

Among other things (learning to breed racing pigeons and winning an essay prize) Fenner Brockway learned to overcome a stammer and make speeches in school debates. He even managed to slip regularly out of school to deliver election leaflets for the local Liberal candidate. Eventually he was caught, and the headmaster promised him a very poor end-of-school reference when he left. But Fenner Brockway took this on the chin. ‘I regarded myself as a martyr in the cause of progress, victimised for my political activities.’

Sport, however, made a difference. The headmaster, hearing that Fenner Brockway wanted to become a journalist, told him he could attend shorthand classes at the school’s expense - if he stayed on to play for the school Rugby team. He did.

But in 1906 he had left school and was alone in London, looking for work in politics and journalism, and a room to live in, wherever he could find them. ‘By degrees I began to learn some of the realities of life, including trying to make ends meet.’

Starting to oppose war
It wasn’t long before he realised that ‘socialism had become the passion of my life’. In 1907, just after his 19th birthday, he joined the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) and ‘immediately felt at home’. He began public speaking on the socialist issues of the day, and wore a red tie as a sign of his commitment to left-wing opinions. By 1911 he had become the editor of the ILP’s paper, the ‘Labour Leader’, based in Manchester.

The ‘Labour Leader’ of July 23 1914 carried an article by Fenner Brockway on the front page, with the headline THE WAR MUST BE STOPPED.

A few weeks later the paper published an article by Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the ILP in Parliament. The article included these words: ‘It is a diplomatists’ war, made by about half a dozen men. Up to the moment ambassadors were withdrawn [from the countries embarking on war] the peoples were at peace. They had no quarrel with each other, they bore each other no ill-will. A dozen men brought Europe to the brink of a precipice and Europe fell over it.’ This declaration, said Fenner Brockway, ‘was the best anti-war propaganda we could have’.

On August 6, Fenner Brockway covered the whole front page of the ‘Labour Leader’ with an anti-war manifesto. The slogan DOWN WITH THE WAR was printed at the top and bottom. ‘Workers of Great Britain,’ he wrote, ‘you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. The quarrel is between the RULING classes of Europe. Don’t make their quarrel yours.... The future is dark, but in the solidarity of the workers lies the hope which shall, once again, bring light to the peoples of Europe.’

But by the autumn of 1914 opposition to the anti-war protest had grown, and was getting aggressive. At one meeting Fenner Brockway was shouted down by a hostile audience for two hours, and had to be protected by police when he left. Another time, ‘five men waited for me at a lonely place on the canal bank, and beat me up. I must have been a pacifist in temperament as well as conviction, for even when the first blow came I did not lift a hand in retaliation.’ Fortunately a passer-by appeared and the attackers fled.

Opposing conscription
In 1914 Fenner Brockway co-founded the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) to resist the introduction of compulsory service in the army, and in support of the principle of ‘the sacredness of human life’. At first the NCF (which Fenner Brockway acknowledged had been his wife Lilla’s idea) was based in their house in Derbyshire, but membership grew fast and a London office was opened. At that time a national recruiting campaign was in full swing. Men who agreed to be called up were given khaki arm bands, and men without them were accosted in the street and handed a white feather, a silent accusation of cowardice. The NCF, of course, met with a storm of abuse from the press, who called them ‘the save-their-own-skin brigade’, ‘the won’t-fight funks’, and worse. Yet membership went on growing.

Early in 1916 conscription came into force. Now Fenner Brockway’s ‘Labour Leader’ office was raided by the police and the paper was taken to court for printing anti-war material. Fenner Brockway went into the witness box and ‘enjoyed myself immensely’ though there were few people present to hear him demolish the prosecution, who had demanded that the case was held in private (no doubt to stop anti-war ideas getting any further publicity). The defence won. ‘I’m not sure that the judgement was a political compliment,’ remarked Fenner Brockway: ‘if we weren’t dangerous to the government we were failing in our duty!’ Labour party bookshops were also raided and lorry-loads of ‘seditious’ books and leaflets removed.

With conscription now made law, the NCF embarked on a full-scale campaign of political opposition to it, and met plenty of opposition themselves. On the way to the NCF’s second assembly in London, someone handed Fenner Brockway a paper - ‘there was a full page article demanding my arrest and execution.’

The gate to the building where the meeting was held was locked, but a few angry sailors managed to climb over - and were astonished to be greeted with handshakes and cups of tea. They also heard the chairman ask that there should be no cheering of the speakers - the sound would rouse the hostile crowds outside: the audience should show their appreciation silently. ‘No-one who was present will forget the effect of this’; and the distinguished speakers were greeted with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the soft sound of a rising and falling breeze.

Despite government hostility the NCF was never banned. But they were persecuted - and were well prepared for it: a duplicate organisation had been set up to carry on the work if necessary. Attempts were made to stop the publication of the NCF’s journal ‘The Tribunal’ (which among other things reported on the trials of conscientious objectors) . But these were foiled. The NCF had a duplicate printing machine, which came into use when the police destroyed the first, and several hidden caches of paper. Members of staff and contributors became expert at eluding the police’s efforts to arrest them.

Once there was an anxious few hours after Fenner Brockway left a bag of documents about the back-up arrangements in a taxi: ‘never have I felt more humiliated than when reporting this disaster’. But the NCF’s political secretary, Catherine Marshall - a clever, determined and committed member - contacted her brother who was a police officer and persuaded him to help ‘a young friend of hers’ who had lost his briefcase. The taxi driver had handed the case in to a local police station, and in due course it was recovered - unopened.

First imprisonments
But in July 1916 Fenner Brockway was in court again, and this time he was sent to prison, the first of several stretches. This was for publishing anti-conscription leaflets. In November he was arrested again, and this time it was personal: as a conscientious objector he had been offered exemption from military service on condition that he did work of ‘national importance’ to help the war effort. He had refused, and now was forcibly handed over to the army. On the way to the barracks under escort, Fenner Brockway suggested that he take the two soldiers out to lunch - it turned out that it was the birthday of one of them (‘the best I ever had!’ said the ex-navvy after tucking into a huge meal). But Fenner Brockway spent a night in the Tower of London as a traitor.

It was a bad night, too: a group of soldiers kept him awake with verbal abuse and threats. In the morning, an officer ordered him to ‘fall in’ with the other men: ‘You’re in the army now!’ But Fenner Brockway politely refused, saying he would not obey any military order. The officer barked ‘You’re for the cells!’ and left.

Then came a surprise: the ordinary soldiers gathered round Fenner Brockway, laughing. ‘Told the Colonel off proper!’ ‘Not a coward, anyhow.’ Then they began to listen to his explanation of why he was a ‘conchie’. ‘Some of them were hearing the socialist case against war for the first time.’ On the way to prison in Chester, where Fenner Brockway was to await court martial, his escort allowed him to chat with NCF members picketing the Tower, agreed that Lilla Brockway could travel with him - and even escorted her to where she was staying, before taking her husband on to the barracks.

His experiences in Chester Castle prison weren’t easy, but, he said, ‘they were easy compared with those of the COs who had been imprisoned in the first days of conscription’: he suffered no physical violence, and was not forcibly made to wear uniform. He also recorded that after that unhappy night in the Tower he never again received any abuse from soldiers.

And it was in Chester that he first met a frail young CO, who looked amazed when Fenner greeted him as friend. ‘Are you a conchie too?’ he asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘Are there many?’ ‘Six thousand.’ ‘Six thousand! I thought I was almost the only one.’

‘Hard labour’
The court martial was ‘as good as a pantomime’. The room was tiny, and crowded with journalists. The three army officers conducting the trial ‘were new to their job and didn’t know a thing about it’. They stared at their copy of the Military Regulations, baffled by its complexity. Fenner Brockway, however, knew it well, and was able to conduct them through its pages - ‘it became a case of a prisoner conducting his own trial’. Fenner Brockway’s defence statement was widely reported in the papers and reprinted as a popular leaflet. But there was no way he could win the case. Three days later his sentence was announced: six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Fenner Brockway was locked up in Wormwood Scrubs.

This was a kind of imprisonment new to him. No letters or visits. Bread-and-water punishments. Sewing 70 feet of mailbags a day. Outdoor manual work in tough weather conditions. When Lilla Brockway was finally allowed to visit (just once), she brought their 18-month-old daughter with her, and the meeting took place in a cubicles separated by strong wire mesh. ‘I can still see,’ Fenner Brockway wrote 25 years later, ‘the wondering eyes with which my daughter looked at her father in a cage.’

As far as the army was concerned he was still a conscripted soldier. When he had finished his jail sentence, once again he refused to obey military orders, once again he was imprisoned for it. This time he was sent to Liverpool. He had entered the Scrubs in an exalted frame of mind: ‘I wasn’t in mental revolt against imprisonment. I was proud to undergo it as witness to anti-war beliefs.’ But he went to Walton jail defiantly, determined to ‘pit my wits against the authorities and defeat them if I could’.

Breaking the rules
One rule which Fenner Brockway and his fellow COs planned to overcome was ‘the silence rule’: prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other in any way. This was a real hardship for many COs, lively articulate men who were hungry for talk, news, ideas and human contact. The first step was the NCF’s bright idea: the men smuggled in pencil leads, taped to the underside of their feet where they didn’t show even when the prisoners stripped naked for compulsory showers on arrival at the jail. (There was a nasty moment when a warder noticed that Fenner Brockway’s feet seemed to be turning the shower water purple, but the man put it down to too much disinfectant.) With the leads, prisoners could write messages on fragments of toilet paper (not the soft stuff available nowadays). One of the first notes provided the code which the prisoners used to tap out messages along the water pipes running through the cells. And one of the first messages tapped out to Fenner Brockway was ‘Welcome’.

True to his character, he began organising and editing a prison newspaper. The ‘Walton Leader’ had 40 toilet paper pages covered (using capital letters so that his handwriting wasn’t revealed) with news, articles, jokes, a Letters Page, and cartoons (the cartoonist went on to work for a national paper after the war). Each issue of the ‘Walton Leader’ was smuggled from cell to cell with the help of a sympathetic non CO prisoner. A major news item in one issue was the Russian Revolution. In another an ‘exclusive’ was a survivor’s account of the slaughter at Passchendaele: this graphically described ‘the ruthless, machine-like way the generals sent in wave after wave of thousands of men to be massacred’. The ‘free’ press outside the prison were banned from printing the story.

Imprisonment was tough on all the inmates. ‘We were treated like animals without minds or personality.’ Sensual deprivation was painful. ‘One day I saw a few blades of grass growing between two slabs of stone in the exercise yards. Young and green, they excited me like wine. I feasted my eyes on them each day.’ But then a working party scoured the yard and the grass had gone. Fenner Brockway wept.

When his time in Walton was up, he yet again refused to accept military authority. This time he was sentenced to 2 years hard labour. The sentence was announced in front of 3,000 soldiers lined up on a parade ground. ‘I shall be proud to do it,’ he told the officers, loud enough for the soldiers to hear, and the lines of men ‘seemed to shiver with shock’.

Opposing the prison system
This time it was Chester Castle again. Now the COs were in a mood to protest not only against military authority but also against the prison regime: ‘it, too, was destructive of all that was best in human personality’. In 1918 some improvements were made in the lot of those imprisoned for more than a year: they could have books sent in, and for 40 minutes each day they could talk to one other prisoner during exercise. But the sense of ‘mind and spirit being crushed’ remained. Because the CO prisoners had a feeling of fellowship with each other, were supported by the strength of their resistance to war, and were not inclined to crime, Fenner Brockway began to think it was the duty of COs to change the prison system. A disciplined revolt against prison rules began. Its leaders devised a sensible timetable, allowing for conversation, lectures, and even concerts - given through the cell windows to what was indeed a captive audience. The rebellion lasted a heady 10 days, and then its leaders were transferred; Fenner Brockway was now taken to Lincoln prison.

Here, of course, he continued his resistance, and was put on punishment diet for a month, until the medical officer said it had to stop (though Fenner Brockway received no treatment for the month’s harsh effects). Even when the war ended he wasn’t released: the sentence had to run its course. He finally left Lincoln in April 1919, having been in one prison or another for 28 months, the last 8 entirely in solitary confinement.

Yet he was able to say ‘I think our wives had a harder time than we prisoners did; they had to live in the middle of a war-mad world’ - and were often victimised for their anti-war views and for being married to a jailed ‘conchie’. Lilla Brockway had a little girl and a younger baby daughter to look after, living in hardship in a caravan. In the last 8 months she had no news of Fenner at all - except for one letter smuggled out of Lincoln with the help of friendly Irish prisoners. (One of them was Eamonn de Valera, a future prime minister of Ireland).

‘The finale of my war-time experiences came a few weeks after leaving Lincoln. The postman brought a buff envelope with On His Majesty’s Service printed bold and black. Inside was a form from the War Office recording that I had been discharged from the army, and stating that my behaviour had been so bad that if I ever attempted to join the army again I would be subject to a sentence of 2 years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The War Office certainly had no sense of humour.’

‘No More War’
Convalescing at Scarborough after his release, Fenner Brockway watched his daughters playing on the beach and vowed to do what he could to save them from war. Although he became deeply involved in the campaign for prison reform, he made sure there was time for leading roles in the British ‘No More War’ movement and the newly founded War Resisters International.

He also resumed his work for the anti-war and strongly socialist Independent Labour Party, editing its journal (now called the ‘New Leader’) from 1926 to 1929, when he became a Labour MP for two years. In Parliament he spoke frequently on the issues of disarmament and peace. In 1932 he and the rest of the ILP cut their links with the Labour party, having found that parliamentary procedure provided no way to achieve the social changes, and the restraining of capitalism, that the ILP believed were necessary.

Fenner Brockway knew and admired Gandhi, and helped him with research into a publication about nonviolence. ’There is no doubt that nonviolent non-co-operation is the ideal method. Hitler would never have been able to occupy Europe if the peoples had refused in an organised way. The pacifists have the solution...but the peoples are not yet ready to adopt it.’

He travelled in Europe, and in Germany saw for himself the effects of Nazism. This was a decade of deeply complicated and passionate political feeling. Fenner Brockway was not immune. Behind his thinking about war at this time lay his detestation of all kinds of fascism, and his belief that human salvation could only be found in a world of social equality and the end of empires.

Such views influenced his response to the Spanish Civil War. Some ILP members went to Spain to fight alongside socialists there: Fenner Brockway helped them to get to Spain, and, in 1939 after the war, helped them to get home again. ‘We saw the war in Spain as a national manifestation of a disaster threatening the whole world.’

The war in Spain, as he put it, ‘undermined’ his pacifism - but that didn’t mean that he ever approved of war. He belonged to a world-wide working-class movement which struggled for social change under the slogan ‘Against War and Fascism.’

Onset of war
And as Europe drew closer to another World War, resisting war was Fenner Brockway’s mission. But he also felt that fascism in Germany had to be overcome. In 1938 the ILP’s International Centre (which was also helping refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia) launched an International Workers’ Front Against War, with the aim of encouraging workers’ organisations to resist war - and to continue the struggle against capitalism. ‘We recognised that as long as capitalism continued the alternatives were either a patched-up imperialist peace or an imperialist war.’ As we know, the first was attempted and the second was carried out.

In June 1938 Fenner Brockway took part in a public debate about conscription. One of the other speakers was Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, who ‘passionately called for the mobilisation of all the nation’s forces for war. As I listened to the speeches that followed I began to think I was back in 1914. There was even the old man who wished himself forty years younger so that he might fight, and who would proudly give up his sons. I lived in another world of thought. My loyalties were not to a country, but to the dispossessed of all countries who were denied real life in peace and summoned to die in war for the very system of which they were the victims. When I rose to speak I tried to say this. I tried to depict the possibilities of a new socialist world to make both poverty and war unnecessary. At the end an eminent lawyer told us that he was shocked to his inner being by what I had said’, and had expected the very portraits on the debating-room walls to step down in protest.

Anti-war, anti-Nazi
But as far as the Second World War was concerned, Fenner Brockway found himself in a painful dilemma. Though ‘instinctively a pacifist’ - ‘I could never see myself killing anyone and had never held a weapon in my hands’ - he could not now be wholly anti-war. ‘The thought of mass killing was unbearable. But I also thought of the Nazi brutality I had seen. And I thought of brave German comrades who would now face concentration camps and the firing squad. I thought of what a Hitler victory could mean for Europe.’ But he went on speaking out for the ILP’s anti-war views, urging that the war be should ended by a people’s revolution across Europe’s frontiers, not by military victory. He also took part in the ILP’s vigorous protest against British carpet-bombing of civilian areas in Germany.

The ‘brave German comrades’ Fenner Brockway kept in mind were those who sent this message to the ILP office just four days before war was declared:

‘In the moment before the cannons speak, before the world faces horror and manslaughter, we send out message to you. The German workers do not want this war. The German peasants do not want war. This war is not our war, this fight is not our fight. We ask you, in the midst of death and destruction: do not forget the ideas for which we died under torture, do not forget the ideals for which we have suffered in the concentration camps.....Comrades, our common fatherland is our humanity.’

War work
Fenner Brockway was in London through the war, and it was at his suggestion that the government set up a national Fire Service to watch through the bombing raids to spot fires and put them out before they spread. He organised a nightly fire watch for the buildings where the ILP office was, and took his turn regularly.

He also became chairman of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors. Not surprisingly, ‘I had no hesitation in supporting the rights of young men who felt they could not answer the compulsory call-up. What liberty is more sacred than liberty of conscience?’ From time to time he took part in tribunals hearing CO cases, and sometimes intervened when there was extreme hardship. ‘I heard of a Jehovah’s Witness who was coming before a court martial for the fifth time. I volunteered to defend him, and got him off.’

After the war Fenner Brockway rejoined the Labour party and began working to become an MP again. In 1947 he got a surprising invitation: Hamburg Trades Union Council would like him to speak at their first May Day demonstration for 14 years. The foreign secretary said that he could go - but must report to the army’s Whitehall office first. ‘I was told I could only go to Germany if I joined the army temporarily. I was given the rank of captain and handed a uniform. I laughed at the irony of it. In the First World War I was court-martialled for refusing to put on army uniform, and here I was accepting it to go on a socialist mission!’

In Germany he was shocked by what he saw of the results of war, especially the hunger. ‘I used to save a roll of bread from every meal. At first I offered it shyly to a boy or girl in the street, but soon I realised that no-one was ashamed to accept food.’ In a mental hospital he found patients still on the starvation diet Hitler’s regime had ordered so that they would slowly die, and he was quick to tell the Allied administration to put this right.

This visit was the first of many travels abroad in the interests of human rights, socialist principles and peace. Fenner Brockway became involved in benign diplomacy in many commonwealth countries, speaking for them in Parliament after he became an MP again in 1950. He was MP for Eton and Slough until 1964 - and, because he spoke also against re-armament, was called by one Tory ‘the Member for Moscow and Eton’.

The Cold War
Why ‘Moscow’? This was the period of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Fenner Brockway was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - and had been the first to gather MPs together in 1954 to start the movement which led to CND. Later (1979) he was co-founder of the World Disarmament Campaign.

‘I met Philip Noel-Baker in a corridor in the House of Lords. He remarked that the peace movement was missing a great opportunity: it should be campaigning for the disarmament agreement signed by 149 governments in 1978. “Let’s start a campaign,” I said. Philip’s eyes lit up, and he shook my hand. Thus it began. We were both nearly 90, but the response we got showed that the moment was ripe.’

The World Disarmament Campaign called for destruction of nuclear weapons, the phased abolition of conventional weapons, general and complete disarmament, and the transfer of military budgets to development programmes with the aim of ending world poverty. Seven years later Fenner Brockway was still at work for the Campaign, worriedly reminding the House of Lords that the number of strategic nuclear weapons had risen from 6,000 in 1970 to 20,000 in 1985, and demanding support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty: ‘the world’s only multilateral treaty aimed at halting both the spread and build-up of nuclear weapons’.

Working to the end
Perhaps it’s surprising that Fenner Brockway, with his socialist principles, accepted a life peerage in 1964; and he wrote later that he remained doubtful as to whether he had done the right thing. Certainly his second wife, Edith, would have none of it, and consistently refused to answer to the title ‘Lady Brockway’ - something that had to be learned (and accepted) by everyone she dealt with. But the peerage meant that Fenner Brockway was still in Parliament, where, until he became too deaf to do so, he asked more parliamentary questions, introduced more parliamentary bills, and started more parliamentary debates than anyone else.

And his work abroad continued too. In 1965 he started the British Committee for Peace in Vietnam. In 1967 he set up a committee for peace in Nigeria, and helped bring about a truce ending the Biafran war there. In 1975 he was negotiating for peace in Cyprus. In 1982 he was in Moscow with his own draft for a Peace Programme. In 1983 he was in Prague for the World Conference for Peace and Life, and between 1983 and 1985 appeared at peace conferences in Geneva, Athens, Berlin, Perugia, Stockholm, Helsinki....

By the end of his life he had also written over 20 books, The last (‘98 Not Out’) was published two years before his death in 1988.

In a memoir published back in 1963, when he was 75, Fenner Brockway had written: ‘I am satisfied to call myself a Universalist. That is my philosophy. Its application? All that makes for human happiness and friendship, human dignity, human equality, human co-operation across the boundaries of race, colour, language and religion, human conquest of science not for war but to end poverty and disease, human fulfilment, physically, mentally, spiritually, on earth and among the stars.’

And his message for people who, like pacifists, want a more just and peaceful world? The answer is social change. But this needs determination from individual people who aim at being just and peaceful themselves. ‘I used to think that better social systems were the condition for better lives, and I still do. But better lives are also the condition for better social systems.’ That was what Fenner Brockway learned from his vast experience, from despair in a prison cell to hope inspired when people acknowledge their shared humanity and work for peace.



‘We were treated like animals without minds or personality. One day I saw a few blades of grass growing between two slabs of stone in the exercise yards. Young and green, they excited me like wine. I feasted my eyes on them each day.’




 - a natural rebel
 - opposing war
 - opposing conscription
 - first imprisonments
 - hard labour
 - breaking the rules
 - opposing the prison system
 - ‘No More War’
 - onset of war
 - anti-war, anti-Nazi
 - war work
 - aftermath
 - the Cold War
 - working to the end




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