the men who said no
all women should be pacifists. Their fight should not be with weapons of war, but with spiritual darkness in high places. Women could stop war if they chose  


Charlotte Despard

Charlotte Despard was a well-known peace activist during WW1, speaking at anti-war meetings and rallies, helping to care for poor women and children suffering because of the war, and campaigning around the country during 1918 for the Women’s Peace Crusade. The irony was that her brother, General Sir John French, was Chief of Staff of the British army and Commander of the British Expeditionary Force.

Born in 1844 into an Anglo-Irish family, Charlotte French lost her father at the age of ten and then her mother was sent to an asylum, so she was brought up by relatives. Touring Europe with her sisters, she met Maximilian Carden Despard whom she married in 1870. He was a wealthy Anglo-Irish businessman who encouraged her in her writing career and shared her interest in progressive causes. They had a country home in Surrey with a dozen indoor servants. Then in 1890 he died, and she decided to devote the rest of her life to helping the poor, using her inheritance. She moved to Battersea, setting up two community centres with a health clinic, youth and working men’s clubs and a soup kitchen. Identifying with the Irish poor, she became a Catholic and studying the problems of society led her to socialism, befriending Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor. After being elected as a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, ‘She proved herself a brilliant committee woman, bringing a rare combination of informed compassion, practical experience, and military efficiency to the board’s deliberations.’ She spoke out at a peace rally in Battersea against the Boer War.

She became a supporter of women’s suffrage, joining the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and then preferring more direct action, the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was arrested in 1906 during a demonstration in the House of Commons, and served two terms of imprisonment in 1907. Later that year Charlotte protested at the decision by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to run WSPU alone, because she believed in democratic equality. She and over 70 other members resigned to form the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL was a non-violent organisation, opposed to the forms of vandalism and arson carried out by the WSPU, but willing to break the law nonviolently by, for example, refusing to pay taxes or to fill in the census forms. Her household furniture was repeatedly seized because of this resistance. WFL set up its own paper, The Vote, for which she wrote. She toured Britain in a caravan speaking to all kinds of audiences. She also spent time in Ireland and helped to form the Irish Women’s Franchise League. In 1909 she met Gandhi and was influenced by his ideas of ‘passive resistance’.

On August 2nd, 1914 she was already 70 years old but this didn’t stop her campaigning against the approaching war, speaking from the platform at the huge anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, and the women’s peace rally on the day war broke out. She declared herself a pacifist ‘in the sense that all women should be pacifists. Their fight should not be with weapons of war, but with spiritual darkness in high places. Women could stop war if they chose.’ She was part of the British organising committee for the Women’s International Congress for peace at the Hague in 1915, though like most of the British delegates, unable to attend due to the Government’s closure of the North Sea to shipping. She was on the committee of the Women’s International League set up after the meeting. She spoke from the platform of the anti-conscription rally in Trafalgar Square in September 1915.

Charlotte was brought into close contact with Sylvia Pankhurst and, like her, she worked throughout the war helping working class women and children, in her case through the Women’s Freedom League Suffrage National Aid Corps. They set up workshops to produce clothes, opened vegetarian restaurants in London and the provinces (Charlotte was a vegetarian and designed her own ‘hygienic’ clothes to distribute), set up milk depots, maternity clinics and a hostel where children could stay for up to three months while their mothers recovered from childbirth or illness. They ran a 50 bed hospital, which she paid for, and she opened the Despard Arms in Hampstead Road, London as an alternative to pubs; here non-alcoholic drinks and food were served all day, entertainment was provided and there were bathrooms and some residential accommodation.

She helped Sylvia found the League of Rights for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Wives and Relations.They both spoke at peace meetings. She stood her ground with rowdy opponents, saying ‘I am not afraid of Englishmen. None of you will hurt me.’ Apparently one journalist described her as seeming to ‘belong to an age of samplers, embroidery, and wax fruits, to have strayed from the pages of Cranford.’ - a superficial assessment of her appearance, not her intelligence and commitment. Her Women’s Freedom League never gave up pressing for women’s right to vote throughout the war. She also campaigned against the treatment of unmarried mothers and prostitutes, the regimentation of wartime industry and the lack of proper food rationing. She sought to help enemy aliens and felt women suffragists should particularly help them as they had received such generous hospitality abroad.

She wanted a European Federation, or even a Federation of the World in future. She said “I should like the words ‘alien’ and ‘foreigner’ to be banished from the language. We are all members of the same family.” Inspired like many by the early days of the Russian Revolution, in June 1917 she attended the large Labour Socialist and Democratic Convention in Leeds, organised to ‘hail the Russian Revolution and to organise the British Democracy to follow Russia.’ She rose to second one of the resolutions calling on the government to place itself in accord with the democracy of Russia by proclaiming its adherence to and determination to carry into immediate effect a charter of liberties establishing complete political rights for all men and women, unrestricted freedom of the press, freedom of speech, a general amnesty for all political and religious prisoners, full rights of industrial and political association, and the release of labour from all forms of compulsion and restraint.’ Her speech went down well and she was the only woman elected to the provisional committee to implement the resolutions by setting up Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates, though this initiative didn’t succeed.

In 1917 the Women’s Peace Crusade was set up, with Charlotte on the committee. In 1918 she gave up all other work to concentrate on this Crusade as a full-time speaker, travelling all round the country on speaking tours, through Scotland, Wales and the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire. On her travels she visited the families of conscientious objectors to support them. She wrote the Crusade’s best-selling pamphlet, An Appeal to Women - apparently 100,000 copies were sold. One army spy reporting on her speeches, said ‘The whole tone of Mrs. Despard’s speech was that of resistance to authority.’

After the war when some women were allowed to vote and stand for Parliament, she became the Labour party candidate in Battersea in 1918, but was defeated. In 1918 too, her brother became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and started to crush the Irish rebels - the very rebels she supported. He had her followed on her visits to Ireland; she enjoyed telling officers who stopped her at roadblocks that she was the Viceroy’s sister. She toured Ireland as part of a Labour party enquiry and collected evidence of army and police brutality. In the 1920s she became a supporter of Sinn Fein and later a member of the Communist Party. In 1933 her house in Dublin was burned down by an anti-communist mob. She died on 10th November 1939 after a fall at her home in Belfast.




Despard Arms

Despard Arms in Hampstead Road, London as an alternative to pubs; here non-alcoholic drinks and food were served all day, entertainment was provided and there were bathrooms and some residential accommodation.

red line