the men who said no


Lydia Smith

Lydia Smith was a young schoolteacher and suffragette from a Quaker family, who had become Secretary of the Brighton branch of the No Conscription Fellowship. When it became obvious, as the war progressed, that the press officer Hubert Peet would be arrested, Lydia was invited to join the staff in London. The press office was sending out a steady stream of articles, news items and letters to the press. Hubert taught her as much as he could before he went to jail. She became the named editor of the weekly newspaper of the NCF, The Tribunal, in late 1917 after the male editor, Bernard Boothroyd, went to prison. She combined her press work with the editing of the paper and any other publications, including more than one million leaflets. A report on the role of the women in the NCF, by Runham Brown, said ‘very few people can have any idea of the degree to which the publicity given to the C.O. movement was due to her work and that of her colleagues.’

Lydia stayed with a family of strong suffragists, and made friends with another lodger, Joan Beauchamp whom she persuaded to join the NCF staff, working with her. ‘They rented Chalkpit Cottage, (at Norbury Park, near Dorking) about twenty miles from London, and for the next three years were caught up in a whirlwind of absorbing activity.’ (David Mitchell, Women on the Warpath) They interviewed some of the absolutist COs after their imprisonment and heard terrible stories of persecution from some. One of her brothers, Henry, was an absolutist, and she visited him regularly, bringing him up to date with efforts to secure release for the COs. His interview with the Imperial War Museum about his experiences is available on the web. Another brother did alternative service.

In 1917 she wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian, outlining the futility of the kind of work that those COs who had accepted the Home Office scheme were expected to do in their various work centres: ‘What outlet did the Home Office find for the energies of these men, who are drawn from the thoughtful section of the community, whether they be doctors, accountants, University men or tradesmen and skilled artisans? Has the government, which is calling so insistently for efficiency, made any attempt to use the talents of these men in a way which will be most helpful to the community? The answer is unfortunately in the negative. Not only is the work futile, but the conditions under which it is performed are those most calculated to discourage the worker.’ She pointed out that the agricultural work was penal - designed to make work, the harder and more physically tiring the better. ‘I saw a gang of eight men harnessed to a hand-roller engaged in rolling a field - work that one man and a horse could have performed in a third of the time....The coke for the gasworks and furnaces is carted by hand, teams of ten men being harnessed to a cart. And yet there appear to be a large number of horses on the farm.’ One of the COs told her that ‘no one can pretend that it is work of national importance.’ She said ‘There is absolutely no incentive to work when they cannot but feel that what they are given to do is essentially punishment work and economically valueless. In spite of this, the farm bailiff has repeatedly stated that the farm work, both as regards quantity and quality, is better done than it was by the convicts. This is the more significant in view of the fact that the food is poorer and the hours of labour longer than under the old regime when convicts filled the prison.’

By the time Lydia became editor of the Tribunal, the police were doing their utmost to close down the publication. After police raids on previous printers of The Tribunal and dismantling of their presses, the detectives who ransacked the NCF offices told Lydia ‘We’ve done for you this time.’ But Lydia had been empowered to secretly purchase a small hand-press and type, and hidden stocks of paper where no one else even in the office knew they were. The Tribunal appeared three days later as a one-page leaflet, proclaiming defiance: ‘The press in this country is no longer free, it is...the servile tool of those who would fasten militarism upon us. But...we are not daunted. We shall go on with the message we believe it is our duty to deliver. We are trying the show the world - Scotland Yard included - the vision of that new way of life in which the methods of violence have no part. We have no fear of the ultimate results of the conflict between the spirit of violence and the ideal for which we stand.’ (25 April 1918).

Lydia said that they knew the police were camped out in York Buildings opposite the publishing office, (and at the top of the street) but the police never discovered who was producing the Tribunal, partly because they didn’t believe that she, as a woman, was capable of doing it and they assumed the editor was a man. The scheme for her to be editor, while Joan Beauchamp was the named publisher, was devised in conjunction with the NCF committee. Lydia Smith wasn’t being so closely watched and followed as Joan Beauchamp. For a whole year they evaded the police, who tried again and again to find the press, which was hidden in a back room in a private house where two young ingenious printers worked at all hours, sometimes shut up for days. On one occasion they heard that the noise of the press was being commented on by neighbours and they moved elsewhere with the press being transported on a handcart, disguised as a piano. Copy for printing was smuggled out of the office in a baby’s pram past the police, by an old woman and taken to her home before being taken by someone else to the printers. Copies were distributed and posted from six different localities, so no single post office or box could be raided. Only 2000 copies could be produced instead of the usual 6000 but they were able to keep publishing.

After police raids, all copies of the Tribunal at the office were seized. The British Museum later complained they had not received their copy (a legal requirement), so Lydia referred the librarian to Scotland Yard.

Lydia Smith was taken to Bow Street Magistrates court in May 1918, with Violet Tillard, for refusing to give the name of the printer of the N.C.F. (an internal news sheet for NCF members which the NCF argued was a private document). But the charge against Lydia Smith was dismissed as the magistrate thought she was clearly a mere subordinate (she looked younger than she was). Miss Tillard was given a fine and costs which she refused to pay and as a result she served 61 days imprisonment.

After the war, Lydia married the artist Percy Horton, who had served two years hard labour as a CO in Calton Prison, Edinburgh and who had been released at the end of 1917, seriously ill. She was eleven years older than him, and had previously been engaged to Royle Richmond, a fellow CO member of the Brighton branch of the No Conscription Fellowship who had died from heart trouble, made worse by his time in prison. They had a daughter, Katherine who later married a German refugee artist Edmund Mehimann, one of those fleeing the Nazi regime, who were supported by Percy through the Artist International Association.



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