the men who said no
'Her ability and courage, proved already in loyalty to another cause, were devoted unsparingly to ours.  


Violet Tillard

Violet Tillard (usually called Till or Tilly as she disliked her first name) was one of the women who ran the No Conscription Fellowship when the male COs went to prison. She became the General Secretary for a time in 1918. She was involved from the early days of the movement, first building up the maintenance organisation which kept in touch with, and supported the families of CO prisoners, then ‘ready to perform any duty, however humble, and always preferring to remain out of the limelight.’ She remained at Head Office until the CO prisoners were finally released.

Born in 1874 in India, where her father was serving in the Indian army, she lost her mother at the age of 9. Her father remarried and she had two sisters, Georgina and Lilian Irene. She trained as a nurse at Poplar and Great Ormond Street Hospitals, and subsequently spent three years in America looking after a paralysed boy who needed special care. Nursing was at the time one of the few careers where women could gain some independence.

Back in Britain in the new century, she joined the Women’s Freedom League and became one of its organisers, committed to non-violent methods of struggle for the vote. Her sister Irene was also a WFL activist. Violet Tillard served her first term of imprisonment in October/November 1908 at Holloway after being arrested in the House of Commons, along with several other women, two of whom had chained themselves to the grille which then existed in front of the Ladies’ Gallery - shouting Votes for Women. Her role was to lower a copy of the Women’s Freedom League proclamation through the grille to the floor, using string. They had to remove the grille with the women attached. Set free later that night, she rejoined the protest outside and was arrested for attempting to break through police lines, for which she received a month’s sentence. Her friend Muriel Matters described her as ‘Tall, slender, delicate and reticent - even in prison clothes’, still graceful, cheerful and philosophic.

While working for the NCF, she was prosecuted at Bow Street on May 8, 1918 along with Lydia Smith for refusing to reveal the name of the printer of the NCF News Sheet, an internal means of communication with NCF branches and officials, which they regarded as a private publication. She had written a report to Catherine Marshall in early April, saying ‘We are having further visits from Scotland Yard, this time about the News Sheet.... I could not give the name of the printer as they wanted because it would not have been fair to involve him in our mistake, so we await events with interest.’

The Tribunal reported that ‘Inspector Sandecock said that when asked for information Miss Tillard had stated that the leaflet was a private document issued to members of the “N.C.F”, that because of the cost of cyclostyle paper it had been decided to have it printed; that neither she nor the printer believed an imprint necessary for a private document; that the responsibility was hers for the mistake, if there was a mistake, and that therefore she must decline to give the printer’s name. She was summoned before the Assistant Commissioner of Police and asked by him for the name and again refused to give it.’ So did Lydia Smith, who was assumed to be subordinate (as she looked younger than her age) and therefore let off. Violet Tillard was given £100 fine and 10 guineas costs. The magistrate said ‘that however conscientiously she had acted, the information might have been a very vital matter.’ On July 16, at Clerkenwell, her appeal was dismissed with costs. At this appeal, the prosecutor read excerpts from the News Sheet to prove how undesirable it was, commenting ‘particularly on the paragraph re Junior Branches, and suggesting that it was likely to prevent boys becoming members of H.M. Army when they reached 18. This was an entirely new point, as the prosecuting counsel at Bow St. had appeared to accept the view of the defence that the document in question was in itself quite innocuous.’ (The Tribunal, July 15, 1918). The writer of thearticle commented ‘The truth of the matter is that Scotland Yard cannot bear the N.C.F. to have any of its printing done by a press which is inaccessible to them. ...the extraordinary thing is that any Justice could allow the law of the land to be so travestied. We have realised for some time that the power of DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act) was daily becoming wider and more dangerous; this, however, is the first time it has been openly admitted that it can be used by the police to force people to give away private information, with no bearing whatever upon the defence of the realm.’

Refusing to pay,she served 61 days in Holloway prison from August6. ‘After serious consideration, she decided before her arrest to refuse to obey those prison rules which she felt to be immoral and enforced with the object of degrading prisoners. Her first step, therefore, would be to refuse to put on the prison clothes.’ From her previous experience she said ‘it was almost impossible to feel self-respecting in them, and she was convinced their effect on the ordinary prisoners was very bad.’ The Tribunal of August 15, 1918 commented that her action ‘will certainly not make her imprisonment easier for herself in physical ways (what precisely is happening to her we cannot, of course, know) but we believe that the knowledge that her protest is undertaken with the object of helping those often too crushed to lift a finger for themselves, will sustain her through any penalties she may suffer.’

Violet Tillard joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), and after the end of the war, went to Berlin to work as a nurse with the mission that the Quakers had established. The Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee was also operating in Russia and she decided to go there in view of the desperate famine - although run down in health already, she said she felt she should accept the risk as there was no one dependent on her. In November 1921 she set out for Russia via Warsaw. She wrote to her sister Irene on 10 January 1922 describing conditions for children: ‘One wonders how children can suffer so much and yet live. Some are alive enough to be lonely and frightened; others are perfectly apathetic. Outside in the streets you see them falling from weakness and sometimes lying dead in the snow....The pile of unburied bodies grows higher and higher....There are no drugs, no thermometers, often no spoons. Everyone is hungry, even if they are not dying.’ In Buzuluk in Russia nursing some fellow relief workers ill with typhus, she caught typhus too, and died on February 19, 1922, after barely three months there. Tribute was paid to her work in Russia by Leon Trotsky who said: ‘In our bloodstained and at the same time heroic, epoch there are people who, regardless of their class position, are guided exclusively by the promptings of humanity and inner nobility.’ He envisaged the day when a monument would be erected to them in Russia. Among the many tributes published after her death was one by a colleague from the NCF: ‘Her ability and courage, proved already in loyalty to another cause, were devoted unsparingly to ours.




‘A continual stream of letters to Head Office addressed to “Dear Miss Tillard,” bears testimony of the fact that Branches and members have not yet realised that Miss Tillard has resigned her post as General Secretary of the N.C.F. If Branches have not realised it yet, it is still truer to say the same of those who work at Head Office. From the very beginning she has given her services whole-heartedly to the Fellowship. No task has been too humble or too responsible for her to do thoroughly and well. The prisoners loved her, and when they came from prison to Head Office it was Miss Tillard for whom they always asked first of all. To her the Fellowship owes a debt of gratitude that it can never repay. She is now enjoying a well-deserved holiday, and while she is away we venture to express our appreciation of all that she has done, and to sincerely express our agreement with what one of our branches has written: “We desire to express our very keen appreciation of her devoted service to the N.C.F. One has realised how her attention to detail and routine work, often in itself distasteful, has kept the N.C.F. alive during the dark days. Although we have not mentioned this before, we should like you to know that it has not passed unnoticed. Add to all this her own personal courage and high regard for the principle of Freedom, and we realise that we are deeply indebted to her for her work for our cause.’

The Tribunal, July 10, 1919

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