Commemoration, Conflict & Conscience

My first day working for Conscience: Taxes For Peace Not War was fascinating. I joined colleagues from Conscience at a national festival on conscientious objection, ‘Commemoration, Conflict & Conscience’, held in Bristol.

The festival was based on a project led by Professor Lois Bibbings from the University of Bristol. The project marked ‘the 100-year anniversary of conscientious objectors being released from prison’ and looked at ‘hidden or lesser-known stories of the First World War, such as women’s peace activism, the treatment of war veterans, and the experiences of conscientious objectors’.

Some of my most powerful memories from the day were from the exhibition about conscientious objectors during the First World War, from Bristol. Their stories, and their photos, stayed with me. One of the conscientious objectors was Walter Ayles.

I was fascinated, and moved, to read the story of his life.

‘Born in 1879 in Lambeth, Walter Ayles made a principled stand early in his life, giving up his apprenticeship in a railway engineering works because the employers there had locked out workers demanding an eight-hour working day …

After his marriage to women’s suffrage campaigner Bertha Batt, he moved to Bristol in 1910 to become the local organiser of the Independent Labour Party. He was soon elected as a Bristol city councillor representing Easton and campaigned against Britain’s involvement in the First World War. In 1916 he was arrested for publishing a leaflet against conscription and after 61 days imprisonment faced a Military Service Tribunal because of his refusal to be conscripted.

This led to Walter’s detention in seven different prisons and detention barracks. When he was released in 1919 he was immediately re-elected as the city councillor for Easton. In 1924 he was elected as the Labour MP for Bristol North and continued to campaign against war. He eventually moved to the outskirts of London and in 1945 became the MP for Hayes and Harlington. Opposed to the Labour government’s re-introduction of conscription, he argued to the House of Commons that ‘the ethics of war are opposed to the ethics of society’.’

I was also very moved to read about Mabel Tothill.

‘Mabel was born in 1869 in Liverpool. Her father ran the Starch Blue and Black Lead factory in Hull. When the family moved to Bristol in the 1890s, Mabel, who was a Quaker, became active in campaigns for women’s suffrage and against poverty in East Bristol. Mabel helped establish the Barton Hill Settlement in 1911. She became a member of the Independent Labour Party.

Mabel argued for a negotiated peace from the start of the war. She was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women’s International League. She campaigned with Walter Ayles and others against conscription’.

‘Once conscription was introduced, the job of supporting conscientious objectors and their families fell largely on women. Most of the men who opposed conscription were imprisoned. Mabel Tothill became the secretary of Bristol’s Joint Advisory Committee for Conscientious Objectors.’

‘COs passed information to Mabel about their own whereabouts and news of other COs that would be passed on to their families. ‘Watchers’ were stationed outside Horfield Barracks to note the arrival and departure of COs. Letters were written to COs’ families offering support.’

Mabel Tothill visited COs in Wormwood Scrubs, Bristol Prison and other prisons. ‘Documents were published by the Committee alerting Bristolians to the plight of COs.’ ‘The Committee offered material support to CO families, including arranging holidays for their children. Its offices acted as a meeting place for men awaiting call-up or arrest, offering advice to men and their families.’

‘At the end of the war Mabel campaigned with others for the release of imprisoned COs. She stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate for St Paul’s in the 1919 council elections. In May 1920 she became the first woman to be elected to Bristol City Council as a member for Easton. Mabel died, aged 96, in 1965.’

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