08. The Development of the NLHL

With the influx of members after the outbreak of War, the character of the NLHL changed. From a small, active, relatively homogeneous group, it turned into a much larger and broadly-based movement in opposition to the War. While this did not stop the League from engaging in a wide range of activities, it made for some strange bedfellows. This is described by Edward Hennem:

It was not until the outbreak of the War that the League blossomed and became a natural haven for those who opposed the War. The grounds for their opposition varied - some were simply humanitarians and pacifists, others viewed the War as a 'capitalist and imperialist conflagration'. The Herald League, however, seemed to provide a common platform for all rebels. It had no constitution - no political dictums - no rigid conditions for membership - merely a common ground for opposing the War. As can be expected, it attracted a motley crowd of support but it stood firm in opposition to the War - and there was an amazing degree of tolerance between its members. The Christian and the Anarchist seemed to find something in common.1

R. M. Fox's account of the League ended with his imprisonment in early 1916, and while his book gives a vivid first-hand account of the NLHL's activity up to that point, it is one man's story and gives only a limited impression of the wide range of the League's activities and of the spectrum of people and ideologies involved. The League's open-air meetings were not confined to Finsbury Park - although it was by far the most important venue - but took place all over North London.2

And although Sara and Fox were without doubt the most prominent speakers at the Sunday meetings at Finsbury Park they were by no means alone. Victor Beacham3 and Walter Ponder were also prominent, as was Reg Sorenson.4 While not active as speakers, other members did the backroom organisational work. First and foremost of these before, during and after the War were the brothers Percy and Leonard Howard. Other members of the NLHL did its printing, distributed leaflets, held education classes and carried on all the other activities which constitute a living movement.

The papers which the League sold give a good impression of the range represented within it. These included the Weekly Herald,5 the Labour Leader,6 The Glasgow Forward,7 The Spur,8 The Women 's/ Workers' Dreadnought,9 Satire,10 And The Socialist.11 This list is by no means complete, it is simply one participant's recollection,12 But nevertheless gives some idea of the range of viewpoints represented.

Another aspect of the League's activity was its printing and publishing work. Before he went to prison, R. M. Fox had edited the first issue of the NLHL paper The Rebel. It was originally duplicated due to the extreme difficulty of bringing out new printed journals in wartime conditions, but it was later printed at the League's own printshop.13 It continued to come out monthly until December 1920. The editor of The Rebel after R. M. Fox went to prison was Percy Howard.

The League did a fair amount of other printing and publishing work. It produced a range ofleaflets and 'sticky-backs' as well as at least two larger pamphlets - Red Dawn, a book of poems by Albert Young,14 and Factory Echoes by R. M. Fox.

The League was not a political organisation in the normal sense. Its members were active in a wide range of other organisations - the BSP, ILP, IWW, WSF, the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Socialist Sunday Schools, the various anarchist groups, the industrial rank-and-file movement, and many many more. The NLHL was part of an enormous matrix in which it is often difficult to isolate tidily the various currents. One person could be, and often was, active in half-a-dozen different organisations; at one time the League would be peripheral, at another central.

The breakdown of party divisions was one of the characteristics of the period; extreme organisational mobility was the norm. Where one stood on the War and a wide variety of related issues was infinitely more important than which political group one joined. It is therefore very difficult to understand what was going on in the radical movement during and after the 1914--1918 War in terms of institutions. It was from this milieu of political ferment that the post-War political dispositions emerged.