A short biography of Clara Gilbert Cole, anti-militarist and anarchist.
"Clara Gilbert, with her unusual slender loveliness, her deft fingers and vivid imagination, was like a caged bird in the post office.[/i]”
- The Home Front, Sylvia Pankhurst
"A remarkable, sincere and much loved woman."
- John Hewetson
Clara Gilbert was born on the 4th December 1868. She was the daughter of a boot manufacturer who had got into financial distress because of his refusal to “produce anything save honest, hand-made all-leather wares", according to Sylvia Pankhurst in her book Home Front.
Left an orphan and without means, she got a job as a postal worker in Manchester. Here she met her future husband Herbert Cole. Herbert Cole (1867-1930) like Sylvia Pankhurst, studied at Manchester School of Art and was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and illustrators like Walter Crane who had volunteered their work for papers like the Socialist League’s Commonweal. Upon their marriage Clara became known as Clara Gilbert Cole. Both Clara and Herbert seem to have been involved in suffragism, Herbert becoming the staff artist for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) later progressing to provide illustrations for The Worker’s Dreadnought. He was a prolific artist from the 1890s into the 1920s. His work, including that as an illustrator for children’s books, is unjustifiably ignored today.
Clara became a passionate opponent of the First World War; preempting the state core for conscription she founded a League Against War and Conscription in early 1915 which published an 8 page pamphlet written by her, War Won’t Pay, in 1916. In the same year Clara, along with Rosa Hobhouse, walked through Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire distributing hundreds of anti-war leaflets. Rosa’s husband Stephen had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector that year. They were arrested after 5 days and convicted at Kettering Crown Court, both receiving five months imprisonment.
Clara was associated with the Workers Socialist Federation (WSF) of Sylvia Pankhurst and may have been a member of it. She produced a book of poems, Prison Impressions, based on her own experiences and those of others, in 1918. She became involved in the early unemployed movement in the 1920s and was arrested after an action organised by the group Camberwell Organized Unemployed, on February 3rd, 1922, along with Stanley Dallas and Bill Rust (Rust was the noted Communist Party stalwart who remained true to Stalinism) for which she received a forty shillings fine or 28 days imprisonment. She wrote The Objectors to Conscription and War: a record of their suffering and sacrifice, their letters and tribunal appeals, their testimony for liberty of conscience, in 1936.
She gravitated towards the anarchist movement remained a supporter until her death, providing "vigorous" support during the Spanish Revolution and in anti-war agitation, according to Albert Meltzer in his The Anarchists in London. She wrote anti-war articles in Freedom Press's War Commentary, Scottish anarchist Guy Aldred's The Word, and Labour's Northern Voice. The last publication did not have an anti-war policy but nevertheless opened its columns to her.
She died on 4th February 1956 at the age of 87. An obituary by the Freedom editor Dr. John Hewetson appeared in Freedom on 11th February of the same year where she was described as "one of the oldest comrades of the anarchist movement". Hewetson remembered visiting her in 1943 in her very small cottage at Kirby-le-Soken in Essex in 1943 and how popular she was with the village children who regularly visited her to hear her story-telling for which she apparently had a flair. He also recounts the tale of a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (incidentally Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's favourite music!) at the Queen's Hall in London when the orchestra followed up with God Save the Queen. The audience was electrified to hear Clara shouting from the gallery "God Save the People!"
Hewetson also described her as a "most determined opponent of all established religion, concurring with Bakunin that acceptance of a heavenly authority was not compatible with rejection of earthly authority.
Unhappily, and against her clearly expressed wishes a religious service was performed at her funeral.