06. The North London Herald League

Submitted by Steven. on December 19, 2012

The Daily Herald began as a strike paper of the London compositors during their strike in the first three months of 1911. The success of this venture prompted an attempt to create a permanent socialist daily newspaper and the Daily Herald emerged in April 1912 with a working capital of £200.

The Daily Herald in this period was not the mouthpiece of the established labour movement. Indeed, six months after the launch of the Herald the TUC and the Labour Party started their own paper, the Daily Citizen, in competition. The Citizen lasted three years and then sank without trace, taking £200,000 of trade union money with it. The Daily Herald was deeply critical of the trade union leaderships as well as many of the attitudes of the established socialist parties.

The Daily Herald did not have a settled policy. It saw itself as a forum for the whole range of radical causes, from industrial unionism to the women's movement, and it attracted to itself support from activists within all these fields. Not surprisingly there were deep differences in its editorial group. The Herald had five editors during its first 18 months, after which George Lansbury took over and things settled down. In spite of these differences (the editorial group on occasions seem to have fought like cats and dogs) the paper was able to reflect all the currents of the rebel milieu.

The early Daily Herald is so identified with George Lansbury that it is often forgotten that he was part - as he was the first to admit - of a team. One of the back room boys heavily involved in the Herald's early struggles was H. W. Hobart. Hobart, a compositor and the grandson of a Chartist, lived at Gillespie Road, Drayton Park. He had joined the local SDF in 1886 and was active in North London socialist politics. He had played a notable part in organising unskilled workers in the wave of industrial unrest of the late 1880s. For example, he assisted Ben Tillett during a dock strike at Tilbury and was a leading figure in the organisation of the match girls' struggle, both in 1888. He was also actively involved in the great dock strike of 1889, and the subsequent growth and organisation of the Gasworkers' Union. Hobart illustrates the manifold links between the rebel milieu - epitomised by the Herald - and previous waves of militancy.

As could be expected the Daily Herald went from one financial crisis to the next, but in spite of this its circulation grew by leaps and bounds to a peak just before the War of 150,000. This chronic money problem and the need to create a network of committed newspaper sellers motivated the formation of the Herald Leagues late in 1912. At the same time, the militants thrown up by the pre-War wave of industrial and social unrest needed an organisation on which to base their activity. The Herald League spread very rapidly; for example, nearly 20 new groups were founded in July 1914 alone. By the outbreak of War virtually every major population centre was covered.

With the coming of War, the Daily Herald had to go over to weekly publication, and many of the Herald Leagues seem to have collapsed. But the more substantial groups, which were overwhelmingly anti- War, went on to play a notable, if so far largely undocumented, part in the revolutionary movement during the War years. They took on, for example, an important role in events on the Clyde and in Sheffield, as well as other parts of London.

The North London Herald League (NLHL), or to give its official title, the Northern Division 'Herald League', was founded in 1913. Its membership in the period before the War hovered around 50 but it was neve~theless able to playa significant part in a number of agitations, from combating the growing War fever to supporting the Larkin 'fiery cross' campaign and the Dublin strikers. The NLHL was also heavily engaged in the wave of industrial unrest immediately preceding the War, in particular the building workers' strike of 1914.

The NLHL's membership at this early stage seems to have come primarily from the libertarian anti-parliamentarian rebel milieu; its slogan 'unite and fight' indicated that its primary orientation was towards action rather than ideological purity. While there was sub- stantial agreement on most questions within the League, differences within it were tolerated, indeed welcomed.

Among the North London Herald League's leading figures before the War were the brothers Leonard and Percy Howard, Walter Ponder, Albert Young, Jack Carney, Victor Beacham, Lesley Boyne and R. M. Fox.1

On August 5th, 1914 - the day after the declaration of War - the League held its first anti-War meeting - at Salisbury Corner, Harringay, near Finsbury Park. The speaker was Walter Ponder.2 This meeting initiated the NLHL's campaign against the War. Ponder spoke regularly for the League right throughout the War until 1920, but this was only a small part of his activity; he was a prominent speaker at a number of other venues in London.

R. M. Fox described what happened:

At the next Herald meeting [after the declaration of war] I moved a resolution of opposition to the War on the ground that we should take neither side in international rivalries. On the contrary we stood for a united world movement of the working class. There was no mention in my resolution of abstract principles or the sacredness of human life. I believed that life was a conflict of forces, that principles were bound to clash. It was not our war, that was all. we still accepted the slogan 'Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win!'3

Meanwhile, the meetings in Finsbury Park continued. The position of the NLHL was clear, but it still had to sort out the attitude of the national Herald League. Fox continues:

As delegates of the North London Herald League, I went to a conference of League branches, and there moved the same anti-war resolution as we had adopted locally. . . . The overwhelming majority of delegates were on my side, although the National Secretary of our organisation - George Belt - was not. He had fallen victim to jingo propaganda. The resolution was carried in spite of attempts by the secretary to create disorder. To make our decision clear, I moved that the secretary be instructed to publish our anti-War resolution in the League Notes column of the Herald. I did not forsee at this early stage that even such a man as George Lansbury, with the reputation of a pacifist, who was then editing the paper, might not care to publish this outspoken resolution. In the course of a week or two we received a letter addressed to the North London Division from the National Secretary informing us that Lansbury would only consent to insert the resolution if we could show that it represented the attitude of 90 per cent of the League. The labour movement, we were told, must show a united front, a remark which - if it meant anything at all - meant that we should support the war-mongers. . . .

At our next business meeting we had a letter from Henry Sara4 saying that he thought it was essential for these meetings to be carried on, and volunteering to speak at the next one. We accepted his offer. I spoke first, opening the meeting and Sara continued. This anti-War activity in the early days of the War was not without its dangers, for an atmosphere of terrorisation was created. But though we got violent opposition, we had enthusiastic support too. Our membership mounted; from under 50 we reached a total of five or six hundred. From all over London, from the East End, from south and west, came supporters who rallied to the anti-War standard which was raised openly in Finsbury Park. Gradually the authorities tightened the bonds. The Defence of the Realm Act was passed. [March 1915] . . . Should we carry on? It was a serious meeting we held, for everyone knew the risks we were facing. I moved that we continue our propaganda in spite of DORA. The resolution was passed in silence and grimly. But it was passed.

Our meetings were almost the only meetings in London - certainly the only meetings held regularly - at which participation in the War was flatly opposed. The labour movement on its anti-War side had shut down.

We were successful at our meetings partly because we gathered support from all quarters and partly because we always struck the Labour vote. We appealed to the workers' experience. They knew that profiteers and sweaters were getting rich5 out of this war, because they knew these gentry and had suffered from them. We helped them to rate at its true worth the whinings of politicians about the protection of women and children, whose weakness and helplessness had always been taken advantage of without protest from them.6

The League soon had to face the growing threat of conscription, which was finally introduced in January 1916. The League devoted much of its activity towards facing this threat. Among the many meetings at Finsbury Park was one described many years later by Fox, at which the main speakers were Sylvia Pankhurst and Alex Gossip.7 The press had got word of this particular demonstration and had agitated for 'patriots' to oppose the meeting 'and put the case for Britain'. When the meeting started it was surrounded by a dense mass of violently hostile jingos, but with the help of a friendly soldier in uniform who believed in free speech they managed to get the meeting started and Gossip began to speak.

After a short time the crowd surged forward and succeeded in toppling the platform. Fox goes on:

Fights went on all round the area but a cordon of socialist supporters succeeded in clearing a ring and holding hands. As Chairman of the Herald League I then called upon Sylvia Pankhurst to speak from the ground which she did with great effect.

Presently the applause attracted the attention of a park ranger who pushed his way through and called upon us to bring the meeting to a close. He said the authorities would not be answerable for our lives if the meeting went on. I think he exaggerated the danger, though undoubtedly we risked a bad beating.

But Sylvia replied that she had made arrangements to speak for the Herald League that morning and she intended to fulfil her engagement. She did this with such effect that the crowd grew to enormous proportions and the hooligans ceased their sideshow activities and converged on the meeting.

When it was no longer possible to continue, the pressure of the crowd forced Sylvia and the rest of us towards the park gates. Suddenly Sylvia announced she wanted to go in the opposite direction. So we had to turn round and fight our way back. There were cries of ' Get the women out and bash the men!' If it had been at night there would not have been this spark of chivalry. The women would have been 'bashed' too in the dark.8

The Herald League finally managed to extricate themselves from the mêlée without too much damage. But the meetings and the attacks upon them, continued; week after week the fight went on, a sustained record of determination and courage.

  • 1 See previous notes (2 to 5 on pages 22 and 23 in the PDF).
  • 2 Walter Ponder seems to have been something of a specialist in anti-militarism; in May 1913 he had been one of the prime movers in a large demonstration organised by anarchists with the support of the North London Herald League at Trafalgar Square. This was a large affair with tributary marches coming from Highbury Corner, St Pancras Arches and several other venues. See John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse, p. 279.
  • 3 Fox, op cit. pp. 1901-1.
  • 4 Henry Sara had been an anarchist before the War. After it he joined the Communist Party and in 1929 he was their parliamentary candidate in South Tottenham; still later he was one of the founding fathers of British Trotskyism. Ironically, Sara's successful Labour opponent in the 1929 election was Fred Messer, who had also been a member of the NLHL. Fred Messer (1886--1970) was born in Islington - his father was the workhouse master! - and a french polisher by trade. He had been a member of the SLP and was later an active syndicalist. During the War he was involved in several strikes. After a number of years as an MP he was knighted. Messer was not the only one who had cut his teeth in the NLHL to be 'honoured'; others were Eric (Dick) Plummer who became editor of the Daily Express, Labour MP for Deptford, and boss of the groundnut scheme in West Africa; Val McEntee, an ex-SPGBer, who became MP for Walthamstow, and A. G. Tomkins who was a founder member of the Communist Party and became a trade union official in the furniture trade.
  • 5 In early 1915, the Herald League was associated with a campaign against sweated work along with Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suf- fragettes, some BSP and ILP branches and the Dockers' Union. See Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden From History, 1973, p. 89.
  • 6 Fox, op cit, pp. 192-5.
  • 7 Alex Gossip was a well known figure in the trade union movement; he became General Secretary of the Furniture Workers' Union.
  • 8 See the article by R. M. Fox called 'Years of Glory' in the AEU Journal of November 1960. This was written when Fox heard of Sylvia Pankhurst's death.