07. The Herald League, the Clyde, and the Irish Connection

Submitted by Steven. on December 30, 2012

The Herald League was not only committed to the anti-War struggle- it continued its involvement in the whole range of social issues. For example, very soon after the War started the League supported the League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives, which had been formed by Sylvia Pankhurst, Mrs Despard and Minnie Lansbury. It was very effective and its success prompted the government to step in and create its own welfare organisation. One of the main campaigns of the LRSSWR was against the pernicious regulations introduced by the government and the local military authorities against servicemen's wives, who were kept under police supervision. 'Unworthy' women could have their dependents' allowance withdrawn.

Some military commanders went even further and introduced curfews for wives under the DORA regulations - in South Wales this was set at 7 p.m. and five women caught breaking it were court-martialled and sentenced to 62 days in prison. These measures were finally defeated by a combination of the agitation led by the LRSSWR and women's organisations, and by the acute need for women workers in industry. One part of the DORA regulations relating to women continued in operation throughout the War. This was Sec. 40, which made it a criminal offence to infect servicemen with YD. Numerous women, including some in North London, were convicted and sentenced to prison sentences with hard labour, and many more were subjected to humiliating interrogations and medical examinations.

The NLHL was also involved in tenants' struggles. In November 1915, some of its members were active in supporting a series of rent strikes in Edmonton involving over 1,000 tenants. There is substantial evidence that in the early part of the War, when working-class areas were feeling the full effect of inflation but before the introduction of the War bonus system, there were numerous local rent strikes. These were often a forced deferral rather than a refusal of payment; there were sometimes banners across the street or tenement entrance telling the rent collector in no unfriendly terms not to call for the duration. There was a long tradition of such strikes - for example they were common during the great industrial struggles of 1889; they were the working- class equivalent of bank overdraft. As a result of this agitation among tenants the government was forced to take action and in December 1915 it introduced the Rent and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act which stopped any further increase in the rents of working-class homes.

In the autumn of 1915, some of the League's members were among the founders of the London-based Trade Union Rights Committee.1 This committee, whose formation preceded that of the Clyde Workers' Committee, was in close touch with developments on Clydeside. There was also another more direct source of information, Tom Bell and his mate Jim Morton, who in the spring and summer of 1915 were working at Aston's Foundry, Eagle Wharf Road, Islington. Both Bell and Morton, who were members of the SLP, and who played prominent parts in later developments in Glasgow, were in contact with the NLHL and more particularly with its industrial membership.2

It is therefore not surprising that when events in Glasgow came to the boil the NLHL reacted positively. R. M. Fox described what happened in March 1916:

The Press rang with denunciations of the Clyde strikers. We expected that. What we did not expect was a statement by George Lansbury, which was featured in all the papers, saying that the Clyde men should go back, and the spirit in South Wales and the Clyde was deplorable, and that there should be more trust between the workers, the employers and the Government. As ill luck would have it, Lansbury was due to speak at an indoor meeting of the Herald League the week the statement appeared. Our anti-War propaganda was quite definite, we stood with the Clyde, with South Wales, and with all the Labour militants who wanted freedom and fair dealing at home. . . .

I found myself in the position of having to oppose Lansbury at the meeting. We could not sell the Herald that week and had the bundle waiting for him to take back. . . .

In opening the meeting I told Mr Lansbury, who sat next to me, that there was only one thing we wanted to hear from him that night, and that was an apology or explanation of his statement on the Clyde strike. If the spirit of revolt there was deplorable, then our own movement was deplorable, for that was the reason for our existence. The pennies and enthusiasm of working people had made the Herald, and Kirkwood3 had only stood for their human rights. Finally, if workers should trust employers and the Government, why should we have an independent workers' movement at all?

I reminded him that the anti-conscription issue of the Herald had suggested a strike against conscription. He replied that they should not strike on a petty question of wages.

Several engineers in the audience shouted that the strike was against the deportation of trusted leaders who were suffering because of their services to the workers.4

The NLHL invited two speakers from the Clyde Workers' Committee to address a Finsbury Park meeting to protest at the deportations. The meeting was very successful, with groups of workers from many factories attending. Fox described the consequences:

Our large and successful meeting for the Clyde deportees - the only manifestation of support from London - annoyed a section of the Press, which was loud in its abuse. Next Sunday a party of soldiers wearing little Union Jacks made a noisy demonstration during my opening speech. . . [and] they made a deter- mined rush at the platform. Our people turned and fought them back. From the platform I had a grandstand view. One negro supporter5 In particular, fought like a hero. If our side had been beaten I suppose it would have ended disastrously for me.6

As can be imagined, defence of meetings was essential if the work of the NLHL was to be continued, and it is clear that an informal defence group emerged, committed to protecting speakers at the Finsbury Park meetings. There were attempts to formalise the situation from time to time; for example, Ted Hennem in a letter to me remembers Sylvia Pankhurst proposing that members should be drilled in the garden of the NLHL's premises, but the suggestion was rejected.

Strong links with the Clyde continued throughout the War. In late 1918, the NLHL was the prime mover in the formation of the London- based John Maclean Defence Committee to agitate for his release from prison. It organised a huge meeting on November 24th, 1918 - about 10,000 were present - at which the speakers were John Arnall, Arthur McManus, W. F. Watson and Melvina Walker. Maclean was released on December 3rd.

There was another link with the Clyde: George Ebury,7 who lived in Lady Margaret Road, Kentish Town, and who in February 1914 had been the proposed parliamentary candidate for North Islington BSP.

In 1916 he had become the National Organiser of the BSP, continuing in that position throughout the latter part of the War. After 1918 he spent most of his time in the industrial centres, particularly Glasgow, where he played a prominent part. Ebury was arrested several times, most notably during the 'Battle of George's Square' in January 1919. He kept close contact with events in North London and was a frequent speaker at socialist meetings in the area. So it's quite clear that connec- tions between North London and the Clyde were quite close. Another example of the extent of the contacts of the NLHL is Ireland. From well before the War, Ireland had been one of the League's main preoccupations. In December 1913, the NLHL and North Islington BSP organised a rally at the Caledonian Road Baths in support of the Dublin strikers; in January 1914 there were two more joint NLHL/BSP meetings on Ireland; this campaign culminated in February at a big meeting at the Allison Hall, Green Lanes, at which the main speakers were George Bennett and Jim Larkin.8

The spokesman representing the NLHL at these meetings was Jack Carney, one of its earliest members. Carney was a close friend of Larkin, who had converted him to socialism in 1906.9

After the outbreak of War the NLHL continued its interest in Irish events, especially after the Dublin Easter uprising in 1916. Fox is again the best source for what happened:

In the midst of our preoccupation [with the situation on the Clyde] came the news of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. I knew of the united and successful resistance to conscription, and I knew that Connolly was urging, week by week, that if Irishmen had to fight it would be better to shed their blood in a struggle for their own National Freedom. But the Easter Rebellion and the executions which followed the week's desperate fighting added a new tragedy.10

When the first news of the uprising reached London, Patricia Lynch, a member of the WSF as well as the NLHL,11 Left for Ireland immediately and managed to smuggle herself into Dublin in spite of it being sealed off by the authorities. On her return to London she wrote the first radical report of the fighting, which appeared in the Women's Dreadnought in May 1916. This text was also published as a widely distributed pamphlet called Rebel lreland which was also translated into French. She reported her experiences to both indoor and outdoor meetings of the NLHL. R. M. Fox described the League's reaction:

We in North London hailed the Irish Rising as the first crack in the yet undisputed rule of the Imperialists.12

  • 1 See Chapter 11.
  • 2 For an account of this visit, but without details of his political activities while in London, see Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days, 1941.
  • 3 David Kirkwood, convener of the Parkhead Forge, whose arrest and deportation had sparked off the strike.
  • 4 R. M. Fox, op cit, pp. 202-4. The strong Glasgow Herald League also refused to sell the offending issue of the Herald.
  • 5 This was almost certainly Reuben Gilmore, an active member and occasional speaker for the NLHL. Gilmore, a ship's steward, was also a member of the WSF. After the War he became Secretary of the Poplar Unemployed c. 1920- 21, and he was one of those arrested on January 3,1921, when he was one of the assault party which tried to seize Islington Town Hall during a massive unemployed demonstration. For more information about this incident see my article 'Direct Action and the Unemployed', Solidarity,July 1964.
  • 6 R. M. Fox, op cit, p. 213.
  • 7 George Ebury was born in 1867 and was converted to socialism in Glasgow in 1884. He worked as a carpet designer in Heckmondwike until 1908. when he was sacked following his election as a socialist councillor. In 1911 he moved to London, and in 1913 he became a Clarion Vanner. In 1916 he was National Organiser for the BSP, and with the formation of the Communist Party he became the Yorkshire organiser; he later moved to Plymouth where he was local organiser and National Treasurer of the National Unemployed Workers' Committee Movement. He subsequently left the CP and died in 1939. The 'Battle of George's Square' was the culmination of what was virtually a general strike in Glasgow in support of the 40 hour week. A huge demonstration was attacked by' the police and there was heavy fighting, as a result of which the government brought in troops and tanks as a demonstration of strength. The strike was defeated.
  • 8 Jim Larkin needs no introduction here, but George Bennett might. He was a plumber who lived locally, joined the SDP/BSP about 1901, and was a leading figure in the building workers' strike ofl914. He was a prominent member of the London Society of Plumbers, which was one of the component parts of the Building Workers' Industrial Union (see Chapter 3). His relationship with the NLHL is obscure but in 1923 he was the unsuccessful Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate in North Islington.
  • 9 Jack Carney was active in the NLHL until he went to America in 1916. While there he collaborated with Larkin in producing The Irish Worker, and later in the War he edited Truth, a socialist paper in Duluth, Minnesota. Carney kept in close touch with the NLHL. After the War he returned to Ireland where he became an official of Larkin's union.
  • 10 R. M. Fox, op cit, p. 213.
  • 11 Patricia Lynch, 1898-1972, was born in Cork. Before the War she had already joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragettes and various Irish organisations. After the War she returned to Ireland, married R.M. Fox, and wrote over 50 books, most of them for children. Her brother, Henry Lynch, was also an active member of the NLHL but died in 1916.
  • 12 R. M. Fox, op cit, p. 216.