08. The Development of the NLHL

Submitted by Steven. on December 30, 2012

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.

  • 1 Edward Hennem, op cit, 4.2.80.
  • 2 After the end of the war the NLHL was still holding over 30 open-air meetings a month and this was exclusive of the many small meetings held on an 'ad hoc' basis.
  • 3 Victor Beacham had been an anarchist and a member of the IWW before the War, as well as being one of the earliest members of the NLHL. After the 'War, Beacham joined the CP and became a trade union official in the Painters' Union. He left the CP in 1929 and joined the Labour Party. He died in 1961, aged 72.
  • 4 Reg Sorenson, born in Islington in 1891, became Minister of the Free Christian Church in Walthamstow and joined the ILP. After the War, he was the Labour MP for West Leyton 1921-31 and 1935-1950 and for Leyton 1950-1964. He was created a life peer in 1964 and died in 1971.
  • 5 The Daily Herald became the Weekly Herald shortly after the outbreak of War.
  • 6 The ILP paper.
  • 7 Unofficial paper of Glasgow ILP, closely connected with industrial events on the Clyde.
  • 8 The Spur was an anarchist paper edited by Guy Aldred and, after his arrest in April 1916, by Rose Witcop. Aldred was connected with the NLI-IL from its earliest days and he resumed speaking for it after the War. Both Percy Howard and R. M. Fox of the NLHL wrote occasionally for The Spur.
  • 9 The paper of Sylvia Pankhurst's WSF.
  • 10 Satire, a monthly, was published at the Freedom Press between December 1916 and its suppression in April 1918. It was managed and edited by a remarkable duo, Leonard Motler and George Scates, who were both deaf-mute working- class anarchists. After the banning of Satire, Motler wrote a weekly column for the Workers' Dreadnought; he also produced a book of poems. After the War, in May 1920, Motler and Scates started a new paper, Labour's Voice, at their own printshop, the Satire Press at Crowndale Road, Camden. I believe Motler died in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1967.
  • 11 The Socialist, was the paper of the Socialist Labour Party; both R. M. Fox and Harry Lynch of the NLHL wrote for this journal early in the War.
  • 12 Edward Hennem, op cit.
  • 13 Called the Rebel Press, the printshop was situated at the League's premises. The printer Jack Smith was a member of the IWW. Smith died in 1942 of tuberculosis.
  • 14 The Red Dawn, A Book of Versefor Revolutionaries and Others was published in late 1915. Gfit R. M. Fox says - op cit, p. 222 - that 'everywhere- especially in the militant centres of South Wales and in Glasgow-the book was in demand. They were ordered by the hundred.' Red Dawn had to be reprinted early in 1916. Albert Young, the author, died in December 1946, aged 62, in abject poverty. After the War, Albert Young lived in two rooms over a tailor's shop in Brunswick Place, off City Road; this shop and Young's flat belonged to Harry Boulter, who advertised in the socialist press as 'The Socialist Tailor'. Harry Boulter was a notable and widely respected figure in North London radical circles. He seems to have been mainly interested in anti-religious propaganda-in June 1909 he had been imprisoned for a month for blasphemy uttered at a meeting at Highbury Corner, and in November 1911 he had been sentenced to three months for the same offence. During the War, Boulter was a financial contributor to Guy Aldred's The Spur.