15. The Last Years of the NLHL

Submitted by Steven. on January 23, 2013

In late 1917, the NLHL moved from its premises at 75 Grand Parade, Harringay, to its final resting place, Liberty House, 318 Green Lanes.

The new home became the centre of all the League's activities. One new departure was the formation of the 'Liberty Club' at the new address; this was open all day every day, and it became a refuge in a hostile world. Indeed, the social side of the anti-War movement deserves some attention, struggling against the current as the participants were, subjected to attacks on their meetings, treated as pariahs or victimised at work, harrassed at home or localities where they lived, having their children assaulted at school, and, if they were 'aliens', becoming victims of racialist attacks in the streets. In such an environment there was strong need for mutual support and friendly companionship.

The League had a well-developed 'social' life, creating a milieu in which personal relationships could develop and a multitude of informal discussions - usually much more important in the development of ideas and attitudes than formal meetings - could take place. The NLHL organised a large number of dances, concerts and similar events, where a number of 'show biz' personalities who were supporters of the League provided much of the entertainment. These included the young Elsa Lanchester, who danced,1 And John Goss2 Who sang and actors like Victor Starr and Miles Malleson.

In the last months of the War the political climate rapidly changed. There had always been some servicemen involved with the NLHL, but this trickle turned into a steady stream. A participant recalls that a number of wounded soldiers joined the League, while the League's campaign on Ireland and its support for the strikes of busworkers, police, and, after the end of the War, piano workers3 each brought in new converts.

I nearly 1918 there was a food crisis which hit working-class areas hard. Members of the NLHL were active on this issue, particularly among women. The campaign led to some pretty tense confrontations which culminated in a near riot when Tottenham housewives besieged the local Food Office.

Meanwhile - as always - the Finsbury Park meetings went on. Among the speakers in this last period were Shapurji Saklatvala , Harry Pollitt, Mrs Mary 'Ma' Bamber of Liverpool, and Arthur McManus,4 as well as many of the old favourites. Many of these meetings were very large with audiences of thousands.

The end of the War came almost as an anti-climax. There was so much unfinished business. In the months which followed, socialists who had been in the forces began to be demobilised and some CCs began to trickle home, but it wasn't until May 1919 that the 'absolutists' were released - and only then after a long hunger strike. Many of these men were in a poor state of health after years in prison and a considerable proportion of the League's energies were devoted to their rehabilitation.

The scene at Finsbury Park after the War reflected the changed situation. Where previously the venue had been dominated by the Herald League, with the coming of peace out came all the groups and parties which had kept a low profile during the War. I. Renson, who was a teenager in that period, remembers Sunday mornings in the park:

There were numerous platforms, sometimes up to 20 if one included the religious ones. I remember seeing the Herald League, the BSP, the National Socialist Party. the ILP and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. There was also the Labour Party and quite a few small organisations which folded up in a few years' time. some of them getting absorbed into other groups and parties like the Communist Party. Trade Unions also had platforms there.5

In October 1919, Rebel, the League's paper, reported the emergence of a 'vigilance committee' within the NLHL This was the origin of the Communist Group of the NLHL which participated in the foundation conference of the CP on August 1st, 1920. According to Harry Young, about 30 NLHL members joined the Communist Party; many more joined the Labour Party.

It had been the War which kept the League together, and when peace came fissiparous tendencies rapidly developed. Some members, burnt out by the struggle, retired into private life with the rebirth of normal political activity, others returned to their primary political allegiances. Ted Hennem comments on what happened:

The League did not disintegrate. Its members found employment miles away, others went into activity with the ILP, and a group with George Deacon6 felt that the Communist Party with its international loyalties was the party of the future. The Labour Party had about this time set up its individual membership sections. All these factors together convinced us that the League had fulfilled its function and should disband - we went into voluntary liquidation.

By August 1920 the NLHL was in serious financial difficulties, and the lease of its premises - Liberty House - was coming to an end. The last issue of Rebel came out in December 1920 and the NLHL dissolved itself shortly thereafter. There was an ironic aftermath - 'Liberty House' became an Army recruiting centre.

  • 1 Elsa Lanchester came from a radical background. Her mother Edith Lanchester was a member of the Executive of the SDF in the l890s, and became a cause celebre when she lived in a free union; her family committed her to a lunatic asylum in consequence. In 1918 Elsa had founded the Children's Theatre in Soho, which seems to have had strong radical connections. Elsa Lanchester was a member of the ILP after the War.
  • 2 John Goss, 1894-1953, was a noted baritone; after the War he joined the Communist Party.
  • 3 Piano workers might seem a pretty obscure group of workers, but the industry had been switched to aircraft production during the War. With the coming of peace the industry boomed as never before as people began to spend money accumulated during the War years. There were something like 6,000 workers in the industry in North London at the time.
  • 4 Saklatvala, who lived in St Pancras, went on to become the Communist MP for Battersea North for several years. Harry Pollitt at this time was a member of the WSF; he went on to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party for many years. Mrs Bamber was a formidable woman agitator from Merseyside who had been active since the turn of the century, and who went on to playa prominent part in the Liverpool unemployed movement in the early 1920s. She was the mother of Bessie Braddock MP. Arthur McManus was a member of the Clyde Workers' Committee during the War and he became the first Chairman of the Communist Party.
  • 5Letter to the author in May 1980.
  • 6George Deacon was the NLHL's last Chairman. He became a member of the Executive of the Communist Party and was employed fulltime by them until the late 1920s. He then joined the Labour Party in South West London, where he remained active for many years.