Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Archive for October, 2012

The white poppy: pacifism and the Co-operative Women’s Guild

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 25, 2012

We’re delighted to welcome as a guest blogger Natalie Bradbury, whose blog The Shrieking Violet was the winner of Best Arts and Culture Blog at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards.

Most of us have worn a red poppy at some stage, and have no difficulty explaining why it is worn and what it stands for. But did you know that there is an alternative version of the famous remembrance symbol, a white poppy bearing the message ‘peace’ in its centre which can be worn alongside the red one, and that it was first sold by a group of campaigning women? Originally proposed by the No More War Movement in 1926 and promoted by the Co-operative Women’s Guild during the inter-war years, the white poppy is a reminder of the importance of making sure that war on the scale of the conflicts which rocked the first half of the twentieth century never happens again.

The Guild was formed in 1883 to champion women’s status both within the co-operative movement and in society. As well as focusing on educating its members and encouraging them to serve on the boards and committees of co-operative societies, in the first decades of the twentieth century the Guild lobbied MPs on issues affecting women such as maternity benefits, infant education, working conditions and equal pay. The Guild was also a pacifist organisation; at its 1914 Congress, members resolved that “civilized nations should never again resort to the terrible and ineffectual method of war for the settlement of international disputes”[i]. Instead, the Guild advocated international understanding, aiming to connect co-operators across the world in a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ and, in 1922, an International Women’s Guild was established. The Guild’s internationalist vision was expounded by the then General Secretary Margaret Llewelyn Davies in language which seems optimistic, if not Utopian, today, informed by opposition to the rampant inequalities of competitive capitalism: “The brotherhood of nations is the religion of co-operators, and under an International Co-operative system of trade and industry the material interests of nations are no longer in opposition, but the resources of the globe are pooled and divided in the interests of all.”[ii]

Peace Pledge Union poster showing white poppiesThe Guild also stated its attitude towards war and peace in strong terms. Writing in 1927, Llewelyn Davies said: “To co-operators, looking forward to the creation of a family of nations, War is a denial of their faith, a condition of the past which must be abolished like slavery.”[iii] Speaking at Woolwich Town Hall on the occasion of the Guild’s centenary in 1983, Kathleen Kempton reiterated the meaning of peace to the organisation: “It is important to have in mind that we didn’t only campaign for peace – we tried to establish international understanding – international friendships. It’s one thing trying to have peace between armed camps, when everybody’s afraid of everyone else – but that’s not the kind of peace we want in the world and the peace that the Guild campaigned for was a peace based on understanding and friendship.”[iv]

The Guild’s pacifist activities did not stop at advocating the selling of the white poppy on remembrance day, and the organisation aimed to affect change in wider society and culture. Members attended peace rallies and lobbied for disarmament at a time when the British government was increasing its spending on weapons, and protested against conscription.         The Guild was opposed to taking part in training such as gas mask drills and called for local education authorities to drop military activities such as training corps in schools (it was recommended that they should be replaced by non-competitive activities like games, pageants and choir singing). The Guild demanded the inclusion of peace studies and information about the League of Nations on school curricula, and asked schools to set aside a Peace Day. Furthermore, the Guild asked the CWS to cease from the manufacture of war-like toys and picketed cinemas which showed war films[v]. In 1933, the Guild introduced a Peace Pledge Card, bearing the message:

“I solemnly declare my firm conviction that world problems can best be settled by reason rather than force, and I therefore declare that under no circumstances whatever will I take part in, or help towards, the propagation of war.”

The first white poppies were not ready in time for the Armistice Day of 1933, so women instead improvised by wearing white paper flowers and ribbons. It is said that the Guild asked the British Legion to make white poppies to be sold alongside the red poppy in order to raise funds for the Legion, but this was refused even though the white poppy was never designed to detract from the message of the red poppy[vi]. It was simply a non-militaristic symbol. As one Guild member explained: “There was no question of opposition to the red poppy – it was simply a demonstration of peace and lots of people used to wear the two poppies together, the red and the white, to show that they were pacifists but that they didn’t want to deny the fact that a lot of people had given their lives for what they thought was the peace of the world in 1914/18.”[vii] In 1938, a record 85,000 were sold.

Unfortunately, the meaning of the white poppy has been interpreted in different ways, often as an insult to the memory of those who died in conflict – despite the fact that members of the Guild had experienced the horrors of war first-hand when their sons, brothers and sweethearts were sent to the trenches during the first world war as, to borrow a much-use expression, ‘cogs in the machine of war’, many of them never to return. Within the Guild itself, there were conflicted attitudes towards pacifism, and the Guild’s official stance, which forbade members to take part in activities contributing to the war effort in the Guild’s name, caused a number of members to leave[viii]. It is hard to imagine the dilemmas encountered in the run up to the Second World War; to support a war that would doubtless send many more young men to an early grave and cause unspeakable destruction, or to sit back and do nothing as the evil forces of Fascism rose across Europe, attacking basic freedoms and notions of democracy. The co-operative movement, and indeed co-operative women, did their bit for the war effort – Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) factories were taken over for the production of military clothes for the government and the CWS ran army canteens.

Summing up the difficulty of the Guild’s pacifist stance, and wearing the white poppy, one member described the white poppy as “one of the most courageous things that ever happened – because in the period between the wars it was absolutely unthinkable not to wear a poppy on 11th November”[ix]. Another recalled: “People think there’s something wrong with me when I won’t buy a Flanders poppy … I have a funny feeling they think “Oh her, she doesn’t care”. But I do care – I care because they never should have lost their lives. To me war is just really dreadful.”[x] Another remembered: “I knew that in various areas white poppy wreaths were laid on cenotaphs in 1937, ’38 and ’39. They were immediately taken off and jumped on by irate people who said they were an opposition, a denigration of the dead.”[xi]

As Mary Stott, Guardian’s Women’s page editor for many years (but editor of several Co-operative Press publications prior to that, including the  journal Women’s Outlook) said, reflecting on the white poppy in the 1970s: “In many ways it was easier to be a pacifist in the 1930s than now – no one had forgotten the vast, senseless slaughter of our young men in World War I – yet it took as much courage, I think, to wear the white poppy on 11th November as it did for the committee of 100 to lay down in the road in the 1960s.”[xii]

Today the white poppy is distributed by the Peace Pledge Union. It is still subject to controversy[xiii], and the white poppy is far from being a household name – how many newsreaders, for example, do you see wearing it? We need only look at conflicts still raging across the world today, however, and our increasingly divided society, to realise that its message is relevant now more than ever.

White poppies can be purchased here at the Working Class Movement Library.

Gillian Scott will speak on The Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Question of Peace Activism between the Wars at the Peace History Conference at the People’s History Museum in Manchester on Saturday 10 November at 2.15pm.

[i]  Caring and Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, Manchester, 1983, p.109

[ii] Quoted in Caring and Sharing, p.112

[iii] Quoted in The Woman With the Basket, Manchester, 1927, p. 14

[iv] Quoted in Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope, London, 1983, p. 3

[v] Caring and Sharing, p. 110

[vi] Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope , p.38

[vii]  Ibid

[viii] Gillian Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women: The Women’s Co-operative Guild, 1880s to the Second World War, London, 1998

[ix] Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope , p.38

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Mary Stott, Forgetting’s No Excuse, London, 1973, p. 35

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Book review – ‘Labouring for peace’

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 23, 2012

Labouring for Peace: a history of the campaign inside the Labour Party for international peace by Grace Crookall–Greening & Rosalie Huzzard.

CAM Yorkshire: Penistone (2011)

This work records the substantial contribution of the peace movement in the Labour Party over the past 70 years. In the foreword Tony Benn refers to the Labour Party as ‘an organisation which does not want to be disturbed by radical thoughts.’ In many respects that serves as a summary of the work of Labour Action for Peace and other groups working inside the Party – engaging in a relentless struggle to influence a Party which seemed eager to serve other interests. A typical example is the 1982 Conference Resolution which re-affirmed support for Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament with a decisive majority but is then disowned by Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley.

There are many such betrayals and concerted attempts by the Labour Party hierarchy to sideline the cause of peace, to refuse to stop arms sales or to consider a reconfiguration of the arms industry. A notable example was the 1994 Conference which ‘ended up facing both ways’ by voting to scrap Trident and for a supply of more Military Aircraft. The Trident Resolution is then dismissed as a ‘zany idea from the past’.

Throughout the book such rejections come along with monotonous regularity but the Labour Party is valued because it offers up opportunities to explain ideas and engage in comradely discussions. It is only with the accession of Tony Blair that the relentless struggle for peace seems to encounter too many obstacles. The authors write of ‘sharp shouldered black suits and briefcases, lobbyists and corporate exhibition stands’ urging the Party to keep a place at the ‘top table’ through the manufacture and sales of arms.

Founder member, long time newsletter editor and secretary, Ron Huzzard wrote an appreciation of the life of Fenner Brockway in 1988 in which he commented that ‘we will always remember his infectious optimism.’ It is that phrase which sums up all of those involved with Labour Action for Peace in that every setback is greeted with even more determination to carry on.

The book ends with the hope that recording the history of Labour Action for Peace ‘will inspire new, younger socialists to carry the work for peace and justice forward into a sustainable and peaceful future.’ A detailed reading of the campaigns over the years will make one wonder whether the Labour Party will play any role in that future, but it is clear that for as long as there is a Labour Party there will be people attempting to ‘keep peace and disarmament to the forefront of Labour’s policies.’

This is a well presented work, put together from archival sources and laid out in readable fashion. It records the efforts of good and determined people ‘making demands for justice from the people at the top’.


David Hargreaves, October 2012



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What’s the link between the Spanish Civil War and Chorley?

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 16, 2012

Answer:  Over 220 Spanish anti-fascists and Republicans were interned in Hall o’The Hill camp at Adlington, Chorley during WWII.  Many of them had escaped from Spain to France after the Spanish Civil War, and found themselves detained in France in the autumn of 1944 and transported to Britain as prisoners of war.

The Library has a lot of photos of the camp, and the individuals who lived there.   Now we can put some names to faces thanks to Lisa Croft, who has brought us a wonderful folder of information about her grandparents and their involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Archibald Williams was an International Brigade volunteer who was imprisoned while in Spain fighting Franco’s forces;  his wife Jane Orme Williams had encouraged him to volunteer, and met him at Waterloo station when he was released in May 1937.  She had given birth to their daughter while he was away and, thinking he was dead, had called her Rosemary for remembrance and Nina, the Spanish for girl.

Archie and Jane visited the Republicans who were interned in Adlington, and the folder contains copies of sketches, photographs and pen pictures of some of the men.

These, plus things like prison notes from Archie and articles by Jane (who had a regular column in the Lancashire Evening Post during the post-war years, writing as ‘Mrs Argus’), make the folder a new treasure to add to the many already in our collection relating to the North West’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  Thanks Lisa.

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