8-14 February 1916: Conscription and Free Speech in Battersea

The Battersea Council meeting of 9th February 1916 contains the information that the Battersea Trades and Labour Council made representations to protest that their meeting in Latchmere Baths was cancelled by the Baths Committee. No explanation is given in the minutes as to why the meeting was cancelled – the report submitted to the meeting by the Baths and Wash-houses Committee refers only to their spending and not to any decisions they might have made. The South Western Star, reporting on the Council meeting, had a rather fuller version of events – as is often the case – referring to it as a “noisy demand for ‘free speech’”, which took up two hours of the meeting.

An unusually large number of persons, several being women, were in the gallery. Mr Grundy, leaning over the rail, was prominent. The explanation of this is that an unpatriotic movement was suspected.

The meeting had been to consider action to repeal the Military Service Bill, passed on 27th January, which brought in conscription. It appeared that the hall had been hired by the Battersea Trades and Labour Council, but was in fact hired by the local branch of the No Conscription Fellowship, according to the paper. The letter from the Trades and Labour Council stated that they had “decided to enter an emphatic protest at such action in attempting to stifle free criticism of the measure” – hence their deputation and the rather more lively meeting described by the Star. The fact that the hall had been hired by the No Conscription Fellowship lead to accusations of duplicity, as the Trades and Labour Council did not have a direct interest in the matter. The leader of the deputation, Mr Carmichael, claimed to be astounded that the cancellation had taken place in Battersea, a borough noted for its free speech, especially during the Boer War – there was an active Stop the War Committee during the Boer War – and with an MP who had done six weeks in prison for free speech thirty years ago. Comments on “where John Burns was now” came from the gallery, as his opposition to the war was well known, although Mr Carmichael pointed out that Burns had voted against the Military Service Bill. He also pointed out that Trade Unions had assisted with recruitment because they thought it would keep away conscription and that the Trade and Labour Council had held a practically unanimous vote to affirm their own opposition to conscription.

The clerk who booked the hall had been under the impression that it was for a Trade and Labour Council meeting, and when the Committee realised that it was not they had held long discussions over what to do. A small majority had concluded that the best decision was to cancel the meeting, a decision upheld by their chair, Mr Simmonds, who thought that “in the present circumstances…the committee were justified”. Mr Bigden argued that it was “most monstrous that the Council should allow the use of the hall” for a No Conscription meeting, and other members argued that the Council should not be the arbiter of patriotism in the borough. This was followed by Mr Brogan launching what the Star called “a tremendous onslaught on rebels and labour, and unpatriotism”, an accusation which caused Carmichael to shout that he was a liar, resulting in him being removed from the chamber whilst Mr Brogan continued that “conscription has come, partly as a result of their apathy in regard to recruiting…Now they had conscription he felt it was his duty to loyally accept it”. The paper records insults to the No Conscription Fellowship and arguments about past bad behaviour at meetings and if that would be comparable to holding a No Conscription meeting, before eventually the Council decided not to refer the matter back to Committee and to carry on with the rest of the business of the day.

Very little of the debate is reflected in the minutes, even though it took up two hours of the Council meeting and showed that the matter of conscription was a controversial one. Many members of the No Conscription Fellowship ended up before the Military Service Tribunals, including Clifford Allen, who write extensively for Fellowship’s news-sheet, The Tribunal, which we will be coming back to in future posts.

Battersea Borough Council minutes, ref: MBB/1/16

South Western Star available on microfilm

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One thought on “8-14 February 1916: Conscription and Free Speech in Battersea

  1. Pingback: 22-28 February 1916: Tales from the Battersea Tribunal | Wandsworth 1914-1918

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