the men who said no





Lilla Brockway
It was Lilla Brockway who had the idea that led to the formation of the No Conscription Fellowship in World War One.

Lilla was a student at Eltham Training College, spending her holidays with a number of others in an ILP household headed by her brother Alfred Harvey-Smith, where she met and later married Fenner Brockway. They were living in a cottage in Marple, Derbyshire when war began.

‘Lilla Brockway…was the first to feel that the time had come to gather together all those in the Socialist and other movements who would refuse to be driven to the murder of their fellows if conscription came.’ In response to her idea Fenner suggested she should write a letter to the Labour Leader (he felt it would be improper for him to do so as he was the Editor) towards the end of 1914, asking ‘all who were determined not to fight to send in their names, so that common action might be taken if and when conscription came.’

In response to that call there came replies from every part of the country - from little fishing villages in Cornwall and from far north of Scotland; from agricultural districts as well as from the big cities came letters which showed that not everybody had succumbed to the madness of war. The greater part of the replies were from members of the Independent Labour Party; among the rest were members of the Society of Friends, and a few were from members of other religious bodies. In her home at Marple, Lilla Brockway collected the names in a file, and she and her husband waited for the time when that handful of young men would be called upon to resist the State’s demands that they should take up arms. They did not have long to wait…

Lilla became the honorary Secretary of the organisation that became the NCF, until early in 1915 when an office was opened in London to handle the growing membership. The Brockways moved to London, where Fenner became the NCF secretary, renting a room in Bryanston Square, with the baby sleeping in a drawer. Lilla and the baby were evicted from this room after the police came to arrest Fenner as a CO in November 1916.

Fenner was taken to the Tower of London. From there he was escorted to Euston, en route for Chester, and he asked if his wife could join them for lunch, which was allowed. She told Fenner she was coming with him to stay with a friend until his court-martial, and by the time they reached Chester they were all good friends with the Fenner’s military escort, to the extent that they insisted on escorting Lilla to her lodgings first. On the way back to prison in London from Chester, where she had visited him daily until his court martial, she was allowed to travel with them. During his sentence she was only able to visit him once, with their 18 month old daughter Audrey. By the end of his sentence he heard that his second daughter Margaret was born in Manchester. On release, COs were still officially part of the army so he was to be escorted back to Chester. He asked to go via Manchester to see his wife and baby and the friendly escort took the risk of allowing him to go the nursing home on his own!

At one point during another term in prison, a rumour spread outside that Fenner had TB - Lilla and Catherine Marshall from the NCF had immediately been to see the secretary of the Prison Commission, then Catherine had organised the Bishop of Lincoln to lead a deputation to the Governor, and the local shop stewards at the Lincoln engineering works stopped work to visit the prison and check on him.

Often I think that our wives had a harder time than those of us who were prisoners; they had to live in the middle of a war-mad world and to undergo the contumely which opposition to the war and relationship to an imprisoned “conchy” involved. Lilla did it with unfailing courage, living for many months in a bare caravan, looking after Audrey and Margaret, mere babies, going through the last eight months with only one letter from me.’



Lilla Brockway
Lilla Brockway outside Caxton Hall, London as Fenner lost the poll in the Westminster by-election

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