The Conscientious Objectors’ Stone in Tavistock Square – and how it came about

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

This is the first of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In this piece, she tells how the idea for the memorial came about and the first attempts to create it. 

In 1976, my uncle, Joe Brett, died. He had been a life-long socialist, and because of those principles, had been a conscientious objector (CO) in the First World War. He had chosen Tom Paine’s ‘simple’ words to express what he believed: “The world is my country, all men are my brothers, to do good is my religion”. He had been an absolutist, that is, did not believe in killing, or helping in any way which might enable some-one else to accept military service and thus kill in his, my uncle’s, place. It was said that to be a CO on political grounds was considered to be less acceptable than on religious ones.

I had asked the Secretary of the National Secular Society (NSS), Bill McIlroy, to speak at my uncle’s funeral. I am a member of both the NSS and the British Humanist Association (BHA). He had agreed and spoke, mainly, of my uncle’s experience as an absolutist. Bill went on to say that, one day, people would acknowledge the courage and foresight of COs as they had, and do, recognise those who fight in wars – and had set up a memorial to them, the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

I thought that a great idea – so obvious, really! But “Never”, I also thought, “in my life time!”

In 1981, I became a Member of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), a subgroup of the Greater London Council (GLC). I was on many committees and chaired two, and was somewhat overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all – so much to learn to do. But by 1984, becoming more used to it all, it suddenly occurred to me that I had a degree of power/influence … Uncle Joe and a CO commemorative stone … Bill McIlroy’s almost chance remark at my uncle’s funeral! This might now be possible. I put this to the GLC’s Labour Group. All agreed, except one: Andy Harris insisted on a motion, suggesting a commemoration of COs, going to London Regional Labour Party.

This would take time – it always did – and we had heard the rumour of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s intention of abolishing the GLC/ILEA! Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier? Then, suddenly, I realised that John Carr (GLC/ILEA Member) was the husband of Glenys Thornton, then Chair of London Region Labour! This might be the short-cut I needed – he might be interested. The reply from Region, instead of being very slow, was only slow, much to my relief!

It was not merely a rumour that Thatcher intended to abolish the GLC, but abolition was more of a fight than perhaps some had thought – the Church, the Lords and a member of the Royal Family were against it – much to some people’s surprise. But what about my CO motion – would that ‘fall by the wayside’?

The London Residuary Body (LRB) was set up after abolition to take care of all agreements, contracts etc the GLC/ILEA had made. So, as my motion, or any action accruing to it, had not appeared, I wrote to the LRB, asking them where the agreement was that had been made to have some commemorative object dedicated to COs. Nothing so far had been made public, whilst other agreements and contracts had been. I had guessed that this particular one would not have been very popular. Their reply confirmed what I had thought might happen – the agreement by Labour Group could not be found! But now what do I do?

Find out how Edna next tried to move the project forwards in the next blog in this series.