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 second of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In the first blog, available here, she told of her early attempts to create a memorial through the Greater London Council (GLC) and how they failed when the GLC was abolished. Here, she details her efforts to get others to support the idea. 

The GLC headquarters at County Hall is in the London Borough of Lambeth, so I contacted Lambeth Council. They were sympathetic and supportive. As it happened, they had just set up a small section within the Council which was to help local people wishing to carry forward ideas they had for their local area. I met the new post-holder heading this small section and we decided that an art competition would be set up, to include all London art schools/colleges. It would ask for a figurative or abstract piece of sculpture, to be situated somewhere in the space next to County Hall, dedicated to all COs.

We got as far as drafting letters to the schools and colleges and others we thought might be interested, and finding addresses, when the government began its first series of cuts of local authority budgets. This post was one of the first to go. Back to square one!

I decided to get funding myself. I could only send a letter to newspapers, explaining what I hoped to do and asking for financial help and perhaps general support. Charities are excluded of course from giving funding to groups for political – in the broadest sense – purposes. A lawyer friend pointed out that my proposed course would be illegal – I had to be part of an organisation.

I had been a member of CND but no other peace group. I decided to contact them. Bruce Kent, then Chair of CND, rang me at home, after receiving my letter asking for help. He pointed out the obvious, really – CND is against nuclear war. I wanted to say that non-nuclear bombs also kill and maim, but thought better of it. I didn’t think it would help – not for probably a short, fairly casual, telephone conversation.

The Quakers! Of course! They are against war in both thought and deed. My uncle had met many Quakers while in prison. Their central offices at Friends House in Euston told me that the Society of Friends was similar to a federation – each Meeting had its own aims and ways of acting. I needed to contact a Meeting – maybe my local one. I knew of none in south east London where I lived, so I went south west – in particular, Streatham. It was fairly close.

I contacted them, and was invited to speak to them about the idea. I did. My reception was rather chilly, but food had been kindly laid on so that it might be rather an occasion. I simply put forward the idea of having a stone dedicated to all COs. Their first question was how much did I think it would cost? I had not the foggiest – it would obviously depend on how much a stone cost, how much we received, etc, but I suggested £2/3,000. It was pointed out that many people in Africa and India were starving, surely such a sum would be best spent on them? I replied that Christ had said Man does not live by bread alone (I had gone to church schools!). They were refusing, of course, so I added that, as they were naturally and rightly concerned with people in Africa and India, they might consider asking the National Gallery to sell one of their less famous pieces of art and use that money for the starving. They would get so much more than £2/3,000! I thanked them for listening, and left.

The question then was who else to contact. As I have said, I was not – am not – very familiar with peace organisations.

But I did recall the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) being mentioned when talking, or hearing, of my uncle’s experiences. I made an appointment and saw Bill Hetherington and Lucy Beck. After a consultative meeting with representatives of other peace organisations, it was agreed that Bill would negotiate with the Guardian newspaper for a letter drafted by him in the name of the PPU to be published on International COs’ Day, 15 May 1993, inviting donations. We got support and funding. Of course, I gave, as did friends and relatives of COs.

Read the third blog in the series to see what came of the support Edna raised.