How Croydon played a part in the peace process – back in the 1800s

By - Thursday 27th September, 2018

Croydon’s Festival of Peace may be a twenty-first-century innovation – but peace campaigning here is nothing new

The First International Peace Conference, The Hague, 1899.
Photo by the Imperial War Museum, used under IWM non-commercial licence.

Important issues across the country in 1877 and 1888 were Britain’s relationship with Turkey and war with Afghanistan. At a public meeting in Croydon in September 1877, the speaker, a Mr Lowe, spoke against supporting Turkey against Russia.

A Workmen’s National Anti-war and Arbitration Conference was held in April 1878 in Farringdon’s Memorial Hall. The signatories to the circular promoting it included C. W. Castle, as secretary of the Croydon Painters Society trade union. And a Mr Coldwells moved the resolution protesting against Britain’s war with Afghanistan.

Coldwells had settled in Croydon around 1864 as a market-garden manager and then head gardener and land agent before entering into partnership with J. E. Arnold as tailors in North End. He was the working men’s candidate elected to the first school board following the Education Act of 1870, with the largest number of votes ever recorded by a single candidate. He supported the creation of recreation grounds, saved part of Addington Hills from enclosure, and ensured the protection of footpaths and rights of way. As an alderman from 1883, he chaired the committee to widen and improve the High Street, including building the new town hall, municipal office and public library.

The Peace Crusade and the Hague Convention 1899

The peace and arbitration campaigners would have considered their efforts were paying off when the Hague Convention of 1899 was organised on the suggestion of Czar Nicholas II.

Here in Croydon, Archibald Mackenzie of 6 Bramley Hill had a letter published in the Croydon Advertiser arguing why it was relevant to Croydon. “I believe that this proposal of the greatest military potentate in the world is simply a fresh step in the right direction”.

An International Crusade of Peace was established to back the Czar’s proposals. The council of the Croydon Women’s Liberal Association, and the Croydon Liberal and Radical Association, agreed to support the movement.

“If we want a peace movement, let us start an honest one”

Mayor George John Allen called a town meeting to discuss the proposal on 21st March to support the Czar’s proposals, which it duly did. There was criticism of Russia including its treatment of the Finns, of whom 10,000 fled to Canada. One local letter writer said: “It is not to Russia that we English must look for inspiration. If we want a peace movement, let us start an honest one and kick this Russian humbug out of doors. Surely a man who may know peace and love it without joining in this deceptive braying of ‘peace when there is no peace’”.

The Hague Convention ran from 18th May to 29th July 1899, with treaties coming into force on 4th September 1900 dealing with the pacific settlement of international disputes which created the permanent court of arbitration; ensured the fair treatment of prisoners of war, the treatment of the wounded, and forbade the use of poisons, the killing of enemy combatants who have surrendered, looting of a town or place, and the attack or bombardment of undefended towns or habitations. Inhabitants of occupied territories were not to be not be forced into military service against their own country and forbade collective punishment; and it dealt with the protection of marked hospital ships and required them to treat the wounded and shipwrecked sailors of all belligerent parties.

These were all signed by twenty-six countries. The United Kingdom and the United States refused to sign a declaration prohibiting the discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other new analogous methods for five years. The United States also refused to sign the declarations prohibiting the use of projectiles to spread asphyxiating poisonous gases and prohibiting the use of bullets which can easily expand or change their form inside the human body.

Germany feared that the British would attempt to stop the growth of their fleet

President Theodore Roosevelt suggested a follow-up conference in 1904, but because of the Russo-Japanese War it was postponed until June-October 1907. The British failed in an attempt to secure limitation of armaments, because Germany feared a British attempt to stop the growth of the German fleet. The conference enlarged the machinery for voluntary arbitration and established conventions regulating the collection of debts, rules of war, and the rights and obligations of neutrals. They came into force in January 1910.

A third conference was planned but prevented from taking place by the start of the First World War. Many of the rules laid down at the Hague Conventions were violated in that, including the German invasion of Belgium without explicit warning, and the use of poison gas.

The Peace Crusade wound up after the end of the 1899 Convention. The campaigning journalist William Stead tried to reactivate it to take on a campaign against the war with the Boers in South Africa and for arbitration. He organised a conference which eventually formed a Stop the War committee.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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