Croydon’s peace ballot and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia

By - Friday 14th September, 2018

In 1934–5 Croydon residents worked harder than ever to try to promote the cause of peace

Italian troops in Abyssinia.
Photo public domain.

Across the country in 1934 a massive campaign started to obtain signatures to the peace ballot, organised by the League of Nations Union’s National Declaration committee and its president, Lord Robert Cecil. Croydon and Purley committees were set up in support, the Croydon one chaired by the mayor with Alderman Peters as secretary. Over forty organisations agreed to join it. There were 160,000 voters in the area, plus all those between the ages of 18 and the voting age of 21. Peters estimated that 1,000 volunteers would be needed to run the ballot.

Early in October the Labour MP J. R. Clynes, who had been the Minister of Food Control between July 1918 and January 1919 and the Labour Home Secretary from 1929 to 1931, addressed a meeting of the league in which he explained that Britain’s League membership cost 4% of the cost of a battleship. He warned against complacency. “In spite of a great war that was to end all war, all the nations were now preparing for war in a greater degree than they ever did before, but they did not put it like that. They said they were preparing for defence.” Germany “was preparing very rapidly for war”. It “was monstrous; that the manufacture of arms should be left in the hands of private individuals”.

On the first Sunday of 1935 the Bishop of Croydon, Reverend Woods, had a sermon broadcast to the Empire by BBC Radio, and a league group was formed in Shirley which included one Kathleen Cork of 150 Addiscombe Road.

The Upper Norwood branch held a public meeting on the peace ballot

A public meeting promoting the ballot was held in February 1935, addressed by the National Committee Chairman stressing the educational value of the ballot and saying that press coverage hostile to the league had not seemed to have had an effect.

The Upper Norwood branch of the League of Nations Union held a public meeting on the ballot at which Professor Arthur Davies said “that civilisation has reached a stage at which the riches of the word in the realms of art, science and industry are generally acknowledged to be of higher consequence than the preparedness for possible future war…”.

There was opposition to the ballot. H. G. Williams, the South Croydon Tory MP, told a local branch of the Tory Primrose League that the ballot “was the most dishonest proposition ever  put before the people of the country” and that he would “not take the slightest notice of it”.

Over 11 million people voted to stay in the League of Nations

When the results were announced at a rally at the Albert Hall at the end of June, the total number who voted was 11.6 million, 38% of the adult population and over half of the 21 million who voted in the general election held a few months later.

Over 11 million people were in favour of Britain remaining a member of the League of Nations; 10.5 million were in favour of all-round reduction of armaments by international agreement; just over 9.5 million were in favour of an all-round abolition of national military and naval aircraft by international agreement; 10.5 million wanted the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit to be prohibited by international agreement; and just over 10 million considered that, if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop  by economic and non-military measures. Just over 6.75 million felt that – if necessary – invading countries should be stopped by  military measures.

With its endorsement of collective security by all means short of war, the ballot led to the Conservative government under Baldwin to take a more serious role in the League of Nations. However, he was also able to embank on rearmament.

Lord Robert Cecil, president of the League of Nations Union.
Photo public domain.

By November 1935 Croydon had a Peace Pledge Union Committee. This had developed out of the campaigning of the Anglican Reverend Dick Sheppard from the second half of the 1920s.

In October 1935 fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia after the league attempted to prevent it by banning arms sales to either side. In September that year over 5,000 people attended a mass meeting in Katharine Street to support a resolution in favour of the League of Nations, at which Abyssinia was discussed. Reverend John Levo told the Purley Women’s Citizen’s Group that “the Italian-Abyssinian dispute primarily devolves on the colour question”. It was “an attempt to dominate a black people”.

On Saturday 6th October the former Labour and then national coalition Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald spoke about the league to the North End Brotherhood, attended by about 1,800 men. “The cause of peace crushed to the earth, will rise again… The forces of war destroy not only men and communities… it destroys our spiritual and intellectual inheritance, and all the gains of social culture and experiment carried on towards the attainment of progress, happiness, contentment and righteousness – all the gains of civilisation.”

Groups met in Ruskin House to discuss the danger of war

On 13th October the Croydon Trades Council and the Co-operative Guilds held a conference at Ruskin House to discuss the war danger. The decision of the League of Nations “to apply limited sanctions to restrain Italian fascism in its murderous attack on the Abyssinian people” was welcomed. A council of action was set up with representatives from the trade unions, the Co-op, the ILP, and the Communist and Labour parties.

The invasion, the Japanese invasion of China, the Spanish Civil War, and Hitler’s demands to expand into Austria and Czechoslovakia all led towards war in 1939. As in the First World War, peace and anti-war campaigners found that they had to make choices; pacifists to refuse to fight and be treated as conscientious objectors, and those who accepted that as their efforts had failed, they had to fight what they saw as the menace of fascism and Nazism.

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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