The Women’s Peacemakers Pilgrimage, summer 1926
In the summer of 1926 the Women’s International League, part of an international organisation which campaigned to prevent another Great War, co-ordinated with other organisations a Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage from many parts of the country to London, very much modelled on the 1913 suffragist Pilgrimage.
The aim was to raise the question of peace and international arbitration which, the organisers felt, was not being addressed with enough urgency, even by the League of Nations. They said that they wanted to show the government that “this country wants law not war”, and, in particular, they wished the British government to accept compulsory arbitration in international disputes by the League of Nations, something 17 other countries, including Germany and Russia, had already agreed to.
The Chair of the organising committee was Mrs Eleanor Acland, a leading member of the Women’s National Liberal Federation, while the Treasurer was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the former WSPU suffragette. In March Emmeline addressed a conference of 50 societies in Manchester, which included the Society of Friends, the League of Nations Union, the St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance and the Women’s Co-operative Guild, all of which agreed to support the Pilgrimage.
The Women’s Citizen Association organised a further meeting on 12 April at the Ancoats Settlement, Manchester to rally support for the Pilgrimage. Mrs Muter Wilson, a former suffragist, reviewed the history of attempts to bring about international arbitration of disputes between countries from William Penn to the League of Nations. She said that there was no greater mistake than to suppose that the mere existence of the League would in itself secure peace. She thought that the Locarno Pact might have made peace, had it been followed by a disarmament conference. Although seventeen countries had signed the arbitration clause, Britain had not yet done so. She believed that the Pilgrimage was “a force to be reckoned with”.24
Seven Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage marches set out in May (coinciding with the General Strike, incidentally), holding hundreds of meetings along the way. On 17 June there was a procession in Manchester in support of the Pilgrimage, which gathered in Stevenson Square at 5pm, and then marched with pennons and banners to the Cathedral, which was packed to the doors. After being addressed by the Dean the procession went to Platt Fields where a crowd of 2,500 heard speeches from Councillor Mary Welch, Cecile Matheson and finally Kate Courtney, who said that the Pilgrimage was an expression of “an aspiration to permanent peace,” an aspiration which she believed filled the mind of almost every man and woman in the country.
The 3,000 marchers on the Pilgrimage reached London in mid-June. They held a final mass procession on 19 June ending in Hyde Park where there were 22 platforms for the speakers, which included Dame Millicent Fawcett, Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Evelyn Sharp. At the end of the meeting bugles were sounded, and a resolution was put urging the government to agree to submit all international disputes to arbitration or conciliation.
On 16 July a delegation from the Pilgrimage went to the Foreign Office, where they met Sir Austen Chamberlain. Mrs Acland presented him with report from the Pilgrimage, and emphasised that the object of the Pilgrimage was not merely to speak of the desirability of world peace, but to put before their countrymen the need for England to “throw the full weight of its immense prestige” on the side of international law “as against international anarchy.” Chamberlain replied to the women with emollient diplomatic speak, assuring them that the government was reviewing “the whole question of arbitration in international affairs.”
The Pilgrimage inspired the Manchester branch of the WIL to arrange a number of meetings in the theme of peace in July 1927 in number of villages and towns in Lancashire and Cheshire, including Bollington, Newton-le-Willows, Stockport Whaley Bridge, Wilmslow. The speakers included Councillor Mary Welsh, Mrs Muter Wilson and Dr Vipont Brown.
You can watch a short British Pathe silent news reel about the marches here