Dr Jo Vellacott (1940, History) delivered a talk on Friday 4 July entitled the War Work of an Anti-War Activist: Catherine Marshall, 1914-1918 at Senate House in London.

The talk was one of several given at the 83rd Anglo-American Conference of Historians, July 3-4, 2014 and focused on a subject long close to Dr Vellacott’s heart, whose biography of the great pacifist and suffragist, From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: The Story of Catherine Marshall, was published in 1993.

The BBC has committed some 2,500 hours of programming to marking the anniversary of World War One, new titles on World War One dominate the history shelves of bookshops, and all sorts of national events will take place over the coming four years in countries around the world. For Vellacott, however, memorials and celebrations should not allow us to skew the historical record, and thus to forget important alternative narratives and perspectives.

“I think there are now more attempts to recount the tragedies of the War but, in Canada at any rate, a lot of attention will be paid to celebrating the big battles instead of realising what a horrendous loss of life there was,” she says.

Sources of dissent

Jo Vellacott’s interest in pacifism, which has lasted through her adult life and driven many of her research decisions, began in her teenage years. She grew up in Plymouth, the daughter of a surgeon, and was sent to board at Downe House School in Hampshire.

“I had one Quaker teacher at Downe House, Jean Rowntree, and she was the first Quaker I’d ever met,” says Vellacott. “There were great opportunities to talk informally in small groups and it was from her that I gained my interest in history and in pacifism, although I did not yet become a pacifist.”

From the seed planted by that one teacher, says Vellacott, she developed a sympathy for war dissenters and for their arguments. She describes herself as being “somewhat left wing ever since”. She arrived at Somerville College in 1940 to read Modern History.

“I picked mid-nineteenth century history as that was the most modern period available,” she says. “It was a good grounding in looking at original documents. Essentially, I learnt how to study.”

Vellacott says that Somerville students tried to be helpful to those in the area struggling under the conditions of war. She worked with young children and helped, during air raids, to drive a van to the nearby airforce base, which she describes as “very exciting”.

After Somerville and the War, Vellacott worked for the Ministry of Health in London before moving to South Africa to work as a teacher. She would remain in the country for six years, and marry there too, before moving with her husband to Canada.

Vellacott’s academic career took off when she returned to school in the 1960s, taking an MA and PhD at the University of Toronto. Her time at the university coincided with the arrival of the Bertrand Russell papers, which became the primary source for her first major research project – on peace activists in Britain during World War One.

It was at this point that she first began to read about Catherine Marshall, the suffragist and pacifist whose work helped to deliver a very public profile to the suffragist movement as well as to encourage the Labour Party to take a strongly supportive stand. In Carlisle, Vellacott was directed to 40 boxes of archival material, including correspondence with major political figures like Ramsay Macdonald, the first British Labour Party Prime Minister.

“They were unsorted and there were no funds available to resolve that, and so I sorted them myself, which took forever!” says Vellacott. “My focus then was the anti-conscription movement but I would later return to the archive as it had lots of material on the women’s suffrage movement too.

“Marshall was very important in persuading men that it might be right to give women the vote. There was a shift towards a democratic franchise, which had not previously been the course the women’s suffrage movement was steering,” she says.

Politics and peace

As with patriarchy, so with war Vellacott has been interested in focusing on alternative narratives and on dissenting voices. She is also interested in how politics obstructed arguments against war, sometimes for perverse reasons.

“In the build-up to World War One, there was a sense that Britain’s role would be to stay neutral and the Cabinet itself was divided,” she says. “But it was a Liberal government at the time of War, so the opposition Conservatives joined the fray in expressing commitment to a holy War. Had it been a Conservative government, the Liberal opposition might have put pressure on the government not to prosecute for war.”

Vellacott herself became a Quaker in the 1960s, after attending a meeting in Toronto. She was attracted to the movement for its emphasis on experience and life lessons over belief, for its dissenting tradition (she joined during the Vietnam War), and for the people she met there.

For all the failures of the peace movement in World War One, Vellacott also points to the progress made since its conclusion, exemplified in the improved treatment of Conscientious Objectors during World War Two. She is also supportive of the act of remembering, and of the power that remembering rightly can exert on future decisions.

“It matters to keep the story of Catherine Marshall and her like alive,” says Vellacott. “Marshall would have liked a strong educational programme to help people look at better ways of making internal decisions. She wanted to pursue peacemaking on the basis not of hatred and vindictiveness, but on something that would last.

“That did not happen, of course, but the lesson remains.”

Further reading?

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