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The Hastings Council of Action

(Much of the information on this page has been generously supplied by Ann Kramer, Brian Lawes and Paula Radice, or borrowed from Ann Kramer's book Turbulent Spinsters).

The first public meeting in Wellington Square

The following account of the formation of Hastings Council of Action appeared in the Hastings Observer on 14 August 1920:
'LABOUR AND RUSSIA. - At a public meeting held in Wellington-square on Saturday, under the joint auspices of the Hastings and District Trades and Labour Council and the local Labour Party, the following resolution was unanimously adopted and ordered to be forwarded to the Prime Minister and local Press:

"That this public meeting of Trade Unionists, Burgesses of Hastings and others strongly protest against an extension of the Russo-Polish War, the supply of men and munitions to aid Poland, and the re-imposition of the blockade of Russia, and further demands that the peaceful offer made by the Soviet Government be accepted, and that full trading relations between Russia and England shall at once be resumed"'.

Jane Strickland

The main speaker at the meeting was Jane Strickland, a member of the nearby Robertson Street Congregational Church. She had been appointed in 1901 as one of the first members of Hastings Education Committee, and was on the governing bodies of several Hastings schools. She became a magistrate in 1929.

Before World War I she was active in the Women’s Liberal Association (WLA) and continued within it for many years, seeing the Liberal Party (mistakenly) as the best possible hope for achieving votes for women. She campaigned hard within a special section of the WLA to try and force the Liberals to adopt votes for women as a political platform. She was Chair of the Free Church League for Women's Suffrage and a leading member of the local branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the mainstream law-abiding wing of the suffrage movement, as distinct from the "suffragettes" who disrupted meetings, smashed windows, cut telephone wires and set fire to the home of the local Conservative MP.

After the War, dismayed at the Liberal Party's failure to legislate for Votes for Women, she joined Hastings Labour Party and later became its Vice-Chair.


The first public meeting of the Hastings Council of Action provoked an angry letter to the Hastings Observer, published on 28 August 1920 -
As listener, not a sympathiser, at the "Stop the War" meeting held in Wellington Square last Sunday evening, I was struck by the extreme narrowness of the views of the speakers, and the misleading statements made. If to blockade Russia an act of war, surely to blockade our own people and country this winter, by the threatened direct action, is a still greater act of war. No one wants another war, either with Russia or anyone else, but these people are out to raise class hatred and to start civil war at home. Their leader, Lenin, in his recent speech at Moscow, said, "Russia must continue to foment revolution in all countries until she achieves her aim, which is an international proletarian Soviet Republic." and Mr. Lansbury at Trafalgar Square tells "Lenin is a pure-hearted, noble souled man"! And are urged, rather, the Council of Action demand peace with Russia and demand recognition of the Soviet Government. Mrs. Strickland, who spoke exceedingly well, but with mistaken sentiment, told she looked upon that meeting as a "religious one," yet was urging on direct action with its intendant evils high prices and starvation for the masses, and also said "Had Labour taken [as] strong a stand in 1914 [as] they are taking now, there would have been [no] war with Germany." I venture [to] say, Had that been the case, neither Mrs Strickland or anyone else present would have been standing in Wellington-square listening to inflammatory speeches against those in authority over us. The very banner at the back of the stand was a lie in itself with the Labour motto, "Reason, not Force." What irony!!

"A retrograde step"

Isabella Harrison endorsed Mrs Cooke's sentiments in a letter published in the Hastings Observer on 4th September 1920 -
The formation of a Council of Action to over-ride the policy of the National Government and impose the will of a class on the community by "direct action" is a challenge to all who believe in our parliamentary system and in the constitutional principle of government by consent. More especially must the women who have taken part in the long struggle, and have so recently won the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as men, and and [it is clear that misprints have crept in here] to use the power thus obtained to promote the [misprint?] calculated to rob them of the fruit of their victory by rendering the vote a valueless weapon.

I understood Mrs Strickland to say, at the meeting at Wellington-square, that she was there to promote peace and avert further war and bloodshed. Unfortunately I had to leave before she had finished speaking, and I can hardly believe that Mrs Leslie Cook is accurate when she represents her as "urging on direct action with its attendant evils of high prices and starvation for the masses." I hope to hear that Mrs Strickland has been misunderstood, and that she and other women of the Labour Party are sincere in their advocacy of world-peace. and will cooperate heartily with women of all classes and all parties, working through the League of Nations and other bodies to make it a reality. Many of us are members of the Society pledged to secure the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as men, and to "use the power thus obtained to promote the social and industrial well-being of the community." This pledge seems to me to be absolutely incompatible with support of "direct action." We cannot throw the constitution on the scrap heap one day and pose as champions of constitutional rights and liberties the next; nor can we "promote the social and industrial well-being of the community" by still further paralysing the economic life of Europe and bringing ruin to our own country.

It is difficult to believe the Council of Action are serious. They must know that the men and women of our race will never submit to the domination of any self-righteous and truculent group whatsoever. A class war once declared there can be no further talk of peace and cooperation. Our women's non-party organisations must disintegrate and resolve themselves into separate fighting units. Such a retrograde step - such a set-back to civilisation every thinking woman will earnestly seek to avert.
(Mrs.) Darent I. E. HARRISON.'

Isabella Harrison

Like Jane Strickland, Isabella Darent Harrison had been a campaigner for Votes for Women. There were tensions within the local suffrage campaign. Isabella Harrison, among others, considered local suffragists including Jane Strickland over-reliant on the Liberals. For her part, Jane Strickland, like most NUWSS members, disapproved of the Suffragettes' increasingly militant tactics but she clearly understood why this was happening and wrote movingly in support of their actions, considering them brave women driven to desperate measures. Despite their differences, Jane and Isabella still often shared a platform.

In 1909 Isabella Harrison launched the Hastings and St Leonards Suffrage Propaganda League, which was independent of all political parties and not affiliated to any of the existing societies. Isabella was the secretary and moving spirit. The League was sympathetic to the Tax Resistance League and later affiliated to it. Isabella Harrison and others resisted paying tax in 1911 and again in 1912, when she and others barricated themselves in her house for just over a month until the bailiffs broke in.

In view of their cooperation in the suffrage campaign, the disagreement between her and Jane Strickland seems disconcerting, especially considering Isabella Harrison's earlier radicalism as a Suffragette.

Direct Action?

Mrs Leslie Cooke took advantage of the Observer's misprints to return to the attack on Jane Strickland -
Your correspondent seems to doubt the accuracy of my statement regarding Mrs Strickland being in favour of "Direct Action". Was she not speaking from a "Direct Action" platform and in accord with those who urged vehemently the recognition of the Russian Soviet Government?

"'The Reds' had arrived"

In the same paper, Isabella Harrison also returned to the fray -
I regret I must again ask you for space, if only to disclaim responsibility for the strange babble that appeared over my signature recently. My purpose in writing to you will have been defeated by the printers if it was not made clear that I regard "Direct Action" as a menace against which women must defend themselves with the full strength of their organisations.

At the Trades Union Congress opening Mr. J. H. Thomas admitted that the "Council of Action" had definitely challenged the Constitution in the interest of peace with Soviet Russia "a bold and even dangerous step." He added, however, reassuringly, "Our action does not carry with it acclamation of the Soviet method of government, and many who advocate a Russian peace do not subscribe to the Soviet methods."

I think we were all aware that Labour was far from being a united family party on the subject of Leninism. But if Mr. Thomas thought important to point out that there many who do not approve of Soviet methods, it is at least as important to realise that there are many who do, and that they have been the active promoters of the "Council of Action" to which Mr. Thomas and our local Labour Party have given their support. The copy of the "Daily Herald" and the leaflets offered me at the Wellington Square meeting left no doubt at all that "the Reds" had arrived and were doing their best to educate us and prepare us for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and all that it implies!

One thing becomes immediately clear - that the women who have fought and suffered for Freedom's sake have no use for a man who tells us, as Lenin does, that "freedom is nothing but a bourgeois notion." We have heard all that before, and we shall continue to hear it so long as there are egoists who want to impose their will on all who differ from them.

Meanwhile we shall continue to work as free women for those reforms which seem to us necessary for the well-being of our country and of the human race.

Read about the Jolly George and the National Council of Action.

This section is incomplete. Can you help? We especially need access to the 1920 minutes of Hastings Labour Party and Trades Council. Do you know where these are archived?
John Lynes ( jlynes84@gmail.com ) would be grateful for information or suggestions.