The Newcastle Workers' and Soldiers' Council, 28 July 1917

Event date(s)

28 July 1917

Description/importance

On 28 July 1917, up to 100 people assembled in the old Town Hall opposite St Nicholas Cathedral for the first meeting of the local Workers' and Soldiers' Council to discuss the revolutionary movement in Russia. In March 1917 (February after the old Julian calendar), Russian soldiers and workers had staged a revolutionary uprising against the Tsarist regime that excited left-wing and anti-war activists all over Europe. On 3 June 1917, a Labour and Socialist conference at Leeds then issued a call to activists in Britain 'to follow Russia' and establish local soldiers' and workers' councils.

The initiative for setting up the local group in Newcastle came from Charlotte Despard, a suffragette activist who was also the sister of Field Marshall Sir John French. Another driving force behind the council was Newcastle's first female doctor and pacifist activist Dr Ethel Williams, who also acted as the council’s secretary. The meeting itself was, however, not particularly revolutionary and soldiers were almost entirely absent among the audience. Mainly local labour activists and pacifists attended the meeting in the Town Hall. Almost immediately after the meeting had started, a crowd consisting of members of patriotic organisations such as the Anti-German League and soldiers on leave gathered outside the building and began to attack the entrance doors with stones. What followed was a brawl between the attacking crowd and the few male attendees of the meeting. Most of the others including Despard and Williams escaped through a side entrance. Although police were present at the meeting, the constables made no effort to suppress the violence but were purposefully looking the other way. Two days later, the local newspapers described a 'stampede of local patriots' that 'routed the Soviets'.

The broken-up meeting on 28 July 1917 should remain the first and only meeting of the Newcastle Soldiers' and Workers' Council that ceased its activities shortly afterwards, and stands exemplary for similar developments in other cities in Britain. Nonetheless, leading figures such as Charlotte Despard and Dr Ethel Williams remained committed labour activists and were involved in numerous national and regional organisations and campaigns after the war.

Location/map point

Address

St Nicholas Square
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE1 1PF

Further reading

N. Todd, 'Ethel Williams: Medical and Suffrage Pioneer', North East Labour History, Bulletin no. 30, 1996, pp. 19-21; F. L. Carsten, War Against War: British and German Radical Movements in the First World War (Berkeley, Cal., 1982), p. 108; S. White, 'Soviets in Britain: The Leeds Convention 1917', International Review of Social History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1974), pp. 165-193.

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