Sabine Erika, New South Wales Regional Meeting
“Our testimony against war if it is to be vital must not be mere testimony against the use of armed force – it must cut at the roots of war.” John William Rowntree [during the Boer War]
This was a favourite quote of Margaret’s and in her own life she exemplified this approach. She was energetic, brave and vital in her work for peace.
Born in 1892 in Liverpool, England, the young Margaret Thorp arrived with her family in Australia in October 1911. She was already fired with enthusiasm through her contact with Young Friends in England. This organisation had recently experienced a revitalisation and was actively campaigning against conscription. Margaret loved this work and her experiences at Woodbrooke College where she met many international Quakers and other students. Peace work and an involvement in many and varied peoples became lifelong concerns.
Her family were liberal Quakers and encouraged independent thought and activity. Margaret loved music and sport and had a good sense of humour and was able to endure hardship and opposition, both of which she experienced in her work for peace.
In Australia Margaret approached Friends with her concern for peace. She had represented Australian Friends at the world gathering in the USA, an exciting adventure for this young woman. Apart from the tea, she had a wonderful time. She said of American tea-making that “they had lost the art when they tipped the tea into the harbour.”
In August 1914 war was declared. By this time Margaret was already involved in the Australian Freedom League the aim of which was to repeal the compulsory military training of the Defence Act of 1912. By 1914, 5732 boys had been imprisoned for resisting the training and 28,000 boys or their parents had been prosecuted.
Margaret Thorp’s appeal to Friends led them to send her to Queensland for the Quaker Peace Board. This Board was characterised by a quietist pacifism in contrast to the Australian Freedom League to which Friends had belonged, which was much more of an activist and socialistic organisation. Margaret set up a branch of the Peace Board in Queensland but I don’t imagine the Friends who sent her realised how feisty she was to become. She was no calm pacifist; apart from her complete commitment to peace work she had a strong commitment to social justice and in Queensland she came to work closely with the Trade Union movement. But she was allowed her independence which she used to its fullest extent.
Together with Cecilia John and Adela Pankhurst, two English peace campaigners, she formed the Queensland branch of the Women’s Peace Army which openly campaigned against war and for a peace settlement in a climate of war fervour and jingoism.
“I felt more than ever, if only for the sake of all those boys, I must give my life to this peace work,” Margaret wrote at the time.
One hundred women attended her first meeting. She was often reviled, occasionally physically challenged and booed out of meetings when she rose to ask questions related to peace; once she was ejected by a mob of angry women and returned three times with the assistance of the police. Margaret recruited for the Peace Army by attending hundreds of organisations, church groups, women’s groups, trade union meetings. She often found support among women who would approach her quietly after a meeting to confirm their sympathy with her views but admitted they were not able to stand up as she had done.
She wrote and distributed pamphlets on the causes of war and the work for peace. She published articles in the left wing or liberal press, but was denied publication in the more conservative papers. The Worker dubbed her the “Peace Angel.”
She was always faithful to her religion, though not all Quakers were entirely in tune with her activism. She had strong support from among the Brisbane Quakers and enjoyed respite from time to time in some of their homes. She expressed horror at the way in which most Christian churches so strongly supported the war. The Anglican Canon Rowland led the recruiting drive and Margaret was so horrified by this that she sought an interview with him:
“How come the Christian Church is being transformed into a recruiting agency?” she asked him.
Rowland replied “I have no time for you – our present business is to kill every man of the enemy.”
“How Christ-like!” Margaret replied. She reports in her diary that she was virtually hissed out of the office.
By 1916 and after the slaughter of Gallipoli, some of the war fervour was declining. Recruitment was becoming more difficult. Margaret wrote:
“The glamour of warfare is melting away rapidly. We know too well of the utter tragedy and devastation of this system of mechanical brute force which brings no justice or reason but only hatred and revenge.”
The shortage of willing recruits led to the announcement of a referendum on the question of conscription. Margaret and her fellow workers campaigned strongly against this. They spoke at huge rallies and distributed anti-conscription material. They were delighted when the Referendum for conscription was defeated and there were some among the anti-conscription forces who believed that the work of Margaret and her friends contributed largely to this defeat. A second referendum was subsequently defeated also.
At a YWCA lecture Margaret rose to ask
“If we really trust God and really believe that national integrity will rise victorious, why do we go out with canons and guns and slaughter thousands of men against whom we have no personal quarrel – is that trusting God?”
Margaret also formed a Children’s Peace Army and spoke in schools where permitted. She never gave up and would seek out the authorities over and over till they agreed to allow her access to schools, clubs, organisations of all sorts, and even jails. When told she was too beautiful to go into jails she replied that she believed they needed some beauty in their lives!
After the war Margaret was one of the first welfare workers in Russia where she observed the horrific effects of the worst drought in Russian history. She returned to Australia to raise funds for the Russian victims, especially children left parentless and homeless. She also worked in devastated Europe, including with the “enemies” in Germany. My mother remembered getting milk in Germany from the Quakers after World War One.
This amazing woman continued to work for peace and international understanding. She toured to raise money for UNICEF launching Australia’s first contribution to that organisation. She also raised money for Vietnamese orphans during that war and I remember with delight attending one of her “welcomes” to Asian students in the days of the Columbo plan. One Fijian said to me he felt a bit lost in Australia until he was invited to Margaret Watts Sunday afternoons in her Potts Point flat.
Margaret was a Quaker, a socialist and a feminist. She had a great ability to bring different people together. I remember her with much affection.
You can read more about Margaret in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.