This 1972 interview by Sandy Martin with lifelong anarchist, pacifist and war resister Lilian Wolfe, was first published anonymously in Shrew Vol. 4, No. 4, pp 6 – 7. Shrew was the paper of the Women’s Liberation Workshop in London. Different Workshop groups took it in turn to produce each issue, and this one was by the Stratford Group, to which Sandy and I belonged. Sadly, there appear to be no surviving tapes or notes from the interview, so this is the only record of it. I have added (2014) some minor clarifications in square brackets.
I plan to upload further resource material about Lilian Wolfe at a later date. I drew on some of my own research on her in Sex, Politics and Housework.
In 1981, the Anarchist Feminist History Group interviewed her son, Tom Keell Wolfe – read about that here.
Key Words: anarchism, feminism, pacifism, war resisters, women’s suffrage, women’s liberation
Names: Freedom, Tom Keell, Lilian Wolfe, Voice of Labour, Women’s Freedom League.
Lilian Wolfe – Lifetime Resistance
I think I was born an anarchist, and events in my life just enabled me to realize that that was what I was.
Those words were delivered at the age of 96; the realization came much earlier, not so strangely either, perhaps, since Lilian Wolfe’s first job was that of a civil servant working as a telegraphist in the Post Office [G.P.O]. Although it was during those years that Lilian first became politically active, she recalls her political feelings as a child, living with her parents, three brothers and two sisters behind her father’s jeweller’s shop in the Edgware Rd, London. Her home, although far from luxurious, seemed very comfortable compared with those of some of the neighbouring families and Lilian well remembers her sympathy for the desperate and poverty-stricken families inhabiting the slums of the surrounding area.
Back in the bad old days of 1885, whilst in Oxford Street one day, she saw a mob of men, on a hunger march, pour out of South Audley St and attack a nearby jeweller’s shop, smashing not only the window but the proprietor’s son. Pacifist though she is, she recalls how very strongly her heart went out to those starving people.
That was when she was ten. About a year later, the last of the governesses in whose charge Lilian had always been left, left the family. Lilian’s mother never a very maternal person (especially towards Lilian) had always left her to the servants. The next two and a half years of Lilian’s life were spent most unpleasantly amidst domestic chores. Of her mother Lilian says: “She must have been a very frustrated woman”. She had married very young and had borne six children, but her real love was singing, and when Lilian was 13, her mother left the family to join an operatic company. It would seem that her career was not a very successful one, since many years later, Lilian paid for her mother’s return to England from South Africa, where she had “ended-up” as a home help. Up to the point of her mother’s leaving, Lilian had received no formal education, and it was her eldest brother who, determined that she should not face the world totally unprepared, paid for her to study at the Polytechnic where she later sat an examination enabling her to commence training as a telegraphist.
Once an employee of the G.P.O., she made many friends who “had a good influence over my choice of literature and culture generally”. This, however, was nonpolitical until she joined the Civil Service Socialist Society.
Exactly when she first heard of socialism Lilian cannot remember, but it was as a suffragette and as a result of lobbying (which made her realise the unfairness of the society in which she lived, and exactly what a farce the British Parliamentary System really was, and still is, she maintains) that she became an anarchist. “Probably my first realization of the injustice of the system under which we live was when I noticed at an early age that those people who did most for the ease and comfort of others were the worst paid. For instance, the servants. If they were paid £18 per year they were considered very well paid. Of course they had their food the same as the family (in ours at any rate) and sleeping accommodation. One of my friends in the Suffragette Movement [possibly Kathlyn Oliver] founded the Domestic Servants’ Union and things have been better for domestic servants ever since.”
The first definite anarchist action she can remember committing herself, was when she was asked to stand for election to the executive of the Civil Service Socialist Society in opposition to the executive officers who had discouraged people from attending meetings. For the next conference, she had printed a leaflet informing everyone exactly what was happening and expressing her views on those men who set themselves up as leaders; she ended by stating: “So, if you want to be led, please don’t vote for me”. They didn’t!
It was through a fellow member of the Society that Lilian was introduced to the Suffragette Movement (and incidentally, to vegetarianism). One of the telegraph service supervisors took her to a meeting of the Women’s Freedom League, started by Mrs Desmond. [Desmond is probably a transcription error for Despard]. This was in contrast to the Pankhurst’s group [the W.S.P.U.] which Lilian considered too authoritarian. Although unhappy at first about the methods of propaganda used by the Suffragettes, Lilian soon realized that it was the only way for the Movement to make itself understood.
In those days one of the main grouses was that women were classed with idiots and children, and Lilian says: “It was simply that the ideas of women were never asked for or represented in any way, and we knew that if they were, much that was wrong could be put right”. Although this is still the cry of women today, Lilian feels that modern women just do not have a full appreciation of what was achieved by the suffragettes. Understandable, from a woman who todays sees young women with many of the advantages that she in her youth had to fight so very hard for. But, at the same time, it is not true that women have achieved equality and/ or liberty, and until they do, they will continue to campaign.
Lilian recalls that there was no anti-male feeling as there is today amongst many groups of the Womens Liberation Movement, but one cannot help feellng that had the women’s movement then been as much a threat to the establishment as it is now, there might have been just as much nastiness and antagonism on the part of men then as there is today. In an account which Lilian gave of an instance when she and a friend whilst addressing a crowd at Salisbury Market Place on the subject of female suffrage were jeered at and eventually forced to leave after having cabbages etc. thrown at them, one cannot help but be reminded of the experiences at some of the recent Women’s Liberation conferences where, rather than cabbages and men’s foul tongues, sisters had to face men’s foul fists.
Perhaps one of the more laughable discriminations which Lilian suffered was when pregnant with her son. Wanting the best possible treatment, she applied to Queen Charlotte’s hospital, but was refused admission – not on the grounds that she was due to be an unmarried mother, but that she was an “unrepentant sinner” who intended to continue living with the child’s father.
Lilian and a group of friends from the Socialist Society became very unpopuiar when it was discovered that they were anarchists; as a result, they broke away and started a paper called the the Voice of Labour. One friend, Mabel Hope, a very able writer, was in touch with Tom Keell of Freedom Press, then situated in Fulham. Lilian had heard of him, having previously bought a copy of Freedom at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. Tom Keell was invited along to one of the first publication meetings, and it was from that time that a great friendship and companionship evolved between the two of them, of which she says: “The happiest days of my life were the 20 years we had together until he died”.
However, before that friendship developed Lilian and the others started a sort of commune called Marsh House, named after the former editor of Freedom. This was in Mecklenburg Street, WC, and cost £90 per year to rent. It proved very successful; each individual had her own room while sharing domestic chores and expenses; they ran weekly socials, etc. which brought in extra cash for Freedom. Lilian was still working for the GPO (she left in 1916) when the First World War broke out. When conscription began some of the men from Marsh House had tried to avoid the call-up by taking refuge in the Scottish mountains. At this time, Lilian and Tom wrote a very outspoken article about conscription and how to avoid it for The Voice of Labour. Very little about this piece appeared in the national press except for a report in the Daily Express. After this, they were aware of being watched by the police, and were very careful in all their movements.
They later reprinted the article in the form of a leaflet, which they sent out with a signed letter giving details as to how it should be distributed. One was sent to Errico Malatesta, a well-known anarchist whose mail was being closely watched by the police. This led to a summons against Lilian and Tom who, on being found guilty, were sentenced to two and three months respectively. Tom was charged with printing the leaflet, Lilian with distributing it. At this time Lilian was pregnant, and instead of being sent to prison, was kept in hospital, of which she says, “I think it was meant to be kind, but I was not allowed to mix with the other prisoners, even on exercise in that ugly yard. It really amounted to solitary confinement and had a very bad effect on me. My thoughts kept going round and round and I could not sleep. I was afraid this might affect the baby, so I consented, two weeks before I was due for release, to pay the fine of £20. The last night I had sleeping pills, a night nurse, and very little sleep”. The only other prisoner Lilian met was a young mother in the next cell who was made to clean Lilian’s cell since the latter was pregnant. The only person she found really despicable during her stay in prison was the chaplain who she feels must have hated her for being an atheist. She recalls being absolutely terrified, and cast into fear and trembling, that she would be be deported to Germany as the clergyman had shouted at her calling her a German (she was not German, but at the time spelt her name Woolf which is of German derivation).
Most of the time life in prison was extremely boring, and Lilian remarks amusedly that she was even driven to reading the Bible at times, (this was always available). Food-wise she didn’t have too many complaints since they tried to cater for her vegetarianism as far as possible. They gave her an apple a day which she always saved until the evening so that she would have something pleasant to look forward to throughout the day. The guards were always alarmed if she left any food, thinking that she was on hunger strike, as were so many suffragettes during their prison stays. Often when she returned to her cell after exercise she would find her possessions scattered after the cell had been searched.
Of her prison sentence she says that the only effect it had on her attitude towards life and politics was to make her more strongly anarchist than before.
After her release from prison it was about a year or so before Lilian was able to work again, as her son was too young to be left, and by this time anyway she had resigned from the Post Office. As soon as little Tom was old enough to be looked after by friends, Lilian bought a health food store in Willesden, and later managed one on Ludgate Hill; later still, one in Cheltenham. After that she bought another in Stroud. However, most of her evenings and weekends were spent doing work for Freedom. When talking about this, Lilian made a point of saying that she always gave good value and never overcharged in her shops. For this reason she never felt like a capitalist and very much hopes nobody thinks of her as such.
At this time. Lilian and Tom together with other friends were living in a commune called Whiteway Colony. Here each person or family set-up had their own dwelling place but came together at their leisure in the communal rooms. Everyone had a say in the running of the commune and was able to express her feelings at the monthly meetings where most of the important decisions were made by the community.
In 1943, officially retired, Lilian returned to London to help out at Freedom which was then operating from a large flat in Belsize Road. Here she worked and lived for a while until forced to leave after the arrest of three comrades. That was in 1945. The next 22 years saw a further two moves for Freedom which finally settled in 1967 at their present address in Whitechapel, East London.
Throughout these many years, Lilian continued her work for Freedom, and it was only a few years ago that she finally left. However, it was certainly not for losing faith in the cause; she is still very much concerned about finding ways of making this planet a better place and has every sympathy for young people who, she says, “realize what a rotten world we live in and try to do something about it n their own way”.
Lilian has always been a pacifist as well as an anarchist and a war resister. Naturally enough, some of the issues which she finds of most concern today are those of the oppressed peoples and nations, the solution to whose problems she feels will be found by way of a non-violent approach only.
At home, the more controversial issues which she feels most strongly about are Radical Alternatives to Prison and the Common Market (entry into which she is very much against).
Pacifist or not, there is one thing above all else which Lilian Wolfe cannot be accused of lacking, and that is fighting spirit. At 96 (and a half) she is still working. Each week she travels from Cheltenham to London to spend one and a half days at the NCCL [National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty] and the same amount of time at War Resisters International, where we interviewed her one Wednesday morning. She is a woman who has devoted her life to her cause, and for this she has won my admiration. All that remains to be said is, RIGHT ON, LILIAN!