by Theo Russell
PEACE activists and supporters of Housmans Bookshop gathered at the shop in London’s Kings Cross in July to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of pacifist, socialist, campaigner for women’s suffrage, writer, playwright, and art nouveau illustrator, Laurence Housman, who described himself as “a committed socialist and pacifist”.
Housman was born into a brilliant family – the poet A E Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, was one of his brothers – and until his death in 1959 he was a household name in Britain and famous for his BBC radio broadcasts in the 1940s.
In 1907 Housman was one of the founders of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Women's Social and Political Union, writing, addressing meetings and producing banners for the movement. In 1911 he helped to organise the boycott of the census by the suffragists.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the suffrage movement split; Christabel Pankhurst called on the WSPU to support the war effort and launched the jingoist magazine Britannia in 1915. Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst later founded The Women's Party, which gave out white feathers to all conscientious objectors.
During that war Housman joined the No Conscription Fellowship, and worked closely with Sylvia Pankhurst, who’s East London Federation of the WSPU opposed the war and was expelled from the WSPU in 1914.
The East London Federation later became the Workers' Socialist Federation, and its newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought, was renamed the Workers' Dreadnought.
Housman wrote for the Workers' Dreadnought, and in 1916 he visited the United States to lobby for the creation of a League of Nations.
The Workers' Socialist Federation supported the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and the October Revolution of 1917, backing the "Hands off Russia" campaign, and was the first party in Britain to affiliate to the Third International.
Although Housman’s thinking was averse to the idea of political parties, he was close to the Independent Labour Party, which also took an anti-war position in the First World War.
He was also an anti-colonialist and a friend of Mahatma Ghandi, and denounced the Versailles Treaty’s vindictive punishment of Germany.
In 1922 Housman became a Quaker and he was a strong supporter of the Peace Pledge Union created by Dick Sheppard in 1934, and later played a leading role in War Resisters' International.
It was Laurence Housman who suggested the creation of both Housmans Bookshop, which opened in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1945, and Peace News, to which he contributed regularly over many years. In 1959 the shop moved to its current home at five, Caledonian Road near Kings Cross station.