Walter Ayles – the Bristol conscientious objector
Walter Ayles was one of Bristol’s first two Labour MPs. He represented Bristol North for two periods in the 1920s totalling just over three years. Later he was elected again in west London but in an unremarkable Parliamentary career never came close to office under either MacDonald or Attlee. His sole act of fame came much earlier in his political life, as the councillor for Easton. In June 1916, at the height of the First World War when Britain and France were struggling to hold the western front, Councillor Ayles appeared before a tribunal to justify his refusal to enlist or help the war effort in any way. He spent most of the rest of the war in prison. It is for this reason that Ayles, conscientious objector, is being commemorated by a blue plaque on his former home in Ashley Down.
Walter Henry Ayles was born in Lambeth in 1879. His father Percy was a railway porter. At the age of 14 he was an apprentice engineer but in 1897 lost his job as he refused to cover for colleagues on strike. It may have been this experience and the resulting two years unemployment that politicised the young Ayles. By 1906, now in Birmingham, he was working again as an engineer and was district secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He was also a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and had been elected to the Aston Board of Guardians, responsible for overseeing the Poor Law and running the local workhouse. He met his wife Bertha in Birmingham and she was his partner in life long political activism in the Labour, suffrage, peace and temperance movements. In the few published comments on Ayles’s life he is referred to as a socialist, nonconformist, pacifist and a “Rechabite” strict teetotaller. It was Ayles’s absolutist convictions that were to cause him problems during the war and also most likely hobbled what could have been a successful political career.
The Ayles family left Birmingham and via South Wales came to Bristol in 1910 to agitate for the ILP. At this time Bristol, like the rest of the country, was politically dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. However, the Liberals had stood aside in a small number of Parliamentary and local council seats to allow for the election of trade unionists as Labour representatives. Easton ward on Bristol Council was an example where two of the three seats were Liberal and the third held by Labour. As the ward was strongly working class it was a no hope for the Conservatives and seats were usually filled without election. But from 1908 the two parties of the left began to fight each other with honours even until 1912 when Ayles defeated the sitting Liberal councillor FW Stone by 1,151 to 874 votes. The following year, in recognition of his strong credentials with the workforce, Ayles was appointed to the Docks Committee, one of the most important civic bodies.
Councillors were elected for three year terms. Ayles’s anti-war stance would almost certainly have led to defeat (or deselection, as most Labour politicians supported the war) in 1915 but ironically he was preserved in office by emergency legislation that year, suspending annual council elections as so many men, including councillors, were serving in the war.
In August 1914 Britain went to war with the “Central Powers” – Germany, as well as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Ayles’s pacifist stance was to cause him no trouble in the first two years of the war as enlistment was voluntary. Bristol, like most cities, entered the war showing strong support. By 1916 about 18,000 men had volunteered for the front. Thousands more were working in the city to further the war effort, supplying the army with its every day needs such as food, horses, boots, chocolates and cigarettes as well as the barbed wire, shells and mustard gas that have now sunk into common memory of the graphically awful side of trench warfare. In 1915 Lloyd George, in the new post of Minister of Munitions, visited Bristol to push industry leaders to divert production to the war effort.
But by 1916 the rate of attrition on the western front was too high for a volunteer army to retain its strength. The Liberal government had formed a wartime cross party coalition in 1915. The army pressed for conscription but this was a massive step for a Liberal led government. But in January 1916 Prime Minister Asquith, backed by War Secretary Kitchener and Munitions Minister Lloyd George, pushed through the Military Service Act. This required all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 to enlist. By May the exemption for married men was dropped. This was the backdrop to Ayles’s decision to refuse to enlist.
Ayles was actually acting within his legal rights of objection to enlistment. The Act had been hugely controversial inside the Liberal Party. The Bristol East Liberal MP Charles Hobhouse was one of the many original opponents of conscription. He and others were won round by the exemptions provided for in the Act. Over the next two years tens of thousands of men were able to avoid the front by convincing the local tribunals provided for in the Act that their work was already essential to the war effort or that they had unavoidable family commitments. But the Act also had the safeguard of exemption for those who objected to killing on principle, those who became known as conscientious objectors.
Since the outbreak of hostilities Ayles had stepped up his anti-war activities. He became a leading member of the National Council of the No-Conscription Fellowship. In February 1916 Ayles was imprisoned for 61 days after refusing to pay the fine of £100 for his agitation against the Military Service Act. His stance was at odds with most of the leading Labour figures in Bristol including the young docks trade unionist Ernest Bevin and his fellow Labour councillor Frank Sheppard, who had two sons were serving at the front in France.
It was two events in June 1916 that brought his views to more prominence. On 20th June Cllr Ayles introduced a motion to Bristol Council calling on Asquith to “open up negotiations with the Central Powers with a view of bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion and the establishment of an early and a permanent peace.” But the motion was not debated as first all of the Conservative and then all of the Liberal aldermen and councillors walked out of the chamber and no Labour councillor seconded his motion. Undeterred, Ayles published the speech he never made under the ironic headline “Unprecedented Prussianism at the Bristol City Council” citing voices for peace in all the belligerent nations.
Six days later on 26th June 1916 Ayles was back in the Council House on Corn Street, this time to appear before a tribunal in order to plead his case as a conscientious objector. Ayles published his defence in the same broadsheet as his non delivered council speech in “Why I work for peace and refuse to join the army”, which was addressed to his Easton ward constituents. A century later it reads as a masterclass in self-defence.
The tribunal was presided over by Liberal Alderman Swaish and included Colonel Burgess representing the army. By the end of the war the Bristol tribunal had heard 22,000 cases for exemption, granting safety to 5,000. Ayles attempted to turn the tables on the tribunal by cross examining Colonel Burgess on various scenarios where, as a soldier, he would have to follow orders that were manifestly wrong and would result in him shooting people. The tribunal dismissed Ayles’s case as he refused any form of service. Most conscientious objectors took up other activity, such as work in the military field hospitals.
In his published address to the people of Easton Ayles conceded that his actions would inevitably lead to another term of imprisonment. He attacked conscription as an example of “unjust and oppressive laws passed at the dictates of tyrants.” A curious attack on a democratically elected Parliament that he would later seek to join.
Ayles was eventually arrested at an anti-war rally in Glasgow in November. He spent the rest of the war in prison and was released in early 1919. It might be thought now that imprisonment for such a controversial stance would have ruined any chance that Ayles might have wanted to resume his political life. Due to the suspension of elections Ayles was still a councillor but he faced election in 1919. In a three cornered fight in Easton Ayles defeated his main Liberal opponent by 1,726 to 1,326 votes. But by supreme irony his career had been saved by the intervention of the third placed candidate John Luton, an ex-serviceman who secured 499 votes that might otherwise have been cast against Ayles. Indeed, three years later in a straight fight with an independent Ayles was defeated.
That might have been the end of Ayles’s time in politics. But Ayles was clearly a very determined man. Six months later he stood in the 1922 general election in the Liberal held constituency of Bristol North. He was soundly beaten by CHC Guest, who won with 65% of the vote. Henry Guest had served in both the Boer War and the First World War. His younger brother Freddie was also a war hero and a Liberal MP and other family members were also involved in politics. This included eldest brother Ivor who had been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the 1916 Easter Rising when the then Bristol North Liberal MP Augustine Birrell was Chief Secretary for Ireland in the cabinet. But three months later in February 1923 Ayles was able to return to Bristol Council after convincingly winning a by-election in the St Philips ward.
Ayles’s next two Parliamentary contests in Bristol North were also to be against Guest family candidates. The Guest family could not have been more different to Ayles’s humble background. The family were among the richest in the world with their fortune coming from the iron and steel industry in and around Merthyr Tydfil. The Dowlais ironworks had been the largest in the world. They also owned Abercynon Colliery and both my grandfathers worked there from the early 1920s to the 1940s as Guest family employees. Later, the Guests became one of the founders of the industrial combine GKN. Their fabulous fortune propelled the Guests up the social tree and Ivor Guest, father of Henry and Freddie, had married Henrietta Maria Spencer Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and sister of leading Conservative MP Randolph Churchill. His son Winston was thus first cousin to Henry and Freddie. When the Conservative Party advocated protectionism in 1904 the Guests followed Winston into the Liberal Party in defence of free trade.
In the general election of December 1923 the political circumstances had changed from just a year earlier. Prime Minister Baldwin called an election on the issue of tariffs versus free trade. While this reunited the Liberal factions under Asquith and Lloyd George it also meant that there would be no more cases of local Conservatives giving Liberals a free run against Labour. The 1920s would be a brief age of three party politics until the Labour party eclipsed the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives.
In Bristol the Labour Party made its first major breakthrough in the 1923 general election. In the 1918 and 1922 elections three of the city’s five seats were held by Liberals with Bristol Central and Bristol West electing Tories. In 1923 two Walters made gains for Labour. Walter John Baker won Bristol East from the Liberal incumbent Harold Spencer Morris. In Bristol North the votes split three ways with Walter Ayles just emerging on top with 10,422 votes over 8,770 for Henry Guest and 8,643 for the Conservative candidate EW Petter. The Liberal Sir William Beddoe Rees held his seat in Bristol South. Ayles does not seem to have been troubled by his record during the war and even injected some humour into his campaign with a political ditty sung to the tune of “Yes! We have no bananas!”
After almost three years in prison, losing his council seat and then returning to the council Ayles was now an MP and the country had its first Labour government with Ramsay MacDonald heading a minority administration. But Ayles barely had time to establish himself in Parliament when MacDonald called an election after being defeated in the Commons. This time Ayles faced Captain Freddie Guest, intending to avenge his brother’s defeat. While in the rest of the country most seats saw three cornered contests, squeezing out many Liberal MPs, in Bristol North the local Conservative Association decided not to field a candidate. This may have been due to the fame of Freddie as a decorated war veteran, Chief Whip under Lloyd George and as if that wasn’t enough he was also a polo bronze medallist in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. This background and local political deal guaranteed the defeat of Ayles by 17,799 to 12,319 in the general election of 29th October 1924. Ayles was out of Parliament after just ten months membership.
Ayles had to wait five years for his next Parliamentary fight, though he remained on Bristol Council until 1927. In the May 1929 election he was the beneficiary of a split in the Liberal ranks as Lloyd George disowned Freddie Guest and backed the local Liberal candidate JOM Skelton. Ayles was able to win with almost 49% of the vote. Labour were back in power with a minority administration but MacDonald again over-looked Ayles. This is surprising as MacDonald had also been an opponent of the war, losing his Leicester constituency in 1918 for his unpopular stance.
The 1929 Parliament was another short lived one, with an election being called in October 1931 after MacDonald formed a National Government in response to the world economic crisis. Most Labour MPs, including Ayles, disowned MacDonald who was actually expelled from the party that he led. But in the election the country gave overwhelming backing to candidates who supported the National Government. In 409 of the 615 constituencies there were straight fights between the mainly Labour opponents of the National Government and advocates of the National Government who were the Conservatives, most of the Liberal and a minority of Labour MPs who remained loyal to MacDonald.
The result was an overwhelming endorsement of the National Government with 554 MPs. Only 52 Labour MPs opposed to the government led by their former leader MacDonald were returned. Ayles was not among them, this time losing to the Liberal Robert Bernays by a resounding 27,040 to 13,826. Ayles attempted a comeback in the November 1935 election but although Labour support increased it was not enough for him to oust Bernays who won, again in a straight fight, by a majority of 4,828. Robert Bernays served Bristol North until he was killed in an air crash in 1945, just before the end of the Second World War. He was the last Liberal MP in Bristol until I won Bristol West sixty years later.
Having been rejected in Bristol Ayles now moved back to the city of his birth. He was elected to Orpington Council in 1937 but stood down in 1943. Ayles then faced the double tragedy of losing his wife Bertha and then their only son Ronald, who was killed on service in the RAF. This must have been especially heart-breaking for Ayles, given his stance three decades earlier.
In the 1945 general election Ayles stood in Southall, in a part of Ealing that what was expected to be safe for Labour. The 1945 Labour landslide saw Ayles swept back to Parliament after a fourteen year absence with over 37,000 votes, trouncing the Conservative with a majority of 24,057. Prime Minister Clement Attlee did not find a place for Ayles in his government, despite Ayles’s Parliamentary experience. Attlee had himself served in the First World War and had been Deputy PM in Churchill’s war time coalition from 1940. Foreign Secretary Bevin had disagreed with Ayles in Bristol and the Chancellor, Stafford Cripps, would have been aware of Ayles’s instransigence as he had been MP for Bristol East since 1931. So it may be that Ayles lacked political sponsors at the top of the party and was not the leader of any significant faction that Attlee would need to accommodate. He maintained his anti-war stance, speaking against the 1947 National Service Bill, stating that “conscription assumes that the state is God with powers of life and death not only over the minds and bodies but over the souls of its citizens.”
In 1950 Ayles switched to Hayes and Harlington, another safe Labour seat. He was re-elected in the 1951 general election but failing health caused him to resign from Parliament in February 1953. He retired to Inverness and died on 6th July 1953, aged 74.
Walter Ayles was clearly a man with deeply held firm convictions. He was able to articulate them persuasively and engagingly in both his writing and speeches. But his political career as an MP in five Parliaments with just over nine years service was not a success. Perhaps his failure to make an impact on the national stage was partially down to his stances often being at odds with his own Labour colleagues. In the First World War most of the leading Labour and trade union figures in Bristol backed the war. He was clearly what a later Bristol MP Tony Benn would call a signpost, rather than a weather vane. But politicians rarely rise up the ranks without a willingness to compromise or toe the party line.
Both in the First World War and in popular opinion since it is customary to depict conscientious objectors as cowards. Contemporary posters depicted them as limp wristed pansies and white feathers were handed to them in the street. Most “conchies” served in actually quite dangerous roles as stretcher bearers or ambulance men at the front. The absolutists who refused any service ancillary to the war effort were imprisoned and treated harshly with hard labour carried out on minimal diets. Ayles went to prison for his beliefs. I may not agree with his stance but he demonstrates that physical and moral courage does not always require the wearing of military uniform. He deserves his blue plaque.
The blue plaque can be seen at 12 Station Rd, Ashley Down. It was arranged by the Bristol Radical History Group, which has done a lot of good work on some less well known aspects of Bristol’s history. See their site for more
Times Guides to the House of Commons 1931, 1950
Who’s Who in Parliament, ed Carol Bunker, 1946
Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament 1832-1979 ed M Stenton and S Lees, 1981
Notable Bristolians 1931-32
British General Election Results, ed FWS Craig
UK General Elections 1832-2001 by Peter Joyce
At the Port of Bristol vol 2, 1900-14 by WG Neale
Bravo Bristol by Eugene Burton and Clive Burlton, 2014
Bristol in the Great War by Jacqueline Wadsworth
Bristol Central Library collections including Bristol ward lists 1898-1944, campaign materials from 1923 general election and Ayles’s 1916 address to his Easton constituents.