One hundred years ago this month, in January, 1920, the League of Nations was officially launched, and the first meeting of the new League’s Council took place on 16th January. There have been times in history when the global has very much influenced the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.
The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War.
President Wilson said he looked forward to a ‘new world’ of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the new League of Nations and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.
In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to recent research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.
In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer. Thus, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’.
This comment received a round of applause from the audience. Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.
Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.
Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons). Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.
The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the local Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’. According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU.
Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.
It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.
The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period is, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of its supporters during the 1920s – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939.
Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)
Note: This is an updated version of a blog that was first published here on 8th November, 2017