Saturday, October 1, 2016

"Indecency" in a Brighton Church, 50 years ago

On the 2nd of October 1966 a small group of demonstrators, mostly from London, took part in a direct-action protest against the then Labour Government's support for America in the Vietnam war; several were arrested and charged after a bit of a rammy. The fact that this took place in a church during the Sunday morning service caused particular outrage among those given to outrage on such occasions (although not on the part of the Methodist minister who was officiating at the time). In 2012 the story was summarised on a blog which compared the reaction to it with the arrest of the Pussy Riot protesters in Russia.

                The 2012 article, headed by image of pamphlet Indecency in Church, begins:
 [see comment by "anubis" below for corrections] 
Many years ago (Sunday, October 2, 1966) a group of protesters disrupted a sermon being given by George Brown in the Dorset Gardens Methodist Church.

He and Wilson were in town for the Labour Party Conference. The Vietnam war was on and Wilson was on the side of the Americans.
Eight peace-loving protesters were arrested under section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860. Six were fined £5 and two were jailed for two months.
Though the issues, means and law are different, Pussy Riot have just been found guilty. Sentences are awaited.   [...]  (17 Aug 2012) 

This post drew the attention of one of the actual participants in the 1966 action, who commented:
(anubis 7:47pm Fri 17 Aug 12)
Yes, Roy, I was in the church that morning -- indeed most of the demonstrators came from London and met at our home before we proceeded to the church. George Brown was reading a lesson (not preaching)-- as was Harold Wilson ... it was when Brown started talking about beating weapons into plough shares, that Nick Walter (well known anarchist) shouted out that he was a 'hypocrite and a liar' (Britain was deeply involved in Vietnam, albeit covertly) that the rumpus began.
It was a worthwhile demonstration, highlighting the cant and hypocrisy of religion, in general, Christianity in particular (Wilson was allegedly a devout Methodist), when war is the order of the day.
So many years have passed -- yet tragically little has changed; the world remains in the hands of those who make their millions from the violence they fund. Remember -- the American invaders dropped much more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than was dropped by all powers in World War II -- and everyday, scores of Vietnamese are injured and killed by the unexploded scatter bombs they've left behind. And before it even got hotted up, Eisenhower had said (reported in his memoirs), "we couldn't allow free elections because the communists would win!"
[Further comments & discussion followed, including:-]

… the Methodist church opposed the prosecution of the demonstrators; indeed no less a leading church member than Lord Donald Soper appeared as a witness for the defence, telling the court “the impropriety was not necessarily an evil thing in the presence of the tremendous evil of the napalm bomb and war in the world; describing the accused as indecent was a falsification of the facts”, adding the protestors “had probably done more good than harm”.
 The interchange of comments also addressed the matter of Wilson having reportedly resisted pressure from the Americans to get Britain more involved; "anubis" did not endorse recent attempts at rehabilitating him in this respect. (The argument that things, or politicians, could be worse has never convinced such activists that people should put up with them as they are.)

The story is also told, after a different fashion, by a file in the National Archives, presented thus:
Reference:         DPP 2/4306
Description:        WALTER, Nicholas [Nicolas] and others: affray during a demonstration in Dorset Garden[s] Methodist Church, Brighton against Harold WILSON MP and George BROWN MP. Prosecuted by Brighton Police following advice by DPP
Note:    The naming of a defendant within this catalogue does not imply guilt.
Date:     1966-1967
Held by:               The National Archives, Kew

Notes from the public record
(as accessed some time ago)

Some names may be familiar to radical historians in connection with the Committee of 100, Solidarity, and direct action protests generally in the 1960s. Since they are listed in open sources, there seems little point in disguising them here, especially since publicity was the object of the exercise - for the protest, but accepting the hazard of it getting personal too.

File DPP 2/4306 WALTER, [Nicolas] & others: affray during a demonstration in Dorset Garden[s] Methodist Church, Brighton against Harold WILSON MP and George BROWN MP. Prosecuted by Brighton Police following advice by DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] 1966-1967.

Access: 80-yr.-closure originally (to 2047); "open" 2005 after application for review, but said to be "with govt. dept." 24-3-05; finally seen 13-8-05.

The Accused* listed as: Nicholas Walter [he spelt it without the 'h'] 31; Derek W Russell 23; Heather Russell (c'svnt [Civil Servant]); Bernard R Miles 30; Jim Radford 38; Andy Anderson (Civil Servant) 40; Faith Barron 23; Megan Walsh 22; Susan Abrahams 23.

File ContentsIndexlists, 19 statements totalling 48pp., plus 3 ‘documents’ which are -
  1. Cutting from Daily Mail 28-9-66 p.4: Charles Greville article on Sue Abrahams (Secretary of the C100 at the time) and the Vietnam Action Group: predicts Wilson may be next target for a demo/action; mentions 'London Committee of 100 HQ', in a ('crumbling') house in Finsbury Park; Greville notes that there are definite signs of the phone being tapped, Sue is not just being paranoid - too many wrong numbers, crackles, 'heavy breathing from people who won't say who they are'.
  2. Vietnam Action Bulletin No.2 signed by Jim Radford: says he put ad in Peace News and Freedom asking for volunteers; who were carefully vetted - had to be known, vouched for etc., and reliable; secrecy paramount. Refers to recent action at West End theatres, played down by managements. Wants dramatic happenings, out for publicity (but not sabotage); to embarrass and impede, persuade servicemen, Civil servants to refuse war-related work. No purists, need to focus on issue; no theorists unless ready to act.
  3. 3-10-66 Daily Telegraph, 3 photos [apparently of Megan W.].
There are fairly detailed descriptions on the file of alleged circumstances of each arrest by the officers who made them; handwritten notes with: names, identification, behaviour, words, interview (not all completed); and Charge sheets.

Some of the statements of arrests imply that the arrestees were being saved from a hostile crowd: e.g. (2-10) Sue A being eyed in hostile manner, and told to be quiet; some assistance from congregation in ejecting Derek and Heather R; someone carried away ‘to prevent further disturbance’; crowd gathering outside.

Witness Statements were taken between 3rd and 21st Oct., mostly a couple of pages following similar pattern: details of witness, often description of church layout, what they saw and heard including exact words of protesters (the message got across, no-one in doubt as to what the protest was about), whether they could identify anyone, what they thought of it and others’ reactions – lots of denunciation along the lines of ‘disgusting incidents’ and allegations of causing distress etc. suggesting prompting or leading questions.

Examples, with dates of statements
21-10-66 Choir member: 'arty' type said to have been ‘talking in a strong voice’ [underlined]; heard word 'Hypocrite'; general confusion. Caretaker: one called out after George Brown reading, hustled out of gallery, then immediate outburst when Wilson began: [AA] trying to read from a paper; heard 'Vietnam' and 'Hypocrite'; [Jim R] standing, struggled. Persons escorted out. 15 mins disturbance. 500 present, "many upset and distressed by this riotous conduct"; general uproar.

11-10 Member of congregation: disgusting scenes, distress & upset
9-10 Member of choir: "It struck me that the main theme was 'Vietnam'."
8-10 ... as far as could ascertain, only damage 1 broken glass tumbler, but (allegedly) people upset; also ‘violent’ & ‘unseemly’; women crying, fainting; 95-year-old, elderly, children frightened.

A notable exception to the chorus of disapproval was Dr Newman (statement dated 9-10) who had conducted the service on 2-10 and shared the pulpit with Brown & Wilson. He described the events and said the service continued after the interruption, but in an improvised way, not as planned. When asked (presumably) about identifying protesters he said that he was in a position to identify individuals ‘but as a Christian conscientiously feel that I ought not to do so’. Again presumably in reply to a usual question, he would only make the intrinsically neutral pronouncement (as he had said at the time): ‘I have never witnessed anything comparable’.

Police Interviews:

DI Reg Field interviewed the arrested women individually in Holloway 5-10-66, asking about the ‘more serious aspect’, whether the action was planned (looking at conspiracy?); which of the others they knew, whether each was a member of the Vietnam Action Group (he was told it had no members) etc.  Faith B and Heather R both said they had been invited by post to participate, and didn't keep the letter. They were all ready to talk a bit about why they had done it. Megan Walsh (4-10) said pictures in Daily Telegraph were obviously her.

By contrast the men all made no replies when seen by Field on 10-10-66 in presence of solicitor B Birnberg (see Stuart Christie’s Granny book, he was on that case too) although Jim Radford responded with "I am all ears" when told the DI wanted to ask some questions.


22-10-66 letter from Police HQ Brighton to DPP: they had been asked to seek more evidence on Miles, and whether there was any legislation in the by-laws they could use in the case; they found something but it had no power of arrest attached and max penalty was £5 fine.

DPP advice (25-10 signed Ryland Thomas) to the Chief Constable was that while he thought there was evidence against the accused as individuals, a single joint charge would be more suitable.

Eight appeared in court (Faith B flew to the USA on 8-10-66), Nicolas W defending himself, on 31-10, followed by adjournments to 25/11.

Verdict: Guilty of joint offences; no evidence offered re individual ones. Nicolas W and Jim R got 2 months, other 6 fined £5. All said they were going to appeal, and to ask meaning of 'indecent' [behaviour in church] in the charge; 'riotous' and 'violent' had been deleted from the charge after the defence argued they were ‘wrong in law’.
A brief report appeared in Solidarity vol.4, no.4, November 1966, p.4

See also: - in which Nic Walter's daughter Natasha gives an account of the protest.

The Solidarity group published a 36-page pamphlet on Vietnam in December 1973
* Some of the accused:-
Jim Radford has spoken about the occasion in an interview, and claimed authorship of the pamphlet about it,, published by the Committee of 100: 
28 Jan 2015 - "I did a good pamphlet on this, which was reprinted three times while I was in prison, called. Indecency in Church."
Sue A as Secretary of the Committee of 100 had organised and participated a London-Paris walk against French nuclear tests in the Pacific a couple of months previously.
Andy Anderson was the author of the classic 48-page Solidarity booklet on the Hungarian Revolution of 1966. 

1 comment:

  1. At 88 Jim Radford is still going strong as a campaigner and activist. See Veterans for Peace - Ben Griffin & Jim Radford - No Glory.