Lockdown Diary 13 – The Life and Times of Socialists, Pacifists and Anti-War Agitators: J. Allen Skinner (1890-1970) and Phillis Skinner (1874-1950)

For the latest blog we are very excited to have a guest contributor – Dr Ali Ronan!  Ali is very generously sharing her latest research in a fascinating study of two neglected radical activists, both of whom had many links to the area, in particular to Burnage Garden Village and its inhabitants.

I first got to know about socialists Phillis and Allen Skinner when I was researching anti-war women in Manchester during WW1. Both had come to Manchester from London. They lived at 193 Mauldeth Rd in Ladybarn and they will have known many of the other socialists in Burnage Garden Village. Phillis Skinner joined the Central branch of the Independent Labour Party in March 1914. Allen Skinner was the first ILP (Independent Labour Party)man to be arrested under the Military Service Act in late 1916. The Skinners were part of the local No Conscription Fellowship, a group committed to challenging conscription and supporting objectors.  

Phillis had been married before when she lived in London and had been divorced by her first husband optical lens maker, Ernest Watson in 1912, citing her co-habitation with Allen Skinner in Manchester as grounds for divorce. Allen Skinner was a young postman and moved from Camberwell, to work for the GPO in Manchester in 1912. The Skinners married in November 1912 once Phillis’ divorce absolute come through. Allen was 22 and Phillis was 37, although she put 33 on the marriage certificate.  In 1915, Phillis and Allen had a baby Jack, who was born in London. Phillis was 41.

Allen was imprisoned in December 1916 after a court martial at the Prees Heath training camp in Whitchurch and sentenced to 2 years hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.  In the summer 1917, Phillis and her friend Maud Hayes went to Prees Heath to hand out leaflets as part of the Women’s Peace Crusade campaign. The women were planning to walk to London to see Allen Skinner and Maud Hayes’ sweetheart, Edwin Rodway who had been sentenced to 1-year hard labour at the Scrubs in early 1917.  Both women were arrested in Market Drayton later and charged for contravening the Reg 27 of Defence of the Realm Act. Both women were sentenced to 3 months imprisonment in Strangeways.  I am not sure what happened to baby Jack although he was back with Phillis in Manchester by 1918.

It is from this point that Phillis became known to the surveillance service. Allen, Phillis and Maud were released from prison in late 1917 and Allen was admitted to a sanatorium in Manchester with arthritis and TB in his leg and arms. His life hung in the balance for at least a year. The Skinners moved back to London in 1920. There is little trace of them in the archives during the 20s, but they were still politically active, Skinner worked with the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW). He soon became assistant editor of the union’s journal, The Post, and wrote numerous articles for it, some of which came to the attention of Special Branch.  He stood unsuccessfully as the Labour Party candidate for Hendon at the 1924 United Kingdom general election, and for Clapham in 1929.

Allen Skinner

Recently I decided to look up a reference to Phillis in the National Archives KV2/685. I imagined it would only hold material about Phillis’ arrest in 1917, so I was astonished to find over 50 pages of surveillance notes about both Phillis and Allen taken during the 30s and WW2. I was also able to track Allen’s anti- nuclear activism after Phillis’ death in 1950.

I bought a copy of a book written by dancer Joy Carter who was married to Phillis and Allen’s son, the dancer Jack Emerson Skinner (1915-1995) and the book gave some more, albeit brief, biographical and personal details about both Phillis and Allen. There is one blurred photo of Allen in his old age in Joy Carter’s book, but Phillis was almost impossible to trace, and she remains a shadowy figure. Joy Carter described Phillis as ‘diminutive’ and as ‘charitable and kind, [was] very small and ran everywhere, turning up at the most unexpected moments. I was terrified of her!

Some of the comments made by the M15 surveillance in the 1940s enabled me to see Phillis in a more three-dimensional way. In 1940 Special Branch described her as ‘an ardent pacifist, helping her husband in clerical work connected with the Peace Pledge Union and similar pacifist organisations. She is a strong-willed woman who, to a great extent, directs a policy which her husband expounds in his public speeches. Mrs. Skinner is not a public speaker.’ Special Branch also describes the Skinners’ flat in Putney, London, in 1940 as ‘lined with books of reference on war, anti-war and pacifism.

Phillis was interested in the theatre too, and once the Skinners moved back to London in the early 20s, she enrolled 5 year old Jack into the experimental school started by dancer Margaret Morris (1891-1980). Phillis volunteered in the school and this will have brought her and Allen into a wider artistic and bohemian milieu. Jack Skinner went on to dance with the radical and experimental anti-Nazi Ballet Joos based in Dartington Hall in the 30s, touring with them in South America during the late 30s and the early years of WW2.  Jack came back to England in 1942 to attend a Military Tribunal and worked as a conscientious objector at Addenbrooks Hospital under the watchful eye of the pacifist, socialist Dr Alice Roughton (1900-1995).

Alice Roughton

Allen Skinner was a founder member of the No War Movement, founded in 1921, the successor to the No Conscription Fellowship. For the first two years of its existence, it was known as the No More War International Movement then renaming itself as War Resisters International. Chaired by the ILP member and conscientious objector, Fenner Brockway, it asked members to strive for revolutionary socialism but not to take part in any war.  From 1934 Special Branch kept a close eye on Skinner and tracked all his speaking engagements for the No More War Movement. At its peak, the NMWM numbered around 3000 members, many from the Independent Labour Party. The group published two journals: The New World and No More War.

Fenner Brockway – former resident of Burnage Garden Village

Skinner was also involved in the establishment of the Peace Pledge Union in 1932 and in 1933 he became involved in the Meerut Prisoners’ release committee which was also of interest to M15. The Meerut Conspiracy Case was a controversial court case initiated in British India in March 1929. Several trade unionists including three Englishmen, were arrested for organising an Indian railway strike. The committee for their release included the Mancunians Ellen Wilkinson and Harry Pollitt.

Ellen Wilkinson – “Red Ellen”

Skinner was also an active member of the ILP in Poplar and became increasingly prominent in the ILP and also served as secretary of the ILP’s London and Southern Counties division. He supported the ILP’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1931 and remained active in the smaller party. Skinner was also a member of the pacifist Research Bureau whose members also included former COs Harold Bing and Wilfred Wellock. One of the minutes of the Research Bureau, mentions that Skinner will contact an old Manchester contact the Quaker pacifist, Alexander Wilson from Whalley Range, who had established the underground Maintenance Committee during WW1 to support the families of COs.  Phillis had been an active member of this committee in Manchester.

From 1939, Roger Fulford of M15 kept a close eye on the Skinners, instructing the GPO to intercept and open letters.  In September 1940 the Metropolitan Police, in a letter to a Col Allen of the GPO, describe Skinner as ‘ an active pacifist and has come under the notice of Special Branch on a number of occasions. He is a speaker and chairman at Peace Pledge Union (PPU) meetings, he is member of the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors, he is in close touch with several the leading members of the ILP, FoR and the No Conscription League. There is no doubt that he is opposed to the policy of the present Government and neither he nor his wife, hesitate to express their views on pacifism and the British Government.’

Allen Skinner was involved with the Peace Pledge Union from its inception in 1934. In 1938 the PPU opposed legislation for air-raid precautions and in 1939 campaigned against military conscription. By 1941 PPU members Reginald Reynolds and Skinner had ‘started a kind of chain letter arrangement’ to get information to a group in West London who were ‘setting ourselves to seek a way through the problem of fundamental social change without violence.’ A large part of the PPU’s work involved providing for the victims of war. Its members sponsored a house where 64 Basque children, refugees from the Spanish Civil War, were cared for. The PPU also encouraged members and groups to sponsor individual Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to enable them to be received into the United Kingdom.

During World War II, Skinner served as an adviser to the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, and in the early years of the war from 1941, Allen and Phillis often went to stay at a cottage that they had bought to hide conscientious objectors, in Saltash in Cornwall. The police there were watching them, noticing that a quantity of PPU literature was delivered there. The police were also watching their London home in Putney which was used for PPU meetings and mock tribunals for prospective COs.

In 1950, Phillis died in Exeter, perhaps on her way to Saltash? She was 76. And Allen now 60, retired from the UPW. From then he devoted more time to Peace News, including a period as editor from 1952 to 1955. Allen was also increasingly involved in anti-nuclear campaigning, becoming a member in 1957 of Direct Action Committee (DAC) against Nuclear War. The Peace News offices were used as a base for the committee, which originally comprised Hugh Brock (editor of Peace News from 1955), J Allen Skinner and Arlo Tatum (War Resisters’ International). Tatum had moved to London in 1955 to be general secretary of War Resisters’ International. He wrote peace and protest songs, some for the Aldermaston marches.

Aldermaston March

In late 1958, the DAC began a prolonged campaign against the construction of Thor rocket bases in Britain. The most significant of these protests were at North Pickenham, near Swaffham, on 6 and 20 December 1958, and at Harrington, near Rothwell, on 2 January 1960. In 1960 Skinner was sentenced to two months in prison for protesting at Harrington, spending his seventieth birthday there. The DAC continued as an active campaign group until well into 1961, with its last project a major march from London to Holy Loch, culminating in direct action at the Polaris submarine base. However, the cost of organising the march contributed to the DAC’s financial difficulties and led to the decision to disband the Committee in June 1961. The formation in October 1960 of the Committee of 100 was seen by many as taking over the role of the DAC, with its aim of creating a mass civil disobedience movement against nuclear weapons. By this time Skinner seems to disappear largely from activism. Perhaps another spell in prison had been just too much. He died in 1970.

I am working through various archives to build up a much more nuanced picture of the Skinners after they left Manchester in 1920. But I hope I have given you enough material for us all to remember Phillis and Allen Skinner – the forgotten agitators of the twentieth century. I have become very fond of the strong-willed woman and the quiet but determined man.

Tuesday 26th November: The Most Radical Street in Manchester – Dr Katrina Navickas

On the 26th of November we will be hosting a talk by Dr Katrina Navickas (Reader in History from the University of Hertfordshire) on The Most Radical Street in Manchester. Katrina specialises in the study of popular politics and protest in C19 Britain, and this is a fantastic opportunity to hear about her research on Manchester during the period.

We will be meeting as usual at 2.00 at Burnage Library – the meeting is free and open to all!