Remembering Bristol’s Anti-War Hero

Until recently Walter Ayles was almost a forgotten figure in Bristol. But a new group is reminding the city of a man who opposed the First World War from its jingoistic beginning to its bitter end. COLIN THOMAS explains why the group is campaigning for a blue plaque to honour his memory.

Bristol’s Remembering the Real World War One group came into being in 2014, partly in response to the coalition government’s triumphalist attitude towards the centenary of the First World World War.

Tothill - Ayles picWorking closely with the Bristol Radical History Group, it has organised well-attended public meetings; re-enacted a quayside meeting of the Bristol dockers who voted against the war; screened films about its impact on a Somerset town and the local opposition to it; and has been reminding the city of the one Bristol councillor who opposed the war from its jingoistic beginning to its bitter end.

Walter Henry Ayles was born in Lambeth, south London, on 24 March 1879, one of five children of railway porter Percy Ayles and his wife Elizabeth. At 13 he went to work in a cardboard box factory and later became an apprentice in a railway engineering works. When he was 18, his fellow workers were locked out and, rather than blackleg, gave his notice.

He was unemployed for six months but eventually got work as an engineer in Birmingham, becoming the district secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. In 1904 he joined the Independent Labour Party and was elected as the party’s representative on the Birmingham Board of Guardians.[1]

In 1910 Ayles moved to Bristol with his wife Bertha when he became Bristol ILP’s full time secretary. Both were strong supporters of women’s rights and ensured that Bristol ILP and the Women’s Labour League gave more active support to women’s suffrage.[2]

Elected to Bristol City Council from Easton ward in 1912, he published Bristol’s Next Step in the same year. In it he asked: “How long will it be before the working class electors insist on governing themselves?[3]” and argued for “the definite establishment of the principle that all the common needs, vital to the life of the community, such as trams, gas, water and so on, must not be entrusted to private individuals any longer, but must be placed in the hands of the people themselves. The well being of the community is much too important to be left in any hands other than its own.”[4]

He was elected to the national council of the ILP and wrote the ILP booklet What a Socialist Town Council Should Do. When war was declared in 1914, he became a founder member of the No Conscription Fellowship. At that time the Bristol ILP had some 380 members and at its general meeting in April 1915 the minutes record that the war “has united the great political parties on a common recruiting platform. The Independent Labour Party being the only party which has remained true to its previous convictions and policy.”[5]

The ILP bravely continued to hold open-air meetings – there were anonymous threatening letters and an ILP meeting on 30 June 1915 records that a meeting on the Downs the previous Sunday “had been interrupted by force”.[6] On 9 November 1915 the Bristol City Council passed a resolution giving its “whole hearted support” to the government’s conduct of the war. Only Walter Ayles voted against.

He also spoke out against conscription on the Bristol Trades Council and on 17 April 1916 was arrested for distributing a ‘Repeal the Act’ pamphlet against the Military Service Act and imprisoned for 61 days. No sooner had he been released than he proposed a motion to the city council calling on the government to sue for peace, to “disallow our belief in slaughter … and bring the war to a speedy end by negotiation”.[7] There was no seconder so the motion fell.

Slaughter is no remedy

On 26 June 1916, Ayles was summoned before the Bristol Military Service Tribunal. At first Lieutenant-Colonel Burges, the military representative on the tribunal, began to read Ayles’s appeal but, when he reached the second paragraph, claimed that he hadn’t brought his reading glasses, so Ayles took over: “If I believed in the efficacy of slaughter to remedy evils, I would long ago have advocated the killing of those in England who, year after year, have been responsible for the sweated, the starved and the slummed. I know, however in my heart of hearts that slaughter being wrong, is no remedy.”[8]

Ayles’s protests against the war were printed as four pamphlets by the ILP and include the words: “Because horrible outrages and ghastly crimes have been committed by others, that is no reason why I too should kill and destroy… I can only help to prevent them by a refusal to join in war. Hate cannot be destroyed by hate. It can only be transformed by love.”[9]

Eventually Ayles was ordered to take non-combatant service. When he refused, he was arrested at an anti-conscription rally in Glasgow on 4 November and sent to prison where he became a key figure in the absolutists group that refused to do anything that assisted the war effort.

He was sent to seven different prisons and, when the war ended in 1918, remained in prison. His wife and other ILP members campaigned for his release arguing that “if we are true patriots we will stand by those who have surrendered their physical freedom to secure freedom of soul”.[10]

Ayles attempted to stand for Parliament in the 1918 election but was still in prison then. Finally freed on 8 March 1919 he was selected as the Labour candidate for Bristol North and won the seat in the election of 1923. He became a Quaker, published The Hell of Unemployment in 1921 and, after losing in the 1924 election, won back Bristol North in 1929, holding it until the election of 1931.

He served as the secretary of the No More War Movement from 1931 to ’32 and eventually returned to Parliament in 1945 as MP for Southall, finally moving to the constituency of Hayes and Harlington in 1950. He resigned in 1953 and died in the same year aged 74.

Bristol Remember the Real World War One group contacted the owner of 12 Station Road, Walter and Bertha Ayles’s former home in Bristol and, once he had given permission, began the process of getting a blue plaque attached to the house.

We have been informed that Bristol City Museum no longer makes any contribution to the £500 cost of plaques, but are determined to raise the money in time for its installation next year, ideally on 26 June 2016, the centenary of Ayles’s appearance before the Military Service Tribunal.

A £100 donation from Independent Labour Publications has got us off to a flying start and we would welcome further contributions via the website of the Bristol Radical History Group.


Colin Thomas is a member of the Bristol Radical History Group and the author of Dreaming A City on the history of now war-torn Donetsk, and of The Dragon and the Eagle, an enhanced ebook on Wales and America.

You can read more about the Remembering the Real World War One here.

You can read about the Bristol Radical History Group here.

See also: ‘ILP@120: Mabel Tothill and the Bristol ILP’, by June Hannam.


[2] June Hannam, Bristol Independent Labour Party – Men, Women and the Opposition to War, published by Bristol Radical History Group 2014 p12

[3] Bristol’s Next Step, p11 published by the ILP held at LSE Library

[4] Ibid p4

[5] Q1/2 Bristol Branch ILP Minutes AGM 18 April 1915 held at Bristol University Library

[6] Ibid 30 June 1915

[7] Bristol and the War, 1 July 1916

[8] ‘Why I work for Peace and Refuse to join the Army’, by Walter H. Ayles held in Bristol Reference Library B34833 /M0004866AW

[9] Church, Christ and the War, Thou Shalt Not Kill, Defence before Court Martial, My higher duty to Conscience, Humanity and God,  held in Bristol Record Office 32080/TC8/2/30/31/32/33