Following the horrors and destruction of the First World War (1914-1918) many women around the globe became activists in the campaign for arms reduction and for the end of war as a means of settling international disputes. Across Britain a variety of women’s groups came together to organise a peace pilgrimage to London for a mass demonstration in Hyde Park on 19 June 1926. In north Wales, under the leadership of two tireless peace activists, Mrs Gladys Thoday and Mrs Silyn Roberts, a procession of peacemakers travelled for five days through the towns and villages of north Wales to reach Chester. Eventually 28 north Wales’ pilgrims joined the 10,000 women at the Hyde Park demonstration.
World War 1 unleashed unimaginable levels of death and destruction across the whole planet. Millions of people, both military and civilian, were killed or suffered serious injury – estimates for casualties run from 30 million upwards, but the true number will never be known. From Britain alone over 723,000 service personnel were killed in the conflict and over a million more were seriously injured. The war had destroyed the lives of so many young men on the battlefield that by 1921, there were one million more women in Britain than men, aged between 20 and 39. It meant that many women were unable to find partners in life or have children and raise a family. The impact of the war on Britain was devastating both socially and economically.
As early as 1915 there were organisations of women around the world calling for mediation between governments to end the war. By 1919 the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) had become a permanent committee with a headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The League called for international disarmament and an end to economic imperialism, supporting the US /France Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, as the basis for creating a peaceful world order.
The women of Britain were very much involved in these quests for peace, freedom and equality. (Remember, in Britain, it was only in 1918 that all males over the age of 21 finally won the right to vote. And it wasn’t until 1928, and the Equal Franchise Act, that the same rights were applied to women over 21 for the very first time). In light of this struggle to have their voice heard, under the slogan ‘Law not War’, a variety of women’s groups from across Britain came together in 1926 – as wives, widows, mothers, sisters and friends – to organise a huge peace pilgrimage to London.
The women peacemakers of north Wales began their march in May 1926 with a meeting in the village of Penygroes, just south of Caernarfon. As was reported at the time “To the first meeting at Penygroes in South Carnarvonshire on May 27th came five streams of pilgrims winding their many blue flags down the hill-sides, and over 2000 persons were gathered in the little market square from villages far up in the hills.”
The pilgrimage continued across the towns and villages of north Wales for five days until, some 150 miles later, they reached Chester. At the time, a newspaper reported “There were on the main route 15 meetings and 16 processions besides many meetings on side routes…Through the villages the pilgrims in six cars and charabancs went along the Caernarvon Road, and at one place after another they found crowds across the road which insisted on speakers getting out and addressing them from the steps of the local war memorial… Everywhere they were welcomed, everywhere there was interest and enthusiasm, never once was there a single hand raised against the resolution.”
Without modern ‘social media’ to help, it was a great enterprise to spread the news of the pilgrimage to all the remote villages and hamlets of north Wales in the 1920s. They would rely largely on newspapers and post to carry their message. But it all needed effective organisation and for this the north Wales pilgrimage can be thankful for Mrs Mary Gladys Thoday from Llanfairfechan.
Mrs Thoday (nee Sykes) was born in Chester in 1884. She was a botanist having studied at Girton College Cambridge, which had been established as the first Cambridge college to admit women in 1869. In 1910 she married at Wrexham David Thoday, who later became Professor of Botany at Bangor University. Gladys was an intelligent and determined woman of her time and became a tireless activist for the abolition of war. She wrote in 1926 “We realise that the great success of the pilgrimage is due to the many helpers who in every place had done their part because they believe that it is full time that REASON shall take the place of FORCE and arbitration be tried first in every international dispute before there is resort to WAR.”
Among the 28 north Wales pilgrims who finally took part in the peace demonstration in Hyde Park on 19 June 1926 were Mrs Thoday and Mrs Silyn Roberts. These two women addressed the crowd of 10,000 that day in central London – Mrs Roberts spoke in the Welsh language. Following the peace pilgrimage these two women later became the English speaking and Welsh speaking secretaries of the North Wales Women’s Peace Council (NWWPC).
In 1928, under the professional guidance of Mrs Thoday and Mrs Roberts, the voice of women in north Wales was linked to other parts of Britain and the wider international peace movement when the NWWPC became affiliated to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Although the North Wales Women’s Peace March had ended, a Welsh women’s voice had been added to the international call for disarmament and world peace. Their actions played a part in the eventual signing by 62 nations of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an agreement in 1928 which hoped to outlaw war between nations and prevent another World War.