This article was written by Wendy Tibbitts for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
H.N. Brailsford, whose archive is at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, was a journalist and writer who travelled widely, observing and writing about politics, oppression, and injustice. He spent the last five years of his life living in Amersham, with his sister, Mabel Brailsford.
Henry Noel Brailsford was born on Christmas Day 1873, two years before Mabel, and they both had a peripatetic childhood with their Wesleyan Methodist Minister Father who was frequently appointed to new parishes. It was not until Brailsford attended Glasgow University that his intellectual talents began to emerge and he seemed destined for an academic career as a classicist and philosopher. However, in 1897 he felt strongly enough about the plight of Greece to volunteer to fight for them in their war with Turkey. Whilst there he sent back first-hand accounts of the war to the Glasgow Daily Herald and returned from the conflict wounded and with “distaste for excessive patriotism and the brutality of war”. From this developed his dislike of oppression and he became an active campaigner on various issues. Before the first World War he was a member of the Conciliation Committee for Women’s Suffrage, and as a journalist he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of social issues that he felt strongly about. In many ways his thinking was ahead of his time and was thought too radical to be taken seriously. During the first World War he pushed for a negotiated settlement, and wrote A League of Nations in 1917, proposing a democratic federation of Nations who could settle their differences diplomatically. It was well received, and American President, Woodrow Wilson, sent a confidant to London to interview Brailsford and other like-minded people.
In 1918 Brailsford was a member of the Family Endowment Committee which proposed the establishment of a national scheme of payments made directly to Mothers for each of her children. It was not until 28 years later that Family Allowances were introduced. In 1919 he was one of the first journalists to tour war-torn Europe. He lobbied tirelessly for an easement in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, fearing the poverty and wretchedness of the situation in Germany would get out of control. In 1922 he was appointed Editor of the weekly New Leader published by the Independent Labour Party. He enlarged the periodical, introduced illustrations, and employed contributors such as Hugh Dalton, Oswald Moseley, Julian Huxley, E.M. Forster and G.B. Shaw as well as a serialising of a book by H.G. Wells.
He made frequent visits to his Mother and Sister who had lived in Amersham since 1923, and in 1930 he had a cottage built at Monks Risborough as his retreat from London. After a seven week tour of India in 1930 where he saw for himself the poverty and anti-British feeling he became an executive member of the India League which was committed to total independence.
Although 65 at the start of the second World War he volunteered for several war jobs, but was rejected because of his age. He decided that he could help win the war by writing and keeping alive “the permanent values of civilisation”. At this time he was unofficial assistant editor at the New Statesman, and at the same time he was broadcasting talks on BBC radio. By 1940 his American articles in the New Republic were urging for American entry into the war. In May 1941 the Ministry of Information authorised his passage to New York and Washington as a New Statesman correspondent, and also to lobby informally for American Intervention. In Mabel Brailsford’s diary for September 1941 she describes his route home from America “He came in a convoy in a Dutch ship and took 3 weeks. He joined it at N.Y. and sailed alone to Halifax where the convoy was formed in parallel lines, 12 ships in a row, escorted by destroyers. They skirted Iceland in bitter cold weather and had a day among the icebergs. In the North of Ireland the convoy split up and his ship went on to Liverpool.”
In September 1942, after chairing a conference on India for the Fabian Society in Oxford, he visited Amersham to give a talk on “Gerrard Winstanley: The Light shining in Buckinghamshire” [1609-1676 Leader of the ‘True Levellers’], at the Sunday evening cultural gathering held at the Music Studio in Chestnut Close. His sister says, in her diary, “Noel spoke for about an hour to a most attentive audience and when he had finished there were many interesting questions”. The Nobel-prize winning author, Elias Canetti also recalls meeting H.N. Brailsford in Amersham during the war. He says “He was a very old man when I met him. He was one of those well-informed and thorough journalists. Among his other Balkan interests he had been interested in the Sephardic Jews. Brailsford gaveme an old account of the history of the Turks in Rycent, for no other reason than that I was Sephardic. It was the oldest thing in my library, and probably very valuable.”
By 1952, at the age of 79, his health was failing and his severe angina meant that he could no longer manage the stairs to his flat at 37 Belsize Park Gardens, London NW3 (which now has his Blue Plaque on the wall, ‘Writer, champion of equal and free humanity’) and he moved in with his sister Mabel in her bungalow, Greylands, London Road East. Whilst living in Amersham he continued writing for the New Statesman, recorded talks for the BBC, and worked on his last major work The Levellers and the English Revolution, a historical work about the dissident Puritans during the English Civil War. It was a subject close to his heart after a lifetime as a campaigner against social injustice. Although he spent most of his time in bed, when he wasn’t writing he had the companionship of his sister, Mabel, and their shared interests in music, languages, literature, flowers and animals. He was visited by many old friends and colleagues and several admiring scholars who helped with his research.
On his 84th birthday in 1957, he received tributes from suffragist veterans and from Nehru, Mme Pandit Nehru and other Indian leaders. Michael Foot arranged a testimonial signed by English Socialists. In Michael Foot’s Debts of Honour (1981) he wrote about his hero, H.N. Brailsford, praising his literary accomplishments and said “He contributed something of the purist nobility to Socialist thought and history.” At the end of January 1958 Brailsford suffered a coronary thrombosis and was admitted to Hammersmith Hospital where he died in March from a stroke.
As a journalist Brailsford observed world events at close hand and was acquainted with many international figures of the early 20th Century. His newspaper articles, books, lectures, and radio broadcasts influenced many political leaders, and his role in early twentieth century socialism is still of interest to researchers today.
Many of the facts and quotations in this article were obtained from The Last Dissenter: H.N. Brailsford and his World, by F.M. Leventhal, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985. Other works mentioned are: Foot, Michael, Debts of Honour. Picador, London, 1981, and Canetti, Elias, Party in the Blitz. The Harvill Press, London, 2005, and Mabel Brailsford’s wartime diaries in the Amersham Museum collection.