War mothers as peace builders

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Over the past four years, the Heritage-Lottery-funded Wales for Peace project, based at the Temple of Peace, has been gathering histories of women’s ‘fervent desire for peace’. These histories tell an extraordinary story of strength, determination and activism borne out of tragedy.”  

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80 years ago this month, Minnie James, a 72-year old woman from Dowlais, Merthyr, opened the new Welsh National Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff. Dubbed in the press ‘Wales’s Most Tragic Mother’, Minnie had been chosen to open the building on behalf of the women of Wales after losing three sons during the First World War. Speaking to the Daily Express after the ceremony, Minnie described it as ‘the most proud and most sad moment of my life. I thought of my sons, and knew they were with me in spirit.’

The Temple’s opening was the culmination of a 20-year-long dream not only for its founder, the wealthy philanthropist Lord David Davies, who had himself served in the trenches, but also for the thousands of women who had lost sons during the First World War. In the words of Lord Davies, ‘It is the mother who suffers most when international law, order and justice are set aside… I want this ceremony to be the focussing point for their fervent desire for peace, and I want the hall to be a permanent symbol of their desire.’ 

Over the past four years, the Heritage-Lottery-funded Wales for Peace project, based at the Temple of Peace, has been gathering histories of women’s ‘fervent desire for peace’. These histories tell an extraordinary story of strength, determination and activism borne out of tragedy. In 1923, 390,296 women from across Wales – some 30% of the female population – signed a Peace Petition calling on America to join the League of Nations; in 1926 2,000 women marched 150 miles from Caernarfonshire to Chester over 5 days as part of a Peace Pilgrimage. In 1932, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom delivered 6 million signatures to the world disarmament conference in Geneva; the following year, the Women’s Cooperative Guild introduced white poppies as ‘as a pledge to Peace that war must not happen again.’ 

Given this rich history of women’s campaigns for peace, it is fitting that Lord Davies placed war mothers at the centre of the Temple of Peace’s opening ceremony. Alongside Minnie were 23 mothers representing regions across the United Kingdom and countries across Europe, the United States and Britain’s Empire. These women were featured prominently in press campaigns but, perhaps given the era, were not invited to write their own speeches. 

Yet these women were not just passive participants: they used the press publicity to tell both their own and their sons’ stories. Taking part in the ceremony was regarded as a great honour: legend has it that Minnie James was buried with the original golden key used to open the Temple. Two decades after the end of WWI, and with WWII looming, the Temple of Peace represented not just a memorial to those who had been lost, but also a symbol of women’s unerring determination for justice and peace.

Emma West shares her research into Minnie James and the Temple of Peace with Huw Edwards in the new documentary, We Will Remember Them, due to be screened on BBC4 at 8pm on Sunday 4 November and 9pm on BBC1 Wales on Monday 5 November. 

During November, the Temple of Peace is hosting an exhibition and programme of events dedicated to the Temple’s 80th anniversary and a century of peace-building in Wales and beyond. On 23 November, the University of Birmingham is co-organising a Being Human Festival event, ‘A New Mecca’, in collaboration with Wales for Peace, the arts organisation Gentle/Radical and the Arts Council of Wales.

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