Hidden Histories #11: “I feel guilty for not trying to escape from all of my prison sentences”

Once upon a time there was a young girl whose mother would not let her join brownies for fear it would dilute her posh accent. It was the 1930s in England.

One day at school, the young girl drew the following picture of a 12th century battle in Yorkshire:

By the time the girl was twenty eight years old, she was serving the first of eleven prison sentences. This time she draws her view of F Wing, Holloway Prison in London.

Who am I talking about? I’m going to keep you guessing just a little bit longer…

As a toddler, when peopled asked what her name was she would sometimes cheekily reply with “Little Bundle of Rubbish”. Her brothers nicknamed her “Trunk” and together they nicknamed their parents during World War 2 “The High Command”.

She was and is a prolific artist — as a child she produced endless sketches and paintings and this continues into her adult life, with various exhibitions of her paintings.

She is also a prolific writer, publishing novels and poety. At eight years old she had her first letter published in the local newspaper:

“Dear people,

We have got a cat and she’s got a kitten called Mittens, and I am asking if any of you could adopt her [….]If none of you will have her Mummy may have to drown her, so I hope some one will have her”

Incredibly, she doesn’t appear to be joking. According to her memoirs, this particular cat was successfully adopted “unlike many of our other less fortunate kittens who went to an untimely, watery grave”.

At school she was often getting into trouble, and was eventually excluded. Here’s her French exercise book

It starts off with les prépositions before ascending into limericks and diary entities full of little stories of her daily life at school. Here’s an “Ode to Willy Nilly” which at least still includes a little bit of French, and a limerick about depression:

Whilst serving her various prison sentences, “Pat” passed the time with a lot of writing. As well as writing the novel Jericho in Holloway Prison, she also produced some poems — you will see along the left hang margin these were written in “Bangkok prison, March 1968”.

If you’ve been paying attention to the pictures you’ll know I’m talking about Pat Arrowsmith, one of the most significant figures in the UK peace movement. Her time spent in the Thai prison above was due to a demonstration she participated in against the Vietnam War. The various prison sentences during her life she served as a political prisoner for the cause of peace.

Whilst in prison, she often went on hunger strike. Here she is drafting a complaint about her treatment during a hunger strike. You can also read in Hansard how her treatment was discussed in the House of Commons

“Mr. Emrys Hughes: “Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this forcible feeding was carried out by means of a rubber tube in Miss Arrowsmith’s mouth and it was down before there was any sign that she was suffering as a result of her hunger strike? Is he aware that there are still in this country suffragettes who recall with horror experience of this kind in prison? Is it not time that he took a definite line to stop this?

Pat Arrowsmith’s first significant involvement in the peace movement started in the late 1950s, where she became a part of the Direct Action Committee; a organisation that took direct against to seek the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Working as field secretary, she helped organise the first March from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire where an Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was (and still is).

Here’s the route of that first March:

Pat kept an extensive logbook of the various pickets held at Aldermaston

The route for the march was swapped the following years as the organisers felt it would be a more powerful message to end the protest at a large gathering in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London. This prompted some quick sign-changes:

Pat Arrowmsith continued to participate in the marches — here she is speaking in Trafalgar Square in 2004. In an interview, when asked what her greatest achievement was, Pat responded:

“Having been organising secretary for the first Aldermaston anti-nuclear bomb march in 1958.

Pat Arrowmsith was also one of the founding members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which continues to this day to advocate the total abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Here is a great video of Pat Arrowsmith heckling James Callaghan, who eventually invites her up to the stage to speak where she demands a withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and self-determination for its people (please ignore the silly comments and silly title, it’s the only video of the footage I could find)

If you’re wondering why an anti nuclear weapons activist is campaigning for “Troops out of Ireland” and other issues that don’t seem directly connected to nuclear war, Pat Arrowsmith explains that it “follows, in my thinking from other positions. It isn’t a separate issue”.

Pat Arrowsmith is pictued on the right here in 2004 holding an international vigil for Vanunu’s emergence from prison

She also worked for Amnesty International, which sponsors prisoners of conscience all over the world and was one of the few people working in the organisation who had herself been sponsored by the organisation as a prisoner. Here she is at work:

She also campaigned on feminist and lesbian issues (she married an anarchist poet for a day in 1979 just to qualify for the inheritance, and then donated some of the money to Sappho and Gay Pride week 79), human rights, animal rights, and the Gulf War. She has a cracking sense of humour and what little writing I’ve read of this massive archive is full of a rebellious, powerful, humble and funny spirit (despite the fact she describes herself as “lazy”, and, when forced to do it in five words, comes up with: “Elderly, short, fat, grey haired”).

How would you like to be remembered?

“As a persistent, but not humourless, peace activist

List of some of Pat Arrowsmith’s prison sentences

  • 1959 — imprisoned for not signing recognizances to keep the peace following a protest in Norfolk against Thor missiles
  • 1960 — imprisoned following a demonstration in Northamptonshire
  • 1961– imprisoned for breaching the peace during anti-Polaris demonstrations at Holy Loch. She spent 10 days on hunger strike and was forcibly fed
  • 1962 — imprisoned for obstructing the highway at Bootle (her appeal was dismissed, and she was imprisoned for not paying the fine)
  • 1964 — imprisoned for a demonstration at the United States Air Force base at Ruislip
  • 1968 — imprisoned in Thailand for taking part in a demonstration against a US air base
  • 1968 — imprisoned following a sit-down protest outside Elliott Automation
  • 1974 — imprisoned for distributing leaflets to British troops in Northern Ireland, which included information on how to avoid serving in Northern Ireland
  • 1977 — imprisoned in Belfast for her involvement in the Campaign Against British Brutality in Ireland. She was imprisoned later that year for refusing to pay a fine for obstructing the highway outside Grunwick film processing plant (she was protesting in support of strikers)
  • 1985 — imprisoned for refusing to pay a fine for criminal damage to fencing at Alconbury USAF base

Further reading

  • Pat Arrowsmith’s archive is held at LSE Library and is available to anyone who would like to see it (you don’t have to be a student). To find out more get in touch library.enquiries@lse.ac.uk
  • A brief timeline of Pat Arrowsmith’s life can be found in the archive catalogue description, where the above list of imprisonments is taken from.
  • Pat Arrowsmith’s archive sits amongst a large collection of 20th century peace activism, including the CND. For a brief summary of the archives available on this theme see the collection highlights page “Peace and Internationalism”.
  • The information about Pat’s childhood comes from her autobiography “I should have been a Hornby Train”. Some of her novels are also available at The Women’s Library at LSE, such as Jericho.
  • Hidden Histories #4 “Grigoris Lambrakis, murdered, 1963” tells the story of another peace activist who joined the Aldermaston marches.

Politics Curator at the Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Sharing "hidden histories" from the archives.