The birth of Peace House

IssueOctober - November 2023
5 Caledonian Road, around 1960. PHOTO: PN
Feature by Rosa Schling

A new book, Peace! Books! Freedom!, brings together generations of campaigners and activists to share memories of 5 Caledonian Road in Central London, the base for Peace News and its sister project, Housmans Bookshop. It is a little-known history of sedition, resistance, solidarity, and the ongoing struggle for justice and liberation.

When 5 Cally Road opened in 1959 as a home for Peace News and Housmans Bookshop, Peace News was already two decades old. It began printing in 1936 as a weekly newspaper, aiming to serve ‘all who work for peace’. Housmans had first opened in 1945 in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London. Both were projects of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union (PPU), and the bookshop was inspired by PPU sponsor, writer, illustrator and activist Laurence Housman, who also campaigned for women’s suffrage and gay rights.

Housmans closed as a physical shop in 1948, but Harry Mister, who would later be the driving force behind 5 Cally Road, carried it on as a mail order business from the Peace News offices. Before 5 Cally Road opened, Peace News and Housmans shared crowded rented offices above a shop in Finsbury Park, north London.

The Aldermaston march in 1958 inspired those involved to find a more sustainable home. In 1958, the Peace News office was also being used by the newly formed Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), an informal group of individuals with a shared background in pacifism.

Peace! Books! Freedom!

The DAC were organising a four-day march from London to the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston, and the idea had caught on in a big way. Michael Randle, an active member, remembered the months in the run-up to Easter 1958 as exciting and a little overwhelming:

‘It was quite worrying in a sense because it took off in such a big way. Whereas we had [previously] organised on quite a small scale, suddenly there were people volunteering from all over the place and setting up groups to try and further this.… And the people working for Peace News were getting quite impatient, they could never get on the [phone] line, because it was always blocked by the enquiries about Aldermaston. So, [the editor] Hugh Brock had to arrange for a separate phone line to be installed so that Peace News would be able to use their own phone line.’

An artist called Gerald Holtom got in touch, offering to design a symbol for the march, as Michael Randle explained:

‘He came up to the Peace News office in Finsbury Park and produced a set of sketches, which he explained as the symbol representing the semaphore signal for N and D and drew a circle round it. And that is now the famous nuclear disarmament symbol.… It was an odd symbol to begin with, but… once we started producing our leaflets, it caught on like wildfire.’

Many people and organisations contributed to organising the march: the New Left’s Partisan Coffee House in Soho helped distribute publicity, jazz musicians volunteered to play along the route, film-makers got together to record the day and the London Co-operative Society made sandwiches and hot drinks to keep the marchers going. Offers of accommodation for the marchers poured in from churches, Quaker meeting houses and people who lived along the route.

Several thousand people made the march from London to Aldermaston in 1958. The event marked the beginning of a broad-based campaign for nuclear disarmament.

The building opens

Exciting as it was, the experience of organising the march while running a paper had ‘stretched the [Peace News] offices far beyond breaking point’, as Harry Mister later wrote.

Luckily, Peace News received a timely letter from a young curate from East Yorkshire, Tom Willis, who had recently inherited a large sum of money from a relative [see opposite page]. Set to become a priest working in deprived areas, he wanted to give his inheritance away to a pacifist group. (He had developed pacifist beliefs during his period of National Service in the army.)

For several years, Harry Mister, who worked as the manager of Peace News and Housmans Bookshop, had been trying to set up a ‘movement centre’. Tom Willis’s offer came at the perfect time. As Harry Mister explained, when interviewed in 2005, he jumped at the chance:

‘I had been yearning for years to get to central London and get a proper bookshop going, so I gave him a very full set up of starting a Peace Centre near Central London and getting offices for our organizations and the bookshop… in the end he coughed up £5,000, a vast amount in those days and I went hunting for premises and found this shop in the Cally Road which again cost us about £5,000.’

The donation was supposed to remain anonymous, but news leaked out. Tom Willis’s family found out and were not pleased to hear he’d given his inheritance away to pacifists. Ann Willis, who married him after the donation had been made, remembers her mother joking ‘at least you went where money had been.’

The building was narrow and terraced but was extended in the back, giving plenty of space to work in. Nearly 100 years old, it had been a post office in Victorian times. Its most recent occupants were a catering company, which had left equipment and a refrigerator room in the basement. It needed renovating and young volunteers from the Pacifist Youth Action Group were enlisted to help. Harry Mister recalled:

‘We had a marvellous new action group on Blackstock Road who then moved in and literally lived at Cally Road for three months and they did all the donkey work of converting the place. We had so many marvellous workers, an architect who designed Letchworth Garden City came and did the architectural work for us.’

One of these workers was Ian Dixon, who had recently hitchhiked to India to learn about the Gandhian movement. He was still ‘conditioned to wearing leather … sandals. I couldn’t wear shoes. And I couldn’t begin to think of fitting into a conventional job.’

Instead, he got to work clearing the basement of 5 Cally Road, where he could happily remain in his sandals. He remembered feeling:

‘really astonished that somebody had given us a building, I mean, I could hardly believe that.… And it meant we could rent out the rooms we didn’t need to use, get an income, and cross-subsidise our projects, Peace News and Housmans. And that’s the way it operated for years.’

On 21 November 1959, Housmans Bookshop and ‘the new Peace News premises in King’s Cross, London’ were officially opened. Dora Dawtry, the volunteer bookshop manager, turned the key for the cameras. She was watched by Harry Mister, veteran pacifist Sybil Morrison, Peace News editor Hugh Brock, its chair Vera Brittain and Tom Willis, there to witness what his money had bought.

‘Peace News’ was written in large letters across the centre of the building, while on the ground floor, the Housmans shopfront invited people to enter.

Inside, each room was named after a recently deceased pacifist (all white men): George Lansbury, Reginald Reynolds, Alexander Wilson, Runham Brown, Corder Catchpool, Alfred Salter, Max Plowman, EE Briscoe, Dick Sheppard, Reverend Henry Carter, Alex Wood.

The families of the rooms’ namesakes were invited to sponsor the rooms to help raise money for renovations. Some of the name plaques still can be found above doors or hidden behind bookshelves in the building.

Topics: PN-related