Islington and the czar

IssueMarch 2014
Feature by Bruce Kent

Who would have guessed that there was a peaceful connection between Russian czar Nicholas II, who was later assassinated, and the London borough of Islington?

Well, there was. In 1898, Czar Nicholas sent a message to all the major heads of state urging them to come together to discuss ending an arms race ‘which will lead to the very disaster which it is desired to avoid… we must put some limits on these increasing armaments and find means of averting the calamity that threatens the whole world.’

His message got little serious attention. The German kaiser, Wilhelm II, was not interested – though he did send representatives to the Hague when the meeting took place in May 1899. Britain sent as its representative admiral Jacky Fisher, one of the real war horses of the day, whose main interest was in getting more battleships.

Whatever the indifference of so many major countries, the British Peace Society was enthusiastic and sent a message of ‘deep gratitude’ to the czar. Over 300,000 signatures in favour of the czar’s appeal were finally given to the British government by the Liberal peer, earl Aberdeen.

A thousand voices

Where does Islington come into all this? The story is told in what was then a significant local newspaper – The Hornsey and Finsbury Park Journal and North Islington Standard. The paper carried, on 15 April 1899, a thousand-word article about a meeting held on 12 April 1899, in what was then the Congregational New Court chapel (now St Mellitus church) at the top of Fonthill Road.

The chapel itself was a sign of optimism. Built in 1870 at the very edge of what was then London, it seated about 1,300 people. The paper reported that: ‘The church was well filled with peace loving citizens, who gave audible expression to their approval of all that was said’.

The church minister, the reverend G Campbell, said in his introduction that there might be those who doubted the merits of the czar’s proposals, and he hoped they would change their opinions. They evidently did, since a resolution was at the end passed in full support, especially urging that that arbitration should replace war.

The next speaker, a Mr Peirce, made much of the point that killing someone else to settle a dispute was called murder. Why was the same term not applied to war? He had little time for those who agreed with the czar in theory, but were not prepared to do anything about it.

Dr Collins, of the London County Council, said that bravery was not only to be found on battlefields but in hospitals as well. (Hear, hear!) He urged that whoever we sent to the forthcoming conference should have a ‘sincere desire to arrive at some useful result’.

No women were recorded as having spoken (no surprise).

In other parts of Britain, many similar meetings took place – some very large such as the one in Harrogate. All to no avail. There was some progress but none in terms of reducing armaments or obligatory arbitration.

The kaiser said he would support whatever was agreed, to save the czar’s face, but would continue ‘to trust in God and his sharp sword’. We British were by then tied up in South Africa and declined to go to arbitration in that conflict on the grounds that the Boers did not constitute a state.

So a great opportunity was lost and public opinion ignored. The slide continued until a murder in Serbia and a network of treaties drew the countries of Europe into a disastrous war. What if the czar had been taken seriously?

At least Islington did its best!