Published 25 June 2018, and launched on 27 June at the Quaker Centre Bookshop, Friends House, London. See the live-stream video of the launch on their Facebook page.
What’s this about?
Watch our video, which explains the background to the letters, and how Handheld came to publish them as a book.
Frank and Lucy Sunderland lived in Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, north of London. They were English pacifists and fervent supporters of Labour politics and the Garden City movement, of which Letchworth was the first to be built in the UK. In 1916 Frank was separated from Lucy and their three children when he was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He had given himself up for arrest after refusing to join the army when the British government made military service mandatory for his age group. He was not released from prison until April 1919.
Frank and Lucy wrote to each other for two and half years while Frank was incarcerated at Wandsworth and Bedford prisons. Lucy looked after their three children in Letchworth, and earned enough to keep the family afloat by keeping hens, collecting insurance premiums and taking in sewing.
This unique collection of letters is important as a working-class record of wartime experience. The letters show how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all. The letters give contemporary evidence of events on the Letchworth Home Front: spotting airships, food rationing, hearing the London air-raids, the arrival of ‘Spanish flu’ in 1918, and the sufferings of the European civilian populations immediately after the war. It’s an enthralling book of social history, the British civilian experience of the First World War, British politics, the Garden City movement, feminism and women’s emancipation, adult and workers’ education, Quakerism and pacifism.
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From the Introduction by Kate Macdonald: ‘Letchworth was probably the best community in Britain in which to be a conscientious objector. It is likely that living there, in a community mostly sympathetic to pacifist beliefs, made Lucy’s life much easier than it would have been had she lived elsewhere. Letchworth was the first of the Garden Cities in Britain, ‘a link between the nineteenth century’s search for the improvement of social conditions and the twentieth century’s political hope of “a new collective consciousness” in a new space […] the garden city was meant to be as much a social as a moral experiment, one which not only catered better for the physical needs of society but also promoted “a step forward on the moral, the intellectual and, let us hope, on the spiritual plane”’.
Planning for the Garden Cities began at the very end of the nineteenth century, when Ebenezer Howard and his colleagues, several of them Quakers, set up the Garden City Association, and a Company to issue shares to help fund its development. Letchworth was designed as a model town built on former agricultural land in Hertfordshire, the county due north of London. ‘The main object of the Company will be to attract manufacturers and their workpeople from crowded centres’: many of these manufacturers would later take on war work, a variation from Letchworth’s largely pacifist community. W H Smith had a large printing and bookbinding works there, ‘the greatest centre of the Firm’s activities outside London’. One local inhabitant reported in 1908 that ‘a few years ago it was the fashion to laugh at Letchworth, and to describe the few inhabitants as “cranks”, but a place that has grown from 400 to nearly 6000 inhabitants in a little over three years shows that if the organisers are “cranks” the “cranks” are excellent men of business’.
The Sunderland family participated in the many clubs and societies in Letchworth during the war years, following Independent Labour Party (ILP) politics, organising and participating in adult education classes (the ‘Adult School’, held at the Skittles temperance inn), and supporting the expansion of the Garden City movement, hoping to buy shares in the venture and participate fully as cooperative members. Frank began learning Esperanto while in prison, and Lucy tried to follow Dora’s Esperanto lessons from school; both expecting that this newly created universal language would enable them to travel abroad after the war.
Lucy’s descriptions of her Letchworth social circle show that all the men are COs or in reserved occupations. There is hardly a soldier in the Sunderlands’ extended network of friends, and the letters make no mention of the war wounded or of soldiers’ families, except when Lucy is looking for a house after the war. This sense of enclosure, or separation, indicates the solidity of the network of Quakers and other Christian and politically active friends who supported Lucy during her struggle to maintain a normal life for her children, and to keep their home ready for Frank’s return. The sheer number of public meetings and talks that Lucy attended on the themes of socialism, pacifism and the anti-war movement reflect what a nexus Letchworth was for this strand of activism.’