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During World War One, the National Council Against Conscription was established in response to the Military Service Bills of 1916, which introduced conscription for men between 18 and 40. The Council opposed conscription as an infringement on civil liberties and campaigned against the bill seeking to stop it passing through Parliament. The Council was one of many groups operating at the time, such as The No-Conscription Fellowship, and these groups monitored the work of the military tribunals and gave advice to the men who appeared before them. The Council changed its name in 1916 to The National Council for Civil Liberties (n.b. there was another organisation with the same name from the early 1930s and which became Liberty, as it is known today).

There was a branch in Aberdeen and William Davidson, a stores porter, Vice President of the Aberdeen Independent Labour Party, was secretary.

References: Conscientious Objectors Register 1914 – 1918 at Imperial War Museum website (record of William Davidson).

Sources: unknown.

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William Leslie was born in Elgin and his father Alexander was a shoemaker. Prior to World War One, from 1908 – 1913, he was a professional footballer playing for Elgin City and Manchester City. He was a carpenter by trade, later becoming an active trade unionist in the Elgin area.

During World War One he was a conscientious objector appearing before a Military Service Tribunal in July 1916. He left Elgin for Glasgow in September 1916, presumably driven out for his anti-militarist views and for not signing up for non-combatant work. He went to Glasgow in 1917, working in John Brown’s shipyard, and it is possible he was then imprisoned for ignoring the decision of the tribunal.

Leslie was a member of the Independent Labour Party, No-Conscription Fellowship, Socialist Labour Party (from September 1918 until September 1919) and then he was one of the founders of the Aberdeen Communist Group in September 1919. He was also actively involved in the ‘Hands of Russia’ campaign in Aberdeen, co-ordinated by Aberdeen Trades Council.

In July 1920 Leslie set off for Moscow, via Finland and Petrograd, as a stowaway and without a passport, to attend the Third Comintern Congress. He declared himself to be a British delegate of the British Communist Party, along with Sylvia Pankhurst. It is not clear though whether he was in fact an ‘official’ delegate, like Pankhurst.

He left to return to Scotland via Norway but was arrested and imprisoned. After a hunger strike, he made it back to Scotland, and in November 1920 spoke to an audience about his adventures at the Aberdeen Picturedrome.

References: Conscientious Objectors Register 1914 – 1918 at Imperial War Museum website, ‘Aberdeen Was More Red Than Glasgow: The Impact of the First World War and the Russian Revolution beyond Red Clydeside’ (William Kenefick, in Scotland and the Slavs: Cultures in Contact: 1500 – 2000 (Mark Cornwall & Murray Frames (eds.), Newtonville, 2001) and Red Scotland: The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left c.1872 – 1932 (William Kenefick, Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

Sources: Letters from Leslie are housed in Moscow in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History.

There was a freethinking society active between 1846 and 1848 and this group called themselves, The Aberdeen Utilitarian Society (named after Utilitarianism developed by the philosophy Jeremy Bentham). The Society issued a manifesto and held a discussion with Free Church minister Rev. George Ogilvie and University of St Andrews Professor of Moral Philosophy William Martin. Members included James Shirrou (Chairman) and Archibald Watson, bookseller, Gallowgate. The discussion was very controversial and the arguments were played out in the secularist periodical The Reasoner and Utilitarian Record (edited by pioneering secularist George Holyoake from 1847 onwards). William Lindsay, bookseller, in his autobiography, recounted that he had attended some of the group’s meetings and viewed the group as the forerunner to the later secularist societies.

Related entries: William Lindsay and Secularist Societies (Aberdeen).

References: Some Notes Personal and Public by William Lindsay (W&W Lindsay, Aberdeen, 1898), The Aberdeen Journal, The Reasoner and Utilitarian Record, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: unknown.

A group was formed in 1837 by followers of the social reformer Robert Owen (1771 – 1858). Owen had been active for 30 years establishing various social reform schemes and associations, such as New Lanark, co-operative communities across Britain and a Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. In 1835 he established an Association of All Classes of All Nations (renamed as the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists in 1839), boldly adopting ‘Socialism or The Rational System of Society’. These associations between 1837 and 1845 had hundreds of branches across the country, composed of individuals involved in the earlier co-operative, free-thinking, trade unionist and republican movements. It is not clear whether there was an ‘official’ branch in Aberdeen, like there were in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1837 an Owenite socialist committee was formed in Aberdeen after a lecture in Concert Court, Broad Street, held by the Owenite Robert Buchanan. A committee was formed with the purpose of keeping the subject of socialism before the attention of the people of Aberdeen. William Lindsay, bookseller, was a member, and in 1841 Lindsay and colleagues invited Robert Owen to Aberdeen and he came in 1842 and lectured in the hall of the Royal Hotel.

Related entries: William Lindsay.

References: Some Notes Personal and Public by William Lindsay (W&W Lindsay, Aberdeen, 1898), The Aberdeen Journal, The Republican, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: Association of All Classes of All Nations papers are held at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

It is not clear whether there was an active group under this name, as the evidence is only in letters written to Richard Carlile’s publication, The Republican, between 1824 and 1826. It is clear though that there were individuals active in Aberdeen, calling themselves freethinkers and republicans.

Carlile (1793 – 1843), a Devon tinsmith, turned journalist and propagandist, was a follower of Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), author of The Rights of Man (1791-1792), one of the founding father of the United States of America, and an honorary citizen of the new French revolutionary state. The followers of Paine were shaped by his ideas of the twin evils of ‘kingcraft’ and ‘priestcraft’. Carlile had established his publication, The Republican, in 1819, following the Peterloo massacre, yet he was soon imprisoned for 3 years for sedition and blasphemy for his publication and for republishing the writings of Paine.

What is clear then is that there were followers of Carlile and readers of his publications. In February 1824, in a letter to The Republican, a William Taylor of Aberdeen, writes that ‘the friends of liberty held a meeting here, on Thursday the 29th ultimo. for the purpose of celebrating the anniversary of the birth day of Thomas Paine’….The individuals who composed it were chiefly from amongst the working classes, and of that description of them, who have taken the liberty to think for themselves, and who have also taken considerable pains in forming a correct opinion as to what would ultimately have a tendency to promote their own happiness, and that of society at large’. Taylor goes on to state the birthday toasts which included Paine, Carlile, the independence of America, the Mechanics’ Institutions and Liberty.

A later letter to The Republican in December 1825, from a George Weir, states that ‘The Friends of Free Discussion in Aberdeen, desire to congratulate you on your liberation from the Dorchester Bastile’. In 1826 another letter of support is written from Aberdeen, by a William Inman from Woodside.

References: The Republican, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: unknown.

There were ‘freethinkers’ in Aberdeen from the 1820s, followers of Richard Carlile and Robert Owen, themselves heirs of Thomas Paine. There was renewed attempts to form a society in Aberdeen in 1855, and a John Fraser of Aberdeen, wrote an article for ‘The London Investigator’, stating that there were plenty of freethinkers in the city, and appealing to form a new society. The high point of the Secularist movement was between the 1850s and 1880s under the leadership of George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh (founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866). There were numerous societies throughout Britain in the 19th century/early 20th century, including in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In Aberdeen a group was active between 1870 and 1878 and it would seem was part of the Scottish Secular Union, which was for a time a Scottish equivalent of the NSS. There was also a society, which was an official branch of the NSS, between 1892 and 1894. A further group is noted as being active between 1899 – 1901. In the society which was active in the 1870s, the officers included, George Middleton (President), Joseph Campbell (Treasurer), James Maitland (Financial Secretary) and Keith Murray (Secretary). The society met every Sunday at Aberdeen Reform House, Guestrow. Also of note is that the radical and freethought journal ‘The National Reformer’ (edited by Charles Bradlaugh), was available in Aberdeen from booksellers, George Middleton at Skene Square. Middleton was a key member of the movement, as a local agent for secularist publications and also because his premises were used as a meeting place.

Related entries: Utilitarian Society (Aberdeen).

References: Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974), Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980), Aberdeen Booksellers of Bygone Days (William Walker, Aberdeen Book-lover 2, 1918), The London Investigator, The National Secular Society Almanack, The Secular Chronicle and The Workers’ Herald (1892)

Sources: unknown.

The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), also called the First International, split into factions and many members (such as the Aberdeen branch) joined other groups. One such group was the republican movement, led in the early 1870s by Charles Bradlaugh (atheist and founder of the National Secular Society), who himself had been a member the IWMA, but had left acrimoniously in 1871.

The republican movement was closely connected to the secularist movement and part of the tradition of radicalism stretching back to Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile and the Chartists. The movement was more than just a simple criticism of the monarchy, but was also a protest against the Established Church, the aristocracy, and their privileged position in the House of Lords. There was an overarching National Republican League and clubs throughout Britain, in Aberdeen (founded in spring 1873), Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow (these has been formed in 1871).

The Aberdeen Club formed from members that left the IWMA and a visit from propagandist John de Morgan to try and set up a branch in spring 1873, would appear to be the prime instigation. The Club met in Littlejohn Street Hall and officers included, W Scott (Secretary).

Related entries: International Working Men’s Association (Aberdeen)

References: Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980), ‘The English Branches of the First International’ in Essays in Labour History (eds. Asa Briggs and John Saville, 1960) and Aberdeen Press and Journal.

Sources: unknown.