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Four smartly dressed women with hats stand with a large book on the steps of the White House
Annie Hughes Griffiths holds the Welsh women’s petition for peace at the White House on February 21 1924, alongside (l-r) Gladys Thomas, Mary Ellis and Elined Prys. WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives, Author provided (no reuse)

A century ago, the women of Wales made an audacious appeal for world peace – this is their story

February 11 1924, on board the RMS Cedric: Saw Statue of Liberty glowing in the sunlight. Bitterly cold wind, bright sunshine. At lunch, a press man came to me and said: ‘Mrs Griffiths, I am from the press.’ ‘I have nothing to say,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘we know your story of the Women of Wales movement, we want only your photos – will you come to the top deck when you have finished?’ So [we] trotted up to the top deck first class, where we found four burly photographers awaiting us.

March 12 1924, Los Angeles: A letter was handed to me as I left the station – an anonymous letter, telling us to get out of the United States.

One hundred years ago, Annie Hughes Griffiths travelled from her native Wales to the US, visiting everywhere from New York and Washington DC to San Francisco and Los Angeles. But while the diary of her trip describes some typical tourist must-sees – Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge and Lincoln Memorial – this was no ordinary vacation, and Hughes Griffiths no ordinary tourist.

Smiling woman in a smart dress
‘No ordinary tourist’: Annie Hughes Griffiths. WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives, Author provided (no reuse)

She was part of a delegation of four Welsh women tasked with delivering what the South Wales Gazette described as a “monster petition” – one which reputedly would have stretched for seven miles if its pages of signatures had been placed end to end. The petition was an appeal for global peace, from the women of Wales to the women of America.

This whirlwind US visit was the culmination of a six-month campaign that had seen more than 400 local organisers go door-to-door collecting signatures in towns and villages throughout Wales. In all, they gathered 390,296 signatures – which would be an impressive achievement even today, when the internet and social media connect us instantly with people around the world. But this was 100 years ago, at a time when cars and landline telephones were still objects of curiosity.

Read more: Ganrif yn ôl aeth menywod Cymru ati i apelio’n daer am heddwch byd – dyma eu stori

Hughes Griffiths and her fellow peace missionaries (all of whom paid for the trip themselves) presented their petition to America’s leading women’s organisations and later met the US president, Calvin Coolidge, inside the White House. But while many welcomed these pioneering women from across the Atlantic, others – including the anonymous letter writer Hughes Griffiths describes in her diary – were deeply opposed to the idea of the US taking a lead role in international initiatives, even those aimed at preventing war.

Despite the publicity the petition achieved on both sides of the Atlantic at the time – and the creation of lasting institutional and personal networks between Welsh and American peace campaigners – the story of this extraordinary effort has long since faded from our collective memory. It does not appear in history books even in Wales, and nor is it taught in schools.

Illustration of a steamship leaving port with many people waving
Illustration of RMS Cedric, which carried the Welsh peace delegation to New York in February 1924. WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives, Author provided (no reuse)

We are the editors of a new book, Yr Apêl-The Appeal, which tells this forgotten history, thanks to painstaking research by the book’s contributors who combed through the diaries and letters of those women (and some men) who were the driving force behind the peace petition, as well as newspaper accounts and public records from the 1920s.

There were differences between the many thousands of Welsh women who signed the petition: language, religion, political affiliations, and socio-economic circumstances. But these differences were unimportant in comparison to what united them: the dream of a world without war.

Planning the petition

The association of women with the cause of peace was nothing new. It had been the cornerstone of the pre-first world war international women’s peace movement that explicitly linked peace with the expansion of civic rights to women – especially, but not exclusively, the right to vote. The logic was that if women were able to play a larger role in public life and in political decisions, there might be more attention devoted to peaceful means of resolving disputes.

Some 40,000 soldiers from Wales had died in the first world war, while many of their 230,000 compatriots who also fought had returned with life-changing physical injuries and “shell shock” (post-traumatic stress disorder). The war’s devastating effects on Welsh families and communities instilled a widespread determination that such a conflict should never again be permitted.

For some, the answer lay in a personal commitment to pacifism. Others looked to political parties: the Labour party in Wales experienced a surge of support that nearly doubled the number of MPs it sent to Parliament between 1918 and 1922, including several anti-war activists.

At the same time, there was recognition of the pressing need for some kind of institutional means of resolving international disputes – where nations could be brought together to settle their differences by discussions held around a negotiating table, rather than battles in the trenches. The newly established League of Nations held out the hope of providing the necessary furniture for peace.

Two rows of men in suits posing in front of a painting
Representatives of the newly formed League of Nations after its establishment at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919-20. Wikimedia Commons

Created by the Treaty of Versailles that formally brought an end to the first world war, the League of Nations (1920-1946) was envisioned as a practical means of preventing future war. It was greeted with great enthusiasm in Wales, including by David, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, three siblings with personal experience of the horrors of war – David as an officer, Gwendoline and Margaret as volunteer nurses in a French field hospital.

All believed in the league’s potential to transform global politics. And, thanks to the enormous wealth they had inherited from their industrialist grandfather, David Davies of Llandinam, they could provide practical support for efforts to realise that potential. In 1919, they sponsored the world’s first chair in International Politics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Three years later, another donation by David Davies (the younger) secured the long-term future of the Welsh branch of the League of Nations Union – then Britain’s largest and most influential civil society organisation dedicated to peace during the interwar period.

But while this raised awareness and support for the aims of the league within Wales, its global mission needed the active participation of all nations of the world – or it would never advance beyond dreamy rhetoric to give real hope for a more peaceful future. And from the beginning, the governments of some nations were unwilling to join the league – including the most powerful nation of all, the United States.

Collecting signatures

In some instances, three and four visits had been made to the same houses before all the signatures were secured. With very few exceptions, the lady canvassers were very well received. (Local newspaper report, Maesteg – December 1923)

Gwilym Davies, a retired Baptist minister and honorary director of the Welsh League of Nations Union, was a visionary – a man not only committed to the cause of peace, but with a talent for creating novel and engaging ways of bringing the issue to the attention of the wider public.

In 1922, he had suggested that young people in Wales might compose a message of “peace and goodwill”, and use the new technology of radio to broadcast it to their youthful peers around the world. His suggestion was taken up and began an annual practice that continues to this day, now led by the Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Youth).

The following year, on March 7 1923, Davies wrote to Mary Ellis, a fellow peace activist and only the second woman to be appointed as an inspector of schools by the Department of Education for Wales. Davies’ letter contained this deceptively simple-sounding proposal:

Would it be possible for the Women of Wales to approach the Women of America, and tell them frankly of their concern for the future of civilisation?

By May 1923, Davies’ proposal had been formally adopted by the Welsh League of Nations Union, and an executive committee formed immediately. While the goal of achieving world peace could not have been more ambitious, their plan was pragmatic: they would call on women in the US to persuade their leaders to join the League of Nations.

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Every woman in Wales over the age of 18 was to be approached, to have the aims of the appeal explained and to be given the opportunity to support it by adding their signature. As many supporters and advocates as possible would be enlisted to achieve this enormous task – in the many remote, rural areas of Wales as well as its towns and villages.

Yet just two paid organisers, Mary Ellen Pritchard and Ethel Elizabeth Poole, oversaw the entire project throughout the north and south of Wales respectively. Pritchard, widow of the former mayor of Pwllheli, regarded the work as “a calling from God”. Poole, the daughter of a soldier, had a more personal motivation to work for international peace: her brother had been killed in France in 1916 at the age of 26.

Public meetings were held to spread word of the campaign in advance of the door-to-door canvassing. Pritchard and Poole spoke at many of these events, along with Gwilym Davies and Ellis. While the impression given by both journalistic and personal accounts of these meetings suggests they engendered a great deal of enthusiasm, the following local newspaper report of a meeting in Holywell indicates there may have been some lingering animosity towards the campaigning women, as a result of the fight for women’s suffrage:

Mr H.T. Roberts said that at one time he had been much opposed to women’s suffrage, but now he saw how wrong he had been. Here was a question in which the women of Wales had more right to say anything than anyone else.

Each of the thousands of sheets of paper the organisers used to collect individual signatures was printed with the words of the appeal in Welsh or English, so women could read it for themselves before deciding whether to add their signatures – or have it read to them in the case of those who were illiterate. These words included the following plea:

We speak simply as the women of Wales – the daughters of a nation whose glory it has been to cherish no hatred towards any land or people, and whose desire is for the coming on Earth of the reign of fellowship and goodwill. We long for the day when the affairs of nations shall be subject no longer to the verdict of the sword. And we feel that the dawn of the Peace which shall endure would be hastened were it possible for America to take her place in the Council of the League of Nations.

Pages of the peace petition filled with signatures
Pages of the peace petition filled with signatures. WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives, CC BY-SA

The petition’s organisers sometimes walked for miles in the wind and rain to ensure no houses in their area were overlooked. The weather in November 1923, when many of these signatures were collected, was apparently very stormy, and some of the petition sheets show signs of having been wet, in addition to the ink stains and finger marks. As Annie Hughes Griffiths would later explain to her American audience:

There are forms smudged with ink because they were taken from house to house in the rain. There are forms which are not so clear as we should like them to be, but they were handled from door to door, and there are signature forms which the canvassers took out to lonely places, where the signatures were obtained after a walk of a dozen miles.

There is a touching story about two neighbours, both living in considerable poverty, who pooled their limited resources to buy a shared pen and pot of ink, so they would be ready when the petition came to their doors.

Line drawing of a wooden chest
An oak chest was specially designed to hold the signatures. WCIA/Temple of Peace, Author provided (no reuse)

Many of the women who signed had lost loved ones in the first world war. The son of Julia Ann Heywood of Trearddur Bay, Anglesey, had been killed on the Western Front in 1916. The brother of Jennett Bragg of Porthcawl was among 570 men who drowned when the British battleship HMS Goliath sank in the Dardanelles in 1915. Both the sons of Lucy Dickenson of Aberyskir Court, Brecon, were killed within a few weeks of each other in 1918.

By the end of January 1924, the process of canvassing for support was finished: 390,296 signatures had been collected. The thousands of petition sheets carrying all these signatures were carefully placed in an oak chest designed specifically for the purpose. Two copies of the appeal text were written in beautiful calligraphy and placed in binders made of gilded Moroccan leather. One copy was to travel to the US to be presented with the petition sheets, while the other would remain in Wales.

Taking the petition to America

Planning and preparation for the US trip had begun even before the appeal was adopted – led by Mary Ellis, who spent months exchanging letters with leaders of the American women’s peace movement. In December 1923, she set off for New York City as the vanguard for the other members of the Welsh women’s delegation, who were to follow in February.

Smartly dressed woman with hat and muff
American social reformer and suffragist Harriet Burton Laidlaw. Aimé Dupont/Radcliffe Institute via Wikimedia

In New York, Ellis met some of the most famous women in America campaigning for social and political change: Harriet Burton Laidlaw, Ruth Morgan, Carrie Chapman Catt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Each had honed their advocacy skills during the long fight for women’s suffrage, which was (partially) won in 1920 by the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. By 1924, they were directing their efforts to the cause of international peace.

Thanks to the correspondence that Ellis conducted with Gwilym Davies, her impressions of these leading American figures have been preserved. Of her meeting with Catt, she wrote:

It would have done you good to see the wonderful light on Mrs Catt’s face as I told her simply what our little message meant … She was absolutely thrilled with the story of our memorial [petition].

But it was Laidlaw, a formidable organiser with extensive contacts in the American women’s movement, who proved a particularly valuable contact for Ellis. She ensured that dozens of women’s organisations lent their support to the Welsh women’s appeal. It was also Laidlaw who arranged for the Welsh delegation to be received by the US president at the White House – Ellis would later describe Laidlaw as the “fairy godmother” of the appeal.

On February 2, the rest of the Welsh delegation boarded a train at London’s Euston station bound for Liverpool, with well-wishers crowding the platform and congratulatory telegrams arriving from the former prime minister David Lloyd George, among others.

Chosen to lead this delegation was Annie Hughes Griffiths (then typically referred to as Mrs Peter Hughes Griffiths), a charismatic figure and a gifted public speaker who was at ease communicating in both English and Welsh. The chair of the Welsh League of Nations Union and president of its women’s committee, Hughes Griffiths was already well-known in Wales for supporting many aspects of Welsh cultural life, including her work documenting traditional folk songs. She was also well connected in Welsh political circles, thanks in part to her first husband, Thomas Edward Ellis, who had been a Liberal member of parliament.

Alt text
The Welsh peace delegation in Washington (l-r): Elined Prys, Annie Hughes Griffiths, Mary Ellis and Gladys Thomas. WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives, Author provided (no reuse)

The youngest member of the delegation was university-educated Elined Prys, who had done extensive work with refugees in Romania on behalf of the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA) after the war. Also part of this travelling group was Gladys Melhuish Thomas from London –while not part of the official delegation, she joined the trip as a travelling companion for her friend Hughes Griffiths.

Just before leaving for the US, Hughes Griffiths gave an interview to Welsh daily newspaper The Western Mail, describing the Welsh women’s appeal as being one of “great moral force when it is remembered that it is the result of a nation’s voluntary effort”. The petition, she said, represented a new chapter in a long tradition of peace-making history in Wales.

How the women were received

When we reached land, several leaders of American women’s organisations met us carrying bunches of daffodils, whose patches of bright yellow first caught our eyes among the throng on the landing stage. Our hostesses’ amazement was great when they saw Mrs Peter Hughes Griffiths also holding a bunch of daffodils, which had successfully traversed the Atlantic in the cold storage chamber!

After a week crossing the Atlantic, the RMS Cedric – once the world’s biggest ocean liner – docked in New York. Ellis had written to warn Hughes Griffiths and Prys that they would be the focus of attention when they arrived, and that they should expect to be photographed for the American newspapers – “so put on your prettiest and smile when you land!”. In the passages quoted above and below, Prys described the scene at the dock and the welcome that greeted them in a dispatch from America, published in the Western Mail:

The car which met us was ornamented with daffodils. From the moment we entered it, we were whirled away into such a succession of visits and receptions as only American hospitality knows how to shower on its guests.

The Welsh women’s delegation spent a week in New York, networking with American women peace campaigners and attending social events. Hughes Griffiths gave numerous press interviews and speeches – most notably on February 19 1924, when more than 400 women representing over 60 American women’s associations with a combined membership of more than 16 million gathered in the grand ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Manhattan, to witness the opening of the wooden chest and the circulation of the petition sheets for the first time. In this speech, she paid tribute to the many ordinary Welsh women who had lent their names and their support to this unique appeal for peace:

There are signatures of women of 90 years of age and over – [including] one of a woman of 101 – who were very anxious that the memorial should not be sent to America without their names. Our young university women of 18 years old have signed, but there is also many a cross signifying the mark of approval of those women who in their youth were denied the blessing of education. And there are the signatures of the mothers who, in signing, remembered their boys who fell in the war and now sleep quietly in the blood-drenched fields of France – with each signature, many a tear.

The success of the Biltmore Hotel event exceeded all hopes and expectations – as Hughes Griffiths reflected in her diary entry. “It was a truly thrilling gathering and one which, in our wildest flights of imagination, we have never thought of on such a comprehensive scale.” The next day, Ellis wrote about it in a letter to Gwilym Davies:

Mrs G [Hughes Griffiths] made a great speech in every sense of the word … When she read the memorial, Miss Prys and I stood up. I felt absolutely pent up with emotion … The reception by the American women was incredible – they listened to every word and their faces were a study to see. The most wonderful thing is the absolute understanding of our own message and mission.

Woman with a hat fixing the lapel flower of a man in a suit
The delegates met with US president Calvin Coolidge, pictured at the White House with his wife Grace. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

From New York, the delegation went to Washington DC where they were photographed on the steps of the White House and met with President Coolidge. Hughes Griffiths secured from the president a promise that the petition and its specially commissioned oak chest would be given over to the safekeeping of the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national museum, education and research complex. Here it would stay for almost a century, unknown to new generations of Welsh women and men across the Atlantic.

Having accomplished their mission of delivering the appeal to the women of America, the 1924 peace delegation went their separate ways: Ellis to visit American colleges, and Prys to reconnect with friends from her work with the YWCA and the Red Cross in Romania. Hughes Griffiths, accompanied by her friend Gladys Thomas, embarked on a two-month peace tour of the US by train, all the way to California and back – meeting women’s groups, peace campaigners and representatives of Welsh communities, and giving yet more speeches and interviews to the press about the Welsh women’s peace appeal.

It was towards the end of this pan-American tour that Hughes Griffiths was handed an anonymous letter telling her to “get out of the country”. Although she passes over this incident lightly in her diary entry for that day, the episode reveals the strength of American isolationist feeling at the time. While many enthusiastic American supporters of the League of Nations wanted to see the US play a lead role in future efforts to prevent global war, others blamed Europe for dragging their country into war. These feared that US membership of the league would only lead to more costly and deadly international entanglements.

The Welsh delegation and their appeal landed squarely in the middle of these tensions, and the American women who helped Ellis arrange their visit had complicated political waters to navigate. Harriet Laidlaw, for example, was quick to see the publicity value of a direct, women-to-women appeal for peace, yet took care to emphasise the event at the Biltmore Hotel as a general plea for international peace through sisterhood, while playing down the appeal’s association with the League of Nations.

The Welsh women’s voyage to America forged lasting bonds between the Welsh and American women’s peace movements, and inspired the creation of a new US peace organisation, the National Committee for the Cause and Cure of War, which became America’s most influential peace organisation of the 1920s. Carrie Chapman Catt, one of its founders, later described its work as “a way of returning the compliment” to the women of Wales for their efforts towards international peace.

Four smartly dressed women in a row
Carrie Chapman Catt (second left) at the opening session of the National Committee for the Cause and Cure of War in 1931. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

But while many women on both sides of the Atlantic continued to believe in the League of Nations’ potential for peace, the political mood in the US was unfavourable. Progressive causes, including international efforts to promote peace, were increasingly being labelled “subversive” and viewed with suspicion, including by institutions of the US government such as the War Department and the Bureau of Investigation (which later became the FBI).

The US never did join the league, and by the late 1930s the threat to peace posed by Nazi Germany and other Axis powers meant few were sympathetic to the argument that the nations of the world could and would work together to prevent conflict. Although many of the ideas connected with the league were resurrected in the United Nations and associated post-1945 institutions, by then the Welsh women’s appeal had been forgotten by all except those most closely involved in it.

The petition’s rediscovery

One summer day in 2014, a search for examples of Welsh peace activism in the collections of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA, formerly the headquarters of the Welsh League of Nations Union) turned up a discovery beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

In the magnificent library of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff, the WCIA’s then-director, Martin Pollard, withdrew a slender brown spine from between reports of statistical reports about the arms trade in the 1930s. Made of Moroccan leather and apparently never previously recorded as part of the library’s collection, the illuminated gold leaf inscription on the front cover identified it as: “The memorial from Wales signed by 390,296 women in Wales and Monmouthshire, to the women of the United States of America.”

Inside the leather binding was the text of the appeal, written in immaculate calligraphy and expressing the anguish, hopes and dreams of a generation of Welsh women who were uniting in a call for peace. Susie Ventris-Field, who followed Pollard as WCIA director, later recalled:

It was a breathtaking moment – spellbinding, perplexing. A Welsh peacebuilding movement of a scale beyond any in living memory. How could such a story be hidden to history? How was such a record ‘lost’ right here in plain sight? What of the signatures – did they still exist? If so, where? So many questions … how could we discover the story behind it?

A film of the Welsh women’s peace petition and visit to the US, as told by Annie Hughes Griffiths’ diary.

Finding the text of the appeal was only the first step in a long and complex journey of rediscovery that remains ongoing. A cascade of crucial discoveries has kept this research moving forwards, including the realisation that an old photograph showing four women standing on the exterior steps of a building, with one of them holding what appears to be a large, opened book, was in fact the Welsh women’s delegation in Washington DC – the book was the gift copy of the morocco-bound appeal.

After years of collaboration under the guidance of Academi Heddwch Cymru (Wales’s peace institute) between grassroots organisations including Heddwch Nain Mam-gu (Our Grandmothers’ Peace) and national institutions such as the National Library of Wales, the petition is back in Wales. The petition sheets are being catalogued, scanned and uploaded by staff in the National Library of Wales with support from volunteers, and we are getting tantalising glimpses of the discoveries that await us when all the signatures are digitised and available to search online.

14 women posing behind an old wooden chest
Heddwch Nain members with the original oak chest at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, April 2023. National Library of Wales

Already, the thoroughness of the petition organisers and their determination to reach as many women as possible comes through very clearly. Organisers in Caerphilly, for example, even acquired signatures from women in the local isolation hospital.

Once the signatures are transcribed, it will be much easier to cross-reference individual names with the Welsh census and other public records, opening up new avenues of research into the lives of the 390,296 women who believed, in the words of the appeal, that “the future is big with hope if we, as the women of this generation, do our part”.

Inspiring us 100 years later

A century later, we are building up a more holistic picture of the women who played crucial roles in this story – in particular, how they regarded the cause of ending suffering in war as intrinsically linked to ending other forms of suffering, such as human trafficking, and the way so many of them continued to be involved in the search for international institutions and practices to create the right conditions for forging peace.

But perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of the Welsh women’s peace petition was that it was able to bypass the formalities of governments and officials, and speak directly as a “nation’s voluntary effort” (to use Hughes Griffiths’ phrase). This was an attempt to create a more peaceful world that was based on one nation’s women reaching out to another’s. In taking this direct approach, it was the first peace-making effort of its kind.

Women campaigners (plus two men) gathered around a banner for peace
North Wales women’s peace pilgrimage, 1926. British Pathé via WCIA/Temple of Peace Archives

Some might question the value of the Welsh women’s appeal, since the aim of persuading the US to join the League of Nations was never realised. But that, we believe, would be a short-sighted response. Rather, it should surely inspire us to reflect on what we can do to support peacemaking initiatives today.

While packing away the petition in a chest might have inadvertently succeeded in hiding this remarkable testament to peacemaking, the spirit that dared hope for a world without war was not suppressed in Wales. From the peace pilgrimages of the late 1920s to the march on Greenham Common in 1981, to 21st-century initiatives such as the founding of Academi Heddwch and Heddwch ar Waith (Peace Action Wales), the work continues. Retelling this story is part of that work.

A century ago, the appeal called on women “of this generation … to aid in the effort to hand down to the generations which come after us the proud heritage of a warless world”.

That responsibility is now ours.

Jennifer Mathers and Mererid Hopwood will discuss their new book, Yr Apêl-The Appeal, and how the Welsh women’s peace petition can inspire the peacemakers of today at the Hay Festival on Thursday, May 30 2024.

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