This work is part of a ‘Gordon Childe’ project, started many years ago in collaboration with the late Peter Gathercole and Bill Peace. It is based on a huge collection of primary and secondary sources collected from libraries and archives in Britain, North America, Europe and Australia. In the course of the research we discovered an enthusiastic band of Childe obsessives, and there has been much sharing of sources and findings among us, and many publications have appeared as a result, including in my case an edited book with Gregory Melleuish and Gathercole, a bibliography with Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Gathercole, dictionary entries, articles and book chapters. From time to time other projects, and life, have got in the way of the Childe project, but it has now reached the stage where I am writing the definitive account of Childe’s political thinking and practice. As I expect to have to revise the arrangement of the material I am not including the footnotes in this draft for the internet.
Oxford, 1914-1917: ‘More outspoken than any other’
Childe arrived in Oxford in September 1914. The town, according to an observer, was ‘a hurly-burly of enthusiastic unauthorized activity’, a microcosm of the ‘vast reorganization’ of British society caused by the government’s decision to declare war on Germany. If Childe were expecting to find a university town dedicated to considered thought and disciplined scholarship he must have wondered how long the upheaval would last. Would it interfere with his studies? He probably never expected that it would reorganize his own life. Three years later, when he left Oxford to return to Australia, his religious and political ideas had changed forever, his activism had developed a sharp anti-authoritarian edge, and MI5 had categorized him as ‘a very dangerous person’.
Kitchener’s famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster, just issued, admonished indecisive patriots from every available wall in Oxford. Recruiting sergeants patrolled the High Street, great military rallies and torchlight processions targeted the townsmen, and on the Balliol Cricket Ground older men, including prominent dons, drilled as the Oxford Volunteer Corps. In Alfred Street, undergraduates, hoping to enlist as officers, waited in a dingy room to present their case. Children played soldiers and nurses, but ‘ladies’ formed emergency committees to relieve the expected economic distress in working class families. In his rooms at Queen’s College, an unsettled Childe might have felt Oxford’s fear as well as its desperate excitement. At night the streets were dark, a rumoured Zeppelin raid having persuaded the local government to impose a blackout. Until military trainees filled them, the colleges were more than half empty even after term began. And as Childe adjusted to his new situation in militaristic Oxford, he might have found another reason to feel dispirited: it was raining.
No comment from Childe at the time has survived, but looking back four years later he wrote that in 1915 he came reluctantly to the conclusion that for him orthodoxy impossible, and he informed the College accordingly. The implication is plain: until then he had accepted wholeheartedly the orthodox view that Britain’s involvement in the war was justified. This is startling in the light of his reputation as a pacifist, and of his failure to provide any account of struggling to reverse his attitude to the war. What does it mean? How far did he go in supporting British militarism?
The Pro-Provost of Queen’s, asked later in the war about Childe’s pacifism, told the Home Office that Childe went a lot further: that in 1914 he had volunteered, and when he was rejected on medical grounds, had decided to drill with a Civilians’ Battalion. We have no direct evidence from Childe to corroborate this, but the records of Queen’s College appear to support the assertion that he drilled with civilians. But did he volunteer and get rejected on medical grounds? In 1917 he said that he feared he would be forced to contribute to ‘the prolongation of this senseless slaughter’ by being conscripted. By this time a revision of the 1916 Military Service Act gave the government the right to re-examine men previously declared medically unfit, so if Childe feared being caught under this provision it would support the idea of his attempted enlistment in 1914. But Childe never referred to this provision. On the other hand Childe did mention that the original act gave the government the right to direct men below the age of 41 into ‘national employment’. Childe imagined himself, having refused such a direction from a military tribunal, emerging ‘from an English gaol – a gaol to which a prolonged stay in this country would probably lead me as I am not yet 41’. The critical phrase here is: ‘a prolonged stay in this country’, because the Act did not apply to men who were ordinarily resident in one of the Dominions or resident in Britain only for the purpose of their education. Childe therefore had two grounds for being excepted from the provisions of the Act – unless at the end of his studies he took up employment in Britain.
Did he try to enlist in 1914? It is at least possible that malicious college gossip invented the story later to harm his standing as a pacifist, or that conventionally minded persons, with little direct knowledge of Childe and limited knowledge of the exceptions under the Act, could not imagine a young man acting in any other way. In fact, sometimes even radical socialists supported the war at first, as the future Communist leader, Clemens Dutt did. In 1916, applying for exemption from military service, he told a military tribunal in Cambridge that he had succumbed to ‘war fever’ and applied for a commission in the army in 1914, but now he had reverted to his true anti-war beliefs. Dutt and his brother Rajani were foundation members of the Communist Party in 1920. Regarding Childe, a friend of Rajani, all we can say for certain is that, on his own admission, during his first term in Oxford he was a supporter of Britain’s part in the war.
This is enough of a challenge to our understanding of Childe: it means we have to acknowledge that his radicalism was conceived not immaculately but passionately, as the result of a mental struggle. We have to imagine an impressionable young colonial at the centre of the empire for the first time, socialising with imperial patriots and encountering jingoism wherever he turned. He wanted to fit in, and the pressure to do so was impossible to ignore. Yet just a few months earlier he had defied the conventions of his class by campaigning for the Labor Party. He had looked at the religious morality of his class and said, ‘no, it is not right’. Now he was in Britain, at the centre of the system that gave power to that class. It was going to take time to find a balance between his principles and his career, and to find out how to be an Australian in the imperial heartland.
In the meantime he was meeting the university’s radicals, and making friends, for ‘despite a minor myth to the contrary’, in Peter Gathercole’s words, Childe was ‘not a recluse’. Moreover, as we shall see, his most enduring friends were as politically minded as he was, even among his professional colleagues. In Queen’s he met Robert Chorley and Philip Taliessen Davies, both members of the Oxford University Fabian Society. Chorley was called to the Bar in 1920, became a legal academic and an office bearer in the Association of University Teachers, before being raised to the Peerage as Baron Chorley in 1945 by the Attlee Labour Government. When Childe was looking for somewhere to live in London in 1921 Chorley arranged for him to take a room at the Bloomsbury House Club where Chorley was living. Childe’s friendship with Davies, known in the family as Tal, was shorter but perhaps more intense. Davies, whose father was a Church of England clergyman in the northern working class town of Oldham, described himself to the Oxford Military Tribunal in March 1916 as an atheist and international socialist. Although it is likely Childe was already heading in the same directions, his friendship with Tal Davies might well have helped, for they were close enough for the College Pro-Provost to assert that Childe had formed a ‘romantic attachment’ to Davies. Tal had a younger sister, Leila, a student at Somerville College, whom Childe met, and he may have visited the family in Oldham, but he seems to have lost touch with them after the war.
Childe also made friends with fellow socialists Raymond Postgate from St John’s College and Rajani Palme Dutt from Balliol. They were very different young men. There is a portrait of Postgate painted a few years later by the Australian painter Stella Bowen that captures his dark handsome features, hair flopping over the forehead. He looks out thoughtfully at the world through small round glasses, pipe resting on a full lower lip, but he has taken care to seem indifferent to what the world thinks of him. He is dressed in a lounge suit and waistcoat, tie and matching handkerchief, but the suit is brown and rumpled, and the tie is red. The date is 1922; by this time he had been a founding member of the British Communist Party and editor of its weekly, The Communist. In 1923, Postgate partly financed the publication of How Labour Governs and wrote a favourable review of it. In later life he was a social historian, author of mystery novels, and the founder of The Good Food Guide. He and Childe often crossed paths, on one much photographed occasion when accompanying his father in law, the Cabinet Minister and future Labour Party leader, George Lansbury, to Childe’s most famous excavation at Skara Brae.
Unlike Postgate who left the Communist Party in 1923, Rajani Palme Dutt remained loyal to the party for the rest of his life. He was the British party’s leading theoretician, the founder and editor of its widely read, Labour Monthly, as well as an officer of the Comintern, or Communist International, the Moscow-based body providing leadership to the world communist movement. Because of his prominence in the Communist movement, there are many formal photographs of Dutt, but in keeping with the convention in revolutionary politics that leaders only have a public identity, there is no ‘candid camera’ record of his private moments. Always centred on his penetrating gaze, these ‘official’ photographs are assertions of intellectual dominance, slightly menacing and controlling. The features are regular and unblemished; the hair parted in the middle; and the lips firmly together. Greatly admired among Communists, Dutt’s reputation was for ‘dispassionate assessment of political situations’, or to put it another way, for his inflexible adherence to the Comintern line. He was seen as distant and cool. But he did have close personal relationships, and one of those was with Gordon Childe. About their term sharing lodgings in Oxford in 1917, Dutt was quite effusive, underlining in his diary that: ‘Living with Childe’s pleasant and constant companionship’ made it ‘without question the best term I have ever had; glorious weather, tennis, punting, bathing, speaking, bridge or interesting work; everything rushed through in high spirits … Lodging with Childe went off perfectly … we did not tire of one another’s company or even found our work really interfered with …’. There is an unofficial photograph of Dutt, and its dates from his time in Oxford or just after. He is in profile. The nose is large, the cheeks soft, the hair full and wavy. This is the brilliant young man whom Postgate and Childe sought out for congenial walks and tea, as well as for interminable discussions of ‘the Communist dialectic’, as one of their friends remembered.
In February 1915 Childe was admitted to membership of the Oxford University Fabian Society (OUFS), a club for Fabians and their sympathisers. The London-based Fabian Society drew its membership mainly from the professional middle classes. Detached from their bourgeois moorings by the example of militancy among the oppressed – workers, women, the Irish – and radicalised by cultural modernity, they could be attracted to socialism if, as Fabians proclaimed, it meant gradual change, administrators permeating the civil service with progressive ideas, and elitist democracy. And so the Fabians prospered. Nationally they were a small bunch, about 2500 all up, but they had a strong following in the universities. There were 500 members of the Fabian-initiated University Socialist Federation in 1915, 200 of them in the OUFS. Fabian policies were moderately reformist – on social and economic matters slightly more radical than those of the Liberal Party. In foreign affairs, however, Fabians were just as imperialistic. When the war broke out the Fabian Society supported Britain’s involvement.
Outside the universities the model for socialist organising was either a doctrinaire band of Marxists, like the British Socialist Party, or a secular religious movement like the Independent Labour Party, which to its credit stood by its pacifist principles and opposed the war. But almost entirely independent of all of them – Marxists, Fabians and ILPers - a rebellious working class was remaking British radicalism. From 1910 a huge strike wave swept over Britain, swamping conservative union leaders and socialist intellectuals alike. As historian Walter Kendall described it, ‘a wild, elemental, pent-up force seemed suddenly let loose, disregarding precedents and agreements, impatient of compromise, shaking the old complacent trade unionism by the ears …’. It revived an almost forgotten radical model of organisation and way of thinking. Worker intellectuals, out of their experiences of work-place militancy and local control, and with the input of a small group of leaders influenced by French syndicalism, began to imagine social reorganisation at a distance from the state, and to theorize a decentralised industrial socialism based on democracy from below.
Some of the younger Fabians in the universities were excited by these developments, both as harbingers of change and as justification for their growing interest in the ideas of Guild Socialism. Since 1907, The New Age, a modernist journal edited by A.R. Orage, had been promoting a return to the medieval guild system to counter the decline of craftsmanship and the loss of self-government by workers in industrial capitalism. At the same time the threat to democracy posed by a powerful state and its bureaucracy was pushing the younger Fabians in more radical directions, especially as the leaders of the labour movement, whose idea of socialism was state-based, seemed unaware of the danger. These Fabian rebels thought that the collectivist socialist tradition of relying on the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens, together with the continuation of capitalist ownership of the largest enterprises, could only lead to an even greater loss of control for workers, to a servile state. With a nod to the idea that guilds should be revived, they proposed to rethink socialism. They would abolish capitalist ownership and the wages system by basing a socialist society on devolved self-government, civil society pluralism, and the vesting of economic resources not in the state but in co-operatively run, industry-based, occupational groups – that is, in a modern version of the medieval guilds. Thus Guild Socialism emerged, most clearly after 1912, in articles in The New Age and in S.G. Hobson’s 1914 book, National Guilds: an Inquiry into the Wage System and a Way Out.
When Childe joined the Oxford University Fabian Society, Guild Socialism was already a source of contention, chiefly because of the activities of G.D.H. Cole. Three years older than Childe and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Douglas Cole was the leading exponent of Guild Socialism in the central Fabian Society. In May, however he resigned from the Fabian Society when at its 1915 Annual General Meeting the members rejected his resolutions to restrict the Society to research so that Fabians would be free to proselytise for trade unionism and Guild Socialism. Meanwhile the OUFS had independently decided to adopt a new constitution proclaiming that the aim of socialists was ‘political and industrial democracy’ through militant and class conscious trade unionism. It was thus inevitable that the Oxford Fabians would secede. In June they set up the Oxford University Socialist Society (OUSS) as a federation of self-governing groups, one of which was to accommodate those members who remained loyal to the traditional state-centred Fabian collectivism. By this time Childe was a full member of the Fabian Society but he did not join the Fabian group, which was anyway quite small because many traditional Fabian students had enlisted in the military.
The dominant group in the OUSS, Cole and his supporters, were opposed to the war, but to avoid being banned by the University, as well as being rent by internal disputes, the OUSS resolved that it was not a pacifist organisation. This had the effect of pushing many of the most committed anti-war socialists, including Childe’s friends Chorley, Postgate, Dutt and Davies, the last of whom was the first secretary of the Society, into debating the issues in other forums such as the Oxford Union. They also used the Society to host visiting speakers with controversial views. In March, at a meeting organised by Oxford’s socialists, they heard Bertrand Russell put the case that Britain was largely responsible for the present war.
This was a dangerous view, as was the defence of a conscientious objection to aiding the war, a position that Russell publicly embraced after the passage of the Military Service Act in February 1916. Although he was a world famous philosopher this was the signal for the press to pillory him and the British Government to harass him. In April 1916 he was convicted under the Defence of the Realm Act and fined 100 pounds for being the author of a leaflet issued by the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) criticizing the severity of punishment inflicted on conscientious objectors. Citing this conviction, his enemies ensured that he lost his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was not deterred; in fact his activism increased. When two of the leaders of the NCF – Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway – were gaoled, he took over their roles. In pamphlets, speeches and articles he attacked the government and argued for negotiations to end the war. Typical of his dedication to the cause was his schedule of 35 speeches in the summer of 1916 in South Wales where there was considerable industrial unrest. This prompted in the Government images of its most feared scenario: a radicalised working class seriously impeding the war effort, or worse, embarking on a revolutionary course, a prospect that seemed distinctly possible after the February 1917 revolution in Russia. The Government therefore banned Russell from speaking in the industrial cities and along the coast, and prevented him from travelling to the United States. When he warned the labour movement in 1918 that American troops in Britain could be used as strike breakers, as they had been used in the United States, he was given a gaol sentence of six months.
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As Timothy Champion has explained, it was not unusual for graduates from British universities to take a further degree from Oxford or Cambridge, and this was also true of graduates from British Empire universities. Childe enrolled in three degrees: a research degree called the B.Litt, the B.A. in classics called Literae Humaniores (‘Greats’), and the Diploma in Archaeology. It might appear as if he was setting himself a heavy program of study, but that turned out not to be the case. After a few weeks he dropped out of classes for the Diploma, perhaps because, as Champion suggests, he found sketching Greek vases pretty mindless. He took his research degree much more seriously. He went on a research trip to Greece in 1915 and by June of the following year his thesis on Indo-European influences on Greek prehistory had been accepted and the B.Litt degree awarded. For the next eighteen months all he had to study for was the B.A. in Greats, a course that he had already completed very successfully at Sydney. So for at least his last 18 months in Oxford he was not academically stretched. He had time for politics, and as Dutt noted in his diary, by November 1916 he became ‘obsessed with his manifold activities’.
As a resident of Australia visiting Britain for educational purposes, Childe was not affected by the Military Service Act of January 1916, but his anti-war friends were. Under the Act single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were automatically enrolled in the military unless they were ministers of religion or a local Military Tribunal had granted them a certificate of exemption on the grounds of being engaged in work for the national interest, ill health, hardship, or conscience. Although some opponents of the war were able to claim exemption because their work was regarded as significant for the national interest – as Cole did because he was an advisor to a trade union whose members might damage the war effort, and it was assumed Cole would advise them against going on strike – nearly all of them had to argue for exemption on the grounds of conscience. This was an ordeal because the Tribunals, drawn from local elites, relied on a narrow definition of conscientious objection. A religious basis was just acceptable to them, but if the applicant declared himself an atheist, or worse a socialist atheist, the Tribunals were decidedly unsympathetic. A successful case before a Tribunal usually resulted only in an exemption from combatant service.
About 16000 men sought exemption as conscientious objectors, most of whom accepted service as non-combatants, but there were about 6000 ‘absolutists’ who refused to make any contribution to the war effort or to recognize military authority. They were imprisoned. When about 40 were sent in May 1916 to France to join the British army, where the penalty for refusing to fight was death by firing squad, Gilbert Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, persuaded Prime Minister Asquith to issue an order that no conscientious objector was to be executed. Like Asquith, Murray was a Liberal, and he supported the war, but he also defended the liberal principle that men should not be compelled to act against their conscience. The army sent the absolutists back to Britain to rejoin their comrades in British gaols, there to suffer the brutality routinely dealt out to ‘shirkers’. At the end of the war 800 ‘absolutists’ had spent more than 2 years in prison, including one of best Childe’s friends.
Conscientious objectors had until the second of March to apply for exemption. On February 23 Postgate applied to the Oxford Tribunal for ‘unconditional exemption’ on moral and political grounds, supported by a letter from Professor Murray. On the same day, Dutt met with Phillip Davies, David Blelloch and Alan Kaye in his room to discuss what to say at the Tribunal, and later that day Childe gave his advice as he and Dutt walked up Headington Hill in the snow. Over the next few weeks the leading anti-war students faced the Tribunal. As they expected, Postgate and Blelloch were deemed ‘ECS’, exemption from combatant service. Postgate, ignoring the order to present himself to the military, was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison, where he refused to obey orders or sign documents. Wanting to get rid of him the prison authorities discovered in his medical history a childhood heart complaint and after a few weeks discharged him on fake medical grounds. Blelloch, who was secretary of the Oxford branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship, chose non-combatant service by joining the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. In later life he worked as an economist for the International Labour Office, where he received letters from Childe in 1921 about the possibility of Childe finding employment there. Meanwhile, in Alan Kaye’s case the Tribunal found that the Military Service Act did not apply to him because his father, Julius Kaufmann, a Liverpool merchant, was German. Nonetheless the state pursued him. A few weeks later he was arrested for distributing a leaflet that the court ruled was prejudicial to recruiting, and sentenced to two months in prison. Childe got to know Kaye better when they both worked in the Labour Research Department in 1917. When Kaye was 24, suffering from suicidal depression, he and his girl friend gassed themselves in a flat in Kilburn.
Rajani Palme Dutt was nearly denied his chance to defy military authority, for at his first hearing in March the members of the Tribunal doubted that the terms of the Act covered Anglo-Indians. Their doubts were reinforced by a suggestion from the Military Representative that the India Office did not want Dutt called up. This may have been because any defiance by Dutt could have emboldened the Indian nationalist movement, many of whose leaders visited the Dutt family home in Cambridge. At a second hearing Dutt had to insist that as a British subject the Act did apply to him, and the Tribunal reluctantly agreed. He was exempted from combatant service only, which meant that as an absolutist he would be well positioned to create mischief in the military. Childe understood his friend’s intention, and gave it an added gloss. Dutt’s refusal to accept ‘the illegal escape’ offered to him demonstrated his moral character. ‘When the sympathizers with the C.O.s are always prepared to cry out at the illegalities of the Tribunals when its against them it is very fine that a man should protest against illegality even when it is in his favor [sic]’.
Childe was writing to Gilbert Murray with whom he carried on a long correspondence about Dutt’s plight, beginning on the day after Dutt presented himself at Cowley Barracks. He was in good spirits. On the previous day, Thursday, according to his diary, he spent ‘the most glorious afternoon in the world’: five hours with Childe on the river and then tea at The Mill. On Friday he picked up Childe in the morning on the way to Cowley Barracks. There they joined a group of C.O.s: ‘fearful heat; atmosphere of high walls, grand whitewash, and stiff soldiers; but the criminals beautifully and defiantly civilian.’ As expected, Dutt was arrested. He refused to eat or put on the uniform and was (in Childe’s words to Murray) ‘vilely treated’. A week later he was transferred to Aldershot, from where several drafts of C.O.s had been sent to France. Childe was alarmed, but Murray reassured him that this practice had ceased. Childe wrote again and Murray took Dutt’s case to the Cabinet. Dutt compromised by ending his hunger strike and wearing khaki, but as he still refused to obey orders on 21 July he was court-martialed and sentenced to 56 days in a civil prison. Becoming ill, he was transferred to a military hospital and placed in a ward for prisoners with venereal diseases, but he saw this as another opportunity, describing the appalling conditions in letters that were used as propaganda by the no-conscription movement. Then unexpectedly on 12 August 1916 the War Office discharged him. Perhaps the Government feared that any further incarceration of Dutt might weaken Indian support for the war or even encourage a nationalist insurrection. His letter of discharge stated ‘This man will be liable to a fine of 100 pounds and two years imprisonment if he is caught trying to enter the Army again.’ As his biographer, John Callaghan, writes, ‘Dutt returned to his studies at Oxford hardened by his experience and more determined than ever.’
That summer Childe and Dutt met up in London to work in the Labour Research Department, formerly the Fabian Research Department but now heavily influenced by guild socialists. Childe also volunteered at the offices of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Back in Oxford, when the October term began, they toured the colleges recruiting for the Socialist Society, of which Childe was the secretary, replacing Philip Davies after he was arrested in April. For the next eight weeks Childe and Dutt were together almost every day. They walked up Boar’s Hill to visit Postgate who was ‘in exile’, studying in lodgings because his college would not take him back until 1917 as punishment for bringing the college into disrepute. They celebrated with Kaye when he was released from prison. They discussed Gilbert Murray’s letters to Childe and wrote amusing pretend letters to members of the Government. And every night Dutt recorded their meetings in his dairy, of which the entry for Thursday November 9 is typical: ‘out with Childe in afternoon and much pleasant philosophy’.
Not long after term began Dutt persuaded Childe and a few others to ‘set up an unofficial group – a group for ourselves’. The group, which met 9 times that term, discussed socialist theory. Since the Socialist Society’s constitution allowed the formation of autonomous self-governing groups, what did this mean? A revolutionary cell in formation, perhaps? Writing in the 1970s, Robin Page Arnot (who had visited Oxford in 1916 as secretary of the University Socialist Federation) recalled Childe as ‘a young Marxist undergraduate’. By Marxist, Arnot – a future foundation member of the Communist Party – probably meant revolutionary – in contrast to the reformism of what Dutt called the ‘poor mechanical Socialist Society’. Nonetheless Dutt became its secretary, replacing Childe in December 1916. Something of the disillusion that propelled their double game may be detected in an entry in Dutt’s diary for March 1917. After a night of drinking and earnest discussion he and Childe decided that ‘England was beyond redemption’. In similar fashion, Childe said on another occasion that he had no respect for the ‘loyal’ British proletariat. In June 1917 Childe was a delegate from the Oxford branch of the Union of Democratic Control to the Leeds Conference that voted to set up soviets in Britain, and in October Dutt was sent down from Oxford for addressing a student meeting on ‘Socialism and the War’, in which he proclaimed that class war followed to its revolutionary conclusion, as in the Russian example, was the surest way to end the present war between the capitalist states. Two colonial outsiders, they were both on a trajectory that would take them to more promising sites for revolutionary agitation in a few years time, Dutt to the Communist International, and Childe to the radical democrats of the Australian labour movement.
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1917: Childe had two more terms in Oxford. His friendship with Dutt continued to be close, and despite looming final exams he remained politically active. In March he and Dutt travelled to Cambridge for a debate on the topic that the class war was fundamental to socialist theory. He delivered an address to the Union of Democratic Control, of which he was President, on ‘Morality versus Nationality’. In April he moved into Dutt’s lodgings in Richmond Road: two bedrooms and a sitting room, all found for 25 shillings a week.
In May 1917 Childe wrote to the Home Office for permission to visit Philip Davies in Dorchester Prison to discuss aspects of his career after the war. Childe had closely followed Davies’ defiance of the military machine, writing to Gilbert Murray for help and issuing a press statement about his sufferings (and those of another absolutist, W.B. Stott). After detailing his prison sentences and pointing out that the sincerity of his motives had been proved by his refusal three times of comparative liberty – that is by taking up non-combatant work - Childe concluded: ‘I should think that the appeal to physical restraint to make a man untrue to his ideals (however wrong) is of the essence of persecution.’ Davies had been court-martialed three times, and there would be a fourth before the war was over. By the time he was freed early in 1919 he had served nearly three years in gaol. He lost his exhibition and never returned to Oxford.
In his letter to the Home Office Childe said that he expected to be leaving Britain at the beginning of July. For some months before this he had been coming to the realization that staying in Britain to pursue a scholarly career would result in his being called up for military service, and, besides, while the war continued it was impossible to carry out his research plans in Central Europe. Naturally he wondered whether he should return to Australia, but there was a hitch. In November 1915 the Australian government, as part of its campaign to boost recruitment, ordered that no male of military age would be issued with a passport to leave the country ‘unless satisfactory reasons were forthcoming’. Childe had read about this but wanted confirmation: would his passport be confiscated if he refused to join the army? In March 1917 he wrote to the Australian High Commissioner in London making it clear that he would not return to Australia if he had to give up his passport, and declaring that he would not help ‘however indirectly, in a war which I believe to be destructive to civilization and true liberty’.
This was a pretty strident statement, and I think Childe felt he could make it because he knew it was unlikely he would have to surrender his passport. The strength of anti-conscription sentiment in Australia would have reassured him that he would be able to leave the country if he so wished. He knew of the defeat of the 1916 referendum to introduce conscription, and the insurgency in the Labor party, which had led to the expulsion of its leader, the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, the NSW Premier, William Holman, and other supporters of conscription. The High Commissioner’s response to his letter has not survived, but it may well have included the assurance that travelling abroad to further one’s career was an appropriate reason for being able to leave the country on a passport.
He was also playing with the idea of becoming a citizen of the United States, and as Gilbert Murray had just returned from a visit there, he sought his advice. But the letter to Murray was again strident rather than conciliatory, and much more declarative than might be expected from a student supplicant writing to his mentor:
My scholarship will be over as soon as I have taken Greats in June & I have no private means. I naturally can take no sort of ‘national employment’ in this country as that would be indirectly to assist in the prolongation of this senseless slaughter and to connive at the complete destruction of liberty and justice and the continued persecution of the finest men I have ever had the honor [sic] of meeting. I cannot well remain deliberately in a country to resist its laws & unless something turns up shall presumably have to return to Australia where there are still some vestiges of freedom. This means finally abandoning all hope of any academic career & the social exil [sic] of a political heretic.
The ‘vestiges of freedom’ in Australia no doubt referred to the defeat of the referendum to introduce conscription in 1916. It seems he was pretty convinced by March 1917 that he could return to Australia without risk
The American option came to nothing. Perhaps Childe changed his mind after discussion with the authorities at Queen’s, for in his next letter to Murray, written after his First in Greats, he was more confident about his academic future. After thanking Murray for his letter of congratulations, he wrote:
I now purpose returning to Australia but I hope only temporarily. I certainly should not do so if I thought it would involve giving up archaeology permanently. The College however have made me certain generous offers of financial assistance at present and in certain eventualities for the future. They consider I believe my chance of getting the Craven when that Fellowship is awarded in the post-war period would be less damaged by the absence of the applicant than if he had recently emerged from an English gaol – a gaol to which a prolonged stay in this country would probably lead me as I am not yet 41. One feels of course fears of being forgotten & it is frightful to be banished to wilds where no one had ever heard of Minyan ware, but it is perhaps the wisest course.
Childe was very proud of his first academic article, dealing with the dating and origins of Minyan ware, that had appeared in 1915.
On June 1, Childe visited Davies in Dorchester prison. The warden overheard their conversation and reported it to the authorities. Childe apparently said that he was disappointed the German submarine blockade was failing because he had hoped the suffering it was causing would force the British government to sue for peace and the British workers to rise in revolt, as in Russia. The warden also reported that Davies was less than impressed with this argument, saying ‘that it seems rotten to have to starve people to end the war’. Does this suggest that Davies was not as committed to revolution as Childe, and hence a reason why Childe did not pursue the friendship with Davies after the war?
Childe’s confidence in the benevolence of the College authorities was misplaced. The warden’s report prompted the Home Office to ask the College for its assessment of Childe. The Pro-Provost, Edward Armstrong, replied that Childe’s case was causing the College a good deal of anxiety. After initially supporting the war, Childe, a brilliant student, had undergone an ‘unfortunate change in his opinions.’ Armstrong continued:
This seems to have been wholly due to a romantic affection for P.T. Davies. Childe is repulsively ugly, probably the ugliest man in the world, and Davies in spite of his cantankerousness and wrong-headedness, has a certain personal attraction. Childe also got to know the Davies family, who all apparently have the same views. The misfortunes of Davies became a monomania with Childe, entering into all his work and spoiling it, and perverting his moral and mental attitude. [He] is priggish and conceited, and would rather pride himself on belonging to a minority. To judge from his letters, his wish is to be ordered to serve in some capacity or other and to be put in prison for refusing.
Our aim is to get him back to Australia … I don’t see any prospect for him in England, as able as he is. I doubt if he is a propagandist in a general way, though he talks freely and foolishly to his friends. … It is difficult to have any pity for these people, but in view of the ruin of a very promising career, it is a tragic case.
The College thought Childe’s career in Britain was over, and the Home Office tried to make sure that it was, drawing the attention of MI5 to Childe because of his apparently pro-German remarks to Davies. Childe, it declared, was ‘thoroughly perverted and probably a very dangerous person’. Although the Home Office noted Armstrong’s doubt about his effectiveness as a propagandist, it was apparently convinced of the need to put him under surveillance by Armstrong’s suggestion that Childe was homosexual. The logic of this is revealed in the use of the term ‘perverted’. Being pro-German was also deviant, but the fault was compounded if the subject’s sexuality was deviant. It became perversion. So MI5 opened a file on Childe and advised their Australian counterparts to do the same. Vindictiveness followed. When Childe applied for an extension of his passport he indicated that he wished to travel via the USA to view collections of antiquities. This request was refused, MI5 noting with relish that he would travel direct to Australia ‘by the long sea route … [and] as he is in favour of the German Submarine campaign the voyage will make him realise what it means’.
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The Pro-Provost thought that Childe became an opponent of the war because of a romantic attachment to Philip Davies, but perhaps he got the order back to front: Childe became a war resister and then discovered a kindred spirit – with ‘a certain personal attraction’: his fellow socialist and Queen’s man, Philip Davies. Reading Armstrong’s letter it is hard to ignore the sense that he had seen something in Childe’s behaviour that led him to focus on the nature of the relationship with Davies. It may have been romantic, but then again it might have been the kind of friendship that blossoms in the warmth of a beleaguered fellowship of brave men and women who were prepared to sacrifice themselves to be true to their ideals. Childe met another Oxford student in 1916, Leila, the elder sister of Philip Davies. Here’s how she felt about that fellowship:
It’s rather absurd but I feel hot with joy when I am reminded that numbers are nothing, and that majorities are less than nothing, and that a handful of excellent people are stronger than the whole rest of the world. It’s great to know what force there is in that few. … The only place fit for decent people of my convictions is prison.
It is certain Childe felt that painful joy. In 1918 he said about his Oxford years: ‘many of my friends were in prison for opposition to militarism and I was inclined to stay in England to join them’.
Another part of Childe’s experience was of a left politics in Oxford that was schismatic, ideological, and conspiratorial, but only because Oxford and the milieu of left intellectualism that it was connected to offered no entry to social movements that could make a difference. It was a political environment that led Dutt to say: ‘Damn Oxford, the Oxford manner, Oxford men, Oxford Dons, … with their meaningless shibboleths, abstract intellectualism, ignorant prejudice, moral dishonesty, pretentious cleverness, assertive self-conceit …’. Childe felt much the same. In such a rarefied world it was easy to nurture a sense of moral superiority as one registered disgust at the ruling class’s betrayal of liberal principles. That sense of betrayal combined with the pain caused by the sufferings of his comrades explains Childe’s resort to heightened rhetoric and sarcasm, and his use of a tone that could be mistaken for priggishness.
In the ironic mode that would mark much of his political writings at this time, in 1917 he sent to Hermes, the magazine of the University of Sydney, a mock ‘appreciation’ of its attack in a previous issue on conscientious objectors:
[The attack] dispersed the doubts and perplexities that the hypocritical whims of so-called Liberalism, and a yet more inconsistent Socialism, had evoked with cant about “rival loyalties”. … Away with cant about the brotherhood of man! Let us admit frankly that no duty to truth, religion or humanity can possibly override the claims of the State. … One last word: never for a moment let yourself think that there may be two sides to any question like this, or that calm consciousness of national virtue that the Briton loves above life itself will be imperilled for ever.
Childe’s idealism and his ‘manifold activities’ left an impression on the collective memory of Oxford socialists. In 1919, when Esmonde Higgins arrived to study at Balliol College he wrote to his mother about joining the Oxford University Socialist Society, and the informal induction he received, including a history of its recent ‘rows’ with government and university authorities, and of its leaders, including a man recently returned to Australia called ‘Childs [sic], of Queens, more outspoken than any other’.
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So, by late June Childe had made up his mind that his only option was to return to Australia. While waiting for a suitable berth, he went to London and volunteered at the Labour Research Department, studying industrial and welfare legislation, continuing work that he had begun in the summer vacation of 1916. At his farewell party in Soho, where there was too little food and too much alcohol, he and his friends toasted the failure of the coming offensive against Germany. Much of this was known to MI5 as a result of a Home Office Warrant for the interception of his mail. On 12 August he sailed on SS Rimutaka, whose captain was instructed by MI5 not allow Childe to leave the ship until it arrived in Australia. He was back in Sydney in October 1917.