Margaret Thorp (12 June 1892 – 5 May 1978) was a Christian peace activist and socialist. During World War I, she led the organisation of women in Brisbane for the cause of peace and against conscription.

Influenced by her Quaker parents, Thorp was raised in a Christian pacifist tradition which opposed all war. Thorp and her mother were some of the first anti-war voices raised publicly in Brisbane. Speaking at a meeting on the topic of “Christianity and War”, Margaret argued that “Thousands and thousands of lives are being ruthlessly sacrificed… No war could be righteous. War decided who was the strongest, who had the most men, armaments and munitions.” Thorp called for peace based on international arbitration instead. (The Telegraph, 31 Aug 1915, p. 8)

In early November 1915 Thorp gave a lecture in front of the Workers Political Association at the Trades Hall entitled "The Menace of Militarism".  This lecture addressed the antagonism of militarism to true democracy, from a Quakers' perspective (Summy 2006).

Around the same time as Thorp was speaking out against war in Brisbane, the Women’s Peace Army (W.P.A.) was formed in Melbourne at the initiative of radical feminists Vida Goldstein, Cecilia John and Adela Pankhurst. By November 1915, a branch of the W.P.A. was established in Brisbane after a visit from Pankhurst and John. Thorp had already earned a name for herself as a powerful speaker of conviction, and so was elected secretary of the new organisation, alongside Emma Miller and Mabel Lane as Vice Presidents. Thorp and other members of the W.P.A. believed that women were instinctive nurturers who would counter men’s aggression and had a role to play as advocates of peace.  

The W.P.A. was a radical organisation, determined not only to end World War I but all future wars. With that aim, it called for peace without annexations of territory, based on democratic rights for men and women, and for questions of war and peace to be decided by consultation of the people. Furthermore, its rejection of war extended into a critique of the capitalist system as having led to the cataclysm. In an appeal for members, Thorp outlined the program of the W.P.A. in a letter to the Daily Standard newspaper:

So long as the control of the world’s resources are in the hands of a few persons, and so long as the workers are deprived of the value of the wealth they create, the vast stores of capital which accumulate will create conflicts between those who control them… therefore it is part of our propaganda to encourage workers to so organise society that the world’s production can be carried on for the happiness of the people. (30 Mar 1916, p. 8)

After becoming leader of the W.P.A. Thorp addressed many women’s organisations to call for peace, such as the National Council of Women and the Young Women’s Christian Association. However, she found the warmest reception in the ranks of the labour movement, particularly in 1916 as agitation mounted to prevent conscription for overseas service.

In September 1916, Thorp and Miller from the W.P.A. were elected leaders of the official Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee’s Women’s Auxiliary. This formalised their alliance with the labour movement; a recognition of the Peace Army’s important efforts. In this capacity, members of the Peace Army spoke alongside unionists and members of the Queensland Labor government on platforms across the state during the lead up to the first plebiscite on conscription on 28 October 1916. At the most significant demonstration on October 4, ten thousand workers struck for the day to protest the implementation of conscription.  Thorp was hailed as the movement’s “peace angel” in The Worker.

Thorp was not only a fiery speaker but willing to brave hostile audiences who favoured conscription. During both plebiscite campaigns in 1916 and 1917, Thorp and other members of the W.P.A. would attend meetings of “loyalist,” pro-conscription women to put the case for opposing conscription and to advocate peace. One 9 July 1917, at the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League held in the Brisbane School of Arts building on Turbot Street, a brawl erupted between Thorp’s supporters and pro-conscriptionists. Some 200 women had gathered under the League’s auspices to petition the government for conscription, despite the measure being popularly rejected in the first plebiscite of October 1916. After reading out the motion, speakers for or against were called, at which time Thorp stood and called on the gathering to recognise the decision of the “people of Australia.” Before she could finish, Thorp was interrupted by many of the women in attendance. Thorp’s vigorous efforts to continue speaking saw her “thrown from the platform, rolled on the floor, kicked, punched… and at last [she] was carried, pushed or thrown out of the doorway.” (Daily Standard, 10 July 1917, pp. 5-6)

Thorp did not just earn the ire of pro-conscription women. She was the target of Military Intelligence, which worked with the censor’s office to prevent the voicing of anti-war views. According to Military Intelligence, Thorp was a “full-blown Red Ragger [socialist] and revolutionary.” On their instruction, Thorp’s house in Red Hill was searched unsuccessfully in December 1915 for any copies of the “seditious” song “I Didn’t Raise my Son to be a Soldier” which discouraged enlistment in the army. From that point on, all newspapers were told not to publish anything written by Thorp without sending it to the censor first.

Pro-conscriptionists castigated Thorp as a “disloyalist,” for “peace at any price.” The Women’s Peace Army faced censorship and venom from much of the press. Despite this, both conscription plebiscites were defeated in Queensland and Australia at large. Tragically, the arguments of the W.P.A. about preventing future wars were ignored by the victorious powers. World War I continued until the armistice of November 11, 1918. Instead of a lasting and democratic peace, the vindictive terms the Allies imposed over the Central Powers, particularly Germany and Austria, sowed the seeds for history’s bloodiest conflict, World War II.

Sources and further reading

Summy, Hilary. “Margaret Thorp and the Anti-Conscription Campaign in Brisbane 1915-1917” in Hecate, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2006, pp. 59-76

Investigation Branch File, Series A402, item W245 (National Archives of Australia)