The National Council for Civil Liberties is the second British organisation to bear that name. Very little is known about the first, which appears to have been established in 1916 in response to the increasing infringements on personal liberty resulting from the Wartime Military Service Acts and government interpretation of the Defence of the Realm Act. The president of the group was WC Anderson MP, while JA Hobson was vice-president.
The second and continuing NCCL was a product of the early 1930s and a background of mass unemployment, hunger marches and anti-democratic behaviour by government and civil authorities alike. On 1 November 1932, a large group of hunger marchers reached London after three weeks with a petition carrying 1 million signatures protesting against a proposed 10% cut in unemployment benefit and a new means test. Their leader Wal Hannington was promptly arrested, refused bail and the petition confiscated by the police. Agents provocateurs were used in Trafalgar Square to incite sections of the crowd to violence. This scene was observed by Ronald Kidd, one-time journalist, stage manager, failed publisher and owner of a radical bookshop off the Strand.
The use of plain clothes policemen in this way greatly disturbed many people, such as the writer AP Herbert, who started a lively correspondence in the Weekend Review. Kidd decided to try to bring together eminent writers, lawyers, journalists and Members of Parliament to act as observers at gatherings such as that in Trafalgar Square and to bear witness. This idea soon broadened into the setting up of a permanent watchdog operating through meetings, the press, its own publications and Parliament. The launch of this new body was timed to coincide with the arrival in London of the next group of hunger marchers in February 1934.
The inaugural meeting was held in a room in the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London on 22 February 1934. Twenty people were present, including Dr Edith Summerskill and Claude Cockburn. Kidd agreed to become secretary, to form an executive committee of 24 people who would meet monthly and to approach E M Forster to act as first president. From the start it was made clear that the organisation was not to be regarded as in any way party political. On 24 February a letter announcing the formation of the Council for Civil Liberties was published in The Times and elsewhere. An impressive list of vice-presidents, including Winifred Holtby, was assembled. Many of these, such as HG Wells, agreed to act as observers at the arrival of the hunger marchers in London on 25 February. In the event, this took place entirely peacefully, although several days earlier five of the marchers had been arrested and charged with 'wife desertion'. Within a few weeks of the march the 10% cut in unemployment benefit was rescinded.
However there remained many other areas of concern and the fledgling NCCL continued its activities. Ronald Kidd, the driving force behind the organisation during the 1930s, was aided in his work by his partner, Sylvia Crowther-Smith (later Scaffardi), who became assistant secretary. The NCCL initially operated from the single room occupied by Kidd and Crowther-Smith. However, with the success of the organisation and the arrival of donations from supporters, a suite of three rooms was quickly acquired in the Charing Cross Road in London.
The first decade of the NCCL's existence was dominated by several key issues, but particularly: the fight against fascism; the debate over 'non-flam' films and censorship; and the Harworth Colliery affair. The NCCL was at the forefront of the anti-fascist campaign in Britain during the 1930s and thereafter. The associated anti-Semitism of groups such as Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, the evident sympathy with the Right of large elements of the judiciary and police force, and the misuse of powers relating to the holding of public meetings (where for example the Public Order Act of 1936, introduced after riots at fascist meetings, was then used to ban meetings by Left and other groups) dominated the campaigning activities and early history of the organisation. The 'non-flam' films affair again revealed the high-handed attitude of public authorities in attempting to censor, via the Cinematograph Act of 1909, what the public could watch on film. The NCCL also played a major role in the Harworth Colliery affair of 1937, which led to the organising of a petition of some 250,000 signatures in support of a group of striking Nottinghamshire miners.
In 1937 Ronald Kidd was knocked down by a car and seriously injured. Already ill with heart trouble, his health never recovered. He died in May 1942, by which time he had been replaced as secretary by Elizabeth Acland Allen, who had joined the staff as appeals officer in 1941. During the Second World War the NCCL acted to defend the rights of dissenters (and especially conscientious objectors), of aliens and internees, and of the press and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
During the 1940s and 1950s the NCCL remained very active, but the emphasis of its activities shifted towards the defence of those who were unable to defend themselves or were effectively outside the law. The greatest activity and success here was in the area of mental health, where the NCCL led the campaign to repeal the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, organising conferences and publications to this end throughout the 1950s. The introduction by the Mental Health Act of 1959 of mental health review panels allowed patients to appeal against their incarceration, often with the support of an NCCL representative.
In 1960 Martin Ennals succeeded Elizabeth Allen as secretary. In 1963 a registered charity, the Cobden Trust, was established by the NCCL to undertake research and educational work in the field of civil liberties. As the decade developed, the NCCL became increasingly involved in defending the rights of various minority groups, particularly black immigrants (after the restrictions imposed by Acts in 1962 and 1968); children (in areas such as religious indoctrination and corporal punishment); gypsies and caravan dwellers; reluctant servicemen; and prisoners.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the women's movement, the campaign for gay or homosexual rights, demands for greater privacy in the area of computer data banks, and a number of serious examples of miscarriages of justice and abuse of power by the police and armed forces (most notably in Northern Ireland during the Londonderry shootings of 1972). The NCCL played an important role in all these areas. Martin Ennals was succeeded as general secretary by Patricia Hewitt in 1975; Larry Gostin took up the post in 1983, followed by Andrew Puddephat in 1990. The NCCL was re-launched at the start of the decade under the new name of Liberty. The supporting Cobden Trust at the same time became the Civil Liberties Trust. Both organisations are based in headquarters in south London.