Edith Maud Ellis (1878 – 1963)

by Barry Mills

Photo captioned: Edith M. Ellis (Acting Hon. Sec. of the Friend’ Service Committee) The daughter of John Edward Ellis, MP (at one time Under Secretary for India) and Maria (nee Rowntree), Edith Ellis was born on 6 January 1878, with Marian as her identical twin sister. The twins were inseparable until Marian’s marriage in 1919. The Ellis home in Pont Street, London became a depot for clothing for the women’s camps in South Africa during the Boer war.
Edith was educated at home by governesses and later by lecturers in London and Germany, where she studied painting and music. When young she took the part of Mr Greatheart in Pilgrim’s Progress. The warning he receives to ‘take heed to your steps, for the way is miry’ were to prove prophetic!
Edith became Treasurer of the Friends Service Committee. This had been set up by Yearly Meeting in 1915, to advise men of enlistment age. She thus held a pivotal position in the Society as its most influential communicator and spokesperson in the last years of the Great War. She personally subscribed to the more extreme ‘absolutist’ view among pacifists with regard to participation in the war effort. She ‘not only insisted that true conscientious objectors should refuse any form of alternative to military service and accept imprisonment as the logical result of their stand, but she also rejected any attempts to mitigate the sufferings of those — non-Quaker as well as Quaker — who had been imprisoned.’ (Kennedy, British Quakerism, 367.)
A major issue for Friends at this time was to decide how far to conform with the Government’s war-time regulations on censorship. In January 1918, when the Home Office introduced censorship, the Northern Friends Peace Board (NFPB) faced this new challenge by minuting that ‘while recognising to the full our duty as citizens to obey the Law of the land as far as we can, we hold that the present regulation … conflicts with our higher duty to the Truth. We therefore feel that we have no alternative but to decline to submit our publications to the Censor.’ Having taken this brave decision on a fundamental principle, the Board decided to implement its non-compliance as unobtrusively and cautiously as it could.
A group of six Friends were charged with reviewing the Board’s publications and they categorised them as follows: a) those not under the regulation, b) those subject to the regulation not to be distributed at present, c) those subject to the regulation but to be distributed, as being confirmed to be ‘of value in promoting the cause which the Board has at heart.’ The full Board meeting of 10 January 1915 decided not to print any further pamphlets or leaflets until after their next meeting, ‘in view of the state of our finances and the quantity of literature already in stock.’
NFPB were not prosecuted under the Censorship legislation but this was not the case with the Friends Service Committee. In May 1918, the three officers of this committee were prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act after Devonshire House was raided by the police. Their offence was to have published a pamphlet titled A challenge to militarism without submitting it to the Censor. Though the whole Committee had stated that they were all equally responsible for publication, the authorities decided just to prosecute its Chair, Secretary and Treasurer, Edith Ellis. In their defence the Friends stated that ‘We feel that the declaration of peace and goodwill is the duty of all Christians and ought not to be dependent upon the permission of any Government Official. We therefore intend to continue the publication of such leaflets as we feel it our duty to put forth, without submitting them to the Censor.’ (Kennedy, British Quakerism, 357.)
In court, Edith Ellis stated that ‘because of our religious belief, we do not feel it right to submit the outcome of our deliberations to an official of Government. We believe we must act in accordance with the dictates of God, ourselves.’ When Edith spoke ‘the court was visibly impressed as, with the timbre of her woman’s voice, she told in calm words of her immutable conviction.’ (Graham, Conscription and Conscience, 166-7) [1]
Edith was fined £100 with 50 guineas costs and subject to three months in prison on default of paying the fine, which she refused to do. The two male officers of the Committee were imprisoned for six months. The passionate letter Edith wrote from prison calling Friends to a new discipleship was circulated to all meetings in Britain, at the request of Meeting for Sufferings. She suffered poor health because of privations during her three months in Holloway Prison.
One result of the imprisonment of Quakers for their peace activities was a greater awareness of prisons and prisoners, which contributed to the Society’s subsequent work on prison and social reform. Thus, a minute of Leicester Friends Meeting in October 1918 notes that, ‘Edith M Ellis upon her recent experiences in Holloway Prison points out that much of the crime which is so serious among girls of 18 is the result of their social environment and suggests that there may be a call to Friends in particular to devote themselves to improving these conditions’. The principal response to this appeal seems to have been to advocate the appointment of women policemen.
After her imprisonment, Edith ‘became more and more absorbed in the cause of peace, at first in Ireland during the troubles’. By 1920/1 the Northern Friends Peace Board reports that the conflict in Ireland ‘has been continually upon our minds. Lantern slides have been prepared with the object of bringing the position vividly before audiences.’ Four Friends — John Henry Barlow, Frederic Taylor, Agatha Watts and Edith M Ellis — visited Ireland and subsequently lectured on the issue in the North of England.[2]
Edith Ellis’s later focus was the attempt to ‘make Christians accept their responsibilities as peace makers.’ To this end, she sought interviews with church leaders, travelled widely and wrote innumerable letters. She also served on several national Quaker committees, including penal reform and international service.
Edith continued to live at the family home at Wrea Head, Scalby and was an Elder at Scarborough meeting. ‘Driven herself by the urge to get things done, she felt for the restlessness of the young and her living account of wild creatures joined both young and old in their worship.’ Edith died on 27 March 1963 at the age of 85 years. [3]

  • Dictionary of Quaker Biography and The Friend, 1963, pp511-2
  • Graham, J W, Conscription and Conscience, Allen and Unwin, 1922
  • Kennedy, T C, British Quakerism, O.U.P., 2001

  1. ^ At this hearing John Henry Barlow “turned the courtroom into a Quaker meeting”. See This report for confirmation
  2. ^ The Friends who actually went to Ireland were Edith Ellis, Roger Clark and John Henry Barlow (see this in The Times). Presumably the four names given here are the people who did the lecture tour.
  3. ^Edith turned Wrea Head into a convalescent centre for conscientious objectors in 1919. In 1950, she made a gift of the house to the North Riding of Yorkshire residential college for short courses.
  4. She established the Edith M Ellis Charitable Trust which gives small grants to a broad range of charities.
  5. Grantley Hall near Ripon, North Yorkshire was used as a convalescent home during World War II and as an adult education residential college. Its site includes an Ellis Building. Connection not yet traced but probably exists.

Comments to Roger W Haworth (email and website).