Agatha Harrison

1885 – 1954

Agatha Harrison was a British Quaker and a close friend of Gandhi who, with Horace Alexander, contributed significantly to the peaceful transfer of power from the British to the independent governments of India and Pakistan.
Agatha had a faith in the fundamental goodness and responsiveness of human persons.  Looking round at our world, we may judge it the least rational of faiths.  But those who possess it can win surprising victories

Gerald Bailey;  Friends Peace Committee, 1954

Harrison was the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was educated in Jersey and Bristol, and after her father died in 1898, became a pupil teacher at Kent College, Folkestone.

She began work in industrial welfare, first with Boots the Chemist, then with the Metal Box Company, where she championed the rights of women workers. In 1917, she was appointed as an academic tutor in Industrial Welfare at the London School of Economics – the first such post in Britain.

During the First World War, she became a founder member of WIPLF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was a major influence on this work. As Sigrid Lund of the UN later wrote, she had a unique capacity to “show intensity and at the same time spread a sense of peace and harmony around her.”

In 1921, she was sent by the YWCA to investigate industrial conditions and the problems of child labour in China.  Then in 1929, she spent six months looking at labour conditions in India, where she became sympathetic to India’s desire for independence.

Harrison helped prepare for Gandhi’s visit to England for the Second Round Table Conference on the Future of India, in 1931,  and made a great impression upon him.  Afterwards, she helped found the India Conciliation Group, which sought to improve understanding of India’s political aspirations.

Harrison spent three extended periods in India during the 1930s.  She and Gandhi became close friends and she acted as an intermediary for him during his hunger strike in 1939.  She was said to understand Gandhi to an extent few people could match.

Harrison joined the Quakers in 1940.  Along with Horace Alexander, she travelled to India after the Second World War with the cabinet mission from the new Labour government, which was charged with negotiating with the nationalist leaders. They both worked quietly in the background and were instrumental in persuading Gandhi of the good faith of the British delegation.

When independence was declared on 15 August 1947, Harrison was with the India Conciliation Group at Friends House in London, at a celebration attended by the High Commissioners of both India and Pakistan.

In the months that followed, her skills in mediation were often employed in the effort to control the violence between Muslims and Hindus that marred the transfer of power.  In one such instance, she visited a jute factory near  Calcutta where Muslim workers had been attacked, introducing herself as someone who had worked with Gandhi and was dedicated to bringing peace between the communities .

She often worked closely with women’s groups in India, and attended the All India Women’s Conference in 1949.

In 1950, Harrison was one of a team of Quaker observers at the United Nations’ General Assembly.  Kathleen Lonsdale from WILPF wrote that,

She alone was able to penetrate the thick walls of resentment that surrounded the representatives of the People’s Republic of China on their rare appearances in the councils of the UN.

She died in Geneva in 1954, while participating in the conference to end the war in Indo-China.

Speaking at a tribute to her, Krishna Menon (India’s first post-independence High Commissioner to London) said:
She had no office or title, and no flags were lowered for her, but all over India people honour her name.

Further Reading and Credits

External links

 

FURTHER READING

Agatha Harrison: Remembrances, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, London 1954

 

 

Photograph reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London