Origins of Oxfam (1942 - 1951)
As Maggie Black puts it in A Cause for Our Times: Oxfam - The First Fifty Years, Oxfam was “always a broad church, and no one denomination prevailed.” However, many Quakers have been prominently involved in Oxfam from its foundation, and Quaker values influenced the way the organisation conducted relief work from the outset.
By 1942, famine in areas of Europe occupied by German forces – in particular Belgium and Greece – was exacerbated by the British government’s policy of a total naval blockade. At the height of the famine in Greece, people were dying at the rate of more than 1500 a day. Many people, including Quaker Edith Pye, who worked with the FWVRC in France during the First World War, Vera Brittain, a pacifist and campaigner, and Canon Richard Milford from Oxford, began to protest that the blockade was unjustifiable.
In May 1942, Edith Pye established a national Famine Relief Committee and encouraged the setting up of a network of local famine relief committees, among the most energetic of which was the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, set up by Milford.
Initially, the committees lobbied the government for a relaxation of the blockade to allow vital relief for civilians to get through. The initial proposal that milk and vitamins should be provided for Greek and Belgian children was flatly refused by the British government. Under the Hague Convention, they were told, it was the responsibility of the occupying power to care for civilians. Any relief sent in would be seized and fed to munitions workers.
By 1943, the Red Cross had established a route into Greece. The Oxford committee, spearheaded by Cecil Jackson-Cole, launched ‘Greek Week’, a concentrated fund-raising effort which included a gift shop in the city’s market. In just one, week, the city raised £10,700 for the Greek Red Cross – an astonishing sum during wartime. By this means some relief did reach Greece – the only country in which the total blockade was successfully breached.
At the end of the war, famine became an issue in Germany itself. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had stated that the basic minimum food allowance should be 2,650 calories per day. In the British zone in Germany, rations had been reduced from 1500 calories per day to 1014. Rations in Britain at the time were 2800 cal per day.
In September 1945, the publisher, Victor Gollancz, supported by the various famine relief committees, launched the ‘Save Europe Now’ campaign, campaigning to allow food relief to be sent into Germany – once again against the prevailing policies of the British government.
Initially the idea was that people should be able to voluntarily give up part of their ration, and the government would then send an equivalent amount of food to relieve starvation in Germany. This proposal was refused. However, the Save Europe Now campaign went ahead and raised over £56k, of which £6k was raised by the Oxford committee. The money was channelled through a number of organisations, in particular the Friends Relief Service who had already been working in the liberated countries and who in had now been allowed into Germany.
The campaigning work of the Famine Relief committees, during and after the War, helped pave the way for the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, governing the protection of civilians in wartime.
In November 1947, the first Oxfam shop opened in Broad Street, Oxford. In 1948, Quaker Harold Sumption was employed to organise the first advertising campaign, raising £25k from an outlay of £5k. For the first time, the abbreviated term ‘Oxfam’ was used in the banner headline.
In 1949, when the American Marshall Plan got underway, many of the other Famine Relief Committees were stood down. The Oxford committee, however, pledged to relieve “suffering arising as a result of wars or other causes in any part of the world”..
In 1951, another Quaker, Leslie Kirkley, became General Secretary, beginning a 24-year term with the organisation that would transform it from a local charity to an aid agency with a global reach. As Richard Milford had always insisted, its work would be underpinned by the principle first established for Quaker relief work during the Franco-Prussian War – that relief should be given on the basis of need, without regard for religion, nationality or ‘side’ in a conflict.
Quakers have continued to be involved at all levels in Oxfam.