Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

H Leslie Kirkley

1911 - 1989

Leslie Kirkley was born in Manchester in 1911.  He developed an interest in social and political affairs, in working towards a fairer, more peaceful world.  He found a spiritual home with the Society of Friends and became an active member of the Peace Pledge Union.  As a committed pacifist he registered as a conscientious objector in 1939.  He chose not to become a member of the Society of Friends, so could not claim exemption from military service on religious grounds but instead cited his convictions as a pacifist and lost his job with the Manchester Corporation as a result.

During the war years he moved to Leeds, where he attended Quaker Meetings and became a founder member and Honorary Secretary of the Leeds Famine Relief Committee.  Early in 1951 he was appointed General Secretary (Director) of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief.  On moving to Oxford he attended the Quaker Meeting in St Giles.

Leslie Kirkley was outwardly easy-going and where possible used the Quaker approach in business meetings, preferring to discern a way forward rather than force an issue.  He had a relaxed manner but was equally determined to pursue his vision of a fairer world.  He had a hidden strength that gave him the courage to stand his ground where the rights of individuals were concerned.  Over the next twenty-four years he transformed the small local Oxford Committee for Famine Relief into a leading national and international organisation.

When an earthquake struck the Ionian Islands in 1953, HLK (as he was known to colleagues) flew out to offer aid on the spot.  This was the first of many such trips he made in the immediate aftermath of disasters.  In 1956 he travelled to the Far East, visiting Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Korea and Hong Kong but this trip was cut short because he was needed in Europe following the Hungarian Uprising.  There he helped a Friends’ Service Council team deliver supplies to the refugees who had fled over the Austrian border.

International travel and meetings in London were increasingly frequent, so in 1958 he moved his family to the more central location of Reading, where they attended Reading Meeting until moving back to Oxford in 1968.   World Refugee Year was launched on 1st June 1959 and HLK was appointed Chairman of the Public Relations and Publicity Committee.  In 1961 his visit to the Congo raised public awareness of the desperate state of the refugees there.

This was the year in which the organisation first became known as Oxfam.  He played a key role in the Freedom from Hunger Campaign (1960–65) and became increasingly interested in exploring the causes of hunger and poverty. Prior to this Oxfam had focused on disaster relief, so this was a new approach for the organisation.

Colleagues remember him for his warmth, optimism and energy.  His management strength lay in his ability to recognise talent and commitment in people, allowing them the freedom to operate creatively while, with his quiet style of leadership, he retained ultimate control.  Under his leadership Oxfam opened a growing network of Oxfam shops, established Oxfam Trading, created a number of independent Oxfam Groups overseas and introduced development education for schools.

In 1951 Oxfam had been a successful local charitable committee.  Under his stewardship it became one of the largest, most creative, most widely respected voluntary aid agencies in the world. By the time he retired from Oxfam in 1974 HLK had raised the professional status of the charity without losing its soul in the process.

Although he retired from Oxfam in 1974, the leaders of many charitable organisations continued to turn to him for support and advice.  He worked with Help the Aged, was founding chairman of HelpAge International, chairman of the Disasters Emergency Committee, chief executive of the Voluntary and Christian Service Trust, executive chairman of Action Aid International and vice-chairman of the British Refugee Council.  As a witness to his Quaker belief in that of God in everyone, Leslie Kirkley sought to remedy poverty, hardship and injustice wherever he could and at the time of his death in 1989, he was actively involved with over thirty organisations as a committee member, trustee, patron or chairman.  His vision of a fairer world, his lifelong commitment to pacifism and his determination to make a difference were the driving forces in his life.

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