Sarah Saunders Page: A courageous advocate for peace

Sarah Saunders Page and Samuel Page

Sarah Saunders Page and Samuel Page

Our contention is that war is all atrocity. It is the supreme national and international crime. It is the insanity of the age which regards brute force as the deciding power.’ Sarah Saunders Page writing to the Premier of New Zealand 1916. [1]

War regulations during World War I made it illegal to speak against conscription or the war effort, yet Sarah Saunders Page continued to publicly condemn both. As the Secretary of the Canterbury Women's Institute (CWI) her letter to the Premier of New Zealand in 1916 was a follow up on an earlier stand the CWI had taken against conscription: 'Increasingly large armies are ineffective to bring about an enduring peace', said Page. 'The fact seems to be that war never ends war. It is ended by conference.' She went on to implore the New Zealand premier to urge the British Government to initiate such a conference.[2]

While male anti-militarists were often arrested and imprisoned for sedition during this period, Sarah Page was not. She later described an occasion when she had been speaking on the same platform as a conscientious objector who in the 1930s became a Cabinet Minister in the first Labour Government. As they left the platform her male companion said: 'Well, Mrs Page, they can't jail me without you, for you talked more sedition in five minutes than I in my whole speech.' Her companion was arrested the next day and sentenced to two years imprisonment. She was not arrested.[3] 

The authorities seemed reluctant to jail women, perhaps fearing a repeat of Britain's suffragette agitation, and in Page's view this meant women had a greater responsibility 'to raise our voices against it [war]’. She hoped that ‘women will realise this and prepare themselves to use that freedom in defence of their sons and brothers'.[4] She herself continued to speak for peace for the remainder of her long life.

Sarah Saunders was born in 1863 the seventh of ten children of Alfred and Rhoda Saunders.[5] As a parliamentarian Alfred Saunders had been a staunch supporter of Kate Sheppard and the women's franchise movement. Like her father, Sarah exhibited a strong degree of independent thinking throughout her life.[6]

On her twenty-first birthday she took up a position as mistress of the Girls' High School which opened in Ashburton in 1884 alongside the existing boys' school. Here she taught for ten years girls aged 12 to 19, and who she later recalled as being very keen to learn, as there had been no public secondary school for girls in Ashburton before this time.[7]

In 1896 at West Melton she married Samuel Page, a science demonstrator at Canterbury College. They had two sons, Robert Owen (Robin) and Alfred William (Fred).

Between 1902 and 1918 she held office in the Canterbury Women's Institute as either secretary or president, most years. She was also secretary of the National Council of Women in 1905-06.[8] Her political and social interests were wide-ranging. The papers she gave at women’s meetings over the years included 'The Moral Instruction of the Young' in 1901, 'Land Tenure' in 1905, 'The Legal Disabilities of New Zealand Women' in 1907 and 'Equal Pay for Equal Work' in 1911.[9]

Sarah Page later recalled that her father had 'instilled into his children the abhorrence of war which he had imbibed from his early association with English Quakers'. But she did not initially oppose compulsory military training, thinking that it might do some good by waking people up to what war actually meant. She recalled that her change of heart came ‘when some of the finest lads I knew began to be thrown into the common jails for following the dictates of their consciences in refusing to train for the work of destruction’. It was then that ‘I realised what militarism entailed even in times of peace, and for the first time publicly and actively joined that despised section of the followers of the Prince of Peace known as “Pacifists”’.[10]

'To the Women of New Zealand'

A pamphlet written by Ada Wells and Sarah Page and published by the National Peace Council.

She was a strong supporter of the National Peace Council though realistic about the strength of opposition to their views. Sarah Page told the Secretary of the National Peace Council, Charles Mackie, in 1915 that: 'New Zealand as a whole seems so absolutely obsessed by the idea of fighting evil with the devil's weapons that I must confess to a feeling of hopelessness'.[11] In a speech she delivered in Victoria Square in February 1918 about the 14 conscientious objectors  transported to the European war she questioned the report of the Minister of Defence, Sir James Allen, who claimed that the 14 had eventually 'joined forces with their mates from New Zealand'. Sarah Page challenged the government’s report of the event saying:

I am not accepting the report of the men's conversion as necessarily true. Sir James Allen has made – mistakes, shall we call them – before, and this report, unfortunately offers no reliable evidence that our brave lads are not still suffering the tortures of the damned.

She went on to say that if the report were true it would mean that: 'Twelve men [were] bludgeoned into violating their consciences, and you and I and the rest of New Zealand silently acquiescing.'[12]

As the First World War progressed, Sarah Page came to see socialism as the only way of ensuring the fair distribution of wealth and resources that would ultimately bring lasting peace. Before the 1917 local body elections she joined the Labour Representation Committee, and in 1919 she stood for the Christchurch City Council, campaigning alongside the Reverend James Chapple, and her friend Ada Wells.[13]  She was not elected but remained convinced that 'war and capitalism are inextricably united'.[14]

First Canterbury Workers' Educational Association Summer School, 1920.

Students and tutors at the first CWEA (Canterbury Workers' Educational Association) Summer School, held at Oxford in 1920. Members of the Page, Ockenden, Struthers and Johnson families were among the participants. Anti-militarists Ted Howard, Clyde Carr, and Robert Laing are also included in this photo. Robin Page and Fred Page are second and third from the left in the back row, while Sarah Page is tenth from the left in the second to back row.

No More War Committee ca. 1930.

The No More War Committee meeting about 1930. Norman Bell, seated centre, is holding a photo of Fred Page, who had recently died in Paris. Sarah Page is sitting on Bell's left. Standing second from the right is Charles Mackie, with Lincoln Efford on his left.

Sarah Page's sons both adopted her anti-war beliefs: her older son Robin was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in 1918 and her younger son Fred founded the No More War Movement in New Zealand in 1923. After Fred's untimely death in Paris in 1930, Sarah Page carried on his work by becoming secretary of the No More War Movement.[15]

In 1936 Sarah Page wrote that she was more convinced than ever:

that war, international or civil, is a crime against humanity, in which we must refuse to take part, but I have come to see that this is not enough. We women must work individually and collectively to remove the cause of war, to establish a new order of society which recognises that all men are brothers and that all that separates them, whether sex, class, creed or nation, is inhuman and must be overcome.

Furthermore she urged women to use their influence and energies to secure the establishment of a system of true Socialism in place of the present disastrous Capitalism, under which a comparative few control and waste the means of subsistence, while the many live insufficiently in the midst of plenty. It is only by the adoption of such a system that we can secure lasting peace.[16]

Page became a regular attender at the Christchurch Friends' Meeting for Worship, though not a member of the Quakers.[17] Her death in 1950 brought to an end a long life of courageous advocacy  for peace, justice and equality.

Margaret Lovell-Smith

 

[1] Sarah S. Page, Honorary Secretary, Canterbury Women’s Institute, 'Reply to the Prime Minister by Canterbury Women's Institute', Maoriland Worker, 17 May, 1916, p.3.

[2]Page, 'Reply to the Prime Minister by Canterbury Women's Institute', p.3.

[3]Sarah Page, 'Wartime Reminiscences', The Working Woman, March 1936, p.6.

[4]Page, 'Wartime Reminiscences', p.6.

[5]Information from the Page family.

[6]Edmund Bohan, 'Page, Sarah', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012.

[7]Ashburton High School 1881 – 1956, 75th Anniversary Celebrations, pp.11,14,43-46.

[8]Bohan, 'Page, Sarah'.

[9]White Ribbon, September 1901, p.10; White Ribbon, February 1905, p.1; White Ribbon, August 1907, pp.1-2; White Ribbon, May 1911, pp.9-10; White Ribbon June 1911, pp.9-10.

[10]Page, 'Wartime Reminiscences', p.6.

[11]Sarah Page to Charles Mackie, 3 September 1915, Mackie Papers, Series 182, Box 10, Folder 37, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[12]Page, 'Reply to the Prime Minister by Canterbury Women's Institute', p.3; 'For Conscience Sake', Maoriland Worker, 27 February 1918, p.7.

[13]Bohan, 'Page, Sarah'.

[14]Sarah Page, 'Paths to Permanent Peace', The Working Woman, October 1936, p.9.

[15]Bohan, 'Page, Sarah'.

[16]Page, 'Wartime Reminiscences', p.6.

[17]Reginald Hughes, 'Page, Sarah Ann', in Margaret West, and Audrey,  Brodie, Remembrance of Friends Past, (Wellington: Beechtree Press, 1999), p.141.