Leonard Woolf: Political Activist

The Woolf name is probably most known from Virginia Woolf. However, Virginia’s husband, Leonard was a political activist who researched international government and sought the prevention of war.

Leonard was born in London on 25 November 1880. The 1891 census below shows the large Woolf household. Solomon Rees Sidney Woolf and Marie Bathilde de Jongh had nine children, six boys and three girls. In the household also lived eight servants, including domestic servants, nurses and a kitchen maid. Leonard’s father Solomon Rees Sidney Woolf was a Q.C. and his mother: Marie Bathilde de Jongh lived in Worthing in her old age.

Sourced from ancestry.co.uk

Woolf was sent to Arlington House School, a boarding school near Brighton. He progressed to be educated at Trinity College, Cambridge which led to him beginning his career as a colonial Civil Servant.

He worked in what is current day Sri Lanka, where his career progressed. After returning to England on leave in 1911, Leonard subsequently resigned and married Adeline Virginia Stephen “Virginia” in 1912.

Leonard was involved with the Bloomsbury Group. This unofficial London based organisation was a collective of friends, mostly from Cambridge University.

This group of writers, intellectuals, philosopher and artists mainly held left-liberal political beliefs, though this was not a political activist organisation. When war broke out, most members opposed the conflict, with many being conscientious objectors.

On this issue, Woolf differed with his peers. Leonard was ‘not a complete pacifist or a conscientious objector’ and felt that ‘the German must be resisted’. Although he was 34 when war broke out, Leonard considered applying for a commission but was exempted from military service on medical grounds and because of his wife’s poor health.

Some, but not all, of Leonard’s friends in the Bloomsbury Group
opposed WW1 to various degrees. He regularly saw his two of his soldier brothers, Philip and Cecil, as they were trained at Mayfield, North of Lewes. Indeed, their visits in uniform to Asham caused a security alert. Transferred overseas, Cecil was killed and Philip was severely injured by the same shell.

Source: Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918 (London: The Hogarth Press), pp.145, 146, 177-83.

From 1914 onwards, Leonard researched ideas for ‘prevention of war and
international government’ as a member of the left-wing Fabian Society. 3 These ideas fed into the development of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. 4

From 1914 onwards, Leonard researched ideas for ‘prevention of war and international government’ as a member of the left-wing Fabian Society. In 1916 he wrote International Government which proposed an international agency to enforce world peace. These ideas fed into the development of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. Leonards contribution to this organisation has led to him being described as ‘one of the most prolific writers on international relations of the early to mid-Twentieth Century.’

The praise of Woolf continues to outline Leonard was ‘co-founder of the popular pressure group, the League of Nations Society. He was a leading critic of empire. He helped to educate the British Labour Party on global issues, constructing, in 1929, its first credible foreign policy.’

Virginia and Leonard resided in multiple properties throughout their lives, many being in Lewes near Brighton.

In 1912, Leonard visited Virginia at Little Talland House in Firle and later that year they rented Asheham [AKA Asham], a house near Beddingham, Sussex. During WW1, the couple lived in London at 17 The Green, Richmond (1914) then Hogarth House, Richmond (1915) and visited Sussex. Leonard was at Asheham for the outbreak of war, and in the autumn of 1915 and spring of 1916. In 1919, Leonard and Virginia bought Pipe’s Passage in Lewes, but never lived there, and moved instead
to Monks House, Rodmell, which they owned for the rest of their lives.

See:https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/jewish-stories-at-our-country-houses

Two of Leonard’s brothers volunteered on the first day of the war and three served – Edgar, Cecil and Philip. After Cecil died in the war, Philip published Cecil’s dissertation, and with Virginia’s help, his poems. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Woolf

Leonard was in the Home Guard in the World War Two.

One house of significance is now open to the public as a National Trust site. Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex is the property where the couple lived from 1919, past Virginia’s suicide in 1941 and until Leonard’s death in 1969.

The National Trust’s project surrounding Jewish stories states ‘Virginia shared the conventional antisemitic prejudices of her class but Leonard maintained close ties with his large Jewish family, who were by then very well established in Britain. He himself was a confirmed atheist, who in later life supported the newly established State of Israel.’

After the death of his wife he began an affair with Trekkie Parsons, a book illustrator, whose husband was Ian Parsons and at that time was abroad as a member of the Royal Air Force. After the Second World War Trekkie, who was twenty years younger than Woolf, spent the weekends with her husband and the rest of the week at Monk’s House.

Woolf wrote five volumes of autobiography, Sowing (1960), Growing (1961), Beginning Again (1964), Downhill All the Way (1967), and The Journey not the Arrival Matters (1969). His biographer has argued: “Leonard Woolf’s own personality is revealed in his autobiographies with remarkable detachment and integrity; a fatalistic strain in them sometimes masks the considerable charm, dry humour, and deep feelings of the man…. Futile as his political writing and committee work may have appeared to him, he was nevertheless right about the wrongs of imperialism and capitalism, the need for international organization, and the evils of fascist and communist totalitarianism.”

Leonard Woolf suffered a stroke and died at Monk’s House on 14th August 1969.

Source: https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwoolf.htm

Leonard’s Jewishness has been a topic of debate among scholars. Some scholars have argued Woolf abandoned his Jewishness in order to be accepted in English society, particularly in the Bloomsbury literary movement.

In a journal article, Luke Reader contests this, suggesting instead Woolf constructed an alternative and positive Jewish identity. Reader continues to argue Leonard’s criticisms of British cultural practices and his own work on international institutions were ‘bound up with Jewish themes, ethics, and values.’

Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. Taken at Imperial War Museum archive by Nicola Benge

Leonard was a prominent figure in the creation of international organisations in his efforts to prevent war, though his contributions are often overshadowed by the fame of his wife Virginia. Shalom Sussex hope that the work of Leonard is remembered so his legacy lives on.