Nicholas Gillett (1915-2008)

Nicholas Gillett who died on 23 June was a worthy recipient of the International Gandhi Peace Award in 1999. In his acceptance speech he spoke about caterpillars, horse flies and bees to illustrate the need for fresh approaches to peace building. Had he been less self-effacing he might have spoken of his own background and achievements.

He was born into a Quaker family in 1915. His great grandfather on his mother’s side was the radical, anti-war MP, John Bright. His mother went to South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War to teach Boer women, confined in concentration camps set up by the British, to spin and weave wool and generate a small income. Later on in 1931 his mother was introduced to Gandhi but as it was Gandhi’s day for not speaking, they communed in silence.

Nicholas’s father owned and ran a private bank. His uncle was Joseph Rowntree, founder of the charities from which many peace organisations have benefited. Both parents were active supporters of the League of Nations, set up after the First World War.

Nicholas went to the Quaker school, Leighton Park, and then to Oxford where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. One of his first friends there, Chandra Mal, had worked for Gandhi as a secretary and was a committed devotee. During the vacations, Nicholas went to a variety of work camps in this country and overseas. He helped Corder Catchpool in Berlin in his work for reconciliation and was appalled as he watched Hitler address a youth rally in Innsbruck.

At a work camp in Salford, Manchester, he met Ruth Cadbury and they were married in 1938. Ruth’s grandfather was George Cadbury who had established the Bournville chocolate factory and estate for the workers. Her parents, Henry and Lucy Cadbury, were wardens of the Quaker Study Centre, Woodbrooke, where Gandhi stayed in 1931.

After initial training to be a teacher of physical education, Nicholas grew increasingly interested in educational psychology. He, Ruth and their growing family of six children managed two farms during the Second World War and from 1945 onwards Nicholas lectured at Teacher Training Colleges at Saltley, Cheltenham and Dudley while studying for an MA in education at Birmingham University in his spare time. He helped to found the first Parent-Teacher Associations in the country and served UNESCO in the Philippines, Thailand and Iran. The family moved to Bristol in 1965 where Nicholas lectured at the University and gave generously of his time and money to various peace and development groups and especially the UNA.

During this time, Nicholas withheld the part of his tax payment which would have gone to the Ministry of Defence and he and Ruth had their more valuable furniture and other possessions seized by bailiffs to make up the deficit. Some of the property was bought at auction by members of the family and returned to them but it showed their commitment to the pacifist cause.

From 1975 to 1977 Nicholas and Ruth represented Quaker Peace and Service in Northern Ireland where they supported the Peace People led by Mairead Corrigan, Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeowen. Ruth took the lead in setting up the means by which disaffected paramilitary men from both sides could disengage from their units, adopt new identities and live peaceful and useful lives.

Three years after their return to Bristol from Belfast, Nicholas and Ruth went off to serve QPS again in the Quaker UN office in Geneva. Ruth died suddenly two months after she and Nicholas had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in Bristol in 1988.

Nicholas practised farming in his early adult life and he spent his last years helping his second wife, Mehr Fardoonji, manage an organic market garden near Chester. Mehr is a Parsee and had walked with Vinoba Bhave in the Land-Gift Movement. Nicholas continued to write and speak about peace, development and education.

Nicholas’s parents had been close friends with Jan Christian Smuts who had been responsible for imprisoning Gandhi in South Africa. Each man had considerable respect for the other and while in prison, Gandhi made a pair of sandals as a present for Smuts. Later, Smuts gave them to Nicholas’s mother. Nicholas found them in a cupboard one day and continued to wear them until they were worn out. He, more than most people, walked in the footsteps of Gandhi.

Graham Davey

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