Peter Miller was President of Leicester Secular Society 1980 - 1987 and died in 1999, which was the year I moved to Leicester. I never met him in person, but made him the subject of the second issue of the newsletter that I produced for the Society. The following notes are based on an interview with Peter conducted by Jeanne Carswell of Living History, Leicester City Libraries, in June 1999.
Peter was born in Leicester in April 1943. His father, who came from London, worked for the gas board, before and after nationalisation, until he retired after 40 years service in the early 1970s. His mother worked as a dressmaker before her marriage but was thereafter a housewife. He had a sister, born in 1945. Both were educated at Wyggeston School. Peter had a number of jobs after leaving the sixth form in 1961. In a bank, in the council rates office, and at Bostik (glue manufacturers). In the mid 1960s, having done an evening course he obtained sufficient A-levels to do a college course at Nottingham Regional College of Technology (which became a polytechnic and is now part of Trent University), but due to "habits of drink and going out ... was never able to settle back into study ... was chucked out after two years". After other jobs (he mentions being a barman and bookmaker's clerk, serving at a hot dog stall, working for a coal retailer and a toy wholesaler) he went to Bentley Engineering doing data processing in 1970, on the strength of which he married in 1971, but was made redundant in 1975 and was out of work a couple of years. He then got a job with Leicester City Council and worked there the rest of his life, in Engineering for twelve years and for the last six as technical assistant in Arts and Leisure, running the contracts for looking after the parks, gardens and landscaping.
His mother's family was associated with Robert Hall Church, (Narborough and Upperton Roads) and were instrumental in starting Trinity Methodist Church. He observed: "It seemed to me ... their religious observance was largely a social thing. It was what was respectable to do ... my father describes joining Trinity Church because he could get into their cricket team". Asked how he first became involved in Secularism, Peter said: "I became disillusioned with the religious belief I was being given ... thought things through ... read a bit ... Russell principally. Found ... in the Leicester Mercury ... that there was something called Leicester Secular Society who had regular lectures on a Sunday night, and went along to those ... 59, 60, 61 ... joined in 1961 for the first time ... very much empathised with what was going on there."
"I went along to lectures and was welcomed, yes, people there were discussing and arguing with each other about all the topics that they were having lectures about, and I found this very stimulating ... arguments I'd never heard before ... regarding social organisation, socialism particularly ... obviously as an 18-year old lad I didn't want to spend a lot of time socialising with middle-aged blokes ... but they're interesting to talk to...". Later he mentions socialising with Alex Davies a fairly well-to-do chiropodist, and Charles Powell ... "on reflection ... he was almost certainly homosexual ... but he never made any improper suggestions to me." He particularly recalled "Harry Shaw ... an old fella who was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain ... believed in transforming society overnight ... used to get up every week and make this advocacy from the floor of the meeting, regardless of what the lecture was about ... that we must do away with all these capitalist ways ... but for me there was always an intervening stage."
Peter also mentions some women associated for a long time with the organisation of the Society ... Louie Croxtall, Amy Bastion, Stella Waterston. Meetings were "Conducted the same as they are now at the Society, that's not changed over the years. There's an invited lecturer every week on a particular subject and it would be anything literary, social ... contemporary ... capital punishment ... nuclear destruction ... after each lecture there were questions and discussions from the audience." There were 25-30 at the lectures. "Another chap ... Roland Walton ... he was old in 1960 ... stood up every week ...to address the Society ... used to relate it to some extent to what had been talked about by the lecturer, but he always used to make the point that Lenin had been smuggled through Germany during the First World War in a sealed train to launch the Russian Revolution. This for some reason he always mentioned ... eccentric old guy ...". Later Peter mentions that Walton and James Cartwright were members in the 1980s who had joined as long ago as 1912.
"People were giving these fairly trenchant and out of the ordinary views in open discussion with each other, and this is what I found very interesting. ... It's always been an organisation open to people of all political persuasions. ... There's always been members ... of Conservative persuasion but for some reason they have never taken a big part in the discussion." Asked about speakers: "F. A. Ridley was a regular speaker there, a man of great distinction no-one has heard of ... he died a few years ago now ... age 97 ... spoke at the Society regularly from 1933, right through to the late 1980s."
"I don't think I had any contact with the Society between about 1963 and 1968. ... In the late 60s I'd taken up activity in the Anarchist Movement ... Harold Hammersley, who was secretary of the Society when I first joined ... saw us selling papers for the Anarchist Society and asked us if we would give a talk on Anarchism ... Three of us did a lecture on at least two occasions." The interviewer asks: Perhaps you'd better explain Anarchism ... for the benefit of people who think that you are men who run around with little bombs. "Anarchism is the means of organising society without power structures, without hierarchies, without coercion and without authority, therefore it needs to be done on the basis of co-operation of people and groups with each other."
Asked about trade union activities: "Bentley Engineering was a trade union firm. I therefore joined the union ... now Apex GMB ... and became a shop steward or 'staff representative' ... the firm ran into difficulties in 74/75 ... and. the redundancy list for the clerical side was the shop stewards committee of the trade union. We were all chucked out. It was clearly spurious." At the Council the "union was NALGO ... Eddy Hasman who was the branch secretary of the union ... persuaded me to become a steward and to take other offices in the union, which I did and I've done ever since. The office I've done most usefully I think is staff side officer ... to negotiate local conditions of service ... I've done that since 1983. ... Because it's a Labour authority ... there's always been an assumption that the trades unions have a role to play."
On the Secular Society: "Jeff Kirk had been president from the war right through until the early 70s. He died and Alex Davies became president and he, being a far-sighted sort of guy ... by this time he was fairly elderly ... was looking for someone to follow him on and in that sense he adopted me ... I took over the lecture organisation and became vice-president in the late 70s ... Unfortunately Alex died suddenly ... so I was asked ... to become president." "It's very healthy at the moment, it's been up and down over the years. There was a period ... when it seemed to be stagnating ... there was no new blood coming in. I was the only new blood ... John Shield came along. He was secretary and it was starting to pick up then ... You need two officers ... but he died suddenly ... after only a couple of years ...
It was picked up by a number of high-profile lecturers. Michael Foot in 1981 came to give the centenary lecture for the building ... Professor Ruday ... Ray Gosling ... Fenner Brockway who'd spoken at the Society before the first World War ... Tony Benn on the 250th anniversary of Thomas Paine, one of the last lectures I chaired."
Do you evangelise? "Proselytise is the word. ... No. Not really. We're there for anyone who is interested but we are so broad. We contain so many different viewpoints that we don't have any purpose in evangelisation. We think we fulfil a useful function." I would have thought, with the decline of religion that you might get more people. Yes. I've often reflected on that ... the debate a hundred years ago was very keen ... because people were afraid of life without religion ... but with the growing secularisation of society I think we've clearly won the debate. ... in the 1950s there was ... a big outcry in the Leicester Mercury because the Society opened up its library on a Sunday afternoon ... you can do anything on Sundays now."
"There's still plenty of areas of concern. ... I would be keen to discuss the Salman Rushdie thing, and we've always been very strong on censorship and freedom of expression. ... F.A.Ridley ... said right at the end of his life ... he regarded Islam as the great danger to the future of mankind ... a religion with strong fundamentalist elements to it ... We've always been anti-authoritarian ... freedom of opinion means that your opinion is as good as mine ... they are entitled to defend it and argue for it. ... I think now that fundamentalist religion is dangerous and a problem."
"We used to think that Catholics were the ones but they've almost become secular now in their ways of doing things. They've always been a very worldly church. They've always known how to manipulate the world, how to adapt themselves to the world and how to maintain their constituency there with their base of support by jiggery pokery and fear, and with the guilt thing and also with the opposite of guilt, by letting them do what they like and saying it's OK if you go to a confession. It's so confusing to me as a rational person, that these two things can coincide, can coalesce in the same public relation."
The Secular Hall has two big notices ... The criticism of a supernatural explanation of the world is one, that's Anti-religious clearly. The other one is a more positive one, that's Secularism ... that this world is the only one of which we have knowledge and our efforts should be devoted to improving it. The thing that you've got now is a high level of debate ... They come at you from all sorts of different angles that you aren't expecting. That's part of the value of it. We have a very eclectic base, where anarchists, communitarians, liberals, people interested in gay rights, all sorts of people.... I would regret it if you got a big audience and the debate was ... banal. ... We have cogent and sharp-edged discussions. That's what we're there for.