Quaker Humanitarian Relief

Quakers have long been involved with humanitarian relief work in relation to the physical and social distress associated with war, natural disaster and disease. During the Great Famine in Ireland, between 1845 and 1852, Irish Quakers were involved in providing food, clothing and other relief (including assistance in the development of new fisheries) through a Central Relief Committee. As well, Quakers elsewhere in Britain (through a similar relief committee) and in the North America and Australasia also provided money and other aid to this effort. The Quaker relief effort in Ireland was distinctive in that this aid, in contrast with the practice of most other organisations, was provided on a strictly non-sectarian basis to Catholics and Protestants alike.

In 1870 British Quakers established a Friends War Victims Relief Committee and undertook relief work among the civilian population of towns and villages devastated during the Franco-Prussian War. It was during this conflict that the Quaker star (an eight-pointed red and black star) was adopted as the badge for Quaker relief work. Similar relief efforts were undertaken in Eastern Europe in 1876 and in the Balkans in 1912.

In the aftermath of World War 1 a major Quaker relief effort was undertaken to address the widespread hunger and social dislocation in Europe. It involved a range of Quaker bodies but co-ordinated by the American Friends Service Committee, a body formed by a coalition of American Friends in 1917, and the British Friends Relief Service. This included widespread food relief in both Germany and Austria with particular reference to the needs of children; an effort that was long remembered in the term "Quäkerspeisung" (Quaker feeding). Inspired by these Quaker efforts, the Swiss pacifist, Pierre Ceresole, who was later to take up Quaker membership, initiated a project of housing reconstruction near the Verdun battlefield, an idea that was to grow into the international volunteer organisation Civil Service International.

Efforts continued during the inter-war period through the Germany Emergency Committee in Britain and similar bodies elsewhere; Melbourne Monthly Meeting, for instance, had its own Continental Relief Committee. This provided relief efforts during the Spanish civil war and assistance to Jews and others fleeing Nazi Germany. A young Australian schoolteacher, and later much loved principal of Friends School in Hobart, Bill Oats, was involved in such activities between 1938 and 1941 including a role with the Kindertransport, in an evacuation exercise from Geneva to south-west France and then to England. He also served as deputy chief escort on a vessel bringing child evacuees to Australia.

During the Second World War Quakers, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, were very active in support of the 'enemy aliens' transported on the HMT Dunera and interned in camps at Hay and Tatura. Quite a number of 'Dunera boys' subsequently became members of the Religious Society of Friends and made significant contributions to Quaker life in Australia.

The Religious Society of Friends was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize from 1912 and was shortlisted in 1936, 1937 and 1938. One of the difficulties facing the Norwegian Nobel Committee was highly devolved nature of authority in the Society (there was no Quaker Pope) and consequently as to whom an award could be made. This was resolved in the award of the Peace Prize in 1948 jointly to the Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee, the humanitarian relief organisations of British and American Quakers respectively.