Shanks, Robert, 1870-1921, pacifist, Christian reformer and political activist

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Shanks, Robert, 1870-1921, pacifist, Christian reformer and political activist

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Robert Shanks was born in 1870 in Bridgeton, Glasgow to John Shanks, master slater, and Margaret Cross Shanks (nee McMillan). He was brought up in the East End of the city, where he was to live and work for the rest of his life. From 1892-1907, Shanks was employed as a clerk and traveller for Messrs. P.S. Brownlie & Co., Crown Fire Clay Works, East Nelson Street, Glasgow. He subsequently became a partner in the firm of Messrs. J. Steele and Shanks, fire-clay manufacturers. By the time of his marriage to Catherine Reid Hovell on 8 September 1911, Shanks was living at 3 Whitevale Street, Glasgow.

Throughout his life, Shanks strove to combat social and political evils and to improve the living conditions of those in the East End of Glasgow. A committed Christian and pacifist, he was involved from a young age with the Camlachie Institute, which was the local centre of religious and philanthropic enterprise, and was closely associated with the Institute’s Sabbath School, Bible-Class and Young Men’s Christian Association. A proponent of Scottish Home Rule, Shanks’ political sympathies were Liberal, and he was active early on in the Camlachie Liberal Association, in the Scottish League for the Taxation of Land Values, and in the Young Scots Society, serving as President of its Glasgow Eastern Branch from 1909. In 1906 Shanks became chairman of the Liberal Election Committee, and in 1910 he resisted the party's calls for him to contest the Camlachie seat on its behalf. A year later, at the municipal elections of 1911, he was returned as local Councillor for the Whitevale Ward of Glasgow. While his protests against imperialism and militarism led to Councillor Shanks being lampooned and cartooned in the local press, his dignity and sincerity also won him admirers within the Council chamber. When he came to seek re-election in November 1914, the Great War had broken out and, unsurprisingly, the pacifist Shanks lost his Council seat. He had been selected as the Liberal Candidate for the Camlachie Division, but withdrew on the grounds of his pacifist principles. Several years later, he joined the Independent Labour Party.

Shanks’ activities subsequently became more firmly focused on education, and he was one of the first people in Scotland to join the Union of Democratic Control, serving both as Chairman of its Glasgow Branch and of its Scottish Federation. He actively supported the No-Conscription Fellowship (of which he was briefly Chairman) and worked tirelessly to provide practical assistance to conscientious objectors and their families. After the war, when many conscientious objectors remained imprisoned, Shanks was instrumental in circulating an appeal for their release throughout the West of Scotland, which, duly signed by representative citizens, was then submitted to the government. His greatest achievement, however, was the Study Circle (originally known as the Eastern Study Circle), a Christian Fellowship formed by Shanks shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. The Study Circle attracted hundreds of people from across the city, who met in Glasgow on Sunday mornings to discuss the principles and problems of national and international life and the pressing social and political issues of the day, in the light of Christianity. A convincing, charismatic speaker and an inspiring personality, Shanks delivered addresses and conducted religious services at the Study Circle's weekly meeting for six years until he died on 16 July 1921, following a period of illness. Shanks, whose final residence was 134 Onslow Drive, Dennistoun, Glasgow, had no children, and was survived by his wife, Catherine and his nephew, Dr John Shanks.


Glasgow, Scotland

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GB 249

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ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2003); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).


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Created by Anne Cameron, January 2019.




'Robert Shanks: Christian Reformer, Pacifist, Internationalist 1870-1921' (Glasgow: The Study Circle, 1921)

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