Against the Tide – Northampton Conscientious Objectors in World War One
Post talk blog by John Buckell
On the evening of the hottest July day on record (1st July 2015), nine people gathered at the Museum to listen to this talk. They included the granddaughter of a Northampton WW1 conscientious objector, and a Quaker lady from Bournemouth who had grown up in Northampton.
The talk was based on the stories of some of the 60 conscientious objectors (COs) who I have identified in the records of the Northamptonshire Appeals Tribunal. Northamptonshire is one of a very small number of counties that retained these records after the war. I began with an account of the rejection by Northampton Town Council in 1920 of Harold Croft, a nominee for alderman. A majority of councillors refused to accept a man who had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the recent war. The background to conscientious objection was then explained – the introduction of conscription in 1916, the insertion of a conscience clause in the legislation and the setting up of local and county tribunals to judge claims for exemption from military service.
Stories of individual COs were used to illustrate their varying religious, moral and political beliefs, as well as different outcomes to their appeals –non-combatant service, alternative “work of national importance,” or dismissal, sometimes leading to prison and the Home Office Scheme. Evidence from a Northampton man’s diary showed what happened to COs who refused to obey orders when conscripted into the army.
Conscientious objectors who became mayors of Northampton – left, Albert Burrows (1935); right, George Nutt (1959). Northampton Independent Northampton Central Library, courtesy of Northamptonshire Newspapers
Instances of public hostility to COs were given, but also evidence of a local support network – the No Conscription Fellowship, the Quakers and individuals prepared to testify to a man’s genuine conscientious objection to military service. A number of women also gave active moral support, including attendance at courts martial.
The talk concluded with an outline of the future careers of some Northampton COs.
Several questions arose from the talk. How, for example, did tribunals judge the sincerity (or otherwise) of men claiming conscientious objection? Some men were working on military orders for boots, others withdrew appeals and a small number had earlier attested their willingness to serve. These were a minority, however, and it took a strong commitment to principle to face a public tribunal, and possibly the ostracism of neighbours and workmates.
Did the numbers of skilled workers in the boot factories, essential for army boots, result in fewer men being conscripted in Northampton than elsewhere in the country? It is impossible to answer this without comparative figures, but of course many other towns also had their own essential industries. Being a key worker in one of these was certainly firm grounds for exemption, unless substitutes could be trained. Conscience cases were only a small proportion of total exemptions.
Another query concerned the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), a Quaker founded body which tended the wounded at the front, in parallel with the official Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). At least one Northampton CO served in the FAU, but it was oversubscribed and difficult to get into. A small number of Northampton COs did alternative medical work at home with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) of St. John Ambulance Brigade and Red Cross. Others refused even hospital work, on the grounds that it would release another man to fight and kill.
Once again, I am grateful to everyone who attended my talk, especially on such a fine evening, and for the interesting questions raised and answers suggested. Thanks are also due to the family of Wilfrid, William and Wesley Church for permission to use photographs and diary extracts.