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Conscientious Objectors: How the Richmond 16 pioneered our right to choose

Posted:
13 May 2016
Posted By:
Kevin Booth
Categories:
History Uncovered
A graffiti portrait of Annie Wainwright by John Hubert Brocklesby.

Conscientious objectors were often shunned and criticised during the First World War. Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage, explores how the actions of these conscientious objectors, shaped our right to choice and conscience.

Conscription and conscientious objectors

In today’s Britain individual men and women choose whether to pursue a career in the military, and when to leave it. As citizens we feel comfortable protesting for or against action, expressing our views in myriad formats and electing those representatives who reflect our own point of view.

In 2015 British MPs were given freedom from their party whip to vote on military action over Syria. The parliamentary debate saw impassioned appeals from both sides of the argument. These were speeches whose argument was based not simply on the intricacies of international law, or of perceived success or feared collateral damage: in many ways the decision of parliament came down to the matter of individual conscience.

100 years before the Syria debate, Herbert Asquith’s government was preparing a bill for parliament to introduce conscription for unmarried men between the ages 18 and 41. The Military Service Act passed into law in March 1916. The bill’s first draft provided three categories for exemption: civilian service in the national interest, serious hardship for a man’s dependents, and ill-health.

For the second draft a further category was added: exemption on the grounds of ‘a conscientious objection to undertaking combatant service’. It is perhaps in this last minute revision, included to keep members of the government’s own party from rebelling, that the first faltering steps were taken toward today’s freedom.

Poster advertising the Military Service Act 1916

Military Service Bill by British Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons .

Stigma and hardship

Conscientious objectors in 1916 were rarely seen in a positive light. In parliament the inclusion of conscience clause caused uproar on the opposition benches. In the House of Lords Lord Willoughby de Broke declared that objection to fighting ‘displayed a selfishness, a hypocrisy and an arrogance … difficult to forgive’.

In the context of the huge losses at the front and immeasurable hardship and pain at home, conscientious objectors were viewed as shirkers and as cowards: their actions were seen as being unchristian, unpatriotic, unmanly, and even unhinged.

Most of those who gained exemption from fighting were obliged to join the Non-Combatant Corps, where they were given work related to the war effort which didn’t involve actual fighting. A much smaller number, termed absolutists, refused to carry out any action that aided the war effort.

All conscientious objectors were open to being pilloried for their actions: ostracized by society and often by close family they would struggle after the war to find meaningful employment. Absolutists faced all this, but also faced also military discipline, periodic incarceration and court martial, with many serving long, solitary, prison sentences until months after the end of the war.

The Richmond 16

Among the absolutists was a group of men dubbed the ‘Richmond 16’, They refused to join the Non-Combatant Corps, and were imprisoned at Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire in 1916. They were then taken to France to be court-martialled, where they were sentenced to death, though the sentence was immediately commuted to 10 years of hard labour. The stance taken by the Richmond 16 and others in May 1916 presented an unprecedented challenge to military authority and to social convention – one for which no provision had been made and no response planned.

These actions though informed a changed view when conscription was introduced again in 1939. Exemption on grounds of conscience was included in the bill but with a specific reference to absolutists. Still stigmatised and labelled ‘conchies’ the experience of those granted exemption proved less arduous and demeaning than in WWI. Over 60,000 men and women registered for the scheme with 3,000 gaining absolute exemption.

After the war the concept of the right to conscience became enshrined in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, instituted by the newly convened United Nations General Assembly. The text – that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ – can be seen in some way to have been informed by, and to codify, the actions of those at Richmond in 1916.

Remembering the Richmond 16

A major new conservation project has been launched to protect the graffiti left behind in the cells at Richmond Castle, thanks to a £365,400 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund announced today. The cells will be closed to the public during conservation work, but in the meantime, you visit the cells virtually via a 360 video.

Aside from its role in the First World War, Richmond Castle is one of the oldest Norman stone fortresses in England, with almost 1000 years of history. Its 30 metre high keep, added later by Henry II offers sweeping views across the Yorkshire Dales and the River Swale. The castle is open daily from 10am – 6pm.

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  • About the Author

    Kevin Booth
    Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage

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  1. Congratulations on the award and thank you for your work to draw attention to the stand taken by these people of principle, whatever was thought of them at the time – as your blog highlights, a fascinating reminder of how perspectives have changed.

    However, I was rather taken aback when hearing the choice of title for the Richmond Castle exhibition – “Voices of Rebellion”. Rebellion? That title assumes that the correct label for the conscientious objectors of Richmond Castle is “rebels” – a strong word, laden with judgment, even a century on. But is refusing to fight really the same as rebelling? Are we to lump those who believed in peace at all costs in the same category as those who actively took up arms against their own country? (for example, the rebels of the Easter Rising).

    Labels seep into public consciousness, and by describing these men as “rebels”, you categorise them – in the public mind, starting with millions of listeners to Radio 4 this morning – as enemies of the state. Yet, from what I can gather, they were no such thing – they would have protested strongly at the idea that they were somehow supporting the Kaiser. By choosing this value-laden word, you also subtly categorise them as outsiders, aliens who somehow stood against “the rest of us” right-thinking people.

    Your blog rightly draws parallels with modern times – and the issue that these men stood up for is still very much a live one. The universal adoption of the poppy around Remembrance Sunday, the Invictus Games, “Help for heroes” and other such developments are testament to a new public awareness of what it really means to fight (and die) for one’s country.

    All the more reason why we should be so careful in the terms we use to refer to these things in the past. Governments then, for sound strategic reasons, needed us to see the issue in crude binary terms – you must fight or you’re a traitor, you’re either a patriot or you’re a rebel. But, a century on, we should not fall into the same trap.

    “Voices of rebellion” or “voices of conscience”?

  2. Further reference:
    Among the Richmond Sixteen were five International Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Herbert Senior, who became a Bible Student in 1905 at the age of 15, wrote some 50 years later: “We were put into cells that were more like dungeons. They had probably not been used for years, as there was two to three inches of debris on the floors.” Graffiti and writing, now faded and in places illegible, that prisoners drew and wrote on their whitewashed cell walls have recently been made public. They consist of names, messages, and drawings of loved ones, along with statements of faith.
    One prisoner simply wrote: “I might as well die for a principle as for a lack of one.” Many messages include references to Jesus Christ and his teachings, and there are also carefully drawn replicas of the cross-and-crown emblem, used at that time by the International Bible Students Association (IBSA). Herbert Senior records that he drew on his cell wall the “Chart of the Ages” from the Bible study aid The Divine Plan of the Ages, but it has not been found. It may be lost along with other writings on walls in the main cell block or elsewhere. Another inscription reads: ‘Clarence Hall, Leeds, I.B.S.A. May 29th, 1916. Sent to France.’

    … The Richmond Sixteen successfully “brought the issue of conscientious objection to public attention and began to win acceptance and respect for it.” This led to a more understanding approach by the authorities when dealing with those who registered as conscientious objectors during World War II.

    Source: Awake! magazine, 12/22/2004 issue, pages 12 & 13

  3. Both of my grandfathers were conscientious objectors. My Mum’s father, a carpenter from Bristol, was sent to Dartmoor Prison. He met my Dad’s father, a gardener from Dorset, when both were assigned to the non-combatant corps. They were both committed Christians. They kept in touch after the war, both married and had families, and several times holidayed together. That is how my parents met. I understand from relatives that the case of my maternal grandfather, John Daniell was raised in Parliament, but have not, so far, been able to confirm this. My paternal grandfather, James Woodley, married a war widow, whose skills in stitching corsetry had been transferred to making tents at Hilsea Lines. He settled in Portsmouth. My father and uncle both served during the second world war.

  4. Thanks for sharing your family’s story with us Pauline.
    Best wishes,
    Clare

  5. Dear Angus,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to our work at Richmond Castle, particularly with regard to the project title ‘Voices of Rebellion’.

    The project at Richmond seeks to conserve the structure of the cell block in order to protect a broad range of graffiti inscribe on its walls. Graffiti left by conscientious objectors during WWI makes up just part of a much wider archive left by as many as a thousand individuals who had different reasons for being in the cells, and different motivations behind the record they left. The term ‘Voices of Rebellion’ was chosen some months ago as a means of capturing these differing perspectives: ‘rebellion’ was intended to capture the stance taken by absolutist COs, but also, for example, to be used more playfully when thinking about those held after one beer too many in the town.

    Being a rebel of course does not have to carry negative connotations, it can as much suggest strength of conviction and a willingness to challenge. With the absolutist COs I think it is fair to say that they were very much rebelling against authority and convention in their refusal to take any part in the furthering of the war effort. Public consultation within Richmond and the nearby garrison ahead of the project did not generate adverse feedback about the role of the COs at Richmond, nor did the association as being rebels. That said, and with hindsight, I suspect you are correct that the project title may well forge a negative association amongst some who are unfamiliar with the detail, or could indeed cause upset amongst those who feel passionately about the stance taken by the absolutists. Further, having looked more carefully at the content of the later graffiti, it is clear that there are many voices for which the term rebellion is clearly not accurate.

    On this basis English Heritage will be discussing with our project partners whether we should change the project title. ‘Voices of conscience’ would itself be misleading given the nature of much of the other graffiti, but something which more broadly reflects the range and emotion conveyed in the building may indeed be more suitable.

  6. As I have publicly stated, I have no doubt that members of the Richmond Sixteen would have been shocked to have been considered ‘rebels’. They were, after all, only attempting to acquire the concession allowed for conscientious objectors by the 1916 Military Service Act itself. The rebels were arguably the local dignitaries, members of many a Military Service Tribunal, who were not prepared to grant the concession allowed by the Government for those entitled. This resulted in a position that neither the COs or the Army wanted.
    The dilemma can easily be resolved by English Heritage simply renaming the project ‘Voices of Resistance’, for though they were not rebels, they certainly displayed resistance.
    Gary Perkins, author of ‘Bible Student Conscientious Objectors in World War One – Britain’

  7. Hi Gary,

    Thank you for your comment. We asked Kevin Booth – the Senior Curator of the North – for a reply on this issue, which is as follows:

    “Thank you for your thoughtful response to our work at Richmond Castle, particularly with regard to the project title ‘Voices of Rebellion’.
    The project at Richmond seeks to conserve the structure of the cell block in order to protect a broad range of graffiti inscribe on its walls. Graffiti left by conscientious objectors during WWI makes up just part of a much wider archive left by as many as a thousand individuals who had different reasons for being in the cells, and different motivations behind the record they left. The term ‘Voices of Rebellion’ was chosen some months ago as a means of capturing these differing perspectives: ‘rebellion’ was intended to capture the stance taken by absolutist COs, but also, for example, to be used more playfully when thinking about those held after one beer too many in the town.

    “Being a rebel of course does not have to carry negative connotations, it can as much suggest strength of conviction and a willingness to challenge. With the absolutist COs I think it is fair to say that they were very much rebelling against authority and convention in their refusal to take any part in the furthering of the war effort. Public consultation within Richmond and the nearby garrison ahead of the project did not generate adverse feedback about the role of the COs at Richmond, nor did the association as being rebels. That said, and with hindsight, I suspect you are correct that the project title may well forge a negative association amongst some who are unfamiliar with the detail, or could indeed cause upset amongst those who feel passionately about the stance taken by the absolutists. Further, having looked more carefully at the content of the later graffiti, it is clear that there are many voices for which the term rebellion is clearly not accurate.

    “On this basis English Heritage will be discussing with our project partners whether we should change the project title. ‘Voices of conscience’ would itself be misleading given the nature of much of the other graffiti, but something which more broadly reflects the range and emotion conveyed in the building may indeed be more suitable.”

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