On 5th July 1916 – 100 years ago today – Norman Gaudie, a conscientious objector to the First World War, set foot on English soil for the first time in just over a month.
Norman was one of a group of sixteen men known as the Richmond Sixteen who had been forcibly transported from Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire to France. Court martialled for refusing to take part in the First World War, they were sentenced to death – although this was immediately reduced to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour. On their return they were sent to Winchester prison. The regime was strict, but they devised ingenious ways to communicate with each other and keep up morale.
The diet was rudimentary, prisoners spent great lengths of time alone in their cells and their families were only allowed brief visits. Perhaps worst of all was the ‘silence rule’, which meant that speaking with other prisoners was a punishable offence.
Speaking in code
While still in France some of the conscientious objectors learnt Morse code from a soldier prisoner who suggested they could use the code to communicate by tapping on their cells walls. They adapted the system of dots and dashes to work in prison conditions: two taps on the cell wall denoted a dot and one tap, a dash. Outside of the cells, some conscientious objectors found other ways to conduct coded conversations, using winks, whistles and hand gestures behind their backs.
Morse code was only one way that conscientious objectors communicated. Some managed to discreetly talk on the parade ground or shout from their cell windows, and occasionally lenient or sympathetic warders allowed conscientious objectors to speak to one another. Others perfected the art of secretly passing notes. Before his arrest for refusing to sign up Charles Herbert Senior, one of the Richmond Sixteen, hid a pencil in a secret pocket sown into his vest. At Winchester he used this to write and distribute notes on toilet paper.
Fishing for books
Although prisoners were usually allowed a limited number of books, this was a privilege. After Norman Gaudie refused to complete prison work on the grounds of conscience, his books were confiscated. With little to occupy his mind, his thoughts turned to fishing. Norman tied some brown bread to two lengths of string and lowered it out of his window to the cell below. Someone grabbed the bread, which gave Norman an idea.
Using Morse code, he hatched a plan with Charles in the adjoining cell and made a rudimentary fishing rod using string and scissors. He swung the string into Charles’s cell, who then attached books to the string and returned them for Norman to read. They were only caught when a book fell from the string, resulting in a warning from the warder.
Solidarity and fellowship
These secret communications enabled some of the conscientious objectors at Winchester to form a united strategy towards prison work. When rumours spread that the coal sacks the conscientious objectors were sewing were for naval use and could therefore be classified as war work, two conscientious objectors used knocks and taps to discuss what tasks they could conscientiously perform, before passing on their verdict to another conscientious objector. They refused to work until given alternative bags to sew.
As well as allowing conscientious objectors to work together, Morse code created a sense of fellowship, staved off loneliness and exercised men’s minds. Norman and Charles discussed the bible and other conscientious objectors conducted chess tournaments by tapping on pipes.
Conscientious objectors and prison reform
The secret communications at Winchester prison allowed conscientious objectors to express their beliefs, prevent loneliness and, arguably, resist a prison sentence and system many felt was unfair.
The men sentenced in France never completed their ten year sentences and were released in 1919. After their release, many conscientious objectors went on to campaign for improvements in prison conditions. This included better provision of books and the condemnation of the silence rule. conscientious objectors and their experiences played an important role in stimulating prison reform and continue to have resonance in discussions today.
The graffiti left by prisoners and others from the First World War onwards on the walls of the cell block at Richmond Castle form a unique and remarkable record. But the graffiti are fragile, lining the walls of a 19th-century building that wasn’t designed to last. Now, with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage is embarking on a conservation project to preserve the cell block at Richmond Castle.