War & Military

Conscientious Objection Remembered

Conscientious objection during the First World War is remembered in a new two-mile walk from Finsbury Park station to the Salisbury Public House on Green Lanes in Harringay, which passes houses where conscientious objectors lived, marks meeting places, and points out organisations actively opposed to war between 1914 and 1918. The walk can be found in a free 32-page illustrated booklet, produced by the Haringey First World War Peace Forum, with the support of Heritage Lottery Fund, and downloadable from the Conscientious Objection Remembered website and from Haringey libraries. 

A map in the booklet locates the Stroud Green house where the five Walker brothers lived, all at one time or another arrested, court-martialled or given prison sentences. They were clerks and commercial artists, aged between 21 and 33 in age, and refused to answer any call-up papers, respond to military orders or undress for medicals when they were taken to Mill Hill Barracks. Their sister made sure that the brutality they experienced was publicised. The walk also visits the hall where Sylvia Pankhurst spoke against conscription in February 1916. Taking a very different position to the war from her suffragette mother and sister who were enthusiastic recruiters, Sylvia spoke at open-air meetings where she was physically attacked. The walk ends at the Salisbury Hotel where protest meetings were held a hundred years ago. Nearby, a plaque commemorating the Haringey conscientious objectors (COs) will be installed in May 2019.

Members of Haringey First World War Peace Forum (HFWWPF) have been researching the background to conscientious objection and have compiled biographies of the 350 Haringey conscientious objectors, the largest group in the country. These men have been traced with the help of Cyril Pearce’s national listing of COs and by drawing on the surviving records of the Middlesex Appeals Tribunal at the National Archives.

Haringey COs said no to military service for a variety of reasons and included socialists, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Plymouth Brethren, Jews, Roman Catholics and others who professed no affiliation. They had a wide variety of occupations including teachers, illustrators, and tailors. Many were white-collar workers, particularly in the western side of the borough in Hornsey where over 60 per cent had managerial, office or professional employment. Others on the eastern side, in Tottenham and Wood Green, worked in the manual trades and transport with about 45 per cent in white-collar employment. The No-Conscription Fellowship played a part in supporting the men and the Northern Division of the Herald League was active, holding meetings in the streets and in Finsbury Park itself, throughout the war and in the face of sometimes violent opposition.

On one well-known occasion, documented on film, a debate between the Herald League and Havelock Wilson, a vehement pro-war supporter and leader of the Seaman’s Union, was broken up by sailors organised by Captain Edward Tupper, one of Wilson’s key men. The Socialist Party of Great Britain continued its activities, though other groups such as the British Socialist Party had split over support for the war. Non-conformist churches played a sympathetic role, with evidence of attendance and affiliation presented from ministers and pastors in support of claims for exemption.

Few COs were granted absolute exemption and many were subjected to humiliating and demeaning treatment in their brief tribunal hearings. The alternative – non-combatant service – was accepted by many though this might also result in unfortunate moral compromises. A very few were exempt because their work was deemed to be of national importance and even so they would be required to provide regular proof of their employment. Absolutists were arrested, court martialled when they refused to obey military orders and subjected to terms of imprisonment. Most COs were not released from prison until April 1919. Amongst the Haringey COs was Fred Murfin, a printer and Quaker who was to become one of the ‘French men’, taken to the battlefields along with 34 others and threatened with the death penalty.

Before the war, this area of North London, like many other parts of the capital, would have seen regular speaking pitches on street corners and in Finsbury Park, with speakers expressing support for Irish nationalists, opposition to militarism and support for striking cinema and transport workers. As well as trade union branches, alternative ‘rebel’ activities were organised by the Independent Labour Party and Trades and Labour councils, the Clarion Cycle Club, Clarion Fellowship, Socialist Sunday Schools, the Women’s Labour League, the Fabians, the Co-operative movement and the North London Socialist choir. Evidence of continuity throughout the war is difficult to trace partly because very few of the 350 men have left much evidence of their opposition, though the later activities of some such as Albert Inkpin, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, journalist and author R. M. Fox, Quaker Fred Murfin, and Isaac Goss, a leading member of the No-Conscription Fellowship, are on record.

One tantalisingly elusive set of connections yet to be established is between the pre-war suffrage movement and support by local women for COs. Though we have noted the activity of a few women whose brothers or other family members resisted conscription, nothing more has so far been discovered. HFFWPF welcomes contributions, suggestions, and links to other research, and members are keen to enter into discussions, present findings and take up opportunities to share ideas with respect to any aspect of war resistance between 1914 and 1918.

The map for the walking tour of Haringey’s First World War Conscientious Objectors is downloadable here.

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