War Resisters in South London in the Great War (1914-1919) by John Taylor

We are pleased to be able to include a history feature by Southwark historian John Taylor on the 250 men in Southwark who refused military service when the government brought in conscription in 1916. This feature also includes a film by Sands Films in Rotherhithe of John giving a talk about this story https://www.sandsfilms.co.uk/war-resisters.html. John Taylor has tried to recover their story and that of the men and women who supported them and publicly campaigned against the war. John writes:

During the Great War of 1914-18 there were getting on for 250 men in the present borough who, for reasons of conscience, refused military service when the government brought in conscription in 1916.  Some, like the Quakers, were Christians who held to the fifth commandment; many were socialists of various shades.

There were two centres of opposition. One was in Bermondsey, around Alfred and Ada Salter, who were both Quakers and socialists. The other, in East Dulwich (then part of Camberwell) grew out of the borough’s Trades and Labour Council, though Quakers from the meeting house in Peckham was also a presence.

In between those two poles, in the old borough of Southwark, running from Bankside to Walworth, there was no organised opposition to the war. Nonetheless 32 conscientious objectors declined the summons to the recruiting office or presented themselves instead to the military service tribunal sitting in Walworth Town Hall.

The records are fragmentary but eleven can be identified as coming from Walworth. Men like Robert William Allen, a postman from Crail Row; the brothers John and Albert Hawkes, from Phelp Street, the first a provisions dispatcher for a restaurant and former student at Fircroft, the college for mature students in Birmingham founded by the Quaker George Cadbury, the latter a lithographic machine minder; and Robert Jarvis, from Larcom Street, a clerk and Baptist.

The first and last of these accepted alternative service with the Non-Combatant Corps, a body which unloaded ships and trains, built roads, erected huts, and the like. After sentences of hard labour the Hawkes brothers accepted transfer from prison to a less rigorous regime in a series of labour camps under what was known as the Home Office scheme.

In the borough as a whole seven men, known as absolutists, resisted these softer options. They, from anti-war principle, opted to stay in prison. They were released when they had served their sentence but were then “called to the colours” again and, when they refused to serve, were again court-martialled. They were, in effect, repeatedly sentenced for the same offence.

An absolutist In Walworth was Arthur Douglas King, a tobacco stower from Beckway Street. After arrest for failing to report his CV reads:

  • court-martialled Hazeley Down (Winchester) October 1916 : two years’ hard labour, evidently commuted, served in Wandsworth
  • turned down the Home Office scheme
  • court-martialled Winchester February 1917, two years’ hard labour, commuted again, served in Winchester prison
  • court-martialled Winchester July 1917: two years’ hard labour
  • court-marshalled Chelsea March 1919: two years’ hard labour
  • released from Wandsworth April 1919

All honour to the likes of Arthur King, I say. This detail, I should add, is taken from Cyril Pearce’s national database of conscientious objectors, which is accessible via the Imperial War Museum website.

II

Though it is focused on the war-resisters I have sought to embed my research in the wider context of the war, including, in the first place, the domestic front in London. Walworth is interesting in that respect. For it was here, in Trafalgar Street, that the first honours board is reported, at least in this part of London, among the many that appeared in the autumn of 1916.

Inscribed THE ROLL OF HONOUR/PRO PATRIA, “beautifully framed in oak,” and “tenderly adorned by fresh flowers, every day,” it celebrated nearly 300 men from 124 houses who had joined up but listed just the 17 who had “given their lives for their country” and the 28 who had been wounded. The South London Press said it was in the charge of Mrs Goodman (four sons serving, one missing) and Mrs Baker (two sons serving, one killed).

A murky photograph shows an array of flags on a house-front, plus a number of portraits. There are some small children beneath the display, called a war memorial as well as a roll of honour, and to the left a crowd of women.

This was evidently not the first. The report mentions the unveiling of a memorial in Ethelred Street, Kennington, and says it is a continuation of the already established scheme of street records in south London initiated in the parish of St. John’s, Larcom Street, and continued in that of St. Peter’s, Walworth, and St Mark’s, north Camberwell.

Immediately more honours boards, sometimes called war shrines, are reported, spreading out over Camberwell in particular. By the end of October there were 250 across London.  Some were initiated by local churches, others had official or newspaper sponsorship. But essentially it seems to have been a grassroots movement – as in Trafalgar Street – one spontaneous tribute to the men from the immediate area sparking off others.

The memorials were clearly a matter of local pride and competition. They help to answer the question that for me hovers over the home front: which is how civilian morale held up in the face of repeated military failure and the never-ending lists of dead and wounded. The SLP rarely carried less than one broadsheet column of south London casualties each week (in very small print), sometimes two that autumn of 1916 as the battle of the Somme dragged on.

It’s difficult for us, in a softer age, to understand the resilience of people confronted with that slaughter and the constant threat to their loved ones.

Part of the answer is given by the headlines on the front of the paper:

  • 1 September: “BRITISH THRASH THE PRUSSIAN GUARDS

  IN FRANCE”

  • 15 September: “NOTABLE VICTORIES IN FRANCE”
  • 29 September: “OUR BIGGEST VICTORY OF THE WAR
  • 6 October: “HUNS HAMMERED ON ALL FRONTS”

And so on. When the battle fizzled out in November the Germans had been pushed back a dozen square miles, at the sacrifice of 400,000 British casualties.

The rolls of honour, in Trafalgar Street and elsewhere, were a public expression of pride in the men doing their duty by the country. They also, I would say, expressed a neighbourly solidarity that helped people endure a war in which victory, despite the headlines, stayed
out sight, while the inexorable casualty lists came ever closer, with the constant fear of the War Office telegram.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s