Conscientious objector in World War II
Len Gray is a member of Northampton Local Meeting. He has written a personal account of his experience as a conscientious objector and has also recorded an extended interview. Both accounts are included here, together with a set of photographs taken during his wartime work with the International Voluntary Service for Peace. Together, these accounts provide insight into Len’s personal decision-making and his early encounters with Quakerism.
From the age of fourteen I had begun to take a deeper interest in religion and particularly in the Anglo-Catholic church where I was a communicant and regular attender. I was a server and with the choir and other servers spent some summers on the estate of the Townshend family who allowed us to use some cottages and outbuildings at Raynham Hall near West Raynham. From there we travelled to Walsingham to visit the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I seem to remember that I was not impressed by the shrine itself but the obvious devotion of the people tending the shrine and of the worshippers was impressive.
In 1938 the possibility of war began to seem very real and I was finding it more and more difficult to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the concept of war. With the declaration of war in September 1939 I had to decide whether, holding this belief, I could accept service in the armed forces or whether I should be a conscientious objector.
Whilst I was agonising over this I discovered a colleague who had already determined that he would register as a conscientious objector (for political reasons) and in discussions with him I found out about various pacifist bodies. I began to read their literature. By sheer coincidence at this time I renewed my acquaintance with two old school friends who were attenders at the local Friends Meeting. I knew nothing about the Society of Friends at this time but soon learned of their peace testimony and that the warden of the local Meeting House had organised a weekly meeting for conscientious objectors and those who like me were finding it difficult to accept conscription. He offered only support, fellowship and information – never trying to steer anyone in any direction. Indeed it would have been useless to do so. If you did not really and sincerely believe in the cause of pacifism you would be unable to stand the social pressures which came with the label of “conscientious objector”. He used to look over the statements we prepared for submission to the Tribunal. In mine I wrote that Jesus Christ was the revelation of God “to man”. He suggested that perhaps I should say “in man”. I was unable to do this simply because at that time I had not encountered the Quaker belief in “that of God in every man”. Now of course I would write something very akin to this. My beliefs and faith have moved away from the orthodoxy I accepted at that time.
Eventually when my call-up papers came I registered as a conscientious objector. Although nobody in my immediate circle of family and friends was critical or condemnatory I received little help from my mother who, I think, could not understand what I was doing. I wonder now whether she ever discussed my action with anybody outside the family because I realise now that she would have been very embarrassed to admit that I was a “conchie”. But my employer made it clear that whilst I would not be “forced” to go, he would like me to leave. I am still not sure why he felt like this, because he was on the whole a very fair-minded man, but there was no doubt about his desire to see the back of me.
The problem I had was what to do in a country gearing up for a war in which the whole of the population would be making sacrifices. It was almost impossible to find work which in some way or another was not helping the “war effort” and I wanted to find something constructive which would be an affirmation of my Christian values and a denial of the culture of destruction. In common with other COs [conscientious objectors] I looked for ways of making a constructive contribution to the community. I had heard of the International Voluntary Service for Peace and their work camps and I also discovered that they were starting a re-afforestation scheme in Kershope Forest in north Cumberland. Kershope is a small adjunct to Kielder Forest. I applied for a place and was accepted. Early in 1940 for the first time in my life I left the places and sights and sounds which had been my environment for nineteen years and headed for a life and work which were completely unknown to me. My two school friends came to Euston station to see me off on the overnight train to Carlisle. I never saw them again but I heard later that one of them, Tom Hayley, joined the FAU [Friends Ambulance Unit] and went with the Unit to China. I was never able to find out what happened to my other friend.
My decision to go to Kershope was a result of my desire to do something constructive. There were other opportunities to do this (e.g. Friends Ambulance Unit) but they required participants to finance themselves and this I could not afford. At Kershope I would be paid the same weekly wage as a private soldier. In some way this made me feel that I was not taking advantage of not being in the services. In fact it was not until some months later that a tribunal in Carlisle “decided” that my objection was “conscientious” and agreed that I should not be conscripted.
Most of the other volunteers were middle class and had attended university and through them I became aware of a world of literature and intellectual achievement previously unknown to me and this period was one of learning and reading voraciously authors I had never before heard of – John Murray is one that springs to mind. I was also conscious of a great sense of well-being due no doubt to the hard physical work entailed in working in the forest. There was no machinery and we dug drains, planted trees, weeded young plantations and nursery beds all by hand. There was much humour and comradeship in the work and in our small community.
I remember the experience as a boy from the East End of London learning about the cultivation of trees, helping farmers at harvest time, and digging potato clamps. I began to feel more confident and this I think must have become apparent because I was deputed to go to the local farmers and arrange for a supply of potatoes to see us through the winter – hence the building of clamps. My recollections of these occasions was that all negotiations had to be preceded by at least half an hour of discussion about the weather and other topics before we got down to the business of arranging a contract between us. We lived in a small hamlet called Grahams Onsett and it was part of my duties each week to cycle into the nearest town – Longtown – to cash a cheque at the bank to pay the volunteers’ allowance and draw cash for the housekeeping.
(I have visited Grahams Onsett since – in 2001 – when Jerry, hearing of my wish to revisit this scene, took me on a pilgrimage to Kielder Forest and through Grahams Onsett to Kershopefoot and Newcastleton and then back to Carlisle and so home.)
The earnings of the Group were paid into a common fund from which living expenses were deducted together with the sum of seven shillings per week for each volunteer. This was the pay of a private soldier and meant that we did not benefit economically from our privileged status. The balance 10 of our earnings was sent to IVSP Leeds head office to be used for similar schemes.
Eventually the Forestry Commission decided to dispense with our services and the Kershope scheme was closed. We were all transferred to another scheme in Plaistow, East London., where we formed a demolition squad to take down buildings which had become dangerous having suffered bomb damage. The work was also done without the aid of machinery except for the lorries which carried away the rubble. This manual labour aspect of the work reflected the IVSP slogan “Pick and Shovel Peacemaking”.
I stayed with this squad for about a year. During this time I began to learn more about Friends and visited Friends House from time to time to take part in meetings and a conference with other peace workers. I began to attend Meeting for Worship.
I then learned of the work of the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. I cannot now remember precisely how but I began to work for them in their storage depot in Canonbury. Here we collected and distributed the furnishings, furniture and equipment for the children’s evacuation hostels which they had opened throughout the country. Delivering this equipment by motor vehicle took me to parts of the country that I had not previously visited. The overnight stops after delivery meant that we spent many long hours in discussion and I became aware of the breadth of vision which Quaker workers shared but which was new to me. I also had the privilege of spending a weekend at Charney Manor with other Relief workers. I still felt myself to be an Anglo-Catholic and attended Mass whenever I could but I began to find that Quakers somehow had a better grasp on the reality of religion.
In 1944 I decided to return to “civilian” life and I left the Friends Relief Service as it was then known. I returned to the City and a job with a small shipping company and later with the Netherlands Shipping and Trading Committee – the commercial arm of the Netherlands Government in exile.
During this time I met Betty through the introduction of a mutual acquaintance, and with her occasionally attended Baptist services. The worshippers were enthusiastic but it did not appeal to me. Betty also was beginning to feel disillusioned with the Baptists. The War ended in September 1945 and in December 1945 we were married and decided we needed to find a church which could accommodate both of us.
Recorded Peace Story (December 2009)
In the beginning...
Can you tell me about the origins of your pacifism?
Well the short answer to that is – there was never any suggestion of that at school, but I was a member of a church and I believed in the teachings of that church. It seemed to me, as I began to think for myself at about sixteen, the teachings of the church were at odds with what they actually did – certainly in terms of war. At that time, don’t forget that war – the possibility of another war – from 1937-38 onwards was becoming quite real. So it wasn’t so much a question of doing it hypothetically. You were thinking that maybe the time would come – we don’t know when, but in a few years time – that that would happen. But at that time I wasn’t thinking about what I would do, just recognising the fact that the world situation was such that a war could happen. In a very naive sort of way, I must say! I was, by that time, say seventeen or something like that.
What kind of school did you go to?
An ordinary elementary school, then I went to a grammar school. Funnily enough, the school – before I got there – had just disbanded its cadet force.
Which church did you join?
Anglo-Catholic. I did all the altar serving and that sort of thing. I was quite keen and there were quite a lot of boys of my age there doing the same thing. Did you have any discussion groups at the church? There was a Youth Club run by a lay worker who arranged social meetings in the Parish Room on Sunday afternoons. All the altar servers and some of the choir attended and we usually just sat and talked. Tea was served and after the meal the lay worker would deliver a little homily on what I would now call Christian Faith and Practice: although his views would not now, I think, find space in the Quaker Book. There might be some questions after his talk but certainly we would never have discussed pacifism.
Did you read about pacifism?
Yes. Much publicity was given to Oxford University undergraduates’ resolution to refuse “to take up arms for King and Country”. At this time, also, Dick Sheppard I think published a letter in the (then) Manchester Guardian, requesting all those who wanted to support pacifism to write to him renouncing their support of war. There was a huge response and a meeting was held in the Albert Hall from which the Peace Pledge Union was formed. I remember these events but I cannot remember whether or not I became a member. There was also Donald Soper and the MP for East Ham George Lansbury who spoke out for pacifism. I do not remember how much my reading about these events affected my own beliefs, but they would have been in my thoughts as I struggled with the development of my own attitude. Something must have happened, but I can’t pin it down, which concentrated my thoughts about it.
Probably a combination of things?
The fact was that I was quite firm and determined in my beliefs, not just in going to church. There was one man who caused a stir, a preacher... I can’t remember his name. I think that focused my attention on it. There were very few people around who would have taken the same stance at that time. Later on I began to meet other people. Funnily enough, I was saying to Betty, it’s incredible that, in quite a small area of Bethnal Green, there were three people who were conscientious objectors, who were pacifists. And we didn’t know each other, until afterwards. When I felt that this was what I wanted to do, it was quite by accident – even now I can’t remember what happened – I met a guy I’d been at school with. He wasn’t a Quaker but he was involved with what was then the Bedford Institute (they’ve all gone now) which was in Barnet Grove. There was a Friends Hall in Barnet Grove, Bethnal Green (it’s gone now). I don’t know how – I suppose in discussing these things, what he felt came out. He wasn’t necessarily saying at that time that he would be a conscientious objector. We didn’t think in those terms, you know. He and I and one other man – sometimes it was three of us, sometimes it was four. I would go to church on Sunday morning, and they would go to Meeting or whatever and we’d meet up afterwards and take a walk, a Sunday morning walk, usually around Victoria Park, and that was when we had these deep-seated discussions, and solved the problems of the world you know, at that age! It was then that I began to develop more.
When it came to the crunch and I actually made the decision, there was nobody around at all. What had happened to them I don’t know. I think one guy had joined the Army. They went off somewhere. In any case, when I decided to go to Kershope [as a volunteer forestry worker] two of them – one of them was Tom Hayley who joined the Friends Ambulance Unit – they came to Euston with me to see me off on the train which took me off to Kershope. I never saw them again. By the time I got back to London they had gone. All I know is that Tom Hayley went to China, that’s all. I never met him again.
The outbreak of war and meeting other pacifists
Where were you when war broke out?
I was at home, working. It wasn’t any particularly brilliant job, I was just working as a clerk in London.
How did you feel on the day when you had to go and make your statement as a CO?
That was a bit nerve-racking. But like a lot of things in life, you have to face them, and so you do. It was – I don’t know how to put it – it was a test in a way.
But you’d made your mind up in advance?
Oh yes, there was no doubt about it. I must have had, in the back of my mind, I must have read and got other information as well because I did that too confidently. I knew what to do when I got there, that’s the point. So somehow I must have been in touch with other people who also knew, because I remembered the phrase, “I wish to register as a conscientious objector.” It was not mine, it was something that I had found out that you had to say.
There were associations of COs?
Yes, that’s right. Most Christian faith groups had “peace” committees and most of these worked with the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors. The Fellowship of Reconciliation also was helpful. There were bodies, Quakers among them, that were set up to help and advise. And of course Charles Howarth was the Warden at the Bedford Institute and he was a Quaker. If I had to mention anybody who affected my life, I would say he did. He was a good man, a very good man. He went down, at some stage, to the Bernard Baron homes in Sussex, for elderly people. I think he became a Warden down there. Once upon a time I was thinking of going down there to try and track him down, but I never did. I heard about him from these two friends I had met, because they were – I don’t know how serious they were in terms of their religious ideas, but they had a very good social club going, and Charles Howarth, whilst running the social club, also made it clear what the basis for his reason for doing it was. So they understood that it wasn’t just do-goodery, as it were. He set up a kind of social evening where anybody who had thoughts of becoming a conscientious objector, or was having difficulty in reconciling the idea of war, could go along and chat. He never tried to proselytise, we just chatted about our various experiences and about things in general. What is amazing – I can remember this room – it was about four times as big as this, and there were men all round the room. I mean, in that small space, all of them interested. How many of them actually became pacifists I don’t know.
I met one of them later on. When I was working for the Friends, for a time I stood in for one of the workers who was ill, down at one of the evacuation hostels, down in Somerset, near the Foxes’ place, Gerbestone Manor. Now that’s been taken over and it’s a conference suite. The Foxes were the main people and Quakers there: they were running a hostel for evacuated children on their land. We cared for the children, washing and bathing them and their clothes, and in a caravan on the site we cooked meals for them. That was one of the things that I did, but only for a short time because I was only standing in while I was waiting for something else.
What I was saying was that while I was there – this is interesting – you’ve probably never heard of Spiceland, have you? Spiceland Training Centre, it was set up by south-western Friends. During the War a lot of people went there to train for relief work, and one of the friends I’d had in Bethnal Green was there. So I cycled over one day. It wasn’t too far away and so I cycled over and met him, and I think I stayed the night and came back the next day. I met Stanley Smith who was the farm manager there and then met him again and his wife Marjorie again in Ilford when Betty and I settled there after the War. He was the clerk of Ilford Meeting. He was a great help in introducing us to Friends in the Monthly Meeting and we remained friends until he died two years ago.
Just to tell you – what amazes me, in that area, where you would not expect such a high proportion of people who thought that way, they were dotted all over the place. They weren’t conscientious objectors, but pacifists. But when you started thinking about it yourself for the first time, you were very low. But gradually, of course, as the War went on all this began to disappear. What I’m talking about now... something happened while the War was on. As the effects of the War took effect people began to disappear: called up, or evacuated, or moved off to be somewhere safer. So in the end, I probably had... except for those two people who saw me off, and one of those wasn’t a pacifist, I mean there was nobody around at all.
Telling the boss
You said your employer wasn’t very sympathetic?
Well he was an ex-Army officer. I happened to know that one of his nephews, I think it was, had volunteered for the Army. Also I know that he brought his gun and Sam Browne belt, a leather strap which supports the holster, and he brought his old one up to give to his nephew. Well he had this in his hand while I was telling him that I was going to register as a conscientious objector! I had to tell him because he would expect or know that I would be called up, and he would wonder what was happening if I didn’t tell him. I think he was surprised as well, because in the time between the start of the war and my going I had taken part in the neighbourhood fire watch and ARP [Air Raid Precautions]. You went about and extinguished small fires started by incendiary bombs and that sort of thing. We didn’t have very much to do where we were, but I was doing it and he knew that. So he was quite surprised. To my mind it was something quite different to do that.
What did he say when you told him?
I think he wasn’t critical of me, funnily enough, but he was critical of the movement. Because I said to him, “Well I don’t want to shirk everything. I’m going up to Cumberland and I shall join an organisation that will pay me a Private’s pay and I will be working quite hard work in a forest there.” He said, “Where did you say it was?” I said, “Cumberland.” “They couldn’t have found a safer place, could they?” I said, “I don’t know about that.” “Oh”, he said, “I’m not saying anything about you.” I think he respected my decision. They all knew in that office that I was quite principled as regards my religious things. I remember once, we had two or three in an office and I was the younger and I had to answer the telephone one day and the boy said, could he speak to Mr whatever-it-was. So, “It’s message for you.” This guy said, “Tell him I’m not here.” I said, “I can’t do that!” They couldn’t believe it: “Why not?”. I said, “Well that’s lying.” So they knew the sort of person I was, so I suppose it wasn’t all that much of a surprise.
Forestry work and bombsite clearance
How did conscientious objectors know where to go? How did you find out about the forestry work?
Well I don’t know how I found out about IVSP (International Voluntary Service for Peace) but I must have seen something or heard something. I remember going to see somebody, I think it was up in Islington somewhere, to talk about what they were doing and whether they would be interested in my joining to do something. But, it’s a terrible thing to say, but I can’t remember anything about that except that it actually took place. As a result of that meeting I volunteered to join that particular group in Cumbria.
It must have been very hard physical work in the forest?
Honestly you wouldn’t recognise what I looked like there, after a few months of working there. The point was that IVSP – their motto was “pick and shovel peace-making”. Because all the work they did was manual, quite hard manual work. And Pierre Ceresole, who founded the movement Service Civil International, he spoke about it almost as though there was some kind of sacramental nature in working together. His idea was that people working together, doing that kind of work, would form bonds and it would help towards peace. But of course once the war broke out the camps were entirely English, or British. I think that’s how I found out about it, somebody must have told me about IVSP or I must have read about it somewhere. I think I had an enquiring mind!
So you did adapt to the hard work?
Well, the first summer it was very hot, a heat wave. We couldn’t strip off because we’d have burnt too much, but I was working with my sleeves rolled up and it got to the point where they got so burnt that I couldn’t put my sleeves down again. It was quite hard. But apart from that, somewhere I’ve seen a description of the work we were doing. I wish I could reproduce it but I can’t. It was quite hard.
Who was in charge of you?
The leader of the scheme was that chap Ramsey Bramham, who’s in that photograph, the chap smoking a pipe. He was the leader in the Centre. We had a business meeting, I think once a week, to discuss anything... that sort of thing. It was a community, to that extent. But the work was organised by the forester who was employed by the Forestry Commission. Either he spoke to us himself, or through a ganger. So we had with us, while we were working, a ganger who would tell us what to do. And the poor chap also had the job of showing us how to do it!
Did he make sure you were all working hard?
Well no, that was never a problem. I’m not kidding, that was never a problem. In fact, I’ll tell you another story about that. We were learning to dig drains, see, we were doing this by hand. Nowadays what we did would be frowned on, afforestation and the way we did it, but it was the thing at the time. They took a site which had a slope on it for a drain, and you dug a trench from top to bottom, following the lie of the land. And then you put what they called herringbone drainage. Then you brought the trenches in like this, and these trenches were at ten-foot intervals. When you stood in one, your feet were on the bottom and the sides would be – [at least a yard]. So you were going quite deep and the way you did that was with what you called a Tommy spade, which is a spade with a point like that and a cross bar, and the top of the blade is turned over so that you can put your foot on it. Then there was a line. I mean, let’s suppose you want to dig a drain just here – there’d be a line, the ganger would put a line down there and you’d have to measure out... I think he said, “It’s got to be two feet away from you.” You’d start off with this thing of pushing in, as far down as you could go. Pull it back, then go on again like that. I mean in the end, to do it properly you were almost dancing along! It was very hard.
But you didn’t need chivvying to work hard?
No, it was conscience. We weren’t doing it for pay. When you’d done the two sides, you had to go through crossways now, and cut between the two lines so that you produced a sod, tip that up, and when you’d done the whole drain you then went along with another thing which was like a kind of pitch fork that angles that way down, like that, bang it into the hod, pick it out and sling it up. That would be five feet from the drain, and the next one had to be on the edge of the drain. And then, the final thing was you had to get into the drain with a spade about that wide and level it off. We were close enough to each other working, generally, to be able to talk but I don’t remember what we actually said.
Were your companions like yourself, like-minded people from a similar background?
Well one or two were boys from the kind of background that I had, but most of them were more middle class and more... Certainly some of them were at the university, in fact I think one of them was a university Reader. So you had quite a spread of intellectual...
Were most of them Christians?
That’s something I can’t remember. All I know is that most of them used to attend a Meeting for Worship on Sunday mornings.
Were they Quakers?
Well no... I suppose it’s inevitable when you have a mixed company that a Meeting after the manner of Friends is the simplest way of getting everybody together.
So some were Quakers, presumably?
I suppose so, I don’t know.
You did quite a lot of other jobs too?
Oh well, that was in the early part, that was when I first started. I went up there for a year or so, more than that, long enough to go through the whole cycle of the thing. There was 20 part of the time when we couldn’t work, because the fells were under snow. Changing the subject, Jerry and I drove up there three or four years ago now, and I was walking alongside the places where we’d been.
Were the trees still there?
Oh yes, and also there was an interesting thing – there was a place called Cuddy’s Hall – a lot of places with the name Cuddy up there, because of St Cuthbert’s body, he was reported to have rested there while he was on the way to Carlisle Cathedral. Cuddy’s Hall, when I was there, was a broken-down old cottage in which we used to shelter occasionally if it rained. But I mean it wasn’t something we could do permanently! But when we went up there a few years ago, someone had bought it and rebuilt it, and it was a magnificent country home.
Then, for a time all went well and in fact... just to pick up the point you made about being willing to work, and that sort of thing, at one point up there some of the locals went on strike and they wouldn’t work in the weather, the weather was so bad. The forester was insisting they should work, and they were saying, “No, the weather’s too bad.” And Ramsey Bramham went and spoke to him. We were in a difficult position because if he told us to work we didn’t want to say no. On the other hand we didn’t want to weaken the position of the workers. So in the end – I don’t quite know how the discussion went on, but Ramsey Bramham went to talk to him about it and I think he was pointing out that it would be very difficult for us to say no, if they didn’t want to work. And he also discussed with him the actual state of weather, and in the end the forester agreed that on that day we wouldn’t be working – all of us! Anyway, it does show that we were keen on working.
Then we left there – the Forestry Commission decided they’d had enough, didn’t want to do any more planting. Because while we were there we planted, and all that business. We also worked in Kielder for a time, and broke some sort of record planting trees, thousands of trees in that time. Anyway, IVSP... I don’t know how they arranged this, but we came back, we all came to London – that [photos] was pictures of us moving – and set up in Plaistow, and went round bomb shelters trying to build in facilities that would make life in the shelters easier. One of the things was lavatories. There were lavatories with no doors on them, that sort of thing, and we would go round fitting doors and other amenities as well. As I said, sometimes I went out with the nightshift to take the tea or sandwiches round to the people in the shelters.
Quite a change of scene?
Oh yes, but it was still hard. And also ‒ I suppose you’ve seen the result of a bomb falling, in terms of physical damage? In that part of the world there were a large number of buildings which had been damaged but were not completely destroyed. But they were dangerous, and so the other job which we got there was demolishing these dangerous structures. So then we became navvies! I was saying to Betty, before I went there... I still have a slight fear of heights, I couldn’t believe I could do it. At one point I was wheeling a wheelbarrow full of bricks and rubble across a gap at least as wide as this room, if not wider, on a plank about that wide! You’d get to the edge, and down below there was a lorry backed up to receive it, and you tipped it up, then went back again. And you know...well!!
Meeting the Quakers
How did you come in contact with Quakers?
I don’t know how that happened. I think at some stage or another, in the course of working with IVSP, I must have met Quakers. I must have heard about them because the Friends did have, now and again have a conference, a meeting. I remember being up in Friends House once, I remember one in particular, being in this room with other conscientious objectors. And I suppose I must have talked to people and discussed things, what they were doing and that sort of thing, and heard about the job they were doing, and suggested... and made an application to join. To this day I cannot remember meeting anybody from the Society of Friends who asked me any questions about what I was doing, or whether I wanted to join. And yet, I finished up living with a group of Friends in Canonbury where we used to have a store with furniture, and we used to take it in, go round and collect it. People used to give us a lot of stuff, take it into the store and then in due course you’d get a note from Friends House of a hostel that was being set up, or had been set up even, but generally speaking in the process of being set up, and they wanted some items of furniture. And we’d load it onto this horse box and drive wherever we had to go. Get there, unload it, set it all up, then come back and start again. That was a very fruitful time as far as I was concerned, in terms of broadening my outlook on life. At that stage most of the people were, I think, university students and they had a library which I had access to. I found myself reading all sorts of things, didn’t understand most of it, but as I grew older, later on in life, I was able to gradually, you know...
Was there a religious dimension to working with Friends?
As far as I was concerned I was only just considering what I already felt I had done. It was difficult at that point to go to church. I think it was a question of finding a church. It could have been the hours, yes. But nevertheless, I mean, what was happening was that in the house at Canonbury where we were living, we had a regular speaker, and I think that was what was beginning to... usually a speaker of that sort, though not necessarily a Quaker. Donald Soper came and spoke, and he wasn’t a Quaker. Gradually I began to feel, you know, the arguments began to filter into my mind... you can never pinpoint these things.
Nobody tried to convert you?
No, no. I guess we probably talked about it quite a lot. Yes, I’m sure we did.
Then you ended up working for the Netherlands government?
Yes. It came to a point where I think what was available at that point with Friends was disappearing. Why, I don’t know precisely. And also I think it came to the point that I had to 23 face up to the fact that I needed to earn some money. Because I’d been living on seven shillings a week, my mother was living alone, the other children were at home and also my brother had gone into the Navy and my sister was in the Land Army, the other one was married. And so it was getting a bit sort of dicey. So I thought I ought to try and get back into work. And I discovered ‒ this was the Netherlands government in exile, you know – and this organisation was running the Merchant Navy fleet for the government, while they were in this country. And so I thought, “Well, it’s a bit of a compromise but nevertheless we need the merchant fleet to get food here and that sort of thing.” So I went along and spoke to someone, and eventually got an appointment and told them what I’d been doing and they were quite happy to take me on.
They weren’t prejudiced against COs?
Well I don’t know whether they were or not, but I think they just wanted staff, to be honest.
A point of principle
There’s something I want to tell you that I couldn’t tell anybody. Only Betty knows, nobody else knows. I know that if I had been conscripted I wouldn’t have been called up because my eyes are too bad. I’m almost blind in one eye and I knew from talking to people who’d been in that situation in areas where they came across people who’d been physically examined, that sort of thing, that there was no chance I would be called up. I knew that, but I thought, “Well I can’t sort of...” [laughs]. Well, what would it have meant if I’d said, “Well OK...”? If I’d been conscripted and they decided I was of no use in war service, I would then be directed to a job. And I couldn’t see much difference between that and going to fight in the Army. But if I could choose it myself, this is the funny thing about it, that’s different. The odd thing about these things is that during my time in London, when I was living in London with other Friends, doing this sort of work, at some time or other I had to spend some time with Friends, working in Friends House, not for long, but for a time. And the staff of Friends House were fire-watching. And it became compulsory to do fire-watching, not by the Friends but by the government. And immediately the fire watchers said, “Well, we’re not going to do it.” They said, “Oh! Why not?” And they said, “It is quite different to be compelled to do this job, than to volunteer to do it.” In the end I think we had another talk and think about it and said, “Well, maybe this is something where we can make an exception.” But it was that kind of atmosphere.
If I may go back to the Tribunal, when you registered as a conscientious objector, you eventually were called up to a Tribunal. And you submitted a statement. Charles Howarth saw my statement, and had a look at it. He didn’t alter it or anything. Anyway, when eventually you were called to your Tribunal you had to go up and it was like being in a court of law. And they asked you all sorts of things about what you’d been doing and what your beliefs were, that sort of thing. And it so happened that the parish priest also sent a letter saying what sort of person I’d been beforehand, so they’d have some idea that I wasn’t just wangling it. But there were three things they could do to you. They could say you were absolutely excused, conditionally exempted, or you failed and in that case you would be conscripted, or you went to prison. I met several people afterwards who had been in prison because they wouldn’t accept the fact. The other thing was that there was a strand of belief which considered the war was unjust on political grounds, rather than religion. And political conscientious objectors didn’t have much chance of getting exemption. No, they had no chance at all – or very few. Very many didn’t, and they had to go to prison. But what I’m trying to say is that if you belonged to one of the “peace churches” and you appeared before a Tribunal, you had hardly any questions at all. No matter what you’d done in the past, whether you’d supported pacifism or not. Some Quakers weren’t pacifists. There were other peace churches as well, but they didn’t get quite the same treatment. There were some – was it Moravians? – who refused on the grounds of their religious belief in the same way, but they got a much harder time. I think it was just a hangover from what the Quakers had done in the previous war, with the Friends Ambulance Unit. Anyway, that’s what happened and in my case they accepted me if I continued to do forestry work. So I thought to myself, “I could appeal, but what’s the point? I’ve got what I want and they’re only saying this because they don’t want to say it is political, they don’t want to say you’re completely exempt. You’re here doing forestry work, so you might as well carry on.”
Did they come after you when you finished the forestry work?
I told them what I was doing. I said, “I’m going down to Plaistow to work with...” (what we were doing), and left it at that. I never heard so I just assumed that was alright.
Attitudes to COs
Did you encounter hostility from anybody because you were a CO?
No, I suppose the fact that I was known... I mean my family ‒ I don’t know, I mean they never ever said, apart from my employer. It was a big thing, people in the office all knew what I was doing, and it was OK. Funnily enough – it’s incredible, this ‒ in the office there was another man who was a conscientious objector. That’ll be my influence, everywhere I go..! Yes, he in fact eventually joined a non-combatant unit. He and I, until I left there, were quite sort of chummy. I was trying to think... you see the thing was, once I realised what the situation was I naturally gravitated towards people who were thinking like I did. I didn’t find them at first, but gradually I began to find out there were people around who were thinking like I did. At first I didn’t know anybody. There was some break in my attendance at church, I can’t think whether I was ill or what. The family moved and I went with them, and it took a while to get back into the rhythm of going to church. By the time I got back the whole thing had changed. It was only a matter of a few months. In that time boys had just disappeared, all the boys of my age had just gone.
Becoming a Quaker
So after the War, you joined the Society of Friends?
Well, what happened there was, in 1945, when I’d met Betty for some time, we got married. Of course she knew I was an Anglican and I knew she was a Baptist, and we talked about it and said, “We’ve got to find somewhere we can both go to.” And so I said, “Well, I wouldn’t mind going to the Friends Meeting.” And although she hadn’t been a regular Attender, she knew of Friends because, I think, something called a Friends Youth Club had been very active in the area where she had been living. So one Sunday morning we arrived at the local Friends Meeting House, to find a Meeting in progress! So we went home again. The next Meeting we realised it started earlier, and the next Sunday morning we went and got there in time, and from that moment onwards we went to Friends Meetings. But this is another story.
We formed some friendships there, for example, that lasted for life. The last person I can think of that we met there, was a friend of ours with his family for years and years. We kept in touch, all through sixty-odd years, and every now and again we met, either at Friends House or we wrote or telephoned. His wife died a long time ago, but he died about two years ago now. The awful thing was that I’d lost touch with him for the first time. So I tracked him down eventually, you know, took the last place he’d been at and gradually found out where he was. He was in Peterborough and Peterborough Friends gave me his address. So I rang him up and I finally discovered he was very, very ill. He didn’t say in so many words, but he was. So I said to Jerry, “Some time, give me a lift up to Peterborough, I want to go and see this Friend.” Before we could do it, he died. This guy was a Member, so with him we started going as Attenders to Monthly Meetings and that sort of thing, and gradually getting into the Society. In the end I said to this guy, “I really would like to apply for membership now. I think I’ve reached the stage now where I know where my religious priorities lie. I can’t go on thinking of myself as a member of the Church of England anymore.” So I made an application and in due course I was visited. In those days it was different to what it is now. And they accepted me. So that was somewhere between 1945 and 50, I suppose.
Was the peace testimony an important part of your decision?
It must have been a strong element, but I wouldn’t have said it was the only or the main thing. Yes, it must have been part of it, I’m sure.
Quaker work since the War
How has the peace testimony been part of your life since the War?
To be honest with you, I didn’t do much about peace. But once I was a member of the Society of Friends and became active, I did a lot of work in terms of housing. One of the things which I did was to interest myself in housing, and in Banbury one of the things we did was to form the Banbury District Housing Coalition, which was a coalition of all the churches. But the meeting which suggested this should be done was set up by Banbury Meeting. Betty was a Clerk. And so each church appointed a representative to attend another meeting to try and see how far we should go. And I remember that I went along.
We had one or two meetings and I could see we were getting nowhere, it was all just words, so I went back home one night and decided that we had to set down what we were doing and how we were going to do it. And I wrote out, typed out the constitution and aims of this body and then it started. And then what happened was this. We were doing a lot of thinking and discussing and talking about what we could do, and at one of the meetings was a man who’d had experience of this kind of thing somewhere else. I said to him, “I thought we were going to... I don’t mind doing the work”, I said, “but I thought we were going to try and whip up money and give it to other people to do the work.” He said, “What can we do?” I said, “What sort of things would you do now?” “Well”, he said, “The thing I would do would be to set up a rent guarantee scheme.” And so I found out about rent guarantee schemes.
We had a meeting one Sunday morning and I said, “Well, I’ve promised on your behalf to support a rent guarantee scheme.” It was amazing, everyone rallied round, and so we set up this organisation and its first job was guaranteeing the rents to landlords who wouldn’t take on people whom they thought were either suspect or couldn’t afford the rent. I discovered afterwards that ours was the only voluntary scheme in the country. What I found so delightful was that when we decided to do it we said, “Well, we need some money, if we’re going to guarantee rent it needs money.” And so we wrote a letter to every church and every priest, saying what we were doing and asking if they could help with a collection or give some money. And I thought we needed – I don’t know how much we needed to sort the first batch of rent, whatever it was, it was in the neighbourhood of £3000. And I stood up in the Meeting one morning and told them we’d set this up and I’d promised that they would support it. And we raised this £3000 and I was delighted that the Friends Meeting provided almost the whole of that. The reply from the other churches was very poor. The Salvation Army were doing something like that anyway. So it was Friends, members of the Meeting mostly, who got ready the scheme. So, not peace, but that sort of thing.
Remembering the War
How do you feel about Remembrance Day now? Do you take part in commemorations?
Well I don’t really, I’m very ambivalent about it. It’s difficult to take part in the official services because they are so militaristic. Now and again you get the enlightened person, or parson, who talks about all the people who were killed in the War, including others, not just... But so often the parade is of all those people who fought, or were in the Army. And quite rightly, I mean they were there, they did what they thought was right. It’s for them. But it’s not something I can join in, because after all I don’t believe in what they did. I mean I accept the fact they did it, and I accept the fact that it cost them perhaps more than it cost me to be a conscientious objector. But you know it’s not part... It’s difficult to explain, but if I remember, I remember all the things that happened, you know, the civilians and everything that happened. I don’t like the way... you were talking about soldiers coming home, I don’t like the way it’s sort of ambushed to become a militarist operation. That’s what it is. I mean the laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph, obviously it’s done by the King or the Queen.
It doesn’t sound as if your convictions have really changed, since all those years ago?
Oh no. Once or twice I’ve thought to myself, “Maybe there’s a justification for doing that”, on a particular occasion. But then I always come back, “No, there isn’t.” In the long run, in a situation like that, of conflict, whatever decision you make, whether to take part or not, is going to be painful. And if you decide, if a group of people decide, that rather than take life, they will submit to some kind of invasion or something like that, that’s painful, that’s very painful. It could mean loss of life for them. But if they resist, and there’s a war, that’s also painful, and there’s loss of life. And it’s a difficult decision to make. But I don’t... I’ve never really decided, I’ve never really thought to myself, that it’s right. In the long run it all comes down to one thing, and that is that if I were to say “Yes, this armed conflict is right”, then I’d have to be prepared to kill somebody. And I’m not.
Photographs: Kershope, 1940-41