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Off to Work (Mike Chamberlain)Research Lecture 2016: ‘The Dartmoor Conchies’ by Simon Dell

11th November 2016

During the Great War Dartmoor Prison was emptied of its criminal inhabitants and handed over to the military authorities in 1917 to become the Princetown Work Centre. That year over a thousand conscientious objectors (COs) were moved into the prison and they remained there until 1919 engaged in work of ‘national importance’ as an alternative to taking up arms and fighting in the trenches.

It was as a result of the Military Service Act of 1916 that the issue of ‘Conscientious Objection’ was created and a new derogatory word appeared in our vocabulary – ‘Conchie’.

It was a word which derided and insulted the men who claimed exemption from military service involving carrying arms into conflict against another man.

At the beginning of 1914 the Army had 710,000 men, of which around 80,000 were regular troops ready for war. As the war carried on into 1915 The Derby Scheme was introduced in the autumn by Lord Derby – Kitchener's new Director General of Recruiting, who required each eligible man aged 18 to 41 not in an essential occupation to voluntarily join the army but this left a huge short-fall of soldiers.

Conscription started on 2 March 1916 but many men refused to fight and so the issue of ‘Conscientious Objection’ had now raised its head and the ‘Conchie’ was born.

The most common ground for refusal was a religious one but the next largest group of COs were political activists. There were approximately 16,000 conscientious objectors to armed service during the First World War.

The usual procedure for a Conscientious Objector was to apply to his local tribunal for exemption from military service. They were made up of local prominent figures and at the tribunal’s discretion exemption could be absolute, from combatant service only, or conditional on undertaking work of national importance and it is here that Dartmoor Prison enters the story.

3,400 COs accepted call-up into the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) or the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as non-combatants. The NCC (the 'No-Courage Corps' as the press rudely called it) was set up in March 1916, part of the army and run by its regular officers. The COs assigned to it were army privates, wore army uniforms and were subject to army discipline, but didn’t carry weapons or take part in battle. Their duties were mainly to provide physical labour (building, cleaning, loading and unloading anything except munitions) in support of the military.

The NCC may have been a shock to the COs who agreed to join it. But for the absolutists and alternativists who were forcibly enlisted into the NCC it was much worse. They immediately faced the question of whether to agree to wearing uniform. The men who decided to refuse were formally charged and court-martialled. Often they were treated harshly, bullied, deprived of basic needs and rights, and imprisoned in inhumane conditions.

Men whose hearing at a tribunal was unsuccessful often found themselves in prison if they failed to comply with the directive to serve in the Army. A number of Prisons, including Dartmoor, around the UK were emptied of convicts to make way for the COs. Objectors in prison were offered so-called ‘work of national importance’ in a scheme put forward by the Home Office. This was generally agriculture, forestry or unskilled manual labour. Other conscientious objectors – known as 'absolutists' – refused to do any war-related work or obey military orders.

In all, more than 6,312 conscientious objectors were arrested; 5,970 were court-martialled and sent to prison, where they endured privations both mental and physical (819 spent over two years in prison). At least 73 COs died because of the harsh treatment they received (including two at Dartmoor Prison) a number suffered long-term physical or mental illness.

The ‘Alternativists’ amongst the Conscientious Objectors went to Work Centres where they performed work of National Importance in supporting the war effort. One such Work Centre was at Dartmoor Prison. This was administered by the Brace Committee and is sometimes called the Brace Scheme. The idea was that these men should make an "equal sacrifice" to the men at the front. The work centres weren't universally popular. There was a public meeting in Plymouth on 25 April 1917 to protest against the conscientious objectors at the Princetown Work Centre.

The Duchy of Cornwall, upon whose land Dartmoor Prison stands wrote on 16 February 1917 to A E Barrington Esq JP at Tor Royal, Princetown:

‘The Directors of Convict Prisons have decided to hand over the Convict Establishment for the Conscientious Objectors, and in a fortnight or three weeks a 1,000 are to be sent there. I thought that I had better let you know this at once…’ (Mr Peacock was the Agent to the Duke of Cornwall – later King Edward VIII.)

A few days later the Western Morning News wrote:

‘The announcement made in the Western Morning News yesterday that the Home Office had determined to close Princetown Prison as a convict establishment on 1 March, and that it should be used after that date for the accommodation of conscientious objectors… That scheme, it may be recalled, involves the reclamation of about 1,200 acres, and was only possible, as we then stated, provided the Duchy could secure a considerable supply of cheap labour.’

And so on 17 March 1917 the first of the Conscientious Objectors arrived at Dartmoor Prison – renamed Dartmoor Work Centre in the early months of its new life. These new arrivals amounted to almost 1,000 men.

Many of the Objectors were put to work outside on seemingly pointless work. A large tract of moorland was enclosed in a huge wall (now known as Conchies’ Wall) and the land was turned into a ploughed field, still to this day known as Conchies’ Field. The Mis Tor working party hiked up to the slopes of Great Mis Tor to the north of the village at Princetown and on land owned by the Duke of Cornwall they toiled day after day digging the most unbelievable drainage ditches, far in excess of what might be reasonably required to drain the land. Another Tor Royal Party built a road, seemingly going nowhere across the open moors, known today as Conchies’ Road.

Two men died at Princetown Work Centre: Henry ‘Harry’ Firth and Henry Haston.

In the February of 1918 Mark Hayler nursed Henry Firth and recalled later, ‘I was working at the hospital at the time I attended him. I was a sort of orderly you know…and he was a local preacher with the Methodists, and his wife came down from Yorkshire, and I can see her now sitting not in the cell but on a chair outside the door. He had pneumonia. He’d been badly treated at Dartmoor, he should never have been sent out onto the moor in bad weather. He should have got an indoor job, and he got this cold and he got pneumonia. It was the only funeral from Dartmoor and the whole of the men attended the funeral, they insisted, they couldn’t have prevented them and they followed behind the coffin and down to the railway and it was put on the little train at Princetown and taken down to Plymouth…which is about ten miles away. And we went to the station and it was all arranged by our own people…And some of the COs got hold of some fog signals and they put them on the line here and there. As the train went out of the little station at Princetown they went off, a sort of farewell. And I remember a thousand men sang a hymn ‘Abide with me’.

Henry Haston was judged to be a ‘CO class A’ man, making him eligible for the Home Office Scheme and he agreed to be sent to Dartmoor work camp. Arriving in September, he would have found conditions poor and the CO population gripped by an epidemic of pneumonia. Only a few weeks later, he was dead, on the 25 October 1918. His wife was sent for and had arrived only just before his death, leaving her a widow with a five-week-old child.

His coffin was carried from the prison to the railway station by fellow Conscientious Objectors, only to be disrupted by locals from around Dartmoor who threw a barrage of stones.

And so what happened after the Armistice on 11 November 1918? It appeared that no-one, and certainly not the Government, was in any real hurry to release the Conscientious Objectors – certainly not until the surviving soldiers were brought back from the front, which took months. In Princetown Work Centre the release of the COs occurred in April 1919, some months after the war ended.

Men found it almost impossible to obtain employment after release. Mark Hayler who had been at Princetown Work Centre later wrote, ‘I think it left most of us a sense of it would have been better if it hadn’t been so. It’s dogged me all my life. I don’t know what else I could have done. And when the whole war was over and I was looking for a job…and then I was interviewed by committees and so on and the last question was always “What did you do in the Great War?”’

And so the Great War 1914–1918 ended. Soldiers returned to a heroes’ welcome in the main, but the COs were shunned by society in general and those men carried those scars for the rest of their lives.

Questions and Comments

Q: Presumably all the Conchies held at Dartmoor Prison weren’t Absolutists?  

SD: The overwhelming majority of the Conchies held at Dartmoor Prison which became a ‘Work Centre’ were Absolutists. They had initially been held at Richmond Prison and after various harsh tribunals were sent to Dartmoor because as the War went on the Authorities were unsure what to do with them.

Q: One of the cartoons shown in the presentation displayed a Conchie as virtually chinless and it is very interesting to see how they were depicted in cartoons at that time.

SD: Yes, quite right. It was all about public humiliation and belittlement and a general demonstration to the public at large as a means of persuasion to send a message out especially to young men that you certainly do not want to become a coward or resemble anything like them.

Comment: a gentleman made a comment about a modern day situation regarding a doctor, originally from New Zealand who, in the year 2007, was seconded to be in the RAF fighting in the Iraq War, and at the time he disagreed with the legalities of whether the Iraq War should even be taking place, and in fact likened the invasion of Iraq to a Nazi war crime. The doctor’s name was Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall Smith and ultimately he was brought before a Court Martial and the treatment of him at that time can only be described as abominable. After the Court Martial he was sent to Colchester Gaol for eight months like a common criminal and treated very badly. The gentleman added that he felt it important that this scandalous, contemporary story was heard by as many people as possible.

SD thanked the gentleman for raising the subject and added that sadly he cannot see the outcome of similar stories or even any other comparable situations turning out any differently in the near future.

Q: the marketing/PR pictures that were shown in the presentation displayed the prisoners being treated very badly in prison. Was that the case at Dartmoor?

SD: The majority of the letters that were written by the Conchies to their loved ones showed that they weren’t too badly treated at all. The Prison Officers were primarily there to guard them and rather surprisingly the Conchies had more of a say regarding their welfare etc. than originally thought. They even had sessions put aside for entertainment, free time and were also allowed to socialise.

Q: Have you found out anything about the wives of the Conchies held at Dartmoor Prison because reports show that some of them moved geographically to be nearer to them?  

SD: It’s true that many of the wives and their subsequent children who moved closer to their husbands in Princetown were treated very badly by the other women in the village. In a way, the Conchies themselves almost had the better life as it is important to remember the Prison was a ‘Work Centre’, the Prison Officers were there to guard them, and the men were in no way suffering under actual penal servitude.

Q: Were there any examples of generosity of spirit towards the Conchies?

SD: The finest example, from a contemporary letter, of a spirit of generosity was of Mrs Cole from Yellowmead Farm who apparently invited the Conchies inside her farm and she would feed them. Unfortunately, there were more cases of the opposite to any generous spirited behaviour – one of the worst cases was when they were in the process of transporting the body of Henry Haston from the Prison to the Railway Station and his coffin was literally stoned.

Q: Were there any examples of Conchies escaping from the Prison at that time?

SD: None were reported. We think that was primarily because the Conchies all in all didn’t have too bad a time inside and so there was no real reason to escape.

Q: At what time/date did Dartmoor Prison become a normal Prison again after being the Work Centre for the Conchies?

SD: In April of 1919 the Work Centre was replaced by a prison suitable for incarcerating convicts.

Q: Do you still possess your great uncle’s bible?

SD: Yes. I was asked by my mother and father, who were alive at the time of my great-uncle Harry’s funeral what I would like and I said that I wished to have his Bible, his crucifix and a feather that he always kept together. It is a personal, special prized possession.

Q: Where were the convicts transferred to when the Prison was handed over to the Conchies?

SD: Many of the convicts were given the chance to enlist with the Army – many of those convicts had been incarcerated for reasons of violence! There were also cases of convicts who after service had earned the Victoria Cross. There is often a very fine line between bravery and absolute stupidity.

Q: Is there any evidence that the land on either side of Conchies’ Road has been reclaimed by the Duchy?

SD: None at all. There exists a letter which suggests that a lot of the men’s physical efforts were for the benefit of the Duchy.

Q: In view of the attitude of Society at large towards the Conchies, was there any animosity among Conchies towards those who were at least prepared to put themselves in harm’s way to drive Field Ambulances?

SD: There is no record of any animosity and there is nothing documented about problems incurred with different levels of Conscientious Objection.

Tom Greeves thanked Simon warmly and summed up by saying that this subject fits into a genre of alternative Devon histories that often hadn’t been covered before. He added that he had been very impressed by the number of photographs Simon had presented, all relating to Dartmoor and not seen before. Simon’s new book on the Conchies is out next March (2017).

Everyone then tucked into the buffet that had been prepared by Robert and his team at the Dolphin Hotel, thus allowing some valuable time to socialise.

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