Lewisham’s conscientious objectors who ignored their call-up papers were arrested, brought before the magistrates, fined and handed over the military to be taken under escort to their army units. Once in the army they refused to obey orders, to put on their uniforms, to go on parade, to salute and to carry out military duties; others like Arthur Raitt reported for duty, but also refused to obey orders that were not in keeping with their conscience. The army who controlled soldiers through “the discipline of fear” subjected conscientious objectors to force, treated them harshly, bullied them, deprived them of their basic needs and rights, took them before a court martial and sentenced them to be held, initially in brutal army detention centres. An account of treatment meted out in military prisons can be found in the Tribunal 4 April 1918, [1] With so many men being brought before courts martial, the military responded by applying ever more brutal punishments. Extremes were reached when the army transferred 41 conscientious objectors to France in the summer of 1916 seemingly bent on executing 34 of them [2], if 28 days of Field Punishment No. 1 (otherwise known as "crucifixion") failed. Public revelation of the military's intentions shocked the Prime Minister, H.H Asquith, who insisted their death sentences be commuted and promised the House of Commons that such brutality would never reoccur.

Prison and the Review of CO's Claims

Reports of the treatment of conscientious objector who refused to obey orders were now a cause for scandal and led to a campaign to have them handed over to the civilian authority, not least should knowledge of army discipline and punishments shock otherwise willing recruits. The courts martial now began sentencing those disobeying orders to imprisonment with hard labour, often for 112 days in the first instance, in the local prison nearest to their army camp or barracks. Cases of all imprisoned conscientious objectors were then reviewed and those agreed as genuine would be released from prison, provided they accepted to undertake work of "national importance" under the control of a new civilian committee in what came to be known as the Home Office Scheme. Any man who refused, or whose plea of conscience failed to satisfy the Central Tribunal, would be returned to complete his sentence in gaol.

Most of the imprisoned men were increasingly desperate and isolated and were willing to go along with the new proposals. Both the COs and their supporters were extremely concerned about the effect of imprisonment on their mental health. Fenner Brockway says that in prison "my own mind was becoming terrorised by the prison regime" [3] and Sarah Cahill wrote [4] of her concerns about the effect of imprisonment on two Lewisham COs. Fifty-two Lewisham and Deptford COs in prison had their cases re-examined, thirty-one were declared to possess a 'genuine' objection to war and were referred to the Home Office Scheme. Nineteen who refused to co-operate, together with two others Albert Edward Allen who was found to be a political CO and Archibald Miles who was found "unconvincing" were to remain in prison.

112 days hard labour

Prisons in 1916 were run on inhumane lines inherited from the 19th century. Conscientious objectors were sentenced to hard labour, which initially meant solitary confinement, and a particularly harsh silence rule that was almost impossible to keep, and one that invoked severe punishment when broken. Food was appalling and bread and water was the normal punishment for even minor breaches of the regulations; cells were cold and damp and reading and writing material sparse. Hubert W. Peet the Sydenham based Quaker socialist and journalist describes these conditions in "112 days' hard labour" : being some reflections on the first of his sentences as a conscientious objector. [5] This was one of a number of influential writings by conscientious objectors about prison conditions in Britain that contributed to prison reform that took place after the war.

Those conscientious objectors who were not considered genuine COs and those who refused to co-operate then began a cycle of being released from prison once their current sentence was completed, being handed back to the army only to disobey orders and be imprisoned again, these men were known as absolutists.

This tag 'prison' lists all those from Lewisham and Deptford who were imprisoned and can be accessed by clicking on "Tags" in the navigation bar to the left.

1. Tribunal 4 April, 1918 copied with the permission of
2. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969 Chapter IV.2
3. Fenner Brockway, Inside the left : thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament : London: New Leader, 1947 pp 105-106
4. Letter from Sarah Cahill (Secretary Dulwich NCF) to Catherine Marshall (NCF Parliamentary Secretary) dated 26 August, 1917 from Cumbria County Council Archive ref:DMAR/4/97
5. Hubert W. Peet, "112 days' hard labour" : being some reflections on the first of his sentences as a conscientious objector, London: Ploughshare 1917.

Fenner Brockway, Inside the left : thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament : London: New Leader, 1947
Clare Cole, The Objectors to Conscription and War, published Manchester: Workers' Northern Publishing Society, 1936
Felicity Goodall, We Will Not Go To War, The History Press, Stroud, 2013
John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, Augustus M. Kelley, reprint NY 1969
Jo Vellacott, Conscientious Objection:Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, Spokesman Books London, 2015 edition
John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970.

Web Pages
Peace Pledge Union on Prisons

‘The C.O. in Prison’ - Postcard issued in 1917 (assumed to be one of series produced by G.P. Micklewright in 1917) copyright Religious Society of Friends in Britain and reproduced with their permission.

Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2014, March 2015

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