Quakers (Society of Friends)

John W. Graham, the Quaker Historian writes that Quakers were better treated by the Military Service Tribunals.[1] These bodies held the common view that all members of the Society of Friends objected to military service and, although being a Quaker did not allow entitlement to automatic exemption from conscription, only 11% of those who appealed were rejected outright.[2] and the majority of Quakers were offered exempted as long as they worked for the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). Pacifism was not a doctrinal requirement of the Society of Friends in 1914, but was more a matter of tradition and a matter of an individual's conscience, and during the war some 33.6% [3] of its members enlisted in the armed forces. At the start of the war some Quakers thought the FAU too closely connected to the army to be part of the peace movement, although this view changed over time, and when conscription was introduced it was seen as a suitable alternative to military service. Many Quakers who held firm to their pacifism were organised for action and working towards peace in 1914. They formed a Joint Advisory Council together with three bodies opposed to conscription: the Quaker Friends' Service Committee, the socialist No-conscription Fellowship (NCF), and the Christian Fellowship of Reconciliation. Once the Military Service Acts were passed Quakers worked in coaching their members on how to present their appeal to the tribunals and accompanied them as friends to tribunals. Volunteers visited and represented those in prison and ensured that ill-treatment was reported and raised in parliament. The Quaker and pacifist MP, Edmund Harvey asked questions in the House of Parliament and followed up the concerns of many conscientious objectors, not only Quakers. William Raitt, a Seventh Day Adventist and the brother of Arthur Raitt, turned to Edmund Harvey for help in getting Arthur released from prison. Volunteers also played an important role as Quaker prison 'chaplains' and gave comfort to many COs, who often became nominal Quakers for the duration of their stay in prison. (see entry below).

Quakers in Deptford and Lewisham

Six Conscientious objectors from Deptford and five from Lewisham are recorded in the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors as being members of the Society of Friends. Most of the Deptford Quakers attended the Peckham Prayer Meeting. Its meeting house was also used for anti-conscription meetings at a time when attacks were often launched against venues advertising such meetings. The South London Press 7 July, 1916 reported a meeting of the South London Federal Council Against Conscription, an offshoot of the socialist NCF, held there and attended by delegates representing 49 trade union and labour bodies.

The first record of a Prayer Meeting being formed in Lewisham that is listed in the Churches in the Hundred of Blackheath dates from 1910 and was held at Hubert W. Peet's house in Peak Hill. A Meeting House was then opened in 1914 in the former Art College in Venner Road Hall in Sydenham that was still in use in 1962, although this has now been replaced.

Four of the local Quakers joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and one was sent to work under the terms of the Pelham committee as a farm labourer; two, Walter Frayling and Hubert Peet did not accept the conditional exemption given them by the local tribunal and were to become absolutists. Three, Henry Byngham, Henry Cotterill and Alfred Downs, do not appear to have appealed to the local tribunal while one Leslie Cotterill had his case dismissed by the Deptford Tribunal. These three COs were then enlisted into army regiments, when they did not respond to their call-up, they were arrested and imprisoned before accepting the provisions of the Home Office scheme.

Cotterill, Henry Frank Cotterill, Leslie Gordon Downs, Alfred Frayling, Walter Russell
Milton, Arthur Frederick Milton, Herbert, Edward Milton, Francis Thomas Peet, Hubert William
Vine, Bernard Theodore Byngham, Henry John Redding, Albert Mayo

Quaker Prison Chaplains:

Prison rules allowed visits by chaplains to prisoners who were members of their own denomination, some such as Anglican and Roman Catholic chaplains were regular prison officials, others such as Nonconformists were supported by their churches. The Society of Friends has no professional ministers and their prison ‘chaplains’ were volunteers, the office being filled by both men and women.

Quaker chaplains were on the side of COs, they were a friendly face who could be relied upon to talk, where possible, about the anti-war effort and eventually it became commonplace for Conscientious Objectors who were not Quakers to ask to see the Quaker chaplain. The historian John W. Graham, the Quaker chaplain for Strangeways prison wrote of his congregation there: “They were mostly non-Friends really. A prisoner could choose his religion when he entered a prison. Attempts to change afterwards failed. So word of the Quaker chaplains went round, and on any fresh sentence the number of “Quakers” rose by one". [4] That the message got around eventually is very obvious when looking at the source data on the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors, for eleven Lewisham absolutists who had not previously declared themselves Quakers. They all first appear as Quakers on the Wandsworth Nominal Register at the start of their final sentences with one exception Neville Petrides who is first recorded on Maidstone Prison's Quaker nominal register on February 18, 1919.

In Comrades in Conscience, Cyril Pearce writes that the entries under Motivation in his register refer to: "The COs ideology and the group or groups with which he is known to have been associated". [5] From what is known about these eleven Lewisham absolutists it would be a mistake to assume that any of those on a prison nominal register with the exception of Horace Fuller had become Quakers, not only did they take some time to get onto a 'nominal register', five were Baptists, two were Congregationalists, and four had told the tribunals that they had no religion. All eleven were members of the Dulwich Branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship and four, including two who said they were Calvinistic Baptists, were also members of the Independent Labour party. It is probable that they all had declared themselves 'Quakers' for positive reasons, knowing that they would be supported by Quaker prison chaplains and other Friends in prison. Although an added bonus must have been that they were now able to avoid compulsory attendance at religious services where pro-war sermons, often very hostile to pacifist ideals, were delivered by clergy from the mainstream churches. There may have been other prison chaplains who attracted COs to join their congregations. The agnostic CO George Baker writes that he became 'for the duration of the Scrubs only', a Congregationalist, the reason for his "seeming hypocrisy" being that the Rev. W.E. Orchard was its acting chaplain there. [6]

1. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919, (1922) Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers N.Y. 1969 Reprint p.84 & p.352
2. John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970, p. 113.
3. John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970, p. 75.
4. John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919, (1922) Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers N.Y. 1969 Reprint, p. 270.
5. Cyril Pearce, Comrades in Conscience:The story of an English Community's opposition to the Great War, Francis Boutle Publishers, London, revised edition 2014, p. 242.
6. George Baker, Conscientious Objector, The Soul of a Skunk. The autobiography of a conscientious objector, London, Eric Partridge, 1930, p.188

John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919, (1922) Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers N.Y. 1969 Reprint 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.

Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2015. Revised September 2015

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