The Military Service Tribunals and Conscientious Objectors

From the beginning of February 1916 the War Office started sending out call-up papers to all men due to be conscripted on 2 March 1916. They were known to the War Office because men between the ages of sixteen and forty had already been registered under the terms of the National Registration Act of 1915. Men in the area due to be called up could appeal to the local Military Service Tribunals in Lewisham and Deptford, although some also appealed in Greenwich and elsewhere.

Metropolitan Borough Of Lewisham Tribunal

On the 26th October, 1915 the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham received a letter from the Local Government Board instructing them to set up a Local Tribunal to meet the new requirements of conscription within the next 14 days. Lewisham, as almost everywhere else in the country, used the tribunal of the existing Derby Scheme, which was the last attempt made at voluntary recruitment, and whose members had no experience of dealing with conscientious objectors. Numbers appearing before the Military Service tribunal were very high in the period from the end of February to the end of March 1916, and the Lewisham Borough News reported multiple extra sittings, sittings over the weekend, and new tribunal members drafted in, but the new members did not show any special expertise either.


The Tribunal met at the old town hall in Catford. At its first sitting with the Press present Mr F. Mead the Metropolitan Magistrate presided and Mr. H.E. Harry was the Military Representative. Both the Kentish Mercury and the Lewisham Borough News reported its proceedings in great detail, and both papers gave the full names and addresses of conscientious objectors more often than they did those appealing on other grounds. No complete set of statistics of those appealing to local or national tribunals exists, but contrary to popular belief, the majority who appealed to tribunals were not conscientious objectors, who it is believed numbered about 2% or about 20,000 men nationally. The majority of appeals, both locally and nationally were made on the grounds of work of national importance, business or domestic hardship and medical unfitness. By initially concentrating on the conscientious objector and presenting both their arguments against conscription and the tribunal's often lengthy response, the local press gave the impression that they made up far more than was the actual case. But because of the detail given new names are now being found to add to the eighty-eight conscientious objectors who lived in the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham that are listed on Cyril Pearce’s database the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors.

How the Lewisham tribunal dealt with Conscientious Objectors

In April 1916 Lewisham received a letter from the Secretary for the Committee for Work of National Importance, set up to advise Tribunals on suitable work that conscientious objectors could do, that suggested that the "Sanitary Service of the Local Authority" should be included on such a list. Lewisham informed the Committee they did not wish to be ‘made a means of providing an asylum for conscientious objectors’, despite there being a real shortage of such workers at the time. The Council's response is recorded in the Borough's Minutes. Nevertheless, reading the press reports Lewisham’s Tribunal members do not seem particularly harsh or rude towards those applying on grounds of conscience, when compared with the reported behaviour of other local tribunals. There were some exceptions, snide remarks were sometimes made and threats were sometimes issued, particularly if the applicants appeared ungrateful when offered non-combatant certificates. There are occasional reports of the bullying of applicants by all the members of the tribunal as happened to Albert and Arthur Metzner's representative, but the term “slacker” and other unpleasant comments seem to have been reserved for those appealing on grounds of health or family responsibilities. Mr. Harry was not reported as asking that often what a son might do if his mother was attacked by German soldiers, a question that seemed commonplace in other boroughs and towns. It is possible that in Lewisham this was because at least one of the Tribunal members objected to the question as improper, particularly when directed towards the mother, or because Mr Harry thought nothing much was to be gained from continuing to use this line of questioning as he believed applicants were being coached on how to respond by the No-conscription fellowship.

The Chairman, Mr. Mead, was the Metropolitan Magistrate and the Military Service Representative, Mr. H.E. Harry was a middle-aged 2nd Lieutenant of the London Volunteer Regiment. Mr. Harry seems to have been kept in check by the other members of the Tribunal who, on a number of occasions, are reported in the local press rebuking him for interrupting. The tribunal members wanted to be regarded as polite and reasonable men, and their Chairman told Edward Short that they treated all applicants with the utmost respect. Initially, they believed that they could only offer non-combatant exemptions to COs and did so fairly frequently. The tribunal's failure to consider offering absolute exemption was questioned at the MST's hearings by Cyril Lock's representative and others, was discussed in the press and eventually its Chairman made a statement to the Lewisham Borough News. Mr. Mead was reported on the front page of the August 4, 1916 edition as saying, that while the second Military Service Act did make the possibility of total exemption clear, the Lewisham tribunal did not recognise "a conscientious objection to military service as a right, although they might recognise it as a matter of expediency and take it into consideration in granting something other than a non-combantant certificate". There is no record of the tribunal granting any conscientious objector absolute exemption.

Questioned about eating meat

The tribunal members were, of course, local worthies not out-of-step with their times or the public mood in favour of the war and conscription, but again from the press reports it would appear that they were ready to spend some time on the cases presented by conscientious objectors. Their function was to enable conscription and today their questioning of applicants might seem illiberal, inconsistent, and to be following some very odd trains of thought. The Lewisham Borough News of March 17, 1916 shows them making a link between meat eating and a willingness to kill in the cases of three separate applicants. First up was Mr Rider, a Lee butcher who said he held to the Commandment “thou shalt not kill" and was refused because of his work; he was followed sometime afterwards by Robert Mather whose responses were deemed inconsistent because, although he was a Buddhist, he was not a vegetarian; and finally there was Mr W.J. Cooper who, when asked, said he ate meat because he had been brought up to do so and was reportedly told by the Chairman, that: “As your feeling is against taking the life of animals as well as man we can not conceive that there is a conscientious objection and we refuse all exemption”. Odd though this line of reasoning is, there seems to be no other explanation for the Tribunal's emphasis on vegetarianism than that they were attempting to impose the Government and Anglican Church's view that this was a "just war", and that conscientious objectors were misguided in their belief that it was wrong to kill, when as they told Stanley Gordon Winter, what was really meant by the Commandment was that it was wrong to commit murder.

Metropolitan Borough Of Deptford Tribunal

Deptford conducted its Tribunal much more privately and what happened there is much less clear. Its chairman was The Mayor, Lieutenant-Colonel William Abraham Edward Wayland, J.P. (later Sir William Wayland MP) and the Military Representative was Captain Theodore Prestige, L.C.C. The Mayor had been a keen recruiter of 4,700 men for Kitchener's army and had close links with the local Recruiting Officers, so one must assume little sympathy on his part for conscientious objectors. Both men are probably the Chairman and Military Representative that Henry Rivett Albrow describes in unflattering terms in his memoir to be found in the Imperial War Museum Collections.

For reasons not explained by the local press, the Deptford Tribunal gave very limited access to reporters for its first four meetings at least, in breach of the law that held the press must be allowed to attend. Although it is possible that the Mayor feared civil unrest given previous episodes of mobs attacking those perceived as pro-war in Deptford.


The Kentish Mercury February 25, 1916 reported:
''The (Deptford) Tribunal sat at the Town Hall, New Cross-road on Monday evening, the Chairman (presiding) was present as was the Military Representative. Before applications were heard the Tribunal sat in camera and after about a quarter-of-an-hour two representatives of the Press and three members of the public were admitted. No accommodation had been made for the reporters - as is the case at Greenwich, Lewisham and Woolwich - and it was impossible to hear what transpired”. The situation had improved somewhat the following week when the press were given their own “commodious desk”, paper, pens, and blotting paper but the Mayor now said “ he thought that the wishes of of every applicant who desired to have his case heard in private must be considered, and he should therefore ask everyone, except the members of the Tribunal to leave the room“. Following some discussion between the Tribunal members and the press, it was agreed that the latter could remain but must not report the observations of the Tribunal in reaching its decisions.

The Kentish Mercury took the view that nothing much of any interest was happening in Deptford anyway, and it devoted its column space to reporting Lewisham's Tribunal where those appearing were discouraged from seeking privacy, no doubt considering that it made more entertaining reading. It also tended to ignore the tribunals at Greenwich and Woolwich. It again used the expression "in camera" on March 10, 1916 to describe the Deptford Tribunal's proceedings and even at its special sitting for 26 conscientious objectors held on March 24, 1916 the Kentish Mercury reported only that 17 cases had been disallowed, with no further explanation, and gave a very brief account of cases presented by six conscientious objectors, who presumably had given permission for this to happen.

How well did the Lewisham and Deptford Tribunals deal with Conscientious Objectors?

Because of small numbers of conscientious objectors currently known to have been dealt with by the Deptford tribunal, much research would be needed to assess its performance, but Lewisham's numbers are much closer to those of other South London Metropolitan Boroughs and an attempt can be made to compare outcomes.

In the case of conscientious objectors, the War Cabinet measured maladministration of the Military Service Acts by the number of men whose applications had been unsuccessful and who later ended up in prison. [1] The War Cabinet may well have held the Lewisham Tribunal to have been fairly competent, at least in comparison with the neighbouring boroughs of Camberwell and Bermondsey. Using data in the Pearce Register of Conscientious Objectors, [2] a simple study of the Lewisham COs known to have appeared before the Lewisham MST shows that 33% were later courts martialled and imprisoned but that 67% accepted the conditional exemption offered them, albeit it in many cases reluctantly; in Camberwell in contrast 52% of those appearing before its Tribunal were imprisoned following courts martial; and in Bermondsey the number imprisoned rose to 58% of the total. Frank Jannaway, the successful Christadelphian negotiator, considered Lambeth's MST one of only four nationally that were "reasonable and open minded", [3] and Lambeth's tribunal made decisions that were accepted by 77% of the COs appearing before it.

In the absence of the tribunal's minute books*, however, it is almost impossible to know how well the local tribunals administered Military Service Acts and what motivated them.

A sample of the Central Tribunal appeals are held by the National Archives and are reflected in Cyril Pearce's database and in the completed biographies on this wiki.

*Note MST Minute Books
The Metropolitian Borough of Camberwell's was one of only three local authorities who was known, until recently at least, not to have destroyed its minute books (ref John Rae below Note on Sources). Camberwell became part of the London Borough of Southwark in 1965 and its Archives were damaged during a fire at the Cuming Museum in 2013.
The London Borough of Lambeth has uncovered its MST minute books (2016) contact

1. John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970, p. 103.
2 Cyril Pearce, University of Leeds, Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors, database entries for Boroughs of Lewisham,Bermondsey, Camberwell, Lambeth, and Lewisham.
3. Frank George Jannaway, Without the Camp: Being the Story of How and Why the Christadelphians were exempted from Military Service. Published by the Author, London 1917, p.149

John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919, reprint Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers N.Y. 1969
John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970

Web Pages The Peace Pledge page on Tribunals in "The Men Who Said No"

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

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