Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Conscientious objectors in prison

Richmond Castle. Photo: English Heritage
Conscientious objectors were held at Richmond Castle in WWI

The prison cells at Richmond Castle were used to hold conscientious objectors, men who refused to fight on moral or religious grounds.

On the walls of the cells in the castle is graffiti, drawn by prisoners held there over the years including graffiti by some of the 16 men imprisoned during the First World War who were taken to France, court-martialled for refusing orders and sentenced to death.

The Richmond Sixteen, as these men became known, were among the first in this country to defy conscription on moral grounds.

Historical background

Graffiti in Richmond Castle. Photo: English Heritage
Some of the Richmond Sixteen drew graffiti on the cell walls

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had an army of just 450,000 regular and 268,000 part-time soldiers. This was the smallest regular army of any of the participants in WWI.

Field Marshall Lord Kitchener used powerful patriotic propaganda to encourage people to enlist and nearly 2.5 million men joined up. In March 1916 the Government went further, breaking with the tradition of voluntary enlistment, and introduced conscription. Recruiting figures had declined as the casualties on the battlefields rose.

Conscientious objectors

The new conscription laws allowed men to object or appeal against military service on grounds of occupation, hardship, faith or moral beliefs. Many religious groups held strong pacifist beliefs and some of those in the emerging political left also objected to the war.

Local tribunals were set up to assess the objectors' cases and judge whether they were motivated by conscience or cowardice. Few if any of the conscientious objectors (COs) who went before the tribunals were given total exemptions. Most were ordered into the fighting services or to join the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC).

The NCC was established so that men with strong objections to combat could still be conscripted and serve in supporting roles, but not actually be forced to fight.

Some COs even refused to undertake non-combatant duties, opposing any contribution to the war effort. They are often referred to as 'absolutists'. By disobeying orders as non-combatant, but conscripted soldiers, they were court-martialled and punished. Many were imprisoned, often in terrible conditions.

Although many people hated the 'conchies', the brutal treatment of them increasingly aroused public sympathy and respect from other soldiers who were too afraid to make a stand.

The Richmond Sixteen

Richmond Castle served as a base for the Non-Combatant Corps from 1916 and COs from across the north were sent there. These included 16 men who stuck to their pacifist principles and refused to do anything to promote or contribute to the war.

The Richmond Sixteen
Graffiti in Richmond Castle. Photo: English Heritage
William Law
Herbert Law
John 'Bert' Brocklesby
Norman Gaudie
Alfred Martlew
Clarence Hall
Horace Eaton
C Cartwright
E C Cryer
C R Jackson
Alfred Myers
C A Senior
E S Spencer
Leonard Renton
J W Routledge
The name of the sixteenth conscientious objector isn't known. When they were taken to France with the threat of further punishment and court-martial, he joined the Non-Combatant Corps and no more is known of him.

In May 1916, these 16 men were taken from Richmond against their will to an army camp in northern France. This meant that they were on active service where refusal to obey orders was punishable by death. News of their transport to France only leaked out, because one man threw a note from the train window in London. Later one of the men sent a coded postcard saying they were in Boulogne.

The Richmond Sixteen were put into field punishment camps where they continued to defy military orders and were severely punished. When asked to assist with the unloading of war supplies, all but one refused this work, and they were consequently court-martialled and sentenced to death on 14 June 1916.

Kitchener, who had introduced conscription, had wanted to make an example of them by having them shot for refusing to obey orders.

Just before the death sentence was due to be carried out, Kitchener died suddenly and the sentence was commuted to ten years hard labour by the Prime Minister, Asquith.

Arthur Rowntree, an MP for York and a Quaker, had taken up the case of the Richmond Sixteen and campaigned for their release at a high level.

On their return from France the Richmond Sixteen, with the other absolutist conscientious objectors, were imprisoned again in labour camps and civil prisons. Although they stayed true to their pacifist principles, imprisonment took its toll; all the objectors suffered severe long-term psychological effects.

After their release they continued to pay for their stand; many found themselves social outcasts unable to get jobs or settle back into the lives and communities they had left behind.

The moral convictions of the Richmond Sixteen and other conscientious objectors who were willing to suffer punishment, imprisonment and potentially even execution for their beliefs, changed public attitudes toward conscientious objection and pacifism. Their experiences led to reforms in prison conditions and they set the scene for people to object to compulsory military service during the Second World War.

Many more men and some women sought exemption from service in the 1939-45 war and conscientious objection to war continues in many countries today

Unique photos from the Great War
08 Oct 09 |  History
War heroes remembered once again
20 Oct 09 |  History



Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific