The "Letchworth Eighteen"

By Nicholas Blatchley

Letchworth Garden City in its early years
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies

Letchworth Garden City was begun in 1903 and was the first fruit of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept. The whole idea of the Garden Cities attracted idealists, especially from the Quakers and the Arts & Crafts Movement, and much later the people of Letchworth were caricatured by John Betjeman and others as otherworldly health freaks. The general attitude of the public to the people of the Garden City is summed up in the first paragraph of the report below.

It’s hardly surprising that there were many conscientious objectors from Letchworth, and these eighteen were dealt with as a “batch” on 1st April 1916. The individuals concerned are difficult to track down, since Letchworth attracted settlers from all over the country, and most of those below appear not to have been living in the Garden City at the time of the 1911 census.

The brief second cutting is a chilling reminder that conscientious objectors weren’t always safe even after receiving their certificate of exemption.

The Hertfordshire Mercury 1/4/16

Next came a batch of 18 conscientious objectors from Letchworth. The court was crowded with their supporters, including a number of women and various “peculiar” people, a type familiar to those who know the Garden City. Long-haired, lantern-jawed, hatless, ascetic-looking people for the most part, they were represented by Mr Rafferty, a barrister-at-law.

The first of them to be heard was Matthew Owen Bevan. He said that he could not do anything that would assist in the prolongation of the war, not even tending the wounded. At the beginning of the war, when his position was uncertain and he had not been brought face to face with the real facts, he felt that he ought to do something, and joined the Friends Ambulance Corps at York. He then went with nothing but humanitarian feelings; he felt that there were men suffering from wounds and if he could help then he ought to do so.  After a time, however, he found that he was short-sighted and wrong, and that he was definitely assisting in the war by healing men and making them fit to fight again, the very thing that he hated. Then he came to the conclusion that he could have no lot or part in this business.

The Chairman {Mr E.B. Barnard}: What brought you to that conclusion?

Appellant: It is difficult to say. I grew to that state of mind. I felt that I was ministering to men who in a few weeks’ time would be in a position to fight again, and therefore that I was not ministering in the true sense.

The Chairman: Suppose you met one of those gentlemen called tramps on a lonely highway, and he knocked you down and robbed you of your money, would you let him do it without a struggle? (No answer.) Would you hit him?

Appellant: No. (Loud laughter.)

Mr. Priestly, K.C.: I’m sure he would. (Renewed laughter.)

In answer to further questions Mr. Bevan said he was working on a small holding of seven acres with a partner, but he was willing to give that up and go and work on a farm if it was thought that he would be doing better work for his country.

The tribunal granted him conditional exemption, that is, if he goes to work on a farm he will not be called up, and it was left to Mr. D. Crawford, the representative of the War Agriculture Committee, to see that he carries out his promise.

Mr. A. Francis, a greengrocer and vegetarian, said he had business, financial and medical reasons for not wanting to serve his country as well as his conscientious objection. He believed in international brotherhood. War was not in accordance with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Modern society was based upon injustice and oppression, and was responsible for this war, and unless we as a nation repented of our sins we should be responsible for further evils of a much worse kind. England was making Prussia her ideal – conscription instead of Christ – and it was because the Light had been revealed to him that he felt he must stand apart from this great conflict at whatever cost. More cordial relations should be established between Great Britain and Germany: they both came of the same common stock and had the same aspirations and ideals. He belonged to the Peace Society which had petitioned the Government to promote more friendly relations between the two countries.

The Chairman said that didn’t prove that the appellant had a conscientious objection to militarism.

Mr. Brunt, a friend, said Mr. Francis had been a consistent opponent of war for ten years to his knowledge; he was opposed to war as a solution of any question of national importance.

Mrs. Price, and also the Congregational minister at Letchworth, Mr. Gubbin, spoke to the same effect, but the tribunal refused to exempt the man except from combatant service.

William John Miller, a grocer’s assistant, objected to war service of any kind as he looked upon all mankind as his brothers. However, he was willing to go and work on the land if exempted, and after the Wesleyan minister had spoken for him, he was let off on the same conditions as Mr. Bevan.

The next man was Frederick G. Wells, chief clerk in the employ of a firm at Letchworth who manufacture fly-catcher’s {sic}, and he said he was opposed to killing in any shape or form, and declined to accept any commands from the Government to do anything he objected to.

The Chairman: You object to taking human life. Do you object to killing animals?

Appellant: No, that is a different thing.

The Chairman: I suppose that is why you are in the fly-catching trade? (Loud laughter, in which the appellant joined heartily.)

He was informed that he would only be exempted from combatant service.

L. White, describing himself as an assistant foreman joiner, said he objected to kill his brother trade unionists in Germany who were not as much against him as certain classes in this country were. He would not under any circumstances participate in the fighting forces of the country; and if he lost his life in resisting it he should consider that it was a sacrifice that was divinely intended.

The Chairman said that here was a man who believed in resistance and therefore he ought to be fighting.

The tribunal gave White temporary examption until the end of next month, so that he will soon have a chance of showing his powers of resistance.

An agricultural chemist, named A.R. Palmer, working under his father, who is the managing-director of a firm of artificial manure manufacturers, said he had not only an objection to actual killing, but was opposed to war in general and all the military system.

The Chairman: What would you substitute for it? – Arbitration.

How are you going to enforce arbitration? – I cannot say.

We all have to think of these things. If we were all of your way of thinking the strongest men physically would always be on top by virtue of their brute force. How can you enforce arbitration? – By a world boycott.

But isn’t that force? – No.

Mr. Priestly: How would you get your wages if someone was not behind your master to insist upon him treating you fairly? Is that not force? – I don’t know.

The Chairman: Supposing a man owed you £5 and refused to pay you. Then suppose you went to the County Court and got a judgement against him, would you believe in sending him to prison if he disobeyed the order of the court? – I think I should.

Well, is that not force? – That is different to killing.

Supposing a man murdered someone, would you object to his being hanged? – Yes.

It was decided to withdraw the certificate for non-combatant service.

H.C. Phillips, of Norton Hill, Letchworth, civil engineer in the employ of the Garden City Company, appealed against the decision of the local tribunal, who granted exemption from combatant service only. He said his objection to fighting was simply on the ground that he was a Christian and had true faith in Jesus Christ. As a follower of Him he could not engage in warfare. Christ died for his enemies, and he could not consent to kill. He admitted that he had gradually drifted into work connected with munition work, such as the electric power. His company had got him badged, but he refused to wear it and at the risk of losing his employment he told his company he would not undertake any work in connection with munitions. He relinquished his card and badge which he might have had.

The appeal was dismissed.

T.E. Miller, of 14 Station Road, Letchworth, a carpenter, who was granted exemption from combatant duty, applied for absolute exemption on conscientious grounds as he could not kill fellow-beings or assist in any way to take human life. He was willing to do any work of national importance.

Conditional exemption was granted so long as the appellant undertook agricultural work.

Meyrick Booth, a Doctor of Philosophy and Batchelor of Science, said he was against war, as he believed in the teachings of Christ. He had lived in Germany and had written books.

Mr. Holding: You can only be on one side; which do you prefer?

Dr. Booth: I prefer not to fight at all.

You would have us Germanized, would you? – No.

Then what is the alternative to German oppression? – I believe war is due to materialism and I stand as one who advocates Christian principles instead.

The appeal was dismissed.

A.J. Henderson, a corset maker, was reported from the local tribunal as having at first desired to join the Royal Flying Corps or the O.T.C., but afterwards said he would wait to be swept in. He now said he could not kill because he objected to murder. Asked what he would do if someone tried to murder his mother, he said he would try and stop him, but would not kill him.

Mr. Holding: How near to killing would you go?

Appellant: I would stand in front of him.

Would you seize hold of him – Yes.

The Chairman: I suppose he would jolly well go right at him and be sorry afterwards if he killed him. (Laughter.)

Appellant: I did not realize what I was doing when I said I would fight. I came to my senses afterwards.

Lieut. Voss asked for the certificate of exemption from combatant service to be withdrawn. He asked Henderson if he would save his mother’s life if he saw her being bayoneted by a German, as many women had been bayoneted in Belgium?

Appellant replied that he could not conscientiously save his mother by killing the German, as it would be just as much murder for him to kill the German as it would be for the German to kill his mother.

The young man’s father said his son had shown his objection to taking life by his attitude towards animals as well as towards human beings.

Miss Booth, a school teacher, said she knew that Henderson would never fight as a school-boy, and she knew him as a kind-hearted boy.

Lieut. Voss: Do you agree that Lord Roberts was a kind-hearted gentleman?

Miss Booth: I have not come here to be cross-questioned.

Mr. Ball stated that when Henderson filled in his registration form last August he expressed his willingness to join the Army, and he had developed a conscience since.

It was decided to withdraw the certificate already granted to Henderson for exemption from combatant service, and he will now have to join the Army.

Walter Hurst, a carpenter and joiner, said he regarded life as sacred and for that reason he could not participate in warfare either directly or indirectly.

“Is there any other form of work you are willing to undertake to help the nation?” he was asked. “Yes,” he said, “but not under the military machine.”

“What religion are you?” – “None.”

He was granted exemption on condition that he followed some agricultural pursuit.

Stanley Ogilvie, a single young man who had already obtained exemption until November, asked for total exemption, but was refused. He pleaded hard for his conscience sake, but the tribunal was not moved in the least, and he was advised that he was much better off than he might be if he pursued the matter further.

An Oxford undergraduate studying for holy orders, named R. B. Hunter, said that under no circumstances whatever would he serve in the Army.

Mr. Holding: Would you refuse to join any church which sanctions war?

Appellant: No church sanctions war.

You say it is not lawful for a Christian to go to war? – Yes.

You are studying for the Church of England, and, of course, you would have to give adherence to the 39 Articles in the Prayer Book? – Yes.

Do you remember Article 37, where it says “it shall be lawful for Christian men at the command of a magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars?” Does your conscience allow you to join a church which has these articles? – I contend that those articles are not an essential part of the Christian faith.

Then is that not essential? I want to know how much elasticity there is in your conscience?

Counsel for the appellant said the tribunal had no doubt heard of mental reservations in such matters.

Mr. Holding: But surely you don’t advise this young man to hide himself behind a mental reservation?

Appellant said he should like to know if Mr. Holding knew any priest who subscribed to all the 39 Articles absolutely?

The Chairman: Anyhow you don’t believe in fighting, although in all the English churches at the present time the priests and people are praying for the success to our arms.

The young man’s father said his son would never fight as a schoolboy.

The tribunal dismissed the appeal, and the undergraduate’s entry into the church will have to be postponed for a while.

L. C. Chipperfield, a clerk in the Estate Office of the Garden City Company, said that fighting was entirely contrary to the spirit of the commandments. He had an exemption from combatant service, but that did not go far enough.  In addition to his conscientious objection he was a mother’s only son.

He lost his non-combatant certificate and was given temporary exemption from combatant service until June 30 on domestic grounds.

G. H. Hawkins, an uncertified teacher in a private preparatory school, said he believed that war was opposed to the law of God and was an act of sin. He was a Roman Catholic and his faith was opposed to war.

The chairman said that many people in the appellant’s church held just the reverse view, for many thousands of Catholics were fighting and dying for their country.

The appeal was dismissed.

Counsel for the appellant said that he was surprised the tribunal had not given the weight to these conscientious objectors that the law intended they should.

The Chairman pulled him up sharply, and said that he had no right to criticize the rulings of the tribunal, which was equivalent to a Court of Law, and counsel ought to have known better than do so; he certainly would not take such a liberty in front of a Judge.

D. W. Brunt, a healthy-looking, single young fellow, who had obtained a non-combatant certificate, applied for a full exemption on conscientious grounds. He said he would rather lose his life than take part in this diabolical, murderous, war.

This was the last of the “conscience” men, and he impressed the tribunal with his sincerity, and the announcement that he was given total exemption was received with rapturous applause by the ladies from Letchworth.


{From a small cutting – date, newspaper and tribunal not known – presumably refers to “A. Francis above”}

Mr J. E. Matthews, of Letchworth, appealed on behalf of Arthur Francis, a conscientious objector, who had been exempted so long as he worked on the land. The man went to work on the land in Essex, but was arrested by the military, handcuffed, taken before a court martial, sentenced to 112 days’ imprisonment, and was now in Lewes goal {sic}. He contended that the man was now in the hands of the civil authorities and was therefore out of the jurisdiction of the military. – Mr. Holding said that this man was given non-combatant service, with the suggestion that he should go on the land. The man went on to the land, but because he went on to the land in Essex instead of Hertfordshire he was arrested and sent to prison. It was a monstrous proceeding. – The Chairman said this Tribunal had no jurisdiction because the man was in the hands of the military. 




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