'My Conscience Would Not Let Me Arm Myself'

Altrincham Borough Council minutes: declaration of war

Extract from the minutes of a meeting of Altrincham Borough Council, held at the Town Hall, Altrincham, on Tuesday 5 September 1939. Trafford Local Studies Collection, cat. ref. ALT/1/1/1/3/10.

On 3 September 1939, on the same day that Britain declared war with Germany, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act required all men aged 18 to 41 to register for service. This replaced the far more limited Military Training Act of May 1939, which only applied to single men aged 20 to 22. Some men were exempt, for being either medically unfit or because they worked in a protected profession, but there were others who refused to fight for reasons of conscience.

Conscientious Objectors (C.Os) were required to appear at tribunals to make the case for their objection. These tribunals had the power to reject the claim to conscientious objection, if they were not convinced of the motives, in which case the man would be required to join the military services, either in a non-combatant or combatant capacity. They could also conditionally or unconditionally accept the explanation. C.Os who were conditionally accepted were required to carry out civilian work, such as agricultural labour or civil defence work. A refusal to abide by the tribunal’s decision could result in a fine or a prison sentence.

During the First World War, C.Os’ choices were limited to little more than war or prison, so these tribunals did offer a third, legitimate option. However, there were members of the public who still viewed ‘conchies’ as traitors, shirkers or cowards and the outcome of the tribunals could depend of the personal views of the tribunal panel members, or the C.O’s ability to convey their motivations in a convincing manner.  

By January 1941, 34,793 men of conscription age were registered by tribunals. From December 1941, following the second National Service Act, women could also register. The majority of the cases from what is now the Trafford area were held at the North-Western Tribunal in Manchester and these are well documented in the newspapers.

Local Conscientious Objectors

On 9 November 1939 the Manchester Guardian reported the on the Manchester tribunal of J.H. Lindars, who lived at Timperley Vicarage and was studying physics at Cambridge University.

After declaring his belief in the cruelty and uselessness of war, Mr Lindars’s statement said he felt he must refuse to take part at the risk of being called inhuman not only by other people but even by his own instinctive pity.

When Mr Lindars was asked by the chairman of the tribunal, Judge Burgis, why he shouldn’t take part he answered ‘I can’t conceive why I should. It is so horrible and beastly. A great hatred of it has just grown up in me.’ The judge was not convinced and Lindars was removed from the conscientious objector register.

Kenneth Lightowler, a twenty year old from Hale, was also removed from the register. After failing to submit to a medical examination, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Frederick Barton from Stretford, who was employed as a reporter for the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors, was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for the same reason.

The tribunal of Francis Hudson, a pharmacist from Sale, took a different direction.

Registering Francis Hudson, a Sale pharmacist, without condition, the chairman said that few applicants had more favourably impressed the tribunal. Hudson is a member of the Brethren and told the tribunal that seven years ago he gave up retail pharmacy and went to work as a dispenser at Manchester Royal Infirmary because he wished to do something of more actively social character.

- Manchester Guardian, 9 October 1941

Frederick Dooley, a bank clerk, who lived on Marsland Road in Sale, told the tribunal that ‘he was prepared himself to do agricultural work because it would be something of a hardship to him. He wanted to be as much as possible on an equality with soldiers’. Judge Burgis declared that he admired his approach to the matter and registered him conditionally.

Altrincham Council

Altrincham Borough Council minutes: conscientious objectors

Extract from the minutes of a special Meeting of Altrincham Borough Council, held on 8 February 1940. Trafford Local Studies Collection, cat. ref. ALT/1/1/1/3/10.

In a country which prides itself on freedom of speech and thought, we are astonished to hear of the decision taken by the Altrincham Corporation in asking for the resignation of all conscientious objectors in their service. The position of the objector is recognised by the Government. Is it right that any local body should thus infringe the laws of the state and penalise those who have the courage to stand fast for the trust as they see it; particularly when as in this case they have been encouraged by the North-western Tribunal to remain in their present employment?

- Extract from a letter from William H. Denton, Clerk, Friends’ Meeting House, Park Road, Ashton on Mersey, to the Editor of the Manchester Guardian, published 15 February 1940

Newspaper article title: 'Altrincham Council and Conscientious Objectors'

Title of an article published in the Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian on 8 March 1940. The Altrincham group of the Peace Pledge Union sent a letter of protest to Altrincham Council, pointing out that Parliament had acknowledged the rights of conscientious objectors and arguing that the Council’s action defied the ruling of the North West Tribunal. 

In February 1940 Altrincham Council made the papers for asking for the resignation of conscientious objectors in its employment. Those affected were Eric Webb, who was employed in the Treasurer’s Department, and Derek Overbury of the Surveyor’s Department. The Manchester Guardian reported that the father of one had served three years in prison for being a conscientious objector during the First World War and that the other was a member of the Peace Pledge Union, the largest pacifist group in the UK. Initially a third council employee, library assistant Ralph Malbon, had been a registered C.O. but had since offered his services to the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Council’s decision caused controversy but they were not alone in their decision. Many other local authorities also decided to request the resignations of their conscientious objector employees.

Sources

Roger Broad, Conscription in Britain, 1939-1964, (Routledge, 2006)

Juliet Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939-1945, (Headline Publishing Group, 2004)

Manchester Evening News, 6 March 1940

Manchester Guardian, 9 November 1939

Manchester Guardian, 10 November 1939

Manchester Guardian, 1 February 1940

Manchester Guardian, 14 February 1940

Manchester Guardian, 6 March 1940

Manchester Guardian, 8 March 1940

Manchester Guardian, 21 March 1940

Manchester Guardian, 29 March 1940

Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1940

Manchester Guardian, 5 April 1940

Manchester Guardian, 30 July 1940

Manchester Guardian, 10 August 1940

Manchester Guardian, 15 August 1940

Manchester Guardian, 21 August 1940

Manchester Guardian, 24 August 1940

Manchester Guardian, 9 November 1940

Manchester Guardian, 4 December 1940

Manchester Guardian, 27 February 1941

Manchester Guardian, 24 April 1941

Manchester Guardian, 16 August 1941

Manchester Guardian, 9 October 1941

Manchester Guardian, 18 October 1941

Manchester Guardian, 21 October 1941

Manchester Guardian, 29 October 1941

Manchester Guardian, 27 December 1941

Manchester Guardian, 16 June 1942

Manchester Guardian, 13 August 1942

Manchester Guardian, 12 November 1943

Manchester Guardian, 23 November 1944

Richard Overy, ‘Pacifism and the Blitz, 1940-1941’, Past and Present, No.219 (May 2013)

UK Parliament, ‘Conscription: the Second World War’, < https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/yourcountry/overview/conscriptionww2/> [accessed 23 April 2020]

'My Conscience Would Not Let Me Arm Myself'