The No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was formed to support those who objected to taking up arms in the First World War. These men became known as 'Conscientious Objectors (COs)'. The grounds of objection varied with some, such as Quakers, objecting on religious grounds, whilst others were opposed on political grounds.
The movement began in the autumn of 1914 when, at the suggestion of his wife Lilla, Fenner Brockway - editor of the strongly anti-war ILP newspaper Labour Leader - invited those who were not prepared to render military service to get in contact. There was an immediate response that led to the establishment of an organisation, the No Conscription Fellowship, in November 1914 with 300 initial members and most of the secretarial work being done by Lilla from their cottage in Derbyshire.
Few at this point believed that the government would introduce conscription, which had never happened before in any previous war. There had also been a huge response at the beginning of the war with over 3 million men volunteering for the armed services. Small groups were established and by the beginning of 1915 the membership had become so large it was necessary to open an office in London at 8 Merton House, Salisbury Court, Fleet Street. Most of the work was now done by Clifford Allen. Allen had become a socialist at Cambridge University and later worked as a manager on the first Labour Party newspaper, the Daily Citizen. Allen was eventually sent to prison where he developed tuberculosis of the spine and was released in December 1917, after 16 months inside. Fenner Brockway was also sent to prison in 1916.
By July 1915 it was becoming clear that the government was going to introduce conscription. In August it took the first step with compulsory registration of men and women up to the age of 65. Despite the millions who had joined up in the first months of the war, the unprecedented military losses suffered by Britain were rapidly thinning the ranks. It was also clear that the war was going to last a long time. The NCF established a network of branches across the country to fight against the threatened military service bill. Members declared their intention not to render military service or perform war work. The government then introduced the Derby scheme of enlistment, which although nominally voluntary, aimed to persuade all men to take the military oath and enormous pressure was put on them to comply.
A national NCF convention was held in November 1915 at the Memorial Hall, London. When the
Military Service Bill was introduced an enormous campaign was launched against it with over a million leaflets issued and many deputations to the House of Commons. Conscription began on 2nd March 1916 for single men between 18 and 41 (Ireland was exempted from its provisions). The Act did permit applications for exemption by application to tribunals. The second national NCF convention was held in April 1916 at Devonshire House as arrests of COs were beginning. Delegates pledge themselves to fight for their beliefs and for peace. In June conscription was extended to married men between 18 and 41.
The NCF was organised meticulously, keeping records of every CO, the grounds of his objection, his appearance before tribunals, civil courts, courts martial, and even which prison or Home Office settlement they were in. They also maintained contact with COs, arranging visits to camps, barracks and prisons across the country. Pickets of prisons were held. The NCF also had a press department, which constantly sought to draw the attention of the public to what was happening to COs and the ill-treatment and brutality many were subject to. They also published leaflets and pamphlets and from March 1916 a weekly newspaper called The Tribunal. The Political Department briefed MPs and drafted questions to Ministers. The NCF worked with two other organisations; the Friends' Service Committee and Fellowship of Reconciliation. Their activities were co-ordinated through the Joint Advisory Council (JAC).
Ranged against them they had the full might of the government, the police, the army, most churches and the jingoist press which whipped up public opinion against COs or "conchies" as they were labelled. Immense personal pressures were put on COs not just by the state, but also by communities, neighbours, friends, even families. They also had to withstand the pressure to conform when isolated in barracks, army camps and prisons.
Some forty were shipped to France in May 1916 as the government and army attempted to break the movement of whom many were actually sentenced to death after court-martial, although the sentences were commuted to 10 years imprisonment as the NCF got publicity for what was going on. Seventy three men died after being arrested, the first ten whilst still in prison. About forty suffered mental breakdowns. Altogether, about 16,000 men refused to fight. According to NCF figures 6312 men were arrested for resisting conscription. Over 800 served more than two years in prison. Thousands of other COs refused to bear arms but accepted service in ambulance units, the Friends Relief Committee or 'work of national importance'.
Women were extensively involved in the NCF. Firstly as mothers, wives, girlfriends and friends of the men who often had to face hostility from family and neighbours. Secondly as workers in the organisation itself, especially as male members were imprisoned. This category included Catherine Marshall, who acted as Parliamentary Secretary and later as Acting Hon Secretary; Violet Tillard who worked in the maintenance department, acted as Secretary General from 1914-1916 and was sentenced to 61 days imprisonment for refusing to tell the police who the NCF printers were; Ada Salter; Gladys Rinder; Joan Beauchamp who was also jailed twice; Lydia Smith who worked in the Press Department; and Edith Smith who served 6 months for printing a leaflet without submitting it for censorship.
The government tried very hard to suppress The Tribunal, raiding the first printers the National Labour Press and dismantling their printing machinery. The NCF had made preparations and had a secret press which continued to bring out the paper. The police raided the offices repeatedly, followed office staff and also took Joan Beauchamp to court. She was eventually imprisoned for 10 days in January 1920.
The final convention of the NCF took place at the end of November 1919 at Devonshire House and was attended over 400 delegates from branches all over the country.
Notes on Leading Figures
Joan Beauchamp later joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, worked as a journalist in London and later married Harry Thompson, a CO, who established a legal practice which specialised in working for trade unions. He died in 1947 and Joan ran the firm until their sons Brian and Robin could take over. The firm became the most well known trade union practice in Britain.
Catherine Marshall was born in 1880, the daughter of Frank Marshall, housemaster at Harrow, and Caroline Colbeck, the sister of a colleague. Catherine played an important part in building up the suffrage movement in the Lake District between 1907 and 1909 and was then active at a national level as Parliamentary Secretary of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). As secretary of the Election Fighting Fund she played a key role in helping to sustain the alliance between the Labour Party and the NUWSS after 1912. During the First World War she resigned from the executive of the NUWSS because of her support for the peace movement. After 1917 she suffered from periods of ill health but remained active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She died in 1961.
Violet Tillard was born in 1874. She trained as a nurse and in 1908 was instrumental in organising the Women's Freedom League. She was arrested when she went to Parliament with a deputation demanding women's suffrage, and spent 60 days in prison. Violet became a Quaker c.1919 and in 1920-21 went to Berlin to work with students suffering from malnutrition. She joined Quaker Relief in November 1921 in the famine area of Russia, and died of typhus in the Ukraine in February 1922. (Thanks to the Library of the Society of Friends for this information)
Cuttings Book Belonging to Thomas Henry Ellison
Thomas was a Conscientious Objector. He has pasted into this book cuttings, leaflets, official documents, NCF circulars, poems, hand-written notes and other material relating to the story of his ordeal. It seems to have been compiled in February 1919. There is reference to another cuttings book, but unfortunately the library does not have this. Thomas lived at 42 Ampthill Square, Golders Green, London. He was called up on 27th April 1916 and ordered to report to St Pancras Recruiting Office where he was placed in 7th (Reserve) Battalion, the London Regiment.
On 9th June he was charged at Sutton Mandeville camp with refusing to put on military clothing when ordered to do so, saying he had conscientious objections to military service. He was court-martialled on 14th June. He refused to call witnesses or cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, instead making a speech (which was later reported in The Spur) on his reasons for refusing to fight. He was sentenced to 6 months hard labour that was later reduced to 112 days.
He arrived in Winchester Prison on 19th June. His case was heard before the Central Tribunal on 11th August at Wormwood Scrubs where he and other prisoners were moved. The tribunal accepted his case and he agreed to serve in the Committee for the Employment of Conscientious Objectors, although in his note on this page he says that he had an understanding with himself to come back to prison in due course.
He and other were sent to Dyce camp, near Aberdeen. According to cuttings the COs at the camp produced their own newspaper The Granite Echo, edited by Guy Aldred. The death of W. L. Roberts from Stockport in the camp after a short illness attracted the attention of the press after complaints about conditions in the camp
In early November Thomas was sent a letter from the Home Office ordering him to report a work camp in Wakefield. He wrote back from 13 Ernest Street, Crewe, refusing to go. He was sent a letter on 27th December ordering him to report to the London regiment, was arrested that same evening in Crewe and two days later taken to London under escort and thence to Sutton Mandeville camp.
As the clocks struck to usher in the New Year Thomas was lying on the guardroom floor "thinking about the war, the prisons, the army, and the human race in general and it seemed as if it was here for ever, all this stupendous war establishment, all this rotten civilisation, and ugly tawdry society. But then I thought of Emerson and what he had said concerning this matter, 'A thought created this portentous war establishment and a thought shall melt it away'. And then all these petty doubts left me and I saw through it all."
At the Dartmouth camp Thomas again refusing to put on military clothing when ordered to do so. He was court-martialled on 12th January 1917 at Torquay. He again made statement, a copy of which is included in the book in his own handwriting. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison and taken to Exeter Prison on 26th January. His sentence was later commuted to 6 months and he spent a total of 5 months in Exeter. It was a cold winter and Thomas spent most of his time in the garden. . He had just one visit in all the time he was there.
Thomas was released in June 1917 and taken under escort to Blackdown camp. For the third time he was charged after refusing to put in uniform.
Related Objects of the Month
May 2015: International Conscientious Objectors' Day
November 2009: Ernest Faulkner's birthday card
Resources in the Library on the NCF and its Leading Members
Books and pamphlets
Clifford Allen, Labour's future at stake (1932) - Shelfmark: A42
Fenner Brockway, Inside the left: thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament (1942) - Shelfmark B05
Arthur Marwick, Clifford Allen: the open conspirator (1964) - Shelfmark: B03
Central Board of Conscientious Objectors, Troublesome people: a reprint of the NCF souvenir describing its work during the years 1914-1919 (1940) - Shelfmark: AG No Conscription Fellowship - Box 1
No Conscription Fellowship, The COs' hansard (27 July 1916-10 April 1919) - Shelfmark: S33
A weekly report of all references to COs that took place in the Commons or Lords.
Archival material (all in AG No Conscription Fellowship Box 1)
- Papers of the No-Conscription Fellowship including circulars and Membership and National Convention papers.
- Circulars from the National Council for Civil Liberties, Committee for the Relief of Dependents of Conscientious Objectors and the Joint Board For The Assistance of CO's and Their Dependents.
- Items and minutes from 1920 relating to the Resist the War Committee.
- Reports of the Conscientious Objectors Information Bureau about conscientious objectors.
- Papers of the Hyde group of the No-Conscription Fellowship including correspondence, papers and membership lists.
- Lists of conscientious objectors, case records and correspondence about individual conscientious objectors detailing progress through tribunals, military camps, prison etc.(mostly from the Hyde and Manchester area).
For further information see The CO Project being run by the Peace Pledge Union