The South West Tribunal

Conscientious Objectors in WWII

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During the Second World War, over 60,000 men and 1,000 women applied to register as conscientious objectors (COs) in England, Wales and Scotland. Although this was at least three times as many as in the First World War; it has remained something of an under reported history.

The experience of First World War and Second World War COs vary in a number of ways. Sympathetically framed legislation and the fact that the tribunals came under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour rather than the military resulted in fairer and more generous treatment for Second World War COs. Additionally, there was not the jingoism associated with the 1914-1918 conflict and as so many families had been negatively affected by that conflict, there was, in general, a greater understanding of and sympathy for anti-war sentiment. Second World War COs did experience discrimination in employment, housing and in society at large, but it tended not to match the dramatic hostility encountered by so many COs during the First World War.

That relatively little has been written about conscientious objection in the Second World War may be for several reasons. While present day historians now tend to interpret First World War Conscientious Objectors as offering an understandable response to the obscenity of that war; the position of conscientious objectors in the Second World War is more morally complex.

The dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki together with the Russian declaration of war on Japan ended the Second World War and secured victory for Allied Forces. In Great Britain, victory was portrayed as having been achieved by a nation pulling together with everyone playing his or her part both at home and abroad. It was therefore an uncomfortable and discordant truth that prior to and throughout the Second World War, there was a section of the population who remained opposed to the prosecution of the war.

Equally for pacifists, the revelation of the full horrors of the Nazi regime and the indescribable brutality of Japanese forces towards prisoner and civilian populations challenged the position of those who had refused to fight and posed questions as to how one finds alternative responses, which do not involve armed conflict, to deal with such regimes.

Therefore in the immediate post war period, it may have been that the history of conscientious objection was one best forgotten. With the passage of time, however, some of that history is now emerging. As the location of the Conscientious Objector’s Tribunal for the South West, Bristol played a part in that history, as the following narrative will describe.

The Reintroduction of Conscription

On 26th May 1939, conscription to the armed forces was reintroduced in Britain.

Throughout the 1930s, successive governments had stated that there would be no return to conscription but in April 1939 with an unsettled international situation and with trade union approval, the government announced plans to re-introduce compulsory military training. Thus it was on 26th May 1939, the Military Training Bill became law. All men aged 20 and 21 were to register at their local Labour Exchange for a medical examination followed by 6 months military training.

Informed by the experiences of the First World War, the government had taken a pragmatic approach to those who were opposed to war and there was within the Act a ‘conscience clause’, whereby a man could conscientiously object to being placed on the military register and to the performance of military or combatant duties. If awarded exemption from military service he would be placed on the Register of Conscientious Objectors.

There were several reasons that underpinned the inclusion of the conscience clause, which was generally regarded as fair and humane. The strength of belief of many Conscientious Objectors (COs) had been demonstrated by their actions during the First World War. In his speech during the second reading of the bill, Neville Chamberlain commented that it was “both a useless and an exasperating waste of time and effort to attempt to force such people to act in a manner which was contrary to their principles” [1].  There were also concerns that having disaffected conscripts could stir up discontent amongst the ranks particularly as appeasement remained a preferred option for many pacifists and non-pacifists alike. Lord Beveridge later observed in a broadcast early in the war ‘resentful conscripts are a source of weakness.’[2]It was also argued that if COs were persecuted, it could create martyrs.

Conscription now came under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour rather than the military. Men had to register at their local Labour Exchange. At this point, a conscript could state his wish to be registered as a Conscientious Objector. Form NS14 would be completed, listing their grounds for objection. Additional, supporting testimonials from witnesses could also be submitted. After this, the applicant then waited to be summoned to appear before a Tribunal to consider their application. In the event, on 3rd June 1939 only one mass registration took place under the Military Training Act before it was swiftly overtaken by the outbreak of war against Germany.[3]

Sample NS14 [Author’s own collection]

The Tribunals

The tribunals were run by the Ministry of Labour and National Service[4]. There were ten tribunals in England, two in Wales and four in Scotland (Northern Ireland being exempted from conscription). They consisted of a chairman, who would be a County Court Judge (Sheriff in Scotland) and four other members appointed by the Ministry, of whom at least one would be appointed following trade union consultation. The tribunals were to be civilian bodies and not an adjunct of the military. They were not courts of law and their purpose was to determine strength and sincerity of belief in order to reach a decision on the validity of the objection.

There was a right of appeal against a tribunal decision. These were heard by one of the two Appellate Tribunals, which were based in London and Edinburgh. Their decisions were final. As a last resort, a rejected applicant could refuse to attend the medical examination, which was an essential pre-requisite for joining the forces. This would result in court martial and fines or imprisonment.

The South Western Tribunal[5]

The South Western Tribunal was set up to hear applications for exemption from military training. It covered Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Cornwall, Oxford, Hampshire and Dorset. The geographical area was later reduced once war was declared due to the increased number of applications caused by the wider conscription age range. Hearings were to be held in the Senate Room at Bristol University. The first hearings were scheduled for August 9th, 10th and 11th 1939 with further hearings the following week on the 16th, 17th and 18th and then again in October.

Judge Wethered, Bristol’s County Court Judge, was to act as Chairman of the Tribunal. The other panel members were Alderman Frank Shepherd (Bristol’s first Labour Lord Mayor); Mr. A.L. Hobhouse (Chairman Somerset County Council); Mr. C.R. Brown (a member of Plymouth National Service Committee & Plymouth Unemployment Assistance Board Advisory Committee) and Dr. Cyril Bailey (previously chairman of the Oxford Juvenile Advisory Committee and formerly public orator at Oxford University). There were no women on the panel until the introduction of conscription for women in 1941.

The attitudes of the tribunals were heavily influenced by the character and attitudes of the chairman. Throughout the war, the South Western Tribunal was presided over by Judge Wethered.

Ernest Handel Cossham Wethered [Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery]
Ernest Harold Cossham Wethered (1878-1975) was the son of Alderman E.B. Wethered, who was a mayor of Cheltenham. He studied law at Cambridge, graduating in 1899. He moved to Bristol in 1902, where he remained until he was made a judge for the Devon circuit in 1934. He returned to Bristol in 1938 as a judge on the Bristol County Court circuit. He lived at 11 The Avenue Clifton, now known as Wethered House. As well as ballroom dancing, opera and mountaineering, he loved to perform magic tricks in his spare time. He became the first president of the Bristol Magicians Society and in March1939, he was awarded the Gold Star of the Council of the Magic Circle; “an honour conferred upon members of the circle who earn the admiration of the masters of the art”.[6]He was often referred to as ‘the conjuring judge’.

During the Second World War, in addition to his chairmanship of the South Western Tribunal, he taught Civil Defence and was a wartime Fire Guard training officer for the Clifton Division. A role that suggests that he was unlikely to agree with the views of the applicants to the South Western Tribunal. However, both personal testimonies and statistics indicate that he treated applicants fairly. The limited available transcripts of tribunal hearings show him challenging applicants and yet the South Western Tribunal consistently gave some of the highest percentage of exemptions throughout the war.

Judge Wethered as Fireguard [Courtesy of Bristol Central Library]

The First Hearing 9th August 1939

“For nearly six hours in the carpeted senate room of Bristol University, five just men examined the consciences of 28 youths from the West Country who objected to military training and in some cases to compulsory service of any kind”.[7] Thus the Western Daily Press described the opening hearing of the South Western tribunal.

In all 275 cases were due to be heard over the six days in August and three days in October. The expectation was to hear approximately 30 cases per session. The atmosphere was described by the Western Daily Press as ‘sympathetic’ and the room arranged to create an informal atmosphere. The members of the tribunal sat along a wide cloth covered table in front of which was a smaller table where the applicant sat together with any supporters. Sessions were open to the public and for the first hearing it was estimated that 20 members of the public attended. Oaths were not taken, as it was not a court of law. By the start of the hearing, the panel would have already read all the paperwork submitted by the applicant and his supporters, so the purpose of the tribunal was an oral examination.

Example of a Tribunal [Courtesy of IWM]
Judge Wethered opened proceedings by delineating the purpose of the tribunal. He stated “We are not concerned with whether we agree with their views or whether we think them sound and reasonable.”[8]Their only concern was to determine if an objection was conscientiously held.

He then outlined the decisions that could be made. Unconditional Exemption meant immediate placement on the CO register. There were then two categories of Conditional Exemption. One condition was to undertake work or civilian training as prescribed by the Ministry of Labour. This generally meant continuing in their current employment; at the end of which the applicant would be automatically placed on the register and no longer be liable for any further service. The alternative was to be placed on the military register for non-combatant duties. This meant enrolling into the Army medical, pay, veterinary, or dental corps or in the Non-combatant Labour Corps, whose tasks included administrative work, improvement of camping sites, drainage of training areas and growing crops for the troops. All these COs regardless of their corps were expected to undertake training in foot drill without arms, physical training, passive air defence, as well as anti-gas and decontamination procedures.

If the objection was not upheld, the applicant would be placed on the military register and the applicant would be expected to undertake military training with immediate effect.

The objectors were described by a journalist as conforming to “no general type unless it were that more were “bookish’ rather than out-of-doors.”[9]In this first cohort almost all had objected on religious grounds. The following religious associations were represented that day:

The Society of Friends [6]

Methodists [4]

Brethren [3]

Church of England, Baptists, the Assemblies of God and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society [2 each]

Congregationalists, Christian Science, Christadelphians, and the Four Square Gospel [1 each].

One applicant was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and two men others expressed no specific religious or political beliefs.

The occupations of the applicants included bus conductor, quantity surveyor, milkman, several clerks and salesmen, baker, market gardener, schoolteacher and a glove factory cuff webber. Of the 28 applicants, 16 attended with their father, minister of religion or older friend, while the other 12 were alone. Travelling and subsistence expenses were paid to both the applicant and their supporter.

The first case to be heard was that of Clifford James Matthews from Newport, Isle of Wight. His father appeared with him and vouched that he was a member of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, one of whose tenets was that military service was not permissible. Clifford was a carpenter who planned to join his father’s business in making wooden agricultural implements once his apprenticeship was completed in November.

Judge Wethered responded “We are satisfied that this is a bona fide and honestly held conscientious objection and you will be placed on the register of conscientious objectors conditional upon your completing your apprenticeship and continuing that trade during the next 12 months.”[10]This case lasted quarter of an hour although it was later estimated that on average most cases took ten minutes.

On the first day’s hearing six men were granted unconditional exemption. Sixteen men were given conditional exemption of which 12 were allowed to continue in their present occupation whilst four had to undertake civilian training under the Ministry of Labour. The remaining five were placed on the military register for non-combatant duties. Only one objection was not upheld. Judge Wethered told L. M. Crook from Trowbridge: “This is an application on the ground of hardship – that you are married and a family man. It should go to the Hardship Committee. You do not disclose any religious conviction.”[11]

Subsequent Hearings

A list of the decisions together with the applicant’s names and addresses were published in the Western Daily Press after each sitting for all of the August hearings. On average approximately 28 cases a day were dealt with.

At the next day’s sitting on 10th August, applicants were not necessarily aligned to any specific religious group, expressing varying oppositions to military training. A recently qualified Exeter teacher reported that he was having difficulty obtaining work as employers were concerned that his teaching would be disrupted by being called up for military service so he was exempted on condition that he continue teaching.

On 11th August, for the third and final session for that week, applicants were mainly members of the Plymouth Brethren[12] and most were given exemption. Judge Wethered then confirmed sittings for the following week and announced that the sessions scheduled for October were to be brought forward to 12-14th September in order to expedite applications.

The first session of the second week, 16th August, raised philosophical issues regarding the conflicting duties of Christians. Douglas Hayward, a member of the Methodist Peace Fellowship, brought documents relating to a resolution by the Methodist Church on peace and war. It stated that:

If war came, a very grave decision would be demanded of Christians. There would be those, sincere lovers of their country, whose inward conviction and loyalty to Christ compelled them to oppose war in all circumstances.[13]

Whereas others with equal sincerity would feel that their loyalty was to their country. The Methodist Church said that it would uphold ‘liberty of conscience’ and support its sons and daughters “whichever direction loyalty to inward conviction would carry them.”[14] Hayward was given an unconditional exemption.

The session also demonstrated a willingness to accommodate those who were less able to articulate their views. At this hearing, D.J. Morrison of Montreal Avenue Horfield was described by his father as “a good mechanic but a poor orator”.[15] It appeared that his father had had to complete the NS14 form for him. He was granted unconditional exemption. Whilst in the previous week’s hearing, the judge had called on a Peace Pledge Union (PPU)[16] member in the audience to come to the aid of an applicant who was alone and struggling to express his views.

The following day August 17th saw the first overtly political application. A ‘Bournemouth carpenter and joiner’ submitted a long statement on his political outlook. Details of his specific political allegiance are not known but he admitted that he would be prepared to fight a class war. However, his father insisted that his son had held a conscientious objection for a long period. The panel retired to consider their decision. On their return, Judge Wethered said that although it was a political exemption, it was held with great conviction and sincerity and as such it was a conscientious objection within the meaning of the Act. Unconditional exemption was granted.

Sympathy for those affected by the First World War was also shown. A father, who had lost an arm and an eye, as well as having severe back wounds from the conflict, accompanied a ‘Portsmouth lad’. His father reported that his son was a ‘bundle of nerves’ as a result. The ‘lad’ was given six months training under the Ministry of Labour.

The newspaper headline for the final day’s hearing on 18th August was “Buddha quoted to Tribunal”.[17]Harold Oliver Phillipson, a Gloucestershire market gardener stated that he had been attracted by Oriental philosophy based on Buddha for several years and as such he objected to all wars and preparations for war. His statement listed his objection on religious, ethical and political grounds and he quoted a Buddhist text written 500 years before Christ:

He who wished to attain the joy of living harmony with the universe shall deceive none, entertain no hatred for anybody and never wish to injure through anger.[18]

He was granted unconditional exemption.

Following these first Tribunals, the coordinating committee of Pacifist Groups praised the South-Western Tribunal for conducting its business with ‘scrupulous fairness, which we consider a triumph for British justice’.[19]There was not a ‘war mentality’ in the Bristol Tribunal room and of the 166 cases dealt with; 66 were given unconditional exemption and 82 were returned to present employment or civilian training.

There were 99 outstanding cases scheduled for hearings from 12th September. However, these were overtaken by events.

War is declared

On 3rd September, Britain and France declared war on Germany and by that afternoon the National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed, which meant men aged18 to 41 were to be conscripted. The procedures for registration were very much the same as those under the Military Training Act.

The conscience clause remained but the decisions open to the Tribunals were altered slightly to reflect a wartime situation.[20] They were:

A: Registration on the CO Register unconditionally.

B: Registration on the CO Register conditionally for an equivalent period of civilian work or training under civilian control. (From 1941, this included compulsory civil defence, for which refusal to comply would result in imprisonment).

C: Removal from the CO Register and placement on the Military Training Register for non-combatant duties.

D: Removal from the CO Register and placement on the Military Training Register without qualification.

The right of appeal remained.

The Tribunals were suspended on 7th September until 16th October 1939, when new Tribunals under National Services Act were announced.  The South Western Tribunal was again to be held in the Senate room at Bristol University other than three additional sittings in November, which were to be held in St Peter’s Hospital in Peter Street. There was to be one sitting in October, five in November and three in December but as the war progressed an increasing number of tribunals were scheduled.[21] Judge Wethered remained as chairman throughout.

The Wartime Tribunals

Up until this point, the Tribunals had been dealing with men who had objected to military training in peacetime. From now on, objection to conscription amounted to a refusal to fight during wartime. The reasons given for objection could still be categorized as religious, political or ethical but the leniency of the earlier tribunals changed, particularly as the war progressed.

In 1942 in an unpublished memorandum, Judge Wethered described the objections raised by COs in his tribunal.[22]By March of that year, Judge Wethered had heard 4,056 cases of which 71% were based on religious grounds. He felt that this was not necessarily typical of all tribunals and claimed it was due to the preponderance of Methodists in the South West.

He separated religious objectors into three groups: those belonging to bodies based on Second Adventist expectations such as Plymouth Brethren or Christadelphians; Protestant churches and thirdly Roman Catholics.

Christadelphians and Plymouth Brethren were generally treated leniently but the 155 Jehovah’s Witness who appeared before him tended to be more truculent and as a consequence experienced harsher decisions.  They were neutral about the war and many felt that it was God’s wrath that made nations fight each other. They did not willingly recognize any of the conditions placed on them by the tribunal with the result that many Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned. One such was Stanley Bentley, a 37-year-old bank Clerk from Burnham-on-Sea. He was prosecuted for failing to comply with the conditions set by the Tribunal and was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for declining ARP[23], fire service or work on the land.

Wethered found the Methodist position equivocal, which was hardly surprising as the church itself had given no clear direction on this matter. However, he also leveled the same criticism against Baptists and Congregationalists. He found Quaker beliefs contradictory and illogical, in particular those who took an absolutist position, because “they claimed full rights of citizenship yet were not prepared to defend their country”.[24] However, he admired and respected Quaker welfare activities such as the Friends Ambulance Units. Eighteen Jews appeared before the tribunal citing moral grounds, one of whom poignantly said that he believed the “non-resistance of his race in Germany would overcome Hitler who would not last”.[25] There were nine objectors of Indian origin whose religious groups rejected the concept of war.

Only 64 Roman Catholics registered for exemption. Cardinals in Britain had declared that this was a ‘just war’ although Pope Pius XII gave no guidance on the matter due the Vatican’s position of neutrality throughout the war.[26]

Political objections provided some surprising bedfellows. Members of the Communist Party were not prepared to fight a war for capitalism, though their position changed once Russia entered the war in 1941. Meanwhile the British Union of Fascists declared that war was not in the national interest and favoured a negotiated peace treaty with Germany. Members who appeared before the tribunals attracted headlines such as “Considers Hitler very clever”.[27]

Unlike some tribunal chairmen,[28] Judge Wethered appeared to be prepared to judge each case on its own merit. In November 1939, he claimed:

…political objection may be a conscientious objection within the meaning of the Act if the objection is held such intensity that it can be held to be based upon religious or moral conviction. We are not concerned with the particular political group which the applicant professes.[29]

However, Wethered’s interrogation of applicants could be challenging. A young Bristolian member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had stated that he thought that the Anglo-German terms of peace at the end of the last war had been too harsh and that propaganda should have been used instead of warfare. Wethered asked:

JW: Have you read Hitler’s propositions?

YB: No

JW: Well you should do so. Is it right that we should defend ourselves if the German Army invaded this country?

YB: That position has not arisen

JW: If it were not for the fact that the German armies are blocked by the Maginot Line they would be here by now.[30]

The judgment on this ILP member was deferred.

Judge Wethered complained in his memorandum that in none of the Acts was the term ‘conscientiously objects’ defined. His own working definition was “a conscientious objection to military registration or service, based on religious or ethical convictions honestly held.” Evidence of a long history of pacifism was also helpful in securing a positive outcome for the applicant.

The First World War still cast a long shadow. Several Mothers accompanied sons to plead on their behalf. The Western Daily Press reported the case of B.W. Rhodes:

Mrs. Rhodes told the tribunal that her husband was wounded in the Great War and died before his son was old enough to know him. “On his death bed” she continued “he said he would not die until I promised to do everything in my power to stop my son from taking part in another war. Gentlemen I appeal to you on those grounds to leave his name off the register.”

Mrs. Rhodes son was granted conditional exemption on the condition that he continued to undertake clerical work for a Dorset agricultural firm.[31]

In addition to fatherless sons, there were applicants whose fathers had been COs during World War One. One was John Wilfred Hinde, a photographer from Street. Hinde’s father supported his application stating that 6 months after his son’s birth he was arrested as a CO. He went to prison for two and a half years and one of his son’s earliest recollections was visiting him in Exeter prison. Hinde was given unconditional exemption.

Unsurprisingly as the war ground on with greater impact upon the civilian population, attitudes hardened and the leniency of the decisions that had been made by the tribunals under the Military Training Act reduced. The following exchange gives a flavor of the kind of interrogation faced by applicants trying to claim CO status.

The applicant, Arthur Leslie Goodman from Mannamead Plymouth, was an assistant accountant and a Methodist He was a member of both the Peace Pledge Union and the Methodist Peace Fellowship.[32]

AG: Said that he objected to anything that helped to prosecute the war. He could not attempt to resist an enemy by force and would try to convince the Germans by love.

Mr Brown (panel member): You would rather the Germans overran this country than do anything to resist them by force?

AG: Yes

Judge Wethered: That means that men, women and children would be killed and women ravished and you would do nothing to stop it?

AG: I don’t think that will happen.

JW: It would if everyone took your point of view, but if the Navy, Army and Air Force continue to do as they have done in the past, that will not happen and civilization will be saved on the rocks of our island.

In spite of the exchange, Goodman was granted unconditional exemption; Judge Wethered wryly remarking that the Act provides for such extreme views.[33]

Throughout the war, the South Western Tribunal remained one of the most generous in awarding exemption. A comparison of the available totals for each category of exemption for two of the Tribunals from 1939-1944 demonstrates this.[34]

After the initial hearings in August 1939, detailed coverage of the Tribunals in the newspapers waned. Reporting tended to focus on pro-war or condemnatory pronouncements by Judge Wethered such as  ‘Becoming a Parasite on Society – Judge Wethered and Man’s Peace Pledge’[35]or on ‘human interest’ stories which often showed the CO in a faintly ridiculous light. For instance, F.R.J. Bailey of St Michaels Hill Bristol registered an objection on the grounds that his Mother had threatened to shoot him if he joined the Army; to which Judge Wethered responded that it was the ‘quaintest pacifist background’ that he had come across.[36]There was however, a renewed flurry of interest when the first woman in the United Kingdom ever to apply to be registered as a Conscientious Objector appeared before the Bristol Tribunal.

Conscription of Women

As the conflict progressed there were insufficient numbers of workers to maintain the war effort. To help remedy this, in April 1941, what was essentially industrial conscription was introduced via the Registration for Employment orders. All women aged 19-40 had to register for work and were directed into either industry, approved employment such as nursing, or Civil Defence. ‘Mobile women’, that is those without family ties, would be directed to areas of the country where there was a shortage of labour. There was no conscience clause and refusal to comply with an order would result in fines or imprisonment.[37]

However, in spite of these measures, there were still labour shortages, so in December 1941 the National Services Act (No.2) was passed. This increased the age of conscription for men to 51 and introduced for the first time, the conscription of women.  Women aged between 20-30 years who were unmarried or childless widows were to be conscripted into the ‘auxiliary’ services in a non-combatant role. This meant signing up to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) or Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It is worth noting that Britain was the only country involved in the Second World War to conscript women into the war effort.

The procedure for women was identical to that for men. Initially they had to register at the Labour Exchange. However, the interpretation of the law by civil servants was significantly different compared to men. If a woman didn’t want to go into the auxiliary military services, she would be offered the Land Army [38] or Civil Defence as an alternative. Many women were already in reserved occupations such as nursing or teaching and the civil servants could simply direct them to remain in this work without the need to go before a tribunal. Therefore if a woman eligible for conscription wished to register as a CO to highlight her opposition to the war, she had to insist on being allowed to complete the NS14 in order to appear before a Tribunal with hope of being placed on the Register of Conscientious Objectors.

At the Bristol Tribunal on 3rd April 1942, Joyce Allan was the first woman ever to be registered as a Conscientious Objector. Joyce, then aged 21, was a teacher in Bridgwater. She could have applied for automatic exemption but she insisted that she wanted CO registration. She was a member of the PPU and the Church of England, but received no help from the representative of the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors[39], because he stated that women did not appear before tribunals. Allan realised afterwards that this was because she was the first woman to be registered.

Joyce Allan [Appears in Felicity Goodall’s A Question of Conscience]
Two women, Mrs. King, Chairman of the Bristol Infant Welfare Association, and Miss White, ‘a notable figure in TU circles’, had already been drafted onto the Tribunal panel to hear women’s cases. Joyce says of her appearance before the Tribunal: “there was a terrific argument (which I liked)”[40] which was duly reported in the papers:


 …….She had no first hand knowledge of Germany under the Hitler regime, but (she says that) even if Nazism was such an evil as popularly believed she could not hope that bombing, starving by food blockade and all the other horrors of war would cure the people who had fallen under it’s power.

 Judge Wethered …asked her how she thought Hitler could be stopped – Applicant said that it could be done by non-violence.

 Judge Wethered said that if she was not taking part in resisting German aggression then she was helping the powers of evil.

 Applicant said that it was the evil of violence to which she objected.

 When she expressed her mistrust of British propaganda Judge Wethered said that the British news was the fairest in the world and was listened to by thousands of people on the Continent everyday.[41]

In spite of the exchanges, Joyce recalled that the Bristol Tribunal was ‘merciful’ and she was given exemption on the condition that she continued in teaching. However, local newspaper headlines followed the decision such as ‘Girl Conchie teaches Boys’ and there was some pressure on her headmaster to sack her. However, he did not give in; due in part, Joyce feels, to problems with recruiting teachers. She also received “fan mail mostly from young men in RAF, who hated what they were doing.” She remained an activist for peace throughout her life.

Over the course of the war over 1,000 women were placed on the CO register. However, by 1944, the conscription of women was no longer implemented, as there were sufficient numbers of volunteers. The National Services Act was finally repealed in 1949.

Life after the Tribunal

Although there was no widespread ‘white feather’ campaign as in the First World War when men who appeared to refuse to fight were handed out white feathers as a symbol of cowardice, without doubt most COs experienced some discrimination. Indeed on many occasions, the tribunals appeared to have adopted more tolerant attitudes than those of the wider public with newspapers keen to add to the unpopularity of CO status.




Harry Case a 22-year-old glove cutter had appeared before the Bristol Tribunal on 26th February 1940 and in spite of Judge Wethered expressing stern views about his position; he was given unconditional exemption. However, when he returned to work at the Arnold Glove Company, Addenwell Lane the next day, his 20-30 workmates refused to work with him and said they would take strike action if he were not dismissed. When interviewed one of the workers said that they did not consider that he was a genuine ‘conchie’. Some of the men had served in the last war and others had sons in the Forces. They did not agree with Case staying home and earning £4 or £5 per week while their sons fought for 2 shillings a day.

Case was immediately dismissed although apparently, he found work with another glove manufacturer the same day. The incident highlights the heightened emotions felt about someone who was allowed to stay home while others had family members who were part of the Armed Forces. It also illustrated an on-going debate in the period as to whether COs who were directed to remain in employment should be put on soldier’s pay, so as not to be seen to gain financially due to their objection.

Several councils, including Bath, as well as other employers did put their CO employees on soldier’s pay for the duration of the war. Many others, however, took a more extreme view and refused to have any COs in their employ. Recruitment was blocked and those already on the payroll were dismissed. Across England and Wales, of 63 County Councils, 25 dismissed all their CO employees, and of the 95 County and City Boroughs, 46 refused employment to COs.[43]

Ambivalence surrounded the issue. There was an added onus on councils as they were publicly funded bodies and therefore had some duty to consider the views of ratepayers when making decisions. However, there was also the philosophical argument that the act of dismissing COs simply because of their views, was contrary to the very ‘freedom’ that Britain was meant to be fighting for.

This caused particular pressures for teachers, who as a profession were strongly represented on the CO register. Most teachers were exempted on the condition that they continue teaching. However, they not only faced the dilemma that many of their employers refused to employ them but they sometimes faced opposition from parents who did not want their child taught by a ‘conchie’. The situation was made worse by the fact that failure to comply with tribunal conditions would result in fines or imprisonment.

Locally, Bristol City Council retained its COs but it was not without controversy. At a Council meeting on 11th June 1940, the Town Clerk, Josiah Green responded to questions about how many employees were conscientious objectors. Green reported that there were 61 known COs across 11 departments. Alderman Woodcock asked:

Is it known whether any keen resentment has taken place in departments where conscientious objectors are still employed?

He was advised that in seven departments ‘keen resentment’ had been expressed and that in three of these departments, employees were refusing to work alongside COs. Josiah Green also confirmed that no CO had been promoted or had had a salary increase due to other employees joining the Armed Forces.[44]

As well as difficulties with employment some CO testimonies have highlighted difficulties with housing with family fall-outs or sudden evictions when their status became known. However, others report that on the whole they experienced very little antagonism.

Arthur Hinton was a Christian student at Bristol University when he appeared before the tribunal and was granted exemption on the condition that he undertook humanitarian or agricultural work. He says that although none of his family, friends or fellow students were pacifists he faced no hostility. He initially worked on the land where he said he experienced some resentment from the County Agricultural Officer and the foreman but it was ‘nothing serious’. He then worked at Ramsgate Hospital and in the Friends Ambulance Unit. He says he was treated with ‘sympathetic understanding by those, including soldiers, with whom I worked’.[45]

Hugh Maw was also a Bristol University student and a member of the Peace Pledge Union, who had been involved in several humanitarian projects as well as undertaking fire watching. After a tussle with Judge Wethered, he was given exemption on the condition that he continued with his course and completed his degree. He reports that as soon as he was registered he felt conscious of being under observation and wondered if he might be on a list of anti-war demonstrators. ‘Officials’ would visit his parents at his home address to ask about his ‘movements’. The visits were ‘uncomfortable’ but treated as a bit of a joke. However, in the late1990s, he visited MI5 with a group of Quakers regarding a ‘secret state’ concern. There it was confirmed that they all had been, and still were, on the ‘files’. It is not known how many COs were subject to such surveillance.[46]


The South Western Tribunal had a reputation for fairness, which would appear to be justified. To his credit, Judge Wethered seems to have been scrupulous in his application of the conscience clause, even though it was at variance with his own views.

For many years, the history of conscientious objection in the Second World War remained something of a hidden history. Tribunal records had been destroyed, the circumstances of which are unknown, and the main source of information was the book Challenge of Conscience, which was published in 1949. Written by Denis Hayes, who was Information Secretary for the CBCO[47], although partisan, it was also the only available source of statistics until the embargo on closed files was lifted at the start of the 1980s. In more recent times, several further books on the subject have been published and an increasing number of personal testimonies have added to our knowledge.

Whenever COs of the Second World War have been asked to reflect on their stand, they nearly all remain steadfast in their views, indeed many say that they wished they had taken an absolutist position. All continued to believe that in spite of the atrocities of the Nazi regime, war is never the answer.

  1. [1]‘Hansard’, 346, 2097 4 May 1939 [Back...]
  2. [2]Denis Hayes Challenge of Conscience (London, 1949) p. 6 [Back...]
  3. [3]On June 3rd 1939, of 240,757 men registered. 4,392 applied for exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection. [Back...]
  4. [4]The Ministry of Labour was renamed The Ministry of Labour and National Service in 1939. This was to reflect its increased powers under the National Services Act 1939 under which it became responsible for recruitment into the armed forces, civil defence and industry as well as administering the Schedule of Reserved Occupations. In 1940, Ernest Bevin, a founding member of the Transport and General Workers Union, was appointed its Minister in the coalition government. This allowed him full control over the labour force and allocation of manpower.  He used his position not only to help win the war but also to improve the wages and conditions of working people and to strengthen trade unions in postwar Britain. [Back...]
  5. [5]The actual records for the tribunals were destroyed after the war so much information has to be garnered from newspapers and personal testimonies.  Denis Hayes Challenge of Conscience (London, 1949) remains the primary source for the statistics of the tribunals. [Back...]
  6. [6]Bristol Evening Post 21st March 1939 [Back...]
  7. [7]Western Daily Press 10th August 1939 [Back...]
  8. [8]Ibid. [Back...]
  9. [9]Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette 12th August 1939 [Back...]
  10. [10]Western Daily Press 10th August 1939 [Back...]
  11. [11]ibid. [Back...]
  12. [12]Plymouth Brethren were a non-conformist evangelical Christian movement that originated in Ireland in the 1820s before spreading to the British Isles. In 1848, a schism led to the division of the movement into Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren. Its core belief is sola scriptura; the belief that the Bible is the word of God and as such the supreme authority. Adherence to the commandment “Thou Shalt not Kill” meant that Brethren registered as COs. They would not carry arms but many were prepared to undertake non-combatant roles. [Back...]
  13. [13]Western Daily Press 17th August 1939 [Back...]
  14. [14]ibid. [Back...]
  15. [15]ibid. [Back...]
  16. [16]The Peace Pledge Union is the oldest secular pacifist organization in Britain. In 1934, Reverend Dick Shepherd published letters in the national press inviting men to send him a postcard pledging never to support war. He received 2,500 replies in two days. This led to the establishment of the PPU as an organization. In 1936, women were admitted and in 1937 it merged with the No More War movement. It supported appeasement and from 1939 campaigned against conscription.  PPU members can be described as ‘ethical COs’ as they do not necessarily have any specific political allegiance or religious affiliation.  The PPU remains active today, for example in the promotion of the white poppy campaign. Further information can be found at [Back...]
  17. [17]Western Daily Press 19th August 1939 [Back...]
  18. [18]ibid. [Back...]
  19. [19]Western Morning News 24th August 1939 [Back...]
  20. [20]In the first registration on October 21st 1939, 230,009 men registered, of whom 5,073 applied for CO status, which represented 2.2%. Over the course of the war, the numbers applying for CO status slowly reduced. In the final registration on 1st December 1945, only 0.2% of conscripts applied for CO status. [Back...]
  21. [21]At the beginning of 1940 there were 8 tribunals scheduled for January; 9 for February; 6 in March. [Back...]
  22. [22]Rachel Barker Conscience, Government and War London 1982 p. 37 [Back...]
  23. [23]Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were responsible for enforcing the blackout, reporting on bomb damage and the need for emergency or rescue services, organizing and staffing public air raid shelters and reuniting families who had become separated during air raids. [Back...]
  24. [24]Absolutists were not prepared to support that war effort in any way so applied for unconditional exemption. [Back...]
  25. [25]Western Daily Press 24th January 1940 [Back...]
  26. [26]The Vatican’s neutrality has provoked controversy over the years; particularly in relation to how much it knew about the Holocaust. The Vatican archives for the Second World War are due to be opened on 2nd March 2020. [Back...]
  27. [27]Western Daily Press 27th January 1940 [Back...]
  28. [28]Rachel Barker in Conscience, Government and War (Oxford 1982) pp. 40-42 describes the particular criticisms of the London and Newcastle Tribunals.  Judge Richardson at Newcastle was observed to ridicule both Jehovah’s Witnesses and women as well as suggesting that COs should be sent to a desert island. Judge Hargreaves in London was described as ‘unpleasant’ towards COs by a PPU observer. While Judge Druquer of the Southern Tribunal publically stated that his tribunal would not give any unconditional exemptions even before any cases had been heard. [Back...]
  29. [29]Bristol Evening Post 17th November 1939 [Back...]
  30. [30]Bristol Evening Post 20th March 1940 ‘Why He does not want to fight’; Western Daily Press 21st March 1940 ‘Propaganda not War says Objector’ [Back...]
  31. [31]Western Daily Press 25th January 1940 [Back...]
  32. [32]The Methodist Peace Fellowship was founded by the Rev. Henry Carter in 1933 for Methodists who wished to renounce war and adopt a fully pacifist position. [Back...]
  33. [33]Western Morning News 7th June 1940 [Back...]
  34. [34]Rachel Barker op. cit. p. 152 [Back...]
  35. [35]Wells Journal 22nd March 1940.  Judge Wethered said to an applicant who would not take up civil defence work: “Do you realize that you are making yourself a parasite on society? It is a terrible position to take up. I don’t think you have considered the matter at all. This case is an example of the mischief brought about by these absolute peace pledges that close the minds of those who take them to thinking about what is happening in the world. You took the peace pledge four years ago and have apparently refused to reconsider the question. The Baptist Church put on record in 1936 that they strongly deprecated these absolute pledges and I think they were quite right.” The decision was deferred. [Back...]
  36. [36]Gloucestershire Echo 14th March 1940 [Back...]
  37. [37]Figures vary from 245 to 500 for the number of women imprisoned for refusing to undertake war work or pay their fines. One consequence of imprisonment was that many women, such as Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), an eminent crystallographer who spent a month in Holloway prison, became involved in prison reform after the war. [Back...]
  38. [38]The Land Army conscripted women into agricultural work. They were known as Land Girls. A branch of the Land Army was the Women’s Timber Corps which covered forestry and these were known as ‘Lumber Jills’. [Back...]
  39. [39]The Central Board for Conscientious Objectors (CBCO) was set up in 1939 to provide help and support to COs.  It gave support on the journey from registration to tribunal appearance. It monitored and recorded tribunal proceedings as well as providing employment and financial support to those families suffering as a result of CO status. [Back...]
  40. [40]Personal correspondence 27/02/2003 [Back...]
  41. [41]Taunton Courier and Weston Advertiser 11th April 1942 [Back...]
  42. [42]Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 2nd March 1940 [Back...]
  43. [43]Rachel Barker op. cit. p. 140 [Back...]
  44. [44]Western Daily Press 12th June 1940 [Back...]
  45. [45]Personal correspondence 25th September 2003 [Back...]
  46. [46]Personal correspondence 22nd April 2003 [Back...]
  47. [47]The Central Board of Conscientious Objectors was recognized by the government as the organization dealing with all matters relating to COs. It offered advice and information, kept records, monitored tribunals and supported applicants, lobbied parliament and generally protected the interests of COs. [Back...]


  1. Very interesting research about a little known element of the 2nd WW, especially about the female CO’s. I wonder if the percentage of male CO’s was greater or less than in the 1st WW? Most of the comments from CO’s at the Tribunal hearings indicate a general anti war/pacifist stance rather than unwillingness to fight in the particular conflict of the 2nd WW. Of course many factors: memory and experience of 1st WW, education, political change, economic climate in the UK would have a bearing on development of political beliefs and convictions at time of 2nd WW.

  2. Interesting research. My aunts appeared before a tribunal in Bristol because they ran away from conscripted work at an aeroplane factory there. They were both of small stature, young and miles from home and found the work too physically arduous. They were caught by police and sent to a tribunal and found guilty, their punishment was to sort rubbish at a paper mill, a filthy job as it was infested with rats. Would anyone know which tribunal they would have been judged at?

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