Raging waves of the sea, forming out their own shame.
Jude v 13.
Soon after my third sentence commenced, my first personnel contact with the Chaplain occurred when he was visiting the cells during the mid-day meal break. The prisoner who played the chapel organ had completed his sentence and the Chaplain was therefore looking for a replacement organist. I had finished my dinner and was busily engaged on my cell task, when I heard the rattle of keys as door after door was opened and closed. When my cell was reached, the door opened just wide enough for the Chaplain to push his head round and as I rose ready to receive a visitor he asked, “Can you play the organ?” “I’m sorry to say I can’t, sir.” The head nodded and without another word he withdrew and the door closed. This occasion was the only time the Chaplain visited my cell during that sentence.
He found what he sought in Edmund Jones, for the following Sunday as I entered the chapel I was amazed and almost scandalised to hear the music of Edward Carpenter’s England Arise, being played as a voluntary. I was rather shocked because the hymn seems to me to be essentially socialist political propaganda and practically an incitement to revolution.
The most striking incident in connection with the chapel occurred a few Sundays later. It was during evensong, which in prison is performed in the afternoon, the prisoners being locked in their cells for the night at 5 p.m. We were singing hymn 541, Ancient and Modern, but I was far away in mind and spirit, in a quiet secluded glen surrounded by steeply rising grassy hills. I was in the peaceful village of Barton in my native Bedfordshire, far removed from noisy men, who shatter the peace with angry argument, fearful oaths and raucous ribaldry. Here, tranquil thought and simple pleasures were not disturbed by the rush, rattle, fumes and fuss of mechanized mobility and the soul fretting bustle of mass production was absent and forgotten. I was sitting on a bank besides a crystal clear and cool stream of water, its gentle murmuring music to my ears, as it gurgled over pebbles clearly seen in its depths, under over hanging hawthorns, hazels and palm willows. High overhead in the blue sky, but hidden by shadowing trees the lark trilled its song of freedom. Bees were busy in the shining hours and the warm air was laden with the fragrance of May and meadow sweet.
Photo: The Luton News
Suddenly I was rudely recalled to my bodily environment by a spontaneous burst of double forte from the COs, as they reached the second line of the sixth verse of the hymn: -
And we will not be led by the throng.
I came out of my daydream with a start, to behold all the prisoners looking in our direction, the COs continuing the singing as if nothing had happened, with sang froid and indifference.
One day as we sat in our cells between morning and afternoon work shifts, many of us noticed that the building shook slightly and heard the sliding ventilation frames of the windows rattle. Personally, I concluded that a slight earthquake had occurred and thought no more of it. But on the following Sunday morning when the Chaplain gave out the war news, amongst other things he announced, “One day last week there was a sm-a-a-a-ll explosion at a munitions factory in Silvertown.” On account of the emphasis on the word ‘small’, this announcement was greeted by the COs with ironical and derisive laughter, considering it had been felt on the opposite side of London. As to be expected, this brought forth sundry sharp reprimands from the warders, to no effect.
Somewhere round about the middle of August 1917, the Chaplain made the astounding statement in his war news, that the efforts for peace in this country, including the resistance to military service on the part of COs were subsidised by German gold. Whether he believed this or not, I cannot say, but the lie so incensed us that we individually decided to forego the ‘privilege’ of attending chapel. To carry this resolution into effect it was necessary to get permission from the Chaplain. He had to see the whole crowd of us one at a time and when it came to my turn, he had already decided what to say before I spoke, “Yes, I think it is best that you fellows should not attend chapel as you don’t seem to benefit.” I supposed he meant by that statement that he failed to convert us into military minded pugilists, so I replied, “I quite agree sir, I can’t submit to sit without protest and so lend a seeming acquiescence, when I hear slanderous misstatements. I therefore prefer to relinquish the doubtful benefit of the religious ministrations, rather than lend countenance to such.”
Another man told him that he showed so little respect for the principles of another, he had thereby annihilated what respect he had had for him. The Chaplain replied by asking if he could not set aside his principles for the time being, to assist his country in its time of need. The CO answered that apart from believing that war did not assist his country, the Chaplain’s request would only prove that the principles were not principles at all. A statement of such obviously axiomatic truth, that it made clear the moral barrenness of this reputed spiritual guide.
It could not have been long after this, certainly before the summer was over, that this Chaplain was replaced by another. It was rumoured that this was due to the disturbances that he created amongst the COs and subsequently certain matters came to light that gave verity to this suggestion. Before his departure however, I had one more encounter with him. The carpenters were lined up on the ground floor of Hall C, ready to proceed to the workshop, when the Chaplain came along to speak to his organist, Edmund Jones. I happened to be standing almost in front of the latter’s cell door and as he pushed his way through our line, he tapped me on the shoulder and enquired, “What country do you belong to?” No doubt his was expecting me to answer England, thus enabling him to upbraid me on not doing my duty to the country, but to his consternation, I replied, “I consider myself to be of Irish extraction.” Obviously as a sequel to that response he could not deliver his chosen line, because those who had fought for Ireland in recent times, had done so against England. With the wind taken out of his sails and his baffled confusion a delight to behold, he recovered himself to ask, “Are you, what part of Ireland?” “My grandfather lived at one time in Galway.” “Ah, they’re a rough lot in Galway.” I found this humorous to a further degree, but replied, “I suppose there are some redeeming characters?” “Yes, I suppose there are.” And thus terminating the conversation, he passed into Edmund Jones’ cell.
His Church Army colleague could not be called a fount of original thought and he had a habit of using the phase ‘you and I’ indiscriminately as subject or object of a sentence. He was not alone, as I have heard other would be orators make the same blunder. Of all the sermons I heard him deliver, only one made any impression on me, not because of any profundity of thought, or beauty of expression, but because it appealed to my sense of humour. He was at the time denouncing the moral laxity to which many men succumbed as soon as they enter the army. In this respect he was like thousands of other undiscerning people, condemning the outcome and yet instead of doing the only rational thing by condemning that which is the cause, they uphold and support it. They are like the quack doctor who treats the symptoms instead of the root cause of the disease and in so doing assists its progress.
The Church Army Captain said that he thought the devil must have got into the army and to illustrate his point he told the following story: -
A lady tourist was visiting Ireland and was being conducted around the countryside by a native guide. She was shown The Devil’s Well, The Devil’s Cave, The Devil’s Seat, The Devil’s Bridge and sundry other natural phenomena named as being in the possession of the devil. At length the lady exclaimed, “Well Pat, the devil seems to own a lot of property about here.” To which the Irishman quickly replied, “Shure, ye’re right mum, he does, but like all the other landlords, he lives in England.”
The story had more point than he intended, for if he had meant to stress that the devil owns the army, rather than merely having got into it, he could not have told a better story to illustrate it.
On the last occasion I saw this Church Army Captain, he was dressed in the khaki uniform of a private soldier. So one must conclude that he was compelled to have a dose of his own medicine and experience the army for himself.
The new Chaplain was a man of different stamp altogether. He was much more gentle and refined in his demeanour, having the air of a dreamy ascetic. He was essentially a ritualist and I heard it said that he often went to the empty chapel, to burn incense before the altar.
With his advent, many of us applied for permission to re-attend chapel. In my own case, this was done for no other reason than to break the monotony of a day that would otherwise be spent in solitary confinement. I did not expect to engage in divine worship, as the Church of England order of service did not in my view constitute this and I did not expect to be uplifted from the priest’s philosophising. That I recognised to be extremely improbable. Incidentally there was no war news, for the new man did not continue that feature.
As far as I remember, this new Chaplain only once visited me in my cell. Beforehand, I rather fancy that he had been looking at my prison records. He would have discovered that I entered Wandsworth Prison as a Wesleyan, but that I was now listed as a Quaker. He came in one mid day, as I was sewing. I laid my work aside and rising from my stool stood back against the opposite wall, so that he could use the stool. He declined to be seated however and conversed with me standing. “How are you, quite well?” “Very well, thank you sir.” “You’re not a Quaker, are you?” “Oh, no.” “But you belong to some church, don’t you?” “Not now sir, I was a Wesleyan.” “You’ll go back to them, won’t you?” “No, that’s impossible.” “Have you been baptised?” “No sir.” “But you’ve been christened?” “No sir.” “Then you’re not a Christian, don’t you see?” “I don’t see that the mere fact of having been baptised or christened, makes one a Christian.” “Why won’t you join the army and do your bit? You know we are told to honour the King.” “Well sir, I’ll put it to you this way. Mind, this isn’t the way in which it appeals to me, but I think it is the way that will appeal to you. Supposing I were to join the army and in a bayonet charge I was instrumental in sending a man ‘over the border’, who’s soul was not ready to go. Do you think I should ever be easy and clear in my conscience afterwards?” “But don’t you see that that wouldn’t be your responsibility? The government would be responsible.
The enunciation of this view struck me dumb with amazement and I looked at him with horror in my gaze, hardly knowing whether I could believe my ears. Finally I blurted out, “Well, I simply won’t believe that you realise what a dangerous doctrine you’re preaching. If you are going to contend that a man isn’t responsible for his own actions, then you are opening the door of justification for any and every sort of evil deed. It is the root principles on which war is based that are wrong.”
“Well, I should re-consider your decision about the Wesleyans, if I were you.” And with that he departed, leaving me with the words of the American poet Lowell, written during Civil War, running through my mind: -
Ez fer war, I call it murder,
There you hev it plain an’ flat,
I don’t want to go no furder,
Than my Testyment fer that,
God hez sed long ez it is broad,
An’ you’ve gut to git up airly,
Ef you want to take in God.
‘Taint your eppyletts an’ feathers
Make the thing a grain more right,
‘Taint afollerin’ your bell-wethers
Will excuse ye in His sight,
Ef yu take a sword an’ drop it,
An’ go stick a feller thru,
Guv’ment ain’t to answer for it
God’ll send the bill to you.
Wut’s the use O’ meetin’ goin’
Every Sabbath, wet or dry,
Ef it’s right to go amowin’
Feller-men like oats an’ rye?
I dunno butwut it’s pooty
Trainin’ round in bobtail coats,
But it’s curus Christian dooty
This ‘ere cuttin’ folk’s throats.
During my fairly lengthy conversation, I noticed that the Chaplain was gazing over my shoulder and I wondered what could be attracting his attention in such a marked manner. It was not until after he had gone that I realised I had been standing in front of those four lines of the hymn that I inscribed on the wall after my wonderful dream. Many a time I have wondered what thoughts those lines conjured up in the mind of the Chaplain.
This Chaplain introduced Christmas concerts in the prison chapel, which were given for the entertainment of the prisoners on the afternoon of Christmas Day. I have delightful recollections of the concert of Christmas 1917. I was enraptured by a choir boy’s rendering of Handel’s Largo set to the words, ‘Come unto me ye weary and I will give you rest’. Another item that gave me exquisite pleasure, was a duet sung by a soprano and tenor, comprising what to me was a special setting of Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Love divine all loves excelling’. It had been a long time since I had heard a lady singing and that duet impressed on me the gift from God of a beautiful voice. The tune captivated and delighted me that I retained it in my memory for many years. It was forty-seven years before I came across it again and I now know it to be Welsh and named Blaenwern.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector