Divers weights are an abomination unto the Lord, and a false balance is not good.
Proverbs XX, 23.
Early in December 1917, Simons, Brownutt and I were again mystified by being conducted to the reception department. Naturally we speculated as to whether our sentences were once more to be commuted, but we were in doubt over this as it was quite late in the morning and if we were to be discharged, we would expect the process to have started first thing in the morning.
In the reception department, we were told to undress and re-dress in the military uniforms in which we had arrived. We were then returned to our cells and no explanation was provided.
Before breakfast the next day, I was proceeding along the ward landing with a bucket of water to wash the steps down, when I encountered the old soldier officer, who promptly chose to bait me in respect of my khaki trousers, “Humph, you’re the King’s soldier now” he jeered. I retorted good humouredly by quoting Robert Burns, to impress upon him that clothing has no bearing on the character, “The rank is but the guinea stamp, the man’s the gold for a’ that.” But I doubt that he perceived the gist of the argument, in my application of this quotation.
That same afternoon, the three of us were again taken to the reception department and directed to change back into prison clothing. The bewildered state of our minds will be appreciated, for still no explanation was given, but the reason for the oscillations was forthcoming the next day. All the COs were mustered and informed by the Chief Warder that the government had issued new regulations for the treatment of us, where twelve months marks had been earned. These regulations were designated Concessions, 243.A. and analysis showed them to be little different from the privileges currently in force. As far as I can recollect, they amounted to: -
1. The prisoner may, if he wishes, wear his own clothes.
2. Two conversational exercises of thirty minutes each per diem, except on Sundays when there is only one.
3. Permission to write and receive a letter once every fortnight.
4. A fifteen minute visit every month.
It will readily be discerned that there was not much concession of any practical value. The first looks all right on paper and might have offered some improved comfort, but it was of doubtful advantage to us. The obvious snag was that we would have been wearing out our own clothes while doing prison work and not at the same time being paid wages, with which to buy more. The two conversational exercises of thirty minutes each were to replace one silent one of forty minutes and during them we were to be allowed to walk around in pairs and converse. As however none of us were very particular about breaking the silence rule and frequently spoke to each other anyway, the authorities were really relieving themselves of their embarrassment of having a class of prisoner, who were so little over-awed by the prison system.
When letters became due, we found to our chagrin that we had been done, for the notepaper supplied was only half the size of that formally used. Then again, the visit of fifteen minutes was to supersede one of half an hour of the same periodicity, thus this item was a net loss. Whether this was deliberate or a mistake in the drafting I do not know, but when protests were made, the half hour visit was restored.
The reason for the double change in clothing was explained by the fact that the prison officials misinterpreted the first item as being compulsory, when they received their instructions. Afterwards it was discovered that the adoption of the concession was optional and also that the wearing of military clothing could not be permitted on the civil side of the prison. Hence we were returned to the original status quo. Incidentally, only one or two availed themselves of the benefit conferred by the first concession item.
The question may be asked as to why these concessions were introduced? In finding the answer to that, it must be borne in mind that the maximum period for a hard labour sentence is two years, this being the limit to which the average constitution can endure. Many of us by that time were over the one-year and mental and physical breakdowns were becoming alarmingly common. Moreover, there was a small section of the public that was troubling the government over its importunity on the subject of the absolutist CO and these breakdowns were damaging the government’s case for retaining us. There were also a few honourable members (in the real, as distinct from the titular sense of the term) in the House of Commons and one or two in the Lords, who had only consented to the passage of the Military Service Bills, because of the conscience clause, allowing as they thought, absolute exemption. On looking back, one is forced to conclude that the absolute exemption clause was never intended to be operative, but was inserted in order to dispose of the opposition of these members. These members, on discovering that men were in prison because they would not accept anything less than absolute exemption, began to make themselves troublesome to the government. The whole policy of government in its dealing with and about us, displayed the finger of the arch-deceiver and betrayer of that time.
We subsequently discovered that the government had issued instructions, that in so far as could be avoided without subverting prison discipline, no CO was to be put on punishment. This I verily believe was not out of consideration for us, but because they wished their position look well when questioned in the House. Therefore these concessions were intended to obviate the necessity for reports and punishments.
The whole business was foisted on us in a very mystifying clandestine fashion. There had been rumours circulating for some time that the authorities were about to do something in meeting our claims for exemption. The event proved that I had failed to steel my mind against the intrusion of such hopes and in consequence I was bitterly disappointed. I think that it was at this period that the hope of obtaining liberty of conscience that had apparently lingered to this time, eventually died within me. I now abandoned all hope that the government would release us before the war was over and it looked like dragging on for years. I am reminded of my feelings at this time by the letter I wrote to Amy on 10th Dec 1917. Reading it now, I am amazed at the voluminous nature of the matter, which was written on a single sheet of notepaper. It discloses that it was my intention from the first inception of the concessions to repudiate them, for the same reason that I rejected the Home Office Scheme, yet this was a more subtle attempt to induce our capitulation. I kept my mind’s eye steadily fixed on my primary objective, viz my requirement to have recognised by divine right to be allowed to have nothing whatever to do with war, which I believed to be totally and utterly wrong in its inception, prosecution and consequences. If as the governing faction contended, I had broken the law, then it was unfair to other lawbreakers that I should receive more lenient treatment than they. But if I had not broken the law, then the authorities had no moral right to imprison me. I contended that in issuing the concessions, they in effect, admitted themselves virtually in the wrong and I was certainly not going to compound a felony.
By Christmas I had succeeded in shaking myself clear of these concessions and was put back into the category of an ordinary hard labour prisoner. Four other men, all from the carpenters’ shop did likewise.
This new government venture intensified my cogitations as to whether it was right or not to acquiesce in the working of the prison system. Immediately after Christmas, my sister with two of her friends, visited me. With my wife and parents not present, I seized the opportunity to discuss my perplexity. My words alarmed her considerably and she imagined the prison authorities responding, by perpetrating all sorts of horrors on me. But I allayed her fears by explaining to her that I would not make a move in the matter, until I was thoroughly clear in my mind as to which was the right line of action and I did not expect to come to a decision for some time.
Edith, Harold Blake’s sister
I was extremely desirous of getting rid of that khaki military uniform into which I had been forcibly dressed at Mill Hill Barracks. With that purpose in view, I requested my sister, at the close of her visit, to ask my wife to bring one of my own suits when she next visited. Unfortunately my sister came to connect the two matters together and gathered the impression that the possession of my own clothes had something to do with a refusal to work. In consequence of this confusion, when she transmitted my request to my wife, she advised her to withhold my clothes.
At the next visit, my wife and parents arrived without the requested suit, explaining what my sister had said. When I was next allowed to write a letter early in February 1918, I addressed it to my sister and rather took her to task for not keeping the matter of my future course to herself and thus alarming the old folks and Amy. That she might better understand the complexity of the matter, I tabulated reasons for and against accepting prison work.
On the for side, the main reasons were: -
I’m opposed to military authority, not all authority.
Some officers are humane and suffer if the prisoner suffers.
The punishment for refusal falls heavily on those outside.
Christ did not refuse to carry the cross.
On the against side: -
Much of the work is used for military purposes.
Illegality of repeated imprisonment, for the same one offence.
Co-operating, facilitates the running of the military machine.
After experiencing it, I am convinced of the wrongfulness of the prison system.
In her reply to this letter, my sister explained that her actions did not arise in a want of faith in me, but from a state of over anxiety in her own mind. In the letter she gave me an outline of a sermon she had heard in the Wesleyan chapel in Weybridge, concerning the imprisonment of John in Patmos and the hope he had of being free.
Since writing this chapter, I have recollected one other item in Concessions, 243.A. This provided that a prisoner might hire another prisoner to clean out his cell upon payment of sixpence per day. The item was received by the COs with ironical laughter and scornful derision. I was never clear whether it was intended that the hired prisoner should be another CO, or one of the ordinary buff clad old lags. As a matter of fact, none of us were interested to a sufficient degree to enquire into the particulars.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector