And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God … Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.
2 Corinthians VI, 16 & 17.
It will be remembered that towards the end of my first sentence, I began to get perplexed as to whether I should continue to submit to the prison system. To some extent this question eventually solved itself so to speak and this chapter relates the history of events that led to the conclusion of this matter. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the guiding hand of God resolved the problem.
At the time when I entered upon associated labour at Wormwood Scrubs, it will be remembered that I found myself making ship’s fenders for the navy. But as I had not expressed a concern over the type work undertaken, when asked, I continued this work until the end of the sentence. However, in my second sentence, I was careful to inform the Governor of Wandsworth Prison that I wished to be absolutely unconnected with work on articles destined for use in the army or navy. I was therefore engaged in mailbag work for the whole of this sentence. The kind of bag we produced in large numbers was made of Hessian, about three feet by two feet in size and stencilled with the characters GPO, the broad arrow and the number 100. I had never seen bags of this type in use by Post Office employees, but then I had not taken any especial notice of mail bags prior to this experience, despite having travelled extensively on night mail trains and the only thing of interest to watch while waiting for a connection at a junction, was the changing of the mails. Incidentally, I might remark that I have never seen such as bag since the war either, although I have looked carefully for them.
Soon after I commenced my third sentence and again engaged on No 100 bags, one of the colonial soldiers who was serving a sentence of hard labour in Hall C (we were all officially categorised as military prisoners) whispered to me when returning to our cells from the association workshop, “I’m surprised at you chaps making those bags. Don’t you know the army use them as sand bags? I’ve handled hundreds of ‘em filled with sand.” I informed him that I was not aware of that, but naturally the enlightening information disturbed the equanimity of my mind and I began cogitating upon the course I ought to take. I was quite determined that I would not serve the army with goods, any more than to serve in the army. But how to avoid it? That was the question.
Happily the question was solved at this time, because before I was able to put into effect the action I was formulating in my mind, I was transferred to wood yard and thence to the carpenters’ shop, as related in Chapter 18.
On being asked what work I would like to do in the carpenters’ shop, glancing round, I noticed that most men were engaged making folding tables. I asked who these were for and was answered that they were for use by army officers. This was rather a set back, but I was determined to achieve my purpose in respect of aloofness from the army and navy and therefore, I asked to be set on prison repairs.
Perhaps Hurley and I worked too hard on the repair bench, but the fact remains that there came a time when we had worked up all the repairs and had no more to do. Most work arose out of the trays on which the dinners were brought from the kitchen to the cells, but of course there were many other things that required repairing. Among these may be mentioned the cell tables and stools and the mark boards which hung outside each cell. Then there were the wooden feet on which the prison socks were darned and the blocks upon which holes were bored in leather, with an awl. The latter were something of a nightmare for us, for frequently the awl points were broken off and left embedded in the wood. When we came to plane the blocks to a true and level surface, these broken points were responsible for notching the plane irons and provided us with hours of labour, re-grinding the damaged irons.
When these repairs came to an end, the Carpenter Officer furnished me with a succession of small orders, which interested me considerably. He would come along and inform me that he wanted such and such an article, giving me the dimensions and leaving me to plan the design and adopt any method of construction that I thought fit. Among such articles, which I conjecture were for use in the prison, was a saltbox, two feet long by eighteen inches wide and deep. I seized the opportunity here offered, for experimenting on the lathe and turned a couple of handles for this box. I also made a four legged stool almost strong enough to build a house on and this I learned afterwards was for standing the porridge cans on, while they were being filled from the boiler. I made quite a number of other articles that I strongly suspect were for the Carpenter Officer’s own personnel or domestic use. Of these, which I found of great interest, was a box that I designed to be jointed with secret dovetails and furnished with a sliding lid. This was constructed in of kauri pine, the timber coming from a packing case, in which tins of corned beef had arrived from Australia.
I became so puzzled about the work question, that round about February 1918, I wrote out the list of arguments for and against, very much as they appeared in my letter to my sister, mentioned in Chapter 23. I circulated this list among the COs, asking for additions or other points, but no one was able to add anything further.
The interesting interlude concerning the above mentioned things came to an end with the arrival of an order for a dozen new dinner trays. Horace Jones had now joined me on the repair bench and when we had completed this order, we were directed to make two dozen foot racks. As the foot racks in the prison bathhouse were at this time in a very dilapidated condition, I naturally concluded that these were to replace them and worked on them with enthusiasm. When finished, I was included in the party told to take them to the stores. Judge my consternation when the storekeeper asked, “Are these the army racks?” And the Carpenter Officer said, “Yes.” I felt quite angry in the realisation that all my resolutions to keep aloof from army work had come to nought and whether designedly or by accident, I had been outwitted. There and then, I finally decided that I would do no more work while in prison, be the consequences what they may. I became quite certain that this was the only way I could be sure of abstaining from war work, at the dictation of a wartime government.
When Concessions, 243.A. were thrust upon us, I obtained permission from the Governor to write a petition to the Home Secretary. In this petition I emphasised my request for absolute exemption from military service as a right, which the law allowed. I could not accept anything less in the settlement of my claim, such as concessions in prison treatment, or any other compromises that might be offered.
Now that I had come to a decision on the problem of prison work, I asked to see the Governor and the following morning, I acquainted him with my decision. I also asked him for permission to address another petition to the Home Office. The Governor said he was sorry for my sake and advised me not to embark on such a foolish course, but I was adamant in my resolve.
I kept a copy of the petition in hieroglyphics one the back of one of my letters, to disguise it. Deciphering it has given me considerable trouble, however it runs as follows: -
When I was committed to prison for refusing to become a soldier, I acquiesced to that punishment because although I do not recognise military authority, I am not against the principle of authority. During the subsequent punishments for the same offence, I have within the last few days, due to recent events, have arrived at a solution to a difficult problem. Consequently I am unable to acquiesce any longer in my hard labour sentence. My reasoning is as follows: -
1. I complied with prison regulations initially because I had no means of really knowing if the authorities were aware that their actions were wrong in punishing me. But now the government has been informed of the wrongfulness of their position by the highest law authority in the land (Lord Birkenhead, Nov 14th 1917) and by one of their own body (Lord Curzon, Dec 2nd 1917).
2. My offence is purely a civil one, viz. refusal to become a soldier under the Military Service Act, which applies to civilians only. I should therefore have been arraigned before a civil court and the military sentence is not applicable to me. By complying with the irregularity, I become individually responsible for the crime of war, which has its initial origin in selfishness and greed.
3. Having now completed two years in prison and after experience and observation of the prison system, I am convinced of its incompatibility with the Christian ethic. In consequence, I find myself compelled to passively resist it.
4. Much of the work I have been doing is not used for war purposes, but on the other hand, much of it may be. I regret to say that experience indicates that the government will not scruple to deceive me, with regard to this matter.
5. I perceive that the prison system is essential to the military machine.
6. My last and strongest reason is found in the cross of Christ. Jesus did not refuse to carry his cross, but I cannot conceive of Christ carrying a cross in order that another may be crucified upon it. I now see that my prison work will cause another (probably some unfortunate soldier) to suffer.
I am a pharmacist by profession and I think you will agree that the care of the nation’s health is of the highest national importance. I intend to return to this work, but in any event, I pledge my word of honour that I will only engage in work I conscientiously believe to be of national importance.
You may consider that I would be a danger to the state if freed, well you have your remedy in that most cowardly of all laws, the Defence of the Realm Act. However it is a poor prospect before the State that a conscientious Christian man is a danger, for in spite of all its efforts, its ruin is inevitable. Witness the annihilation of the Jewish national polity following their persecution of Christ, the decline and fall of Rome after its suppression of religious liberty and the declension of Spain after the inquisition both at home and in the Netherlands. You will see that the doom of the persecutor is sure.
On Dec 14th 1917, I directed a petition for your consideration, I have not yet received a reply. It seems obvious that I am not detained for punishment, but that this imprisonment is another phase of the government policy of terrorism, in suppressing the growth of healthy public opinion.
In view of the above, I have no hesitation in demanding my release as a legal right and request that immediate steps be taken to prevent the perpetration of further injustice upon me.
In addressing this appeal to your sense of right, I am sir, yours respectfully, H. Blake.
I had not been back in my cell long after my interview with the Governor, when Mr. Ralph the Principal Warder for Hall C came to remonstrate with me. He commenced by saying he was going to talk to me as a father talking to his own son and urged me to abandon my idea of refusing to work, because the detrimental effect it would have on my body and mind. In reply, I pointed out that the consequences were not my responsibility and if disastrous, then others would be answerable for them. Nevertheless I had complete confidence in God, that he would protect and preserve me.
Mr. Richards the Carpenter Officer also came to my cell and add his persuasive eloquence, saying he would be glad to have me back in the shop, putting it almost as a personnel favour. In fact I rather think that the prison officers overdid their solicitude for my welfare and caused me to wonder if there was some ulterior motive. However their efforts merely served to confirm me more inflexibly in my purpose.
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The story of a First World War conscientious objector