My son, walk not thou in the way with them, refrain thy foot from their path, for their feet run to evil and make haste to shed blood.
Proverbs I, 15.
After three days during which I did no work, the Taskmaster reported that I had not done my cell task and accordingly I was hauled up before the Governor, on report. The latter on hearing the case against me, passed sentence that I must remain in Stage 1, until I had earned a fortnight’s marks. If I continued to do no work, I would not earn marks and hence always be in Stage 1, with its accompanying solitary confinement and denial of library books, visits and letters. I was therefore being punished for my refusal to work, yet the government position was that COs were not put on punishment and therefore they were misleading their critics.
While on Stage 1, I remained locked in my cell, with the exception of the visits to the Church of England services in the chapel, the Quaker meetings and the thirty minutes exercise each day, excepting Sundays. I had only one library book per month and this had to be of an educational character. Besides this, I had in my cell the Bible, the Church of England Prayer Book and three other books, viz. Weymouth’s Translation of the New Testament, The Fellowship Hymnbook and the Friends’ Christian Discipline. The Society of Friends presented a copy of these last three books to every attendee of the Quaker meetings.
The educational book was supplied from the prison library and on three separate occasions during this period of solitary confinement, I was unfortunate enough to have ‘A Short History of Our Own Times’ inflicted upon me. This book might be described as the political history of the reign of Queen Victoria and I detested it, not being in the slightest degree interested in the tortuous and shady activities of clever twisters, who were engaged in the dirty game of politics. Three months with that vile book was almost enough to drive me to distraction and I was strongly tempted to push the abominable thing out of the window.
At the time of being condemned to perpetuity in Stage 1, I was studying Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and was deep in the third volume. Of course this was removed when the sentence took effect, but I reasoned it could be considered educational and I asked for it to be my allowed library book. However the Librarian showed marked hostility and informed me that I should have what he liked to give me. However I was not beaten yet and on the next morning I asked for an interview with the Chaplain, in order to request that he use his influence in the matter. But the gentleman flatly refused, stating that he did not consider it part of his duty to assist a man, who was in revolt against the authorities. Curious as it may appear, I was not in the least disappointed, downcast or ruffled by these refusals. On the contrary, they induced in me the conviction that I was testifying to the world against an evil authority. Jesus told us to rejoice and be glad and I did rejoice.
When I look back at this work question, I am amazed at the gullibility I displayed in thinking that a group of unprincipled tacticians would play the game in a straightforward and honourable manner. A little clear thinking should have brought me to an expectation of what lay ahead. However it is easy to be wise after the event, but only a fool does not profit by experience and if I were placed in the same circumstances again, I should refuse from the first to do any work in prison.
No doubt it will be wondered what I found to do to occupy my time. Well for one thing, I sat for hours on end in deep thought on various metaphysical problems. In this realm I succeeded in resolving many puzzling questions that hitherto had eluded me. Other periods of thought were devoted to mechanical problems. One morning I was engaged in such a problem on my cell slate when the Librarian arrived. He glanced at the slate and asked, “What’s this, what are you doing?” “I’m trying to solve a problem that has been on and off my mind for years.” “You’re wasting your time.” “I shouldn’t be here doing this, if others had not forcibly brought me here. So who is wasting my time?” The Librarian departed, reiterating like a parrot, “You’re wasting your time.” I thought that was rather good, coming from someone who had obstructed my efforts in a course of study.
I used my slate to solve all sorts of mathematical problems that I propounded to myself. I also evolved a system of extracting fifth roots and even seventh roots. I even devised a method of compiling a table of logarithms and I mentioned in a previous chapter, my habit of watching the soldiers in detention, at their drill.
From time to time Mr. Butler would come into my cell for a quiet chat. This of course was a contravention of the regulations, but I have no doubt that he took this opportunity when all the other officers were engaged on duties that took them to other parts of the establishment and he himself was alone on duty in Hall C.
In the evenings I frequently held conversations, or played draughts by Morse Code with Stanley Hodgson, my next-door neighbour. One evening I was engaged in conversation with him when I heard the slippered night officer shuffling along the landing, as he spied into the cells. I heard a bit of a scramble in the next cell, as my neighbour diverted his attention to some less nefarious pursuit, but I continued tapping out Morse Code and was still doing so when I heard the cover of the spy hole being lifted. Whether or not he knew I was conscious of his presence, I cannot say, but I took no notice and finished my message. “Stop your tapping, else you’ll tap before the Governor in the morning.” I heard no more of the matter, but had my partner been prepared to carry on, I was quite willing to ignore the officer altogether.
In relating this affair, I am reminded that at Hodgson’s request during this time, I wrote out on toilet paper a complete series of lectures on elementary human physiology and delivered them to him one by one, as they were completed. He seemed to prize these very much, although sometime later an officer discovered and confiscated them. Hodgson later registered a request for a similar requirement, this time with respect to the operation of the motorcar. It will be appreciated that under these two commissions, much time was accounted for.
Now that the other COs were on the recently instituted conversational exercises, I was mostly grouped with soldiers and perhaps a few COs who had not yet completed twelve months, or like myself, were in disgrace for one reason or another. One day after having been in Stage 1 for some weeks, I was out on exercise, when Mr. Butler who was in charge, had reason to reprimand a Canadian soldier. This man took the reprimand badly and suddenly springing out of the ring, gave the officer a resounding box on the ear. For this assault the soldier was sentenced to be flogged, much to poor old Mr. Butler’s distress, as being the officer concerned, he was required to witness the flogging.
A few days later I was again out at exercise and was conversing over the six yards that separated us, with a CO from Liverpool who was preceding me. He was imparting to me some ideas that would give me many hours of interesting investigation in my cell. When on one revolution, I passed Mr. Butler who said to me, “Come here you. You were talking to that man there.” “Yes, I should say that was pretty obvious.” “Well, you’re not to do it.” In my annoyance, I responded in rather a pugnacious manner, saying that I had a God given right to speak to people. Mr. Butler was quite startled with alarm, probably recollecting the recent incident concerning the Canadian soldier and responded, “Do as you like then.” Having obtained this astonishing permission, I waited until my Liverpool friend came round again and slipped in behind him. However I refrained from talking out of consideration for Mr. Butler, for whom I had considerable respect.
It was evident by this time that the prison authorities were becoming apprehensive about the slowly diminishing stranglehold of restraint that they had on us. A few days after the above-mentioned passage of arms with Mr. Butler, Mr. Ralph visited my cell early one morning with the remarkable request, “I want you to promise that you will not talk when on exercise.” “No, I shall certainly give no such promise. I don’t say I shall talk, but most decidedly, I shall not promise that I won’t.” “Then you can’t go out to exercise.” “But I am quite prepared to take the consequences if I do talk.” “We would rather do without the consequences, by having a promise from you and we know that if you chaps give a promise, you keep it.” “That’s flattering, but I won’t promise.” “Very well, there’s no exercise for you then.”
This was a serious outlook, for I recognised that without exercise, the chances of remaining healthy were very much reduced, therefore I was not disposed to leave the matter at that. I did not go out to exercise that morning and in the afternoon, another warder, Mr. James, came to my cell. I assumed the Chief Warder had sent him, because the former was considered to have good persuasive powers. He said that I was silly to deny myself exercise, because my health would soon break down if I was shut in my cell all day long. He went on to say that only the promise was required, no one would mind the odd casual remark to the next man, during exercise. One remark that Mr. James made during this interview struck me forcibly as illustrating the impression that the COs had on the prison officers. In speaking of the undesirability of reporting us for punishment, he mentioned that we gain an upper hand, because we never lose our tempers. He went on to say that when an ordinary prisoner loses his temper before the Governor, they’ve got him. “But you chaps never play into our hands and give yourselves away,” he said.
The practical effect of Mr. James’ visit was nil, but I was not content to leave things as they were, so applied to see the Governor. This granted, I asked, “Would you mind telling me sir, in what category I am included?” “How do you mean?” “Well sir, am I in Stage 1, 2, 3, or 4, or am I on Concessions, 243.A?” The Governor turned to the Chief Warder, who stood by his chair, with my prison records in his hand. The latter said, “This man, sir, is in Stage 1, because he refuses to work.” “There you are then, does that satisfy you?” “Then may I ask why I am not treated as a Stage 1 prisoner?” “In what way?” “I’m not allowed to go out on exercise.” The Governor looked again to the Chief Warder who said, “The man can go out to exercise, if he will give a promise that he won’t talk.” The Governor looked enquiringly at me and I responded, “But that’s not Stage 1 rules. The rules are that I shall have thirty minutes exercise a day. If I talk, I shall be punished. I’m am quite prepared to abide by that.” “We don’t want you to be punished.” “Quite, but does that change the rules?” “Well, we’ve got our instructions from headquarters and we don’t want any of you on punishment.” The Governor had let the cat out of the bag and I immediately saw daylight. I courteously replied, “Thank you very much sir, that’s all I wished to know.”
I now felt quite certain that affairs would not be permitted to remain in that state for long. The Government was most anxious to give reassuring accounts of us to their critics, therefore they would not want the risk of one of us having a breakdown of health. But I was surprised at the extent to which the prison authorities capitulated, for the next morning I was sent out on exercise, without a word of explanation and to my astonishment, I found myself with the men on Concessions, 243.A. The authorities had thus conceded to me the right to talk as much as I liked and I had avoided playing into their hands.
I did not feel that I had secured an unqualified victory, because I had intended to repudiate the privileges of Concessions, 243.A. and at the time, I was rather cross that the other COs viewed my position with some hilarity.
There was another CO amongst us, namely William Penn, who right from the commencement of his sentence had refused to carry out the hard labour part of his sentence, arguing that this was a military order and as he was not a soldier, not applicable to him. Simple, logical and consistent. In fact Tom Drayton vigorously contended that Will Penn was the only consistent man among us and eventually I came to agree with him. Will Penn had been through a terrible time, with punishment after punishment for months on end, until the Prison Commissioners at last realised they were kicking against the pricks and would never break his resolution. His clarity of vision and unflinching strength of purpose, in that he was an agnostic, stand as monuments to the shame of Christians (including myself) who with a knowledge of the purpose of God, ought to have understood the nature of the opposition better. Penn was also sent out to conversational exercise.
In spite of Concessions, 243.A, the number of cases of physical collapse among COs remained disturbingly high. It was by no means uncommon for an officer to find a man unconscious on the floor, on unlocking the cells at 6.30 a.m. To ward off the growing opposition to their policy of keeping us in prison, in September 1918, they brought forward the scheme that became known as the Wakefield Experiment. This was almost identical to the Home Office Scheme, except that we were to be thrust into it without our consent. As no agreement was entered into, the men were not allowed outside the prison, but not under any restraint within. To pilot the scheme at Wakefield Prison, COs were gathered from other prisons all over the country, to form a preliminary nucleus. As far as I know, only one man was taken from Wandsworth, that being George Dimond. No information of the scheme was made known and it was not until the men chosen actually arrived at Wakefield, that they learned anything about it. This one detail was enough to destroy any trust in the government. I learned afterwards that after the men were given their instructions at Wakefield, they went into committee to discuss the matter, with the result that they unanimously refused to work the scheme. They promptly organised culinary and sanitary services, but resolutely declined to do anything further. The government was compelled to abandon the scheme and the men returned to their original prisons. Our George Dimond arrived back after only a few days absence, much to our curiosity, as we had no idea why or where he had been.
This government fiasco caused a lot of irritation and an appreciable number of COs staged a revolt against the prison rules. In despair they gave up the idea of the government ever granting the exemption demanded and for which the government themselves had made provision in the Military Services Act. They were not violently unruly, but ignored the prison rules completely. They refused to do their tasks, talked and sang as the fancy took them and refused to come in after exercise, unless an officer escorted each, one by one. Of course the prison was not staffed to cope with this and so the prison officials retaliated by removing them to the dungeons, where they remained without exercise. Their reply to this was to remove the glass from the gas lighting boxes so that they could converse with one another and many were the evening concerts, birthday parties and lectures, which they arranged between themselves. The snag was that there were no lights after the glass had been removed, but the lecturers delivered the orations with their heads in these orifices, thus converting them into another type of gas box. The few of us who were rebels before the Wakefield fiasco, continued on our course, without any need to rebel further.
About the middle of October 1918, seven or eight of us were paraded in Hall A, the purpose not being disclosed, although it was observed amongst us that we were all in various respects, passive rebels. Presently we were all taken into one of the rooms flanking Hall A and found ourselves confronting one of the Prison Commissioners. He commenced to smother us with soft soap and told us that although we had forfeited our privileges, they on their part were prepared to start afresh and restore all privileges straight away. The misunderstanding of our motives and attitude that this speech displayed, was truly remarkable. We listened in scornful and suspicious silence, suspecting that under this bed of olive branches, a dangerous trap was concealed. After he had finished, he waited a few seconds to see if any remarks were forthcoming, but was met with a heavy silence and so commenced to coax an agreement. Will Penn with his usual penetrative insight, bluntly told him that if he proposed to start us afresh and then leave us to ordinary prison usages, he was not doing us a service, but rather a great disservice. This rather nettled the gentleman and he sharply exclaimed, “How so?” Will Penn explained that in his own case, his course had entailed upon him months and months of succeeding punishments and if he were restored to privileges now, only to suffer the same treatment again, he would rather be without the privileges. The Commissioner perceived he had met an immovable obstacle in our determined opposition and we were returned to our cells. Nevertheless we were restored to all privileges and the first thing that happened was the supply of pen, ink and writing paper, in order that we might write a letter that same day.
My letter to Amy was dated October 17th 1918. Re-reading it now, the perplexed and suspicious frame of mind that the situation produced in me is very evident. I asked Amy not to be too hopeful that these privileges would be maintained and that she would be able to visit me. In fact my pessimism was justified, the privileges lasted only a few days and we were all back to ‘as you were’. I do not recollect if I was on privileges long enough to receive a reply, but a visit was denied. Amy wrote to the Governor asking for a permit and received this reply from the Governor dated October 24th 1918, written on the back of her own letter: -
As your husband declines to work, no letters or visit will be due, with the exception of the special letter allowed by the Prison Commissioners.
The letter you have received was written when your husband had all his privileges restored to him and a fresh opportunity of conforming to the regulations was afforded to him, but he straightway declined to work and all privileges have now been forfeited.
(Signed) Percy Green, Governor.
In my letter to Amy, I finished with the following sentence, the explanation of which will be of interest, ‘Remind Dad of my speculation as regards June of next year. It begins to look if I had not made a wrong interpretation, but it’s too soon to say yet’. In a previous letter written in the spring of 1918, I had included a message to my father, who was anxiously awaiting my release, to the effect that it was futile to hope for this, until the war was concluded. I went on to predict that when the terms of peace were agreed, the Turks would be kicked out of Palestine. From my cogitations on Bible prophecy, I was of the opinion that God’s purpose behind the war, was to free the Holy Land from the Turk (the drying up of the river Euphrates, Revelation XV1, 12), I therefore suggested that the war would end soon after Allenby had entered Jerusalem. From a study of the periods of time in the Book of Daniel, I reckoned that the war would end in June 1919. It eventually turned out that this was actually the month in which the Treaty of Versailles was signed, thus officially terminating the war.
It was in October that I began to worry that my memory was failing, for I became aware that this faculty was not anything like as acute as it once was. Therefore at suppertimes, I borrowed from my cell neighbour, Stanley Hodgson, a copy of Shakespeare’s plays, which he got from the library for my especial benefit. I returned it to him at breakfast time each morning, so that it was never found in my cell. From this I memorised whole scenes, which I enthusiastically recited in my cell. The memorising was hard work at first, but I found that as I persisted in my efforts, my memory regained its wonted activity. I often smiled (and have so many times since) as I thought of what would be the night officer’s reaction, should he have espied me engaged in these recitals. It is probable he would have thought me a fit candidate for an observation cell, had he seen for instance, a stamp of the right foot, a downward jerk of the arms with clenched fists and the outburst, “By the Gods, you shall digest the venom of your spleen, tho’ it do split you.” Or perhaps with doubled fists pressed to my bosom, head bent in dejection and sadly exclaim, “Brutus hath rived my heart. A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities, but Brutus makes mine greater than they are.” Then again, supposing he had seen me with outstretched hands, palms uppermost and appealingly declare, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the earth beneath.” Yet I thoroughly enjoyed those exercises of mind and body and they served their purpose.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector