Stop 4. Cowardice or Courage? York’s Conscientious Objectors.

Walk towards The Mansion House, the large red building at the end of the square. Walk beneath the Mansion House, through the archway, to reach the Guildhall.

 This is York Guildhall, which was used by the York local Tribunal in the First World War. Here conscientious objectors could come and plead their case. The story of the Conscientious Objectors starts with the issue of conscription. The vast number of men who joined up in 1914, eager to do their bit, struggled to cope with the onslaught of the war, which lasted longer and was more bitter than anyone had expected. The drive to recruit new soldiers began to struggle and this lead to the threat of conscription. This proposed measure was hated by many across the country and was labelled as ‘un-British’. Seebohm Rowntree, famous for his study of the poor in York, stated that ‘We thought we were fighting for liberty and opposing Prussianism but to bring conscription is to destroy liberty and bring in Prussianism’. However, in January 1916 the Military Service Act was introduced, making conscription compulsory for all men deemed to be fit and healthy. In this Bill there was a clause which allowed individuals to object on causes of conscience and so the Conscientious Objector was born.

In York the majority of the Conscientious Objectors were Quakers who were well known for their anti-violence stance. However, there is also some evidence that there were other Conscientious Objectors. The Independent Labour Party in the city passed its first anti-Conscription manifesto in June 1915. This was popular within the party - meetings held on the subject in January 1916 were well attended, and the meeting room was packed out. In 1917, the York Independent Labour Party had 12 members who were Conscientious Objectors.

To prove your objection to the war was not easy. The men had to face a local tribunal and explain their objection, which they would have done in this very building. The tribunal would then decide whether they could be exempted. Just 14 people from York were given a full exemption. Large numbers of temporary exemptions were given out whilst individuals found work of national importance or were drafted into the Non- Combatant Corps.  If a conscientious objector refused to follow the ruling of the local tribunal, they were often charged with failure to report for duty and they would then be imprisoned. Many Conscientious Objectors did not receive the exemption they wanted and felt there was no other way forward. Some of the men wanted no involvement in war work at all and often refused work which, though not directly involved in fighting, would have advanced the cause of war. These men were called ‘absolutists’. This complete rejection of the war effort often meant many were charged and imprisoned.

One of the scandals of the First World War was the treatment of the ‘Richmond 16,’ a group of sixteen absolutists. The men were imprisoned at Richmond Castle where some of these men left a permanent reminder of their presence through graffiti in their cells. One of the Richmond 16 was a man from York named Alfred Martlew. Martlew was a clerk working at the Rowntree’s factory. Arnold Rowntree, Quaker and York MP, had already made his opposition to conscription clear and campaigned for the release of the men. The British government smuggled the men over to France to try and force them into service, all but one continued to refuse and so they were sentenced to death on the 14th of June 1916. Lord Kitchener planned to make an example of them but died himself before the sentence was carried out. Under pressure, the government changed their sentence to hard labour. The men did not have to fight and stayed true to their principles. However, they did not escape unscathed as many suffered from psychological effects of their treatment. Alfred Martlew suffered in particular and committed suicide in 1917, one of two York Conscientious Objectors who took their own life during the First World War.

The opinion of the people in York towards Conscientious Objectors was very varied. One letter to the York Herald in 1916 said that all conscientious Objectors should be branded with a ‘C’ on their forhead. However, others fought for people’s right to object, sometimes even offering them work of national importance. Conscientious Objectors were often labelled cowards but one thing that these men cannot be denied is courage, as it took great bravery to stand up and declare their principles in the face of great disapproval.

Stop 4. Cowardice or Courage? York’s Conscientious Objectors.


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