‘The common people paid with their blood’

There were many people who fundamentally objected to war. At a time of national crisis, those who decided against joining the army for the First World War faced many hardships – many men ended up in jail. Here we hear about two of those conscientious objectors.

Arthur Jones, a civil service clerk living in Keston Road, Peckham, was a leading figure in Camberwell Trades and Labour Council and in Dulwich Independent Labour Party, or ILP.

His picture shows an earnest young man in a solid tweed jacket.

Aged 27.

He refused to stand to attention when paraded at Hounslow barracks and so in September 1916 came before his first court-martial. He told them: “I view war as a test of might, resulting from dynastic ambitions, commercial rivalries, financial intrigues and imperialistic jealousies.

“It is a stupid, costly and obsolete method of attempting to settle the differences of diplomatists, in which the common people always pay with their blood, vitality and wealth.”

The court was not persuaded and sentenced him to six months’ hard labour, which he served in Wormwood Scrubs.

In January 1917 he again refused to obey orders and was sentenced again.

Altogether he served four terms of hard labour and was only released from Pentonville in April 1919.

The prison correspondence between Arthur Jones and his cousin Vi Tidman, a schoolteacher, runs like a thread through the account of the borough’s war-resisters.

The two married after the war. The letters are among Arthur’s papers in the Bodleian library in Oxford.

They are there because he went on to become a Labour MP, serving as colonial secretary in Attlee’s post-war government.

Research in archives and newspapers focuses on the present borough of Southwark, where there were about 241 conscientious objectors, as they are known.

In Lewisham and Deptford (then separate boroughs) there were 113.

They have been ably written up by Ann O’Brien. Both of us have benefited greatly from Cyril Pearce’s national register of objectors, which is accessible via the Imperial War Museum website.

In present-day Southwark there were two poles of resistance to the war.

One was in Bermondsey, centred around the Quaker socialists Arthur and Ada Salter, who were both active at national level. The other was in East Dulwich.

Both places had a branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship, or NCF, which sprang into action when compulsory military service was introduced in early 1916.

The Dulwich branch supported war-resisters across the old borough of Camberwell, which in those days also included Peckham and Nunhead.

It also drew in men from Lewisham and Deptford which, for some reason, had no NCF branch of their own.

The other link with Lewisham was the remarkable Sarah Cahill.

Aged about 53, the wife, or widow perhaps, of a railway signalman. She lived at 60 Limes Grove, which is the street running up from the main library, just off the town centre.

She was the secretary of Dulwich’s No-Conscription branch, so had quite a trek to its meetings off Lordship Lane. Presumably she went by tram, following the present route via Forest Hall of the 185 bus.

The branch met weekly in Hansler Hall, the local base of the ILP. There, gatherings of some 25 listened to missives from head office, heard the imprisoned men’s letters read out and gave friendship and support to their families.

Sarah’s son William was himself an objector. He chose prison rather than remain as a chief clerk when his firm in Greenwich took on war work.

After serving three terms of hard labour, he was discharged in January 1918, broken in health.

Sarah and others made jail visits and reported back to head office. They lobbied MPs. They organised rallies on Peckham Rye. They produced a campaigning booklet. NCF choirs sang regularly outside London prisons.

The Dulwich activists seem to have been mainly women. They included Clara Cole, a former suffragist living in Camberwell.

She wrote later that Mrs Cahill, “worked unceasingly… taking up any and every task possible… [She] ‘knew the ropes,’ and mothered many sons besides her own.

Do you have or know of a picture of Sarah Cahill and Violet Tidman?

The historical record deserves their photo. Can any reader help?

If so, email [email protected]

The Fight to a Finish: War-Resisters in South London and Beyond is available at Southwark and Lewisham Local History Libraries.

Picture: Arthur Jones



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