They said “No” to War: British Women Conscientious Objectors in World War II
By Mitzi Bales, peace activist and member of War Resisters’ International
As Nora Page was driven off to prison in the Black Maria on 15 January 1943, she said to herself: “I must carry it through”. Nora Page was not the first young British woman to declare herself a conscientious objector. Nor was she the first to be imprisoned for her stand. But her story is left to us in a lengthy interview recorded at the Imperial War Museum in 1980. She expressed her beliefs as strongly as ever. After all, she had been a member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) since 1937 and volunteered as an adviser to conscientious objectors from 1941 to 1945.
Her story tells us how conscription during World War II affected women who said “No” to war as a matter of conscientious belief. It also gives us some insights into how conscientious objection was viewed by the wider society.
During the years of growing unease with Hitler’s dictatorship and military conquests, there was also a developing peace movement. Nora came across a street corner vendor of Peace News (PN), the publication of the PPU, and read about the organisation. It was not long before she herself joined the PPU and was actively selling Peace News.
The anti-conscription movement developed in 1939 as part of the peace movement. Nora became interested when she saw a newspaper notice about a meeting on the subject. She was impressed that the founder of the movement was not a pacifist, but was against conscription. When conscription came, she joined small pickets leafleting Employment Exchanges, where those liable to conscription had to register, with information about the possibility of conscientious objection.
Nora explained that, for the most part, the public had an indulgent “couldn’t care less” attitude to peace activists until the war actually started. There was some harassment by police, who made PN vendors and leafletters move on if several passers-by gathered for a chat at the same time. However, she and her comrades managed in general to keep good relations with both the public and the police in her area of London. She developed a good technique of disarming the few hecklers by answering them with a new bit of information.
With the limited extension of military conscription to women in 1941, and the tightening up of industrial conscription and compulsory firewatching for both men and women, Nora’s story became that of a conscientious objector. There was a particular problem in that, although there was provision for claiming conscientious objection to military service, there was no legal right of conscientious objection to industrial or firewatching compulsion. Nora’s road to imprisonment provides one example of women conscientious objectors in World War II.
First, Nora was given “direction of labour”, as the law put it, to work in a greengrocer’s shop. As an “absolutist” — the term adopted by conscientious objectors who would not accept any work releasing someone for military service — she refused the order. Nora did not disparage the assigned work, declaring in her interview, “My attitude was not to be directed to do anything in wartime that you wouldn’t have asked me to do in peacetime”. It seems that, unusually, no further action was taken — the Ministry of Labour and National Service had so many people to chase up for the “war effort” that some just got away.
However, as she says, she was caught by another regulation: “I was in a firewatch team in our road and I took my turn stopping up all night. Then we were directed to register for firewatching... I wrote and told them I had not registered because I did not believe in conscription”. She had to appear at the magistrates’ court in Tottenham, north London, and was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway prison for women.
After being taken down to the cells, she and the others under sentence were allowed to receive lunch from some women who had attended the court. She says that the women jailers were helpful and actually waved them off as they departed in the Black Maria. In this, Nora’s experience varies greatly from many other women conscientious objectors, who were humiliated and verbally abused during their hearings and afterwards.
Other industrial and firewatching conscientious objectors
Nora served her 14 days at the same time as Kathleen Lonsdale, the eminent Quaker scientist, who was also serving a month for refusing firewatching registration. They never met, but Nora says that it was “nice to know someone with a big name” was in prison with her.
Kathleen Lonsdale was a crystallographer who developed several X-ray techniques. This work, plus other contributions to chemistry and physics, later earned her a Fellowship of the Royal Society. As a married mother of three children under 14, she was exempt from registration, but she chose to refuse on conscientious principle, and became the first Quaker woman to be jailed as a conscientious objector. She declared that she had no objection to firewatching, but felt that the issue of the war itself and the infringement of civil liberties inherent in compulsion were more important.
While in Holloway, Kathleen held a Quaker meeting every week, protested to improve the poor conditions, and generally helped to keep up the morale of the other prisoners in her block. After her release she wrote a memoir of prison life, one of the few to come out of that period. Published by the Prison Medical Reform Council, it is valuable as a factual record of the deprivations experienced by prisoners, though there is an emphasis on medical issues.
Turning to the very first woman imprisoned as a conscientious objector, in January 1942, we meet Connie Bolam, a parlour maid to Kitty Alexander, herself one of a whole family of conscientious objectors, in Newcastle, northern England. Connie was directed to do land, canteen or hospital work. Another firm absolutist, she refused, and was sentenced to a month in prison by Newcastle magistrates, and went to Durham Gaol. In June the same year she appeared before the Northumberlnnd and Durham Tribunal as a conscientious objector to military conscription, where the Chairman was hostile, saying, “We on the tribunal have some commonsense and you have none. It is no good talking rubbish to us like that”. She was allowed exemption conditional upon doing farm, hospital or canteen work, against which she unsuccessfully appealed for unconditional exemption, and seems finally to have accepted the conditional exemption. She may have had other matters in mind: she received numerous letters arising from publicity around her case, and married one of her well-wishers. Kitty Alexander, meanwhile, had also refused to register for employment, and was imprisoned for a month, as well as being dismissed from her job in an insurance office.
Ivy Watson, too, had a gruelling experience. Having refused to register for employment, she appeared before the magistrates at Stratford (east London) three days before Christmas 1943. She was ordered to pay a £25 fine or face three months in prison. She chose prison, but after four weeks her health was so impaired that she asked her family to pay the balance of the fine so she could be released.
Her account in the CBCO Bulletin tallies with Kathleen Lonsdale’s memoir. She tells how the prisoners had only one small cake of soap per month, one pair of stockings, no handkerchief, no coat, no toilet paper. Like others, she used a dirty blanket as a wrap against the severe cold and tore up the bible, the only source of paper, for toilet wipes. She also suffered mental torture. She had asked for the Free Church minister to visit her, and he came on the appointed day. But the prison authorities told him that she didn’t want to see him and he went away in bewilderment. This seemed to be the blow she couldn’t cope with.
Joan Williams (née Locke) was an assistant in Shoreditch public library who left a chronicle entitled Experiences of a Woman CO 1939–43. She was required to register in August 1941 along with all those in her age group, then 26. She refused, and wrote to the Minister of Labour saying so. She had an acknowledgement of her letter, but heard no further till June 1942. Then she was again called to register and again she refused. There was correspondence to and fro till March 1943 when she received a summons to attend Clerkenwell Magistrates’ Court, on a prosecution for refusing a direction. On her continued refusal, she was remanded for two weeks and told to think over her decision. She held to it, however, and at the renewed hearing her exchange with the magistrates gave an interesting perspective on how conscientious objectors defended themselves:
Joan W: I recognise that the country has been very generous in its treatment of conscientious objectors, but there is no conscientious clause in the industrial conscription act. It is to the principle of the act that I object.
Magistrate: You object to the law?
Joan W: Because it is the organisation of the country for war purposes, and I feel I cannot take part in it.
Magistrate: Do you refuse to have the direction? Otherwise you will have to go to prison.
Joan W: I would rather go to prison.
She was sentenced to two months, later commuted to six weeks. Her account relates her time at Holloway. She tells us that there were three or four Jehovah’s Witnesses, one Methodist, one person of no denomination, and one Quaker among the conscientious objectors she met on arriving at the prison. They were able to meet and talk a little during exercise periods and Quaker visitors came to see them. Joan worked in the library, cleaning floors, taking books round and typing a book catalogue. After her release she received three more notices to be interviewed, but nothing came of it.
Like Joan Williams, other women refused even to register for directions of labour. They were fined or sent to prison, sometimes more than once. Statistics published in 1948 give the following details.
M M Day: 1942: £8 fine or 2 months' imprisonment. Fine paid. Again, 28 days and 3 months concurrent.
Margaret Prendergast, Liverpool: 1941, £3 fine, never collected. 1942, Tribunal, 1943, 1 month in prison.
Betty Brown, Scunthorpe, Lincs: 1942, £5 fine or 28 days' imprisonment, served. 1944, £10 fine or 1 month, served.
J Fermer: 1944, £5 fine, paid anonymously. Again, £10 fine or 1 month.
Although these cold figures do not reveal the human side of these women’s stories, the reason for the repeated fines or threats of imprisonment is that each refusal of compliance was, in law, a new offence. The real mischief was the failure of the state to recognise conscientious objection to industrial conscription.
Women conscientious objectors to military service
Britain was first among the World War II Allies to conscript women into wartime forces and, therefore, the first country to produce women conscientious objectors. On 18 December 1941 Parliament passed a law making all single women between the ages of 19 and 31 potentially liable for service in the Woman’s Royal Naval Service, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force or Civil Defence, but none would be required to use a lethal weapon. The conscientious objection provisions for men were carried over to these women in identical terms.
The women’s cause was also immediately taken up by the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors (CBCO, chaired by Fenner Brockway, former imprisoned World War I conscientious objector, and former Chair of the [British] No More War Movement and the WRI, though by World War II no longer a pacifist), which had been founded in 1939 by a number of peace organisations to help all conscientious objectors. The CBCO represented objectors in many ways, in particular advising on registration, tribunal and court procedures, and lobbying parliament and government on their behalf.
Although the 1941 act permitted call-up of women aged 19–31, the provision was in fact exercised only for women aged up to 24. Women in this group were first called to interview, and those already in professions such as teaching, nursing, or working on the land, or women offering immediately to take up such work, were usually dismissed and did not need to formally register as conscientious objectors, but they could if they wished. Other women became liable to call-up, unless they obtained some kind of exemption, including conscientious objection.
Women registering as conscientious objectors did so initially at an Employment Exchange, and then submitted a statement of their objection to a Local Tribunal, where they could attend a hearing to adjudicate upon their application. Local Tribunals comprised a legally qualified chair plus four members appointed by the Minister of Labour; of these, one at least had to be a trade unionist and one a woman. In the case of a woman applicant the Tribunal could make one of three findings: to register the woman unconditionally as a conscientious objector; to register her as a conscientious objector upon specified conditions (for example work in teaching, nursing, on the land, or civil defence); or to remove her from the conscientious objector register, that is, reject her application.
If the conscientious objector disagreed with the Local Tribunal finding, she could appeal to the Appellate Tribunal. Of 1000 women who appeared before Local Tribunals, about half appealed. It is interesting that a greater proportion of women than men took this step. This was due to the large number of appeals by absolutists who wanted to make a formal stand; many women in a position equivalent to men accepting conditional exemption did not appear in the conscientious objection statistics at all because of the initial informal interview procedure already described.
Some Local Tribunals seemed to dislike women objectors. At the hearing of Hazel Kerr, for example, one tribunal member chided that if Hazel carried her argument to its logical conclusion, she should eat nothing and starve herself to death. “That might be the most useful thing to do”. Twenty members of the public walked out in protest. It was at the same hearing that the previously cited remark was made to Connie Bolam.
The first woman conscientious objector was formally recognised by a Tribunal on 2 April 1942. She was Joyce Allen, aged 21, a member of East Horndon PPU. She was exempted on condition of her remaining in teaching, and accepted this, although towards the end of the war she transferred to the Friends Relief Service in Liverpool. Later in life she was active in the radical anti-nuclear war movement and the green movement, and was interviewed as a former conscientious objector by the Guardian in 2005.
In the two weeks following Joyce’s tribunal, M E Wells of Scarborough and Alma Gillinder of Swalwell-on-Tyne were registered conditional upon nursing or hospital work.
On 16 April, three more women were registered conditionally. Two were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who accepted hospital work, and the third agreed to work full time in her father’s bakery or on the land.
Marjorie Whittles, of Liverpool, was the first woman conscientious objector to be registered unconditionally, on 20 April 1942. She joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, and later transferred to the Friends War Relief Service. Later still, she married another conscientious objector, Michael Asquith, a grandson of Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister who first introduced British conscription in 1916 (with recognition of conscientious objection).
On 21 March 1944, 27-year-old Rita Matthews of the Isle of Wight, a Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced by a magistrates’ court to 12 months' imprisonment for non-compliance with the conditions of her exemption (nursing or other hospital work). This was reduced to six months on appeal to the Quarter Sessions, the Ministry of Labour bearing her appeal costs.
It has been 69 years since Britain enacted conscription for women in 1941. The time gap means that research into the subject is ever more difficult. The youngest surviving conscientious objectors are now in their eighties and hard to find. There were 37 years between Nora Page’s experience as a conscientious objector and the Imperial War Museum interview that preserved her words for later generations. Fortunately, eleven more women conscientious objectors, including Marjorie Whittles, were recorded, but clearly there are hundreds of untold stories.
The figures are complicated. The total number of women who appeared before tribunals is given as 1,056 (including 59 prosecuted for non-compliance with conditions), but the figure obviously does not include women who accepted an informal assignment to non-military work, but who in other circumstances would probably have demanded recognition as conscientious objectors. The figures arising from industrial conscription and compulsory firewatching, are even more difficult, but there were 430 known prosecutions of women for conscientious objection offences in these areas. If these figures seem tiny in comparison with 60,000 men objectors in World War II, it is because a much smaller proportion of women became liable for any kind of compulsion, and over a significantly shorter period.
In any assessment of women in the British conscientious objection movement, their part other than as conscientious objectors must not be overlooked. Nancy Browne, first secretary of CBCO, was the human contact welcomed by all conscientious objectors turning to the Board for help. Myrtle Solomon, the last secretary, combining it with the General Secretaryship of the PPU, and then Chair of the WRI, was a human contact for conscientious objectors in difficulty in many parts of the world. Nor should we forget their precursors in World War I, Catherine Marshall, Joan Beauchamp and Margaret Hobhouse. As to the present and future, it should be remembered that the current right to request a discharge from the British armed forces on grounds of conscientious objection applies to women equally with men, though no case is known so far of a woman seeking such a discharge.
Unknown women conscientious objectors carried the banner for peace in their time, along with the women whose names and stories are known. They can all be acknowledged in our thoughts for their strength of purpose and principled stand against war.
Barker, Rachel: Conscience, Government and War, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
Benjamin, Alison: Voices of Reason, Guardian, 3 August 2005
Central Board for Conscientious Objectors (CBCO): Records, Friends’ House Library
Hayes, Denis: Challenge of Conscience, published for CBCO by George Allen & Unwin 1949
Imperial War Museum: Sound Archive, Conscientious Objectors
Lonsdale, Kathleen: Prison for Women, Prison Medical Reform Council, 1943
Peace Pledge Union: Database of British COs, including 150 women
Williams, Joan: Experiences of a Woman CO 1939–43, unpublished manuscript, Friends’ House Library