the men who said no

 
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Conchie wall and conchie field

The 'conchie' wall stands on a bleak, windswept rise on Dartmoor a short distance from the grim Dartmoor Prison in Princetown, Devon.

Dartmoor Prison began life as a prison, built in order to avert a crisis, by French POWs from the Napoleonic. Large numbers of prisoners - overflows from already overcrowded land based prisons - were housed in 47 hulks moored at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth in hazardous and insanitary conditions. Fearing an epidemic and mutiny, particularly in Plymouth, the Admiralty set the French prisoners of war to construct their own prison. Remote from centres of population in a small farming settlement called Prince Town, on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the prison opened in 1809 and in 1812 the French were joined by American POWs.

By 1850 the French and Americans prisoners were repatriated, although the corpses of some 1,500 remained buried in the ground outside the prison. The prison was rebuilt and opened in 1851 as a penal settlement to house British convicts no longer wanted in the the colonies.

Sixty seven years later the cells were once again filled with the casualties of another war. In the spring of 1917 hundreds of men who refused to take part in the war watched the bleak landscape slide by as the train took them across the windswept high moorland to their new ‘home’. The final trudge up the hill from the railway station and through the ‘gothic’ entrance arch with Parcere Subjectis - Spare the Humbled was a step into an unknown and uncertain future. Many of the COs arriving in Dartmoor had already spent months in prisons and some who had had their death sentences commuted arrived from France. They must have wondered what new indignities they were about to be subjected to.

Prison farm field map

Prison Farm map showing the conchie field. Top third from the right

Stone exhibition

Come and touch stones from the conchie wall at the project's exhibition in London.

Monday and Tuesday 9am to 4pm. Please call to book a time. 07971319227

By the time the COs arrived in Dartmoor the civilian prisoners had been moved to other prisons and the prison decommissioned. In today’s terminology it was rebranded as the Princetown Work Centre although ‘work camp’ might have been more accurate. As part of a new approach to the ‘problem’ of COs locks were removed from cell doors, wardens reduced in number and rebranded as 'Instructors'. The Governor expected obedience and any infringements of rules, however petty, was met with punishment. Although the work was meant to be of ‘national importance’ it was largely pointless, unproductive and essentially punitive such as the building of seven foot dry stone walls. Clearing and preparing Duchy of Cornwall land by hand while not very efficient the free labour was, undoubtedly, an attractive proposition for the Duke of Cornwall, later to become King Edward VIII. Although having joined the army it was thought that he was a too valuable asset to be sent to the front line.

While the Military Service Act included a clause for absolute exemption for ‘genuine’ COs only some 200 of the 20,000 men were classed as genuine and given absolute exemption. The others had difficult decisions to make about the extent to which they would make accommodations with the authorities.

COs were not allowed by the Tribunals to simply carry on with their everyday jobs as did the millions of men who had not been, and were not going to be, called up. To be called up and refuse warranted the severe punishment solitary confinement and hard labour in prison.

The Act produced an unexpected number of conscientious objectors and prisons began to fill up with an large numbers of unruly COs. The problem was not quite on the scale of the hulks in Plymouth harbour but serious enough for the government to look for other options.

Apart from absenting themselves there were three broad choices offered to COs. Hard labour in prison, putting on a uniform and becoming part of the Non Combatant Corp or agreeing to take up ‘prescribed work of national importance’. The men in Dartmoor were in the third category though even here some felt too compromised and asked to be returned to prison and solitary confinement.

 

Read The Tribunal the paper of the No-Conscription FellowshipTribunal MastheadLaunched in March 1916 shortly after the first conscientious objectors were being forced into the army. Month by month we publish extract from The Tribunal which include a contextual comentary. Read the instalments here

 

   

 

"Dartmoor was not a place where angels flaped their wings."




   
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