the men who said no


Cell in Languard Fort


  Cell in Languard Fort | more

By 1916 prisons were marginally less grim than at the end of the 19th century. Punishment was their overriding function with a bit of commerce on the side. Men sentenced to hard labour were set pointless and arduous tasks and many spent their time in solitary confinement. The diet was poor, cells were cold and often damp. To many COs this was a shocking revelation, many challenged the system and some worked and campaigned for prison reform after the war.

The CO's experience in prison was not dissimilar to that of other inmates with the exception of the fact that their ‘crime’ was to refuse to commit murder. COs committed to years of hard labour became known as absolutist. These were men who had either been refused exemption of any kind or refused work under direction of the authorities whether in the Non Combatant corps or in the various Home Office Schemes.

Starting a 2 year prison term for one's belief and having challenged the authorities may, for a few weeks, be sustaining but solitary confinement and days stretching into the lonely distance can soon become unsettling.

A common occupation for CO's in their solitary cells was to sew mailbags. As the skin hardened on their fingers some began to wonder what precisely was the difference between sewing mailbags in a solitary cell to doing some other work on a Home Office Scheme.

After his third court-martial in May 1917 and a sentence of 2 years hard labour, Clifford Allen wrote to the No Conscription Fellowship from his cell in Parkhurst camp on Salisbury Plain explaining his thinking. He also wrote a letter to Lloyd George giving notice of his intention.

Before I am removed to prison I think it is right to make known to you that, like other men similarly situated, I have recently felt it my duty to consider carefully whether I ought not for the future to refuse all orders to work during imprisonment. I have decided that it is my duty to take this course. This will mean that I shall be subjected to severe additional punishment behind prison doors. Provided I have the courage and health to fulfil this intention, I shall have to spend the whole of my sentence in strict solitary confinement in a cell containing no article of any kind - not even a printed regulation. I shall have to rest content with the floor, the celling and the bare walls. I shall have nothing to read, and shall not be allowed to write or receive even the rare letters or visits permitted hitherto, and shall live for long periods on bread and water. |more

The National Committee of the NCF was not happy. It had only just began persuading members from work striking and felt that their campaign to secure socially useful work for the men on Home Office schemes could be jeopardised. Nonetheless the NCF published Allen’s letter in The Tribunal which was followed by a vigorous correspondence. Some felt that ‘To win through we must succeed in influencing the heart and mind and conscience of the nation and the authorities. We have to convince them: we cannot threaten or compel them. Our methods must be those that will stand the test of time.’ It is to the credit of the men and women of the NCF that despite serious and deeply felt differences during its years of work they continued to effectively work for a broadly common cause. In the prisons around the country questions which still confront us today are being put to the test.

Solitary confinement affected many COs. Without occupation of some sort a man may become a gibbering idiot, noted one critic of Allen’s total resistance. Indeed many suffered little short of gibbering. It was not a course of action suitable for everyone.

conditions | diaries | letters


Prison xmas

red line