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STEPHEN WINSTEN 1893 - 1991  


tephen Winsten, in 1916 called Samuel Weinstein, was an Absolutist CO who refused to support the war effort in any way. Many Conscientious Objectors with complicated personal and family histories had many reasons for their objection and Stephen’s motivations were certainly complex and made up of many different reasons for refusing to fight and kill in war.

He was from a Russian Jewish family who had moved to Hackney. This background informed part of his Conscientious Objection, as he held the “Internationalist” opinion which stated that workers around the world should unite in order to stop the war. Stephen was also one of a group known as the “Whitechapel Boys” which included the war poet Isaac Rosenberg and another writer-CO, John Rodker. It’s possible that Stephen may have shared John’s objection to Britain entering the war on behalf of its Russian ally and, like many other COs from Russian families, he may have refused to aid any war that supported and benefited the tyrannical Russian autocratic state. Additionally, as a member of the No-Conscription Fellowship, Stephen had spent much of 1914-1916 campaigning against the war generally and against conscription in particular. Further complicating this position was the CO status of Stephen’s brother who had been sent to Siberia for refusing to fight in the Russian army. He must have felt under significant pressure to support his brother’s stand, in addition to refusing to fight for his own reasons.

For all of these reasons when conscription was introduced in 1916, Stephen went before the Hackney Tribunal to register his opposition to the war as a Conscientious Objector. The Hackney Tribunal was not sympathetic to political COs and must have turned down his application for exemption as soon after, Stephen was arrested and transferred into the control of the military. At the Bedford depot in November 1916, he had his first serious confrontation with military authority and was court martialled for refusing to obey orders.

This first court martial trapped Stephen in a pointless and punishing cycle of court martial, sentencing and prison that he would not escape from for two years. After the first court martial, Stephen was sentenced to six months hard labour, but upon release found himself again eligible for conscription into the army. After a short period as a free man, he would be arrested and sent back to the army, starting another cycle of arrest and imprisonment. This utterly pointless system was both a huge waste of time and money as well as being a good indicator that the army and government had no idea of what to do with Absolutist COs like Stephen. Did they really believe that this time (possibly the third or even fourth time a CO was sentenced to prison) a man like Stephen would meekly give up and willingly agree to be forced into killing on the western front? Many COs realised the black comedy of their situation and found themselves looking forward to being sent back to barrack guard rooms and prisons - there to find friends they had made on earlier prison sentences.

Stephen was eventually released in 1919 under the “Two Year Rule” which finally acknowledged that COs who had been in prison for years were unlikely to be convinced by another sentence! By April he had spent more than two years serving four prison sentences in Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth prisons. After his final release he went on to the writing career interrupted by the war. His writings on George Bernard Shaw have become very well known. One of his major contributions to the history of Conscientious Objectors was his enduring statement at Tribunal: “I know what it is to kill a pig, I will not kill a man” seen now as a powerful example of the immorality of taking life in war.



Stephen Winsten

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Born: 1893
Died: 1991
Address: 60 Gore Road, South Hackney, London
Tribunal: Wormwood Scrubs
Prison: Wormwood Scrubs; Wandsworth CP; Bedford CP
HO Scheme:[1]
CO Work:
Occupation: LCC supply teacher
NCF: Hackney
Motivation: Humanitarian


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