Wiltshire's Conscientious Objectors

on Thursday, 23 January 2014. Posted in Archives, Military

Some of you may have listened to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning (23rd Jan) or have seen newspaper reports on the National Archives recent release of online material relating to World War 1 Military Conscription Appeal Tribunals for Middlesex. http://ht.ly/sPK8W  and http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/jan/23/who-conscientious-objectors-first-world-war?CMP=twt_fd

It is suggested that these records are one of only two complete sets of such records to survive as the tribunal papers were supposed to have been destroyed after the war. So we thought our blog readers might be interested to know that the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre also hold a series of tribunal papers.

Our main series are for the Pewsey and Calne areas, which total 1300 and 683 cases respectively. These should also have been destroyed, but fortunately survived. The records often contain detailed information on why an individual or his employee appealed against the case, the remarks by the Tribunal and military representative, and the Tribunal decision. Further information is also available for Bradford on Avon in the form of a register with 350 entries, but this contains less information, mainly names and occupation. An index for cases for Swindon has been created from reports in the Swindon Advertiser. Much work has been completed on this subject area, including indexes to cases for Calne and Swindon, created by Local Historian, Ivor Slocombe, and published by the Wiltshire Family History Society.

As was noted during the Radio 4 discussion that compulsory military conscription was introduced in 1916, first for unmarried men and later for married men, aged between18 - 41. The age limit was subsequently raised to 50. While there are some cases relating to conscientious objectors, by and large the objections to conscription were on economic grounds, either business or employment related, or where an individual was the sole breadwinner in a household. Many relate to reserved occupations, which are those jobs that were perceived to be vital to the war effort or the well-being of the community. In Wiltshire this very much related to agriculture and in Swindon the cases were dominated by the GWR and other engineering. Interestingly, a series of War Agricultural committee minutes for the same period also note where some soldiers have been requested to be sent home on similar economic grounds.

There are many interesting cases within the Tribunal records. My colleague Steve Hobbs noted this case in Pewsey:

PEWSEY RDC 1225/222/1/29 Application by F & H Pearce (employer) for George Keel (employee), Choulston, Figheldean, 24/3/1916. The appeal was based on  ‘Dangerous position  of the farm owing to the Flying Corps at Netheravon being entirely situated on our place; with the aeroplanes overhead & the lorries in the road, it is necessary to have a man with the horses & we cannot replace him’.

While the military objected, saying that ‘the reason given is hardly sufficient to exempt the man’  the Tribunal decided that George Keel should have ‘conditional exemption while in his present employment.’

Terry Bracher
Archives & Local Studies Manager

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