Against the tide, against the war: conscientious objection in South London, 1914-1918

John Taylor draws on the research behind his two books on conscientious objection in the London borough of Southwark to tell the story of the men and women who resisted the first world war.

Arthur Creech Jones, photographed in February 1916. Click for larger image

In what is today the London borough of Southwark, there were two poles of opposition to the first world war. One, in Bermondsey in the north, centred on the Quaker socialists Alfred and Ada Salter. They were both active at national level and are well known, both by local reputation and through biographies by Fenner Brockway and Graham Taylor.

The other pole, to the south, was in Dulwich – not the Dulwich of the college and the picture gallery, but East Dulwich on the other side of the park. Hidden in this wedge of terraced housing, now gentrified but originally built for working-class occupation, was the headquarters of Dulwich Independent Labour Party (ILP). It had the rather grand name of Hansler Hall and was the base for a full programme of political and social activity.

In two books that I call a salute across a century, I have tried to recover the stories of the men and women in my part of London who stood out against the war of 1914-1918, either by refusing to serve or by campaigning against it. These volumes, titled Against the Tide: War-Resisters in South London 1914-16, and The Fight to a Finish: War-Resisters in South London and Beyond 1917-19 are both now freely available online.

When the government introduced ‘compulsion’ in January 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship sprang into action to oppose it. Soon there were 31 branches in London alone, including one in Bermondsey and one in Dulwich. About Bermondsey there is relatively little to say, beyond what’s in Brockway’s book.

About the Dulwich branch, previously practically unknown, I unearthed a great deal of material.

The Dulwich branch covered not only the whole of Camberwell, of which Dulwich was then a part, but supported members in Lewisham and Deptford, boroughs which had no branch of their own. Its driving force, until he was arrested, was Arthur Creech Jones, a civil service clerk aged 25 in 1916. He was secretary both of the ILP branch and of Camberwell Trades and Labour Council.

Jones was arrested and court-martialled in September 1916, He was an absolutist: one of the 1,500-plus men who unlike the majority of conscientious objectors chose to stay in prison on anti-war principle rather than accept alternative service or transfer to the less rigorous regime of a labour camp. He served four terms of hard labour and only stepped free in April 1919.

According to Cyril Pearce’s national register of conscientious objectors (accessible via the Imperial War Museums’ Lives of the First World War), 241 men in what is now Southwark refused the call up on grounds of conscience. Of these, 47 were absolutists.

The prison correspondence between Jones and his cousin Violet Tidman runs like a thread through my narrative. The letters are among Creech Jones’s papers in the Bodleian. They are there because he went on to become a Labour MP, serving as colonial secretary under Clement Attlee.

The branch secretary throughout the war was Sarah Cahill. Born in Ireland, in her early 50s and the wife or widow of a railway signalman, she had four children; her only son William was a conscientious objector. She had to travel in from Lewisham town centre to the weekly meetings in East Dulwich.

There, on Wednesday evenings, gatherings of some 25 listened to missives from head office, heard the imprisoned men’s letters read out and gave friendship and support to their families. Sarah Cahill and others made jail visits and reported back to head office. They lobbied MPs. In July 1917 the branch produced a smart buff-coloured booklet entitled What are Conscientious Objectors? which must have been used in local campaigning.

The branch organised regular rallies on nearby Peckham Rye; this was an established speaking ground, as noted by Charles Booth. They began with the introduction of conscription and continued until at least the end of 1917. The local press reported attendances at early demonstrations of between 200 and 300. After the first few months alas the papers chose to ignore anti-war activity: which was a problem in researching 1917-18.

The Dulwich booklet provides some interesting figures. Of the 75 men arrested up to the date of its publication, 27 were members of the ILP; a further 17 were ‘unattached socialists’. Quakers from the meeting house in Peckham were also a presence.

A second source of information about the branch comes from the memoirs of Clara Cole, entitled The Objectors to Conscription and War, published in 1936. A friend of Sylvia Pankhurst, she was a former suffragist. The memoir is disjointed, yet it conveys well the spirit and activity of the branch. The activists seem to have been mainly women.

Clara Cole pays tribute to Sarah Cahill, who ‘worked unceasingly in visiting prisoners, taking up any and every task possible…[She] “knew the ropes”, and mothered any sons besides her own’.

Although Southwark was the focus of my research, I set the local story in the wider context of the war so unlike other studies I also track the development of the anti-war movement over time. My two volumes are now available online, thanks to Sands Films in Rotherhithe. Click here to read them.

John Taylor is the author of Against the Tide: War-Resisters in South London 1914-16, and The Fight to a Finish: War-Resisters in South London and Beyond 1917-19. With degrees in German, French and social studies he turned to history in retirement.

Further reading

Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter, by Fenner Brockway, London: Allen & Unwin, 1949

Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism, by Graham Taylor, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2016

The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the Papers of Arthur Creech Jones.

Communities of Resistance: Conscience and Dissent in Britain during the First World War, by Cyril Pearce, London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020, is reviewed by Ad Knotter in Labour History Review Volume 86 (2021), Issue 2