Bentham’s Conscientious Objectors

by David Johnson and Trevor Blackwell

The subject of Conscientious Objectors, even a century later, can still rouse strong emotions.  My problem is that I can always see both sides of an argument and this sometimes makes it difficult for me to make decisions. The Conscientious Objectors of WW1 had no such qualms and stood against the state and overwhelming prejudices to defend their principles.  Most of Britain’s population at that time stood firmly behind the war effort and Conscientious Objectors had a very difficult time often resulting in abuse and even ostracism.

Considering the size of the population Bentham had an unusually large number of objectors. There are 31 listed below. Trevor Blackwell provided me with an extensive list based on the work of Cyril Pearce and one or two names have been added since then. If you know of others please contact me on 61905. The information Trevor provided gave me cause to look into the subject.

The Bentham movement was strong because of the influence of the Quakers and particularly the support provided by Charles Ford, the owner of Low Bentham Silk Mill.  A surprising number of Quakers (or Friends) of Calf Cop Meeting House in Low Bentham were employed at the mill and several were exempted from military service because the work of the mill was deemed to be of national importance. Charles Ford held ‘classes’ for those seeking exemption.  Some exemptions were made to ‘non-combatants’ who worked in agriculture but apart from that all others were expected to contribute to the war effort, often serving in military hospitals, the Friends Ambulance Unit or on hospital ships.

An example of this was Wilcock Bryan Whittaker (see photograph). He worked on Quaker Hospital Train 17 carrying the wounded from the front line to hospitals in northern France. Other organisations, usually staffed by women, provided support for those who refused military service notably the No-Conscription Fellowship.

Applications for exemption seem to have been dealt with by a tribunal in Settle. Most Conscientious Objectors accepted some form of alternative service, but refused to do anything which supported the war effort.  These ‘absolutists’ as they were called caused the authorities a lot of trouble by ignoring the directive of the Tribunal if their application for exemption was rejected. On having been sent to barracks they often refused to comply with commands.

Richard Marsden Hodgson, a farmer from Mewith Head Hall, was arrested in June 1916 and tried at Hornby.  He was court-martialled four times and eventually served 18 months hard labour at Winchester Prison. Frank Havergill Whittaker of Ebenezer Mount was arrested after his appeal was dismissed. He was court-martialled at Richmond Castle and was punished with a sentence of 112 days in Durham Prison. Thomas Ernest Whitfield of Collingwood House was court-martialled and sentenced to one year in Wormwood Scrubs. Finally it is worth mentioning the case of William Towler of Moulterbeck who obviously defied the authorities at every turn and was court-martialled at Richmond Castle, Leicester and Durham with a sentence of hard labour.

So far the list of Bentham’s Conscientious Objectors comprises:

Edward E. Bibby, William Bruce, Sam Bruce, James Stanley Carr, Fred Crossley, George Cumberland, Stephen Cumberland, William Cumberland, Thomas Davey (Davies), Charles Rawlinson Ford,  Joseph Grime, Philip Harvey, Richard Marsden Hodgson, Bernard Holmes, Edward Holmes, William Hutchinson, Richard Jackson, Charles Edward Knowles, Thomas Knowles, Robert Marshall, Norman Swain, James Towler, John Towler, Stephen Towler, William Towler, Frank (Francis) Whitfield, Thomas Ernest Whitfield, Frank Havergill Whitaker, Wilcock Bryan Whittaker, John T Wilshaw and Howard Wilson.

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