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Rare archives shed light on conscription during WWI

Stories of conscientious objectors and how bakers, butchers and farmworkers fought conscription are amongst a rare collection of Military Appeal Tribunal records being published for the first time.

Conscription was first used by the armed forces in 1916 and those who sought exemption were brought in front of Military tribunals to make their case. After the war, the Ministry of Health ordered that all tribunal records be destroyed, but an oversight meant Staffordshire’s collection survived.

Now, exactly one hundred years later, Staffordshire & Stoke-on-Trent Archive and Heritage Service have published this rare collection, making them available online.

It’s believed the tribunals were held in County Buildings in Stafford and the records were hidden away there only to be discovered many decades later.

Over 20,000 individual cases for the Local and Appeal Tribunals reveal the lives of the men called up to service and the stresses and strain it had on work and family life. Reasons provided by applicants are varied, including moral grounds, medical, family and on economic grounds.

Jack Basham, aged 23 was a conscientious objector. He said:

I hold life to be sacred and cannot conscientiously perform any task which will directly or indirectly help to make the machinery of war more efficient. I would not take the military oath and will suffer any penalties which are put on me.”

The Local Tribunal were not satisfied that he honestly objected to combatant service and he was later sentenced to nine months hard labour at a court martial.

George Astles was a van driver at a local bakery in St Edward’s Street in Leek. Bakery owner Jane Maskery said the business – and the people living in the surrounding area – would suffer if he was now called up as most of her staff had gone to war.

She said:

He is my van man and in my business it is absolutely necessary to have one. I supply bread to about 18 shops in town and country. When not on his rounds with the van he is otherwise fully employed in assisting me generally. My staff has suffered considerable depletion, three being now with the colours.

Herbert Roe was granted exemption seven times on various grounds, including carrying out work of ‘national importance’ as a carrier. But a Yoxall woman, Sarah Hay, wrote to County Buildings in 1918 to accuse Herbert of being a skiver while other men in worse conditions served in the forces.

She wrote:

He is simply using the carrying business as an excuse for keeping out of the army. He has just brought a cow three weeks ago for nothing, only as an excuse if he should be called up. The men off the farms have had to go although they were working seven days a week on agriculture while he is left to strut about the roads like a gentleman.

Gill Heath is the Cabinet Member responsible for archives at Staffordshire county Council. Gill said:

This is a fascinating collection of records that offer a real insight into the lives of those fighting conscription one hundred years ago.

In almost every other area of the country these records were destroyed, so we’re very lucky to have them. This collection is of great interest both here in Staffordshire and nationally and having them available digitally means people from across the world can search through them. I would like to say a big thanks to our team of volunteers who made it possible.”

David Langrish, Head of Public History at The National Archives, said:

The papers of Military Service Tribunals from the First World War provide a direct insight into how this exceptional conflict impacted on individuals, families, local communities and businesses at home.

Given the destruction of many records across England, Wales and Scotland after the war, the discovery and release of such a rare collection of case papers in Staffordshire will add significantly to our understanding of Home Front life, and the challenges and demands during this very unique period of British history.”

Thanks to a £37,600 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, awarded in 2014, the collection has been preserved.  Vanessa Harbar, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands, said:

HLF is pleased to have supported the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archives to preserve this important collection. Thanks to National Lottery players, these valuable archives about individual appeals against being conscripted into the forces will now be preserved for years to come.”

Conscription led to some 1.35 million Britons being called up. In the Stafford sub-area, Eustace Joy was appointed as Military Representative. Between 1916 and 1918 he appealed against over 200 exemptions issued by the Local Tribunal, often arguing that it was not in the national interest that individuals remain in civil employment.

The project was supported by a team of over 50 volunteers giving 4,000 volunteering hours.

People can search the records online at http://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/ and request copies of the documents.  The story will also be retold in a new exhibition featuring examples of appeal records and recreated audio recordings of the hearings told by students from Stafford College. The exhibition is set to tour the region. For dates and venues visit www.staffordshire.gov.uk/archives.  People can also follow the story on the blog at https://staffsappeals1918.wordpress.com/.

***Link to photos and images of the appeal records***


Notes to editors:

Filming opportunities and interviews available on request.

Selection of records from across the county:

Burton area: Application No. 1334 – Vale Rawlings

Vale Rawlings, a self-employed green grocer from Burton on Trent, was interested in politics from an early age. Having joined the International Labour Party in 1904, by 1911 he had become a founding member of the Burton branch of the Workers Union. He was heavily involved in obtaining fairer wages for female factory workers, and subsequently imprisoned following a strike in 1914, charged with assaulting a police officer. At 4’11” tall and weighing 7 stone, Rawlings was variously described as knocking off the officer’s hat (he was 6’ tall and weighed 15 stone) or throwing him 23 yards.

In June 1916, Rawlings submitted an application to the Birmingham Local Tribunal for absolute exemption on the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service, which was granted until September 1916.

The Burton on Trent Local Tribunal heard a further application in March 1917 where they granted exemption from combatant service only, saying the grounds for absolute exemption had not been established and that their decision of non-combatant service “properly met” the case. This decision was upheld by the Appeal Tribunal.

Before his appeal to the Central Tribunal could be considered, the army took action.  Rawlings was arrested on 9 April and charged with being absent from the army without leave.  He was fined £3 and handed over to the military authorities. A week later, he was arrested for failing to go on parade and at a court martial he was sentenced to two years hard labour. Between May and July he went to Wormwood Scrubs prison where a Central Tribunal hearing categorised him as a Class A, conscientious objector.  Rawlings was transferred to Dartmoor prison to participate in schemes of civilian work, but on 17 September (after 160 days of service) he was medically discharged from the army as no longer fit for War Service.


Cannock area: Application No. 383 – Samuel Stevens

Samuel Stevens from Heath Hayes had suffered from epileptic fits from birth, but despite this he worked as a colliery surface banksman. In April 1916 an application for exemption was submitted by his employer R. Williamson, Managing Director for the Cannock & Rugeley Colliery Company Limited.

“With the present difficulty of transport of coal by rail, the use of canal boats is absolutely necessary and pressure has been put on by the Board of Trade.”

However the local Tribunal refused exemption stating;

“The injustice of refusing exemption to married men and single men in other occupations, and in some cases causing serious hardship, while young men can be boat loading and exempted, seems and obvious unfairness”

On the 12th June, 1917, Samuel was conscripted into the army, joining the 297th Company, Labour Corps. He was sent to York Barracks and on the 21st July 1917 had an epileptic fit. He was examined and it transpired that he had fits up to 3 times per day. After one fit he became mentally unresponsive, stammering and uncertain. On this basis, Samuel was discharged as being medically unfit for service and sent home.

On the 4th February 1918 Samuel died at the age of 27. His body was buried with full military honours, a gun carriage carrying his body, with his bayonet, sword and union flag on the coffin. The Durham Light Infantry provided both a military band and buglers who played the Last Post. The Reverend W. H. Fletcher conducted the service at St. Johns Parish Church, Heath Hayes.


Leek area: Jane Maskery – Appellant

Between 1916 and 1918 Jane Maskery applied to the Leek Local Tribunal for the exemption of four employees including her grandson Frank Maskery a foreman baker and manager, James Henry Coe (third from right) a bread baker, Joseph Scott (second from right), also a bread baker and George Astles a van man.

Jane who was 74 in 1916, had recently taken over the running of the bakery and provision dealers at Gladstone Street in Leek, from her husband who had passed away in 1913. In her applications she repeatedly claimed it to be the oldest in the town, having been established in 1796, and the sole manufacturer of the celebrated Leek gingerbread.

“In addition to a large general trade 12 other retail shops in Leek and 6 in the county are supplied and contracts for the supply to other similar shops have had to be refused.”

Having already lost three employees to the colours in December 1916, Jane argued that there was now no-one to replace the workers she had left. George, Frank and Joseph were given numerous temporary exemptions until the end of 1918 when the Military Representative submitted a request for the withdrawal of their exemption certificates. James’ application for exemption was dismissed by the tribunal in 1917.

Jane did not live long after the War, passing away in October 1922. It is unknown what happened to James Coe, but Frank Maskery lived until November 1943, Joseph Scott until June 1942 and George Astles until March 1947, all still living in Leek,


Stafford area: Application No. 417 – William Archibald Wright

William Archibald Wright, a Brick Works and Stone Quarry manager from Radford, appealed against the outcome of his local tribunal once, in June 1916. He had applied for a conditional exemption believing that it was in the national interests that he stayed in his certified occupation, and also on grounds of domestic hardship.

“The applicant is the support of an invalid widowed mother who is bedfast with an improbable cancer. It is necessary that the applicant’s sister should remain at home in order to attend to the peculiar treatment of his mother’s disease. In order to support both, the applicant has to pay out £75 per year without receiving board or lodgings out of same. Other expenses have to be paid such as doctors’ fees, specialist charges and other payments beyond above amount. The applicant is doing work of national importance, most of the work being for H. M. War Office or Ministry of Munitions.”

William’s application was dismissed on the grounds that no serious hardship would arise as assistance could be given under the Military Service Civil Liabilities Regulations, therefore he was not indispensable.


Tamworth area: Application No. 169 – George Furness

George Furness was born around 1877. On 1881 census George appears as the son of Robert (31) and Mary Ann (27) Furness living in Sheepy Magna Atherstone.  Georges’, father Robert was a groom.

In 1916, George Furness was employed as a chauffeur at Thorpe Hall by Mrs. Mary Inge who signed his appeal for military exemption.

Mary Caroline Inge was born in Grosvenor St London in November 1866, the sole surviving daughter of The Hon Mary Russell, Baroness de Clifford and William Oakeley owner of the lucrative Oakeley Quarry at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  His main home was Cliffe House in Atherstone and in April 1893 Mary married a near neighbor, William Frederick Inge of Thorpe Constantine Hall. –  An imposing Georgian mansion. (Pictures of this in Wm Salt Library)  The marriage was foreshortened by the death of Mary’s husband in January 1903 after less than 10 years of marriage, leaving the widowed Mary with 3 daughters, Margaret 8, Hilda 4 and Edith 16 months

Mary Inge continued to live at Thorpe Constantine Hall employing a formidable array of servants, including a governess for the girls, a nursemaid, cook-housekeeper, lady’s maid, various footmen, laundresses, kitchen maids, gardeners, grooms and a chauffeur. She subsequently became Master of Foxhounds to the Atherstone Hunt and cut a formidable figure in the local community.  She died at Thorpe Constantine Hall in November 1961 just 6 days after her 96th birthday.  Her estate was valued at £55,910 5s 10d.

On his application for exemption, George stated “nature absolute exemption is desired.  Having perfect knowledge of the whole of the Atherstone country gained by life experience, Mrs. Inge MFH (Master of Fox Hounds) would have great difficulty in finding a chauffeur to take my place.  And without a proper substitute, she would find it next to impossible to hunt the Atherstone country”. The Tribunal appeal on 3rd April 1916 noted that George had already been put back 10 groups to give his employer time to try and fill his place with a man ineligible for military service.  His employer admitted that no steps had been taken to find another man.  George Furness’s appeal was dismissed on 3rd April 1916 with one further month’s exemption given “to complete the hunting season.”

It has proved impossible to trace George’s war record.   It would also appear that George never married.  However, when he died on 17 September 1956 aged 77 he was living at  The Lodge farm, Stoke Golding, Leicestershire and probate was granted to Dorothy Gilbert, married woman,  effects £1275 9s 9d.


Lichfield area: Application No. 32 & 707. Cyril Jarman

Jarman was a 24 year old Candidate for Holy Orders, studying at Lichfield Theological College.  He appealed in March 1916 saying if he completed his studies, the Bishop was prepared to ordain him in Advent and this was permissible within the Army Council Regulations for the exemption of those preparing to enter the Ministry.  He also claimed that, as a future priest, he had a “legitimate” conscientious objection to combatant service as “I am bound to believe in the sacredness of human life” and the Church had always recognised the incompatibility of the shedding of blood with the preparation for the Ministry.

By a majority decision, the local tribunal rejected his appeal claiming their interpretation of the Army Council Instructions of February 1916, allowed exemption only for those to be ordained at Trinity (i.e. mid-year) and not later.  They also rejected his claim to exemption on grounds of conscience because an objection to combatant service was not an article of faith in the Church to which he belonged.

Mr Jarman appealed the decision on two grounds.  First, the local tribunal had wrongly interpreted the Army Council Regulations and second, to deny his grounds of conscience because of the position of his church was to deny him personal religious convictions.  He submitted a letter from the Bishop of Lichfield, supporting his view of the Regulations and asking if the tribunal couldn’t accept that view, would they consider sending Mr Jarman into the Medical Corps.  The tribunal agreed exemption on condition he was ordained by 25 December 1916.

In September 1916, Captain Thorpe, the Military Representative, sought a review of the case because of a change of Regulations concerning theological students.  There is no record of a formal decision by tribunal, but the matter was considered informally by Sir Reginald Hardy, Chairman of the appeal tribunal who wrote to the Clerk saying he saw no reason to change the original decision.  There was also a further letter from the Bishop saying he hoped the tribunal would confirm the exemption, but also that this was an exception and, in general, he was in favour of theological students “taking up military service”, thus affirming the local tribunal’s view of the Church of England’s position.


Newcastle area: Application No. 1317. John Fairweather

John was probably the 4th of the 6 children of John and Selina Fairweather (nee Goodall) all of whom were born in Swynnerton, Staffordshire.   Unfortunately their details are missing from the 1911 census.

Like many others. John married his sweetheart, Hilda Mary Hancock in the wedding boom year of 1915.  In 1911 Hilda was working as house parlour maid to the Cadman family living at The Cloughs a large 20 roomed house in the Clayton district of Newcastle-under-Lyme.  Hilda who was born in Burslem on 7 February 1892 had lost her father when she was a small child.

At the time of John’s application to be exempted military service in February 1917, he and Hilda already had one child.  His appeal was based on the grounds that he caught between 300-400 rabbits a week and thereby provided a valuable and essential service in ameliorating the damage done to the local farmer’s crops and was endorsed by the signatures of 10 local farmers.  The Tribunal decided that a rabbit catcher was not essential at the present time and John’s appeal was refused.

Unfortunately no records of John’s war service can be found, but he lived to the age of 82, Hilda following him in Dec 1978 aged 86.


Uttoxeter area: Application No. 151. Colin Cooper Goodwin

Collin Goodwin, aged 25 was from Market Place, Uttoxeter and in 1916 he was the manager of a Wine and Spirits business. Colling did not attest to join the colours in 1915, and attended a Local Tribunal at Uttoxeter in March 1916, on grounds of conscientious objection to military service. Collin believed that the Local Tribunals verdict of non-combatant service did not fully meet his objections – even though his brother was working in munitions.

In April 1916, Collin went before the Appeal Tribunal in Stafford, again basing his case on conscientious and religious grounds, quoting religious scripture to emphasise his beliefs.

“The servant of the Lord must not strive but be gentle to all men” (2 Timothy 2.24)  “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal”  (2 Cor. 10.3-5)  In obedience to the command of the Government I do hereby beg to state the grounds of my conscientious objection to military service.  By military service I mean military service in the widest sense of the term, that is to say, every form of service involving the taking of the military oath, or affirmation or attestation, or its equivalent, under the Military Authorities in connection with war or war work.  As a man purchased by the blood I dare not place myself in any position where I could not say daily and hourly “Lord what wilt thou have me to do (Acts 9.6).  The Military oath would take me entirely out of this position by placing me at the absolute disposal of the Military authorities.  I am willing however to serve the King in any non-combatant capacity which does not involve the oath referred to. That is to say I would not object to working in munitions, boots, uniforms, etc as may be suggested.  On these grounds and under these special and exceptional circumstances I respectfully beg to claim a complete and unconditional certificate of exemption from military service which you have the power to grant and to which I am entitled in virtue of the provisions of the Act relating to conscientious objectors as interpreted and explained by Mr Long in the Local Government Board instructions issued on February 4 1916 explaining the application of the Act where it expressly states that “in exceptional cases in which the genuine convictions or circumstances of the man are such that neither exemption from combatant service nor a conditional exemption will adequately meet the case, absolute exemption may be granted in these cases if the Tribunal are fully satisfied of the facts” – a provision which gives effect to the assurance of Mr Asquith in his speech reported January 6 that the Government had taken every care “to secure that no one should come under the obligation created by the Bill unless he has no reasonable ground for not responding to his Country’s call”.

Non-thee-less, the tribunal still passed Collin for non-combatant service. Military records show that by May, Collin was serving with the Northern Coy, Non-Combatant Corps in France. However he was back to home in Uttoxeter in January 1919.


Yoxall area:

In a letter sent to Eustace Joy at the County Buildings in 1918, Sarah Hay from Yoxall argued against the exemption given to one local man;

“As a lifetime resident of Yoxall I should like to draw your attention to the way poorer people around here are being served as regards [to] getting a few necessities carried from Burton by the carrier Mr. Roe. He is simply using the carrying business as an excuse for keeping out of the army for he makes common talk of giving it up as soon as the war is over. If anyone asks him to bring a bit of a thing that they cannot get in the village they very often either get refused or get their head snapped off. He is only going twice a week to Burton whereas he was exempted on condition that he went three times. He has just brought a cow three weeks ago for nothing, only as an excuse if he should be called up. I along with many other people in the Parish think that he should be made to fulfil the terms of his exemption or join up like our own men have had to do, although plenty of them are older than he is. The men off the farms have had to go although they were working seven days a week on agriculture while he is left to strut about the roads like a gentleman.”

Herbert Roe was granted exemption seven times between 1916 and 1918 on various grounds including certified occupation, domestic hardship, illness and doing work of national importance as a carrier, small holder and miller.


Case 146 – Jack Basham was a 23 year old unemployed salesman who sought absolute exemption on the grounds of having been a lifelong opponent of war, a member of the Independent Labour Party and a member of the No Conscription Fellowship.  The local tribunal were not satisfied that he honestly objected to combatant service or that his objection rested on either religious or moral convictions.  They dismissed his case.

For his appeal, Mr. Basham wrote that he would suffer the penalties of the law rather than act contrary to his conscience and believed the law was on his side.

“I hold life to be sacred and cannot conscientiously perform any task which will directly or indirectly help to make the machinery of war more efficient. I have a horror of war and am of such a weak constitution that the very sight of suffering will unnerve me. I would not take the military oath and will suffer any penalties which are put on me.”

His appeal was dismissed in April 1916; in December he was arrested, and a Court Martial sentenced him to nine months hard labour.  Subsequently, he was involved in another Court Martial for desertion and disobedience, a central tribunal at Wormwood Scrubs, a period in Newcastle Prison and ended up in Dartmoor on the Home Office  Scheme for prisoners of conscience.