Conscientious objector graffiti to be preserved

Hundreds of graffiti on left on the walls of Richmond Castle by conscientious objectors during World War I will be preserved by English Heritage, thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Richmond Castle was built a few years after the Battle of Hastings by the Alan Rufus, a relative of William the Conqueror’s and the 1st Lord of Richmond. The remains of a hall block from the 1080s still stand, the most surviving 11th century architecture of any castle in England. In 1854 the Duke of Richmond leased the castle, many parts of it now derelict, to the North York Militia. Barracks were constructed against the western wall and a reserve armory built near the castle gate.

It was the 19th century armory which was put to use in World War I as a prison for conscientious objectors after conscription began in 1916. The castle was occupied by the northern Non-Combatant Corps, a support unit which allowed people with religious or moral objections to killing to serve in non-combatant roles. That didn’t work for all the objectors, 16 of whom wanted no part of the war effort, combatant or no. In theory the conscription law had a “conscience clause” which allowed people with pacifist religious beliefs to be exempt from combat, but in practice exemptions were very hard to come by. Even members of a church denomination like the Quakers which had strictly upheld the principle of non-violence for hundreds of years at times under extreme persecution and duress, faced arrest and imprisonment.

The Richmond Sixteen included people from different Christian denominations — Quakers, Methodists, International Bible Students (renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931) — and socialists. They were kept in eight small, damp cells on two floors of the old armory. Often they were forced to subsist on bread and water. They kept their spirits up by singing, discussing religion and politics, playing chess through a hole in the wall and decorating the walls that confined them with hundreds of graffiti. There are Bible verses, portraits of loved ones, hymns, political statements, a calendar and more.

The Richmond Sixteen were moved from the castle on May 29th, 1916, to a military camp near Boulogne in France. As soon as they stepped foot on the camp, they were officially considered on active duty, which meant they would be subject to harsh military justice should they refuse to follow orders. Since everyone knew they weren’t going to follow any orders, the move to France was basically a gun to their head. When they declined to schlep supplies at the dock when ordered, they were court-martialed, found guilty and “sentenced to suffer death by being shot.” Their sentences were quickly commuted to 10 years’ hard labour.

It turned out that Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had issued a secret order that none of the conscientious objectors in France were to be shot. He didn’t want them dead; he wanted people to think the military wouldn’t hesitate to shoot COs to death as a deterrent to anyone else thinking of asking for an exemption from service.

When the COs were shipped back to England, they had sentences to serve in civil prisons and work centers. For the rest of the war the Richmond Sixteen busted up rocks in a quarry near Aberdeen where the local newspapers referred to them as “degenerates.” When they were finally released, the “conscies” were widely reviled as cowards and treated with contempt. Finding a job and a place to live was a huge challenge.

The graffiti they left on the walls of their Richmond Castle cells has survived for a hundred years, but conditions have been as unkind to it as people were to their creators. The 19th century armory was built lime-washed walls that were never intended to last. Water is leaking in through cracks in the roof and walls. Salts in the lime react to moisture, crystallizing and lifting the lime layer off the wall behind. As the lime flakes off, it takes the graffiti with it.

The Buildings Conservation and Research Team at Historic England have been studying the site since 2014, documenting temperature and humidity levels, analyzing the walls and wash, pinpointing the most threatened areas. They have laser scanned the walls and captured the graffiti with high resolution photographs. They didn’t have the funding to do the necessary repairs and conservation until this year. From 2016 to 2018, English Heritage will spend £365,400 to repair the roof and walls, stop the water penetration and treat the graffiti in greatest danger. Once the walls have been stabilized enough to ensure people’s breath won’t harm the artwork, the cells will be open to the general public for the first time in 30 years.

For more information about the Richmond Sixteen, the graffiti and the castle, see English Heritage’s website. Here are two short videos they made with fine shots of the interior.

Conserving the graffiti:

Inside the cells:

8 thoughts on “Conscientious objector graffiti to be preserved

  1. A truly wonderful idea. It will commemorate and highlight a dreadful interlude in British military history, one of which the political hierarchy should have been ashamed. Victims of a system which should never have been allowed to develop to the point were innocent men were vilified and castigated.

    Ray Lewis

  2. I find it disgusting that people with religious or moral objections to killing were gaoled in brutal conditions and threatened with execution. As recently as 1916!! The conscription law, which had a conscience clause which allowed people with pacifist religious beliefs to be exempt from combat, was worth sod all 🙁

    If the Non-Combatant Corps did not work for everyone, I would have come up with alternatives eg to work on farms with only army pay for 2 years, ensuring that food was in plentiful supply for civilians.

  3. Anyone who didn’t want to fight in 1914-18 could easily find a place for themselves in the RAMC or the Red Cross or the YMCA. To enjoy the protection and benefits of a free society and then be unwilling to even contribute to humanitarian work in its legitimate defense is to be a parasite, or of course a coward, and every society has its share of those. Sadly they always seem to survive while their betters die in their defense.

    1. Do you have a source for the claim that conscientious objectors could avoid conscription by working for non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA? As for the notion that someone who does not want to kill or be part of the support network for killing is a coward, I think that’s obviously belied by the hardships they sustained as a result of their stance. They had easier options.

      I don’t know that it’s accurate that most wars in general and World War I in particular can be described as “a legitimate defense of a free society.” World War I was driven more by an arms race and series of diplomatic clusterfucks of dramatic proportions than by a principled stand against tyranny, imo.

  4. livius drusus: since you asked, conscription was only introduced in the UK in 1916. The war had been going on for almost two years at that point with only voluntary enlistments. Anyone who wished could volunteer for whatever branch of service they cared to during that time, combatant or not. The notion you refer to is not found in my post incidentally; perhaps that was how you read it though? “The network of killing…”, whatever that may be I’m not sure; human nature perhaps? As for the reasons why the war occurred, principally the German mentality, the same reason the second one occurred. The British government bent over backwards to avoid war and the German government did everything possible to bring it about. You can be sure that the cells at Richmond Castle were an utter paradise compared to the trenches. The “socialist” countries of course wasted no time with such scrupulous individuals; they were sent straight to the penal battalions. Of course in 1916 socialist illusions were as yet unshattered.

    1. I am aware of when conscription began, as indeed I noted in my post, but you said that “anyone who didn’t want to fight in 1914-1918” could volunteer for the Red Cross etc. as if that were an alternative to conscription. When conscription went into effect, men working for the YMCA were drafted too. I have no information on what work the Richmond 16 were doing before they were arrested. I doubt you do either, so it seems a groundless assumption that they weren’t doing anything to “contribute to humanitarian work.” Quakers, for instance, have a very strong tradition of humanitarian efforts, even to the point of risking their own lives. They just don’t want to kill or support other people killing. I disagree that adhering to such a principle is the equivalent of enjoying “the protection and benefits of a free society” without contributing in turn. Quakers played an enormous role in creating a free society, in fact, thanks to their fearless fight against slavery. That’s the opposite of parasitism and cowardice.

  5. You are correct I suppose that anyone who had sat on their hands from 1914 to 1916 had run out of time when conscription was introduced, unless they got themselves into a “preferred occupation” exempt from conscription, as uncounted thousands did. It was well known that conscription was coming, so anyone who wished to could have availed themselves of the alternatives before then. Moral courage is always admirable, when it is truly that and not merely a fig leaf for self-preservation or an opportunity for grand-standing, or a combination of the two. It would probably be wise to maintain a degree of healthy scepticism regarding the motivations and mentalities of “conscientious objectors”, just as it would those of other inclinations.

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