Fighting for your Conscience

During the recent ‘Manchester Remembers’ event week at Manchester Central Library the Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society held a Handling Session to show the Disley Tribunal Papers. The Disley Service Tribunal papers consist of an (incomplete) set of documents from men who applied for exemption from military service after the introduction of conscription in 1916. During World War 1 tribunals were set up by the Local Registration Authorities to review applications for exemption to Military Service and we are lucky to have this box of archival material.

Exemption from Conscription

Grounds from exemption included those medically unfit, clergy, teachers, and certain classes of industrial workers.   Conscientious Objectors (CO’s) were also exempted, and were in most cases were given civilian jobs or non-fighting roles at the front. It is worth noting that there were several types of Conscientious Objectors:

  • Some were pacifists who were against war in general.
  • Some were political objectors who did not consider the government of Germany to be their enemy.
  • Some were religious objectors who believed that war and fighting was against their religion. Groups in this section were Quakers and Jehovah Witnesses.
  • A combination of any of the above groups.

CO’s whose arguments were rejected by the tribunals faced a difficult choice: did they answer the call for duty or wait to be arrested? Once drafted into the Army, men disobeying orders faced a court martial. Anyone who fled the front could be shot as a deserter.

In 1921, the Ministry of Health decided that all tribunal papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service and the tribunal minute books (except those of the Central Tribunal), should be destroyed and therefore the vast majority of files do not survive.   However, since then the Disley files have been happily residing at the Greenwood Grill until the renovation of Central Library when they were ‘re-discovered’.

The Disley Tribunal papers are a very interesting set of documents (though not complete).  At first glace they include some exemption forms from individuals, mainly for those employed by J. Makin & Co, a large paper manufacturer in Disley, they also include some agricultural exemption forms from local farmers, a small selection of exemptions for Colliery recruiting courts , a number of  ‘Notice of Hearing’ summaries with notations scribbled on them and a plethora of directives from government agencies. Until now we had thought that the Disley Tribunal papers did not contain any men who wanted exemption from military service as a conscientious objector, that is until now.

Whilst I was looking at some historic newspapers in order to find out more information about the Disley Tribunal I came across the name of George Benson.  The name rang a bell and I went back to the Disley Tribunal file and found a few papers with his name on clipped together with a rusty pin.

So,  just who was George Benson?

George Benson born May 3rd 1889 in Clifton, Lancashire and was the son of Thomas Duckworth Benson;  land agent, social activist in the Independent Labour Party, and Quaker, and his wife Ellen Maud Foy.  George was educated at Manchester Grammar School leaving at 17 to follow his father’s profession and establish himself in politics.  He crusaded for the Independant Labour Party in the North several years prior to 1914.  We can continue  to follow George Benson’s story through a number of sources (though there are gaps) –

Paperwork for George Benson in the Disley Tribunal Papers starts on 11th May  1916 with a notice of hearing:

tribunalimage1
Image 1: Disley Tribunal Paper, May 1916 – Manchester Central Library, GB127.MISC.1171.

Followed by this note to the Tribunal dated 17 May 1916:

tribunalimage2
Image 2: Note to Tribunal, May 1916 –  Manchester Central Library, GB127.MISC.1171.

And a memo from the Stockport & East Cheshire and District Appeals Tribunal to the Recruiting Officer, Stockport dated 20th May 1916 advising them that George Benson’s appeal was dismissed on  7th April 1916.

tribunalimage3
Image 3: Memo from Stockport & East Cheshire and District Appeals Tribunal to the Recruiting Officer, Stockport, 1916 – Manchester Central Library, GB127.MISC.1171.

Refuses to fight

We can pick up George’s story by looking at his Military Service record which I found on ancestry.co.uk.  Luckily George’s file was one of the few that survived the bombing raids in WW2 and subsequent water damage.  I was able to find 27 pages (!) which chronicles his story and this includes three witness statements about his refusal to follow a command. Here is the first page of his service record:

ancestry image1
Image 4: WW1 Military Service Record for George Benson, 1916 – Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives and Ancestry.co.uk.

Newspaper reports

A series of high profile newspaper reports appeared with regard to Benson’s  claims of ill treatment and torture when court-martialed against disobedience to parade.  Part of his objection during the trial was that an officer from the 3rd Cheshire Regiment was selected as part of the court to sit on his case.

Example from the Manchester Guardian October 4th 1916:

Newspaper Article 1

Newspaper Article 2
Image 5: Exert from the Manchester Guardian, October 4th, 1916 – Copyright the Manchester Guardian.

The various articles which can be found on this case outline that Benson had been granted exemption from combatant service by the Disley Tribunal and he had appealed this decision at the Stockport Tribunal. He then applied for a revision on his exemption and to be granted alternative service. The appeal was then dismissed and his certificate for non-combatant service taken away. He was arrested on August 14th and handed over to the Military Authorities on  September 14th,1916.  He was  first put into the Lancashire Fusiliers but when an officer heard that he was a Conscientious Objector (CO) his transfer to the Cheshire Regiment was arranged. He overheard an officer say that they would process him more quickly there.  He was moved the same day to Birkenhead and told that they would “break him”, “tame him”.

It was here that George Benson incurred cruel treatment when he refused to drill on 22nd September 1916.  He was kicked in the ankles whilst having his rifle hung around his neck on a thin string, forcibly drilled and beaten. Benson had demanded a court-martial but his demands had been ignored.

George’s fate was finally revealed  to me on this page of his service record which confirms his future and the final outcome of the Military Court Martial.

ancestryimage2
Image 6: WW1 Military Service Record for George Benson, 1916 – Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives and Ancestry.co.uk.

What happened next?

After his famous trial and conviction he was sentenced to spend two years in Wormwood Scrubs from 24/10/1916 to 13/10/1918. He was then transferred to ‘W’ class reserve and sent to the Conscientious Objectors work centre  in Wakefield, Yorkshire. This place held 600 CO’s and originally had been earmarked for Irish revolutionaries before the war.  Benson was finally discharged on 31st March 1920.

George had previously been the Treasurer of the National Administrative Council of the Independent Labour party but resigned in 1924 after he was invited to contest the Chesterfield seat as a Socialist candidate at the next election.  Toppling the Liberals he was elected with a majority vote to become the MP for Chesterfield 1929. He held this seat until 1931, he then regained it once again in  1935-1964.  Benson became an author on financial matters and wrote a book on the history of Socialsim. He was chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform and became a member of the Home Office Advisory Council on delinquency. In 1937 he was seriously injured in a road accident along with his wife Marjorie while his brother Thomas was killed.

Ironically, he was Knighted in 1958 for services to the Government after representing the Labour Party for 22 years.  He had been both chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the Library Committee in Parliament. His obituary in the Times stated that “..he became a pacifist, a prison reformer, and one of the leaders in the campaign against corporal punishment”.  His experiences in prison during the First World War led him to become a leader of reform, which became one of the greatest purposes of this life.  George Benson died aged 84 in Surrey on 17th  August 1973.

NPG x165038; Sir George Benson by Walter Bird
Image 7: George Benson, 1959 – Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London.

References:

Original papers related to the papers of the local Disley Military Service Tribunal can be found at Central Library Archives at www.gmlives.org.uk   Papers of the Disley Local Military Service Tribunal GB127.MISC/1171

WW1 Military Service records available on www.ancestry.co.uk

Stories of military tribunals can be searched on British Newspapers online at: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Archives Plus have a selection of the Disley Tribunal papers on flickr:
https://www.flickr.com/search?sort=relevance&text=disley%20tribunal

The Times Digital Archive: “Sir George Benson.” Times [London, England] 22 Aug. 1973: 16. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.