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Conscience of Haringey? The 350 men who said no to World War One

The Haringey First World War Peace Forum (HFFWPF), a community group based in north London, has been mapping the biographies of 350 of the borough’s men who objected to serving in the First World War for moral, political or religious reasons.

Conscientious objectors SAS
The Haringey First World War Peace Forum (HFFWPF)

These men had to apply to a local tribunal, which would hear each case and decide whether to grant an exemption. While most of the official records in the UK have been destroyed, some of the Haringey files survived.

They provide rare insights into the lives of a group of people who were at odds with their government, and some of their biographies are accessible on the Layers of London website. This is a digital project run by the Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The groundbreaking online map allows people to understand and share different aspects of London’s history.

The HFFWPF, has uncovered no less than 31 sets of brothers in Haringey who were conscientious objectors during the Great War. Among the most notable are the Walker brothers, five young men, in a family of eight siblings, aged between 33 and 16, who in 1916 all refused to enlist or to obey any military orders. 

On being arrested, they were treated so harshly that their situation led to questions being asked in the House of Commons. The uncovered records show that the oldest of the brothers, Charles, wrote to their sister Annie: ‘The details of abuse, entreaty and physical violence are too numerous to mention. We were made to stand to attention by ourselves for one and a half hours under broiling sun. Harry [his youngest brother] tottered and fainted.’ They did not give in. All served repeated prison sentences with hard labour until they were released, with other conscientious objectors (COs), in April 1919.

Joanna Bornat from HFWWPF says that ‘Online mapping of this collection of material has shown us that it was often proximity that led to ideas such as these spreading, and Haringey had a long tradition of political dissent which meant that the anti-war movement had many supporters.’

The records show that traditions of dissent are strongest when supported by families or neighbours. But why Haringey? The concentration of COs in north London was higher than in the rest of the country and these networks included Quakers, Christadelphians, and socialists. Refusal to enlist took a great deal of courage, and accounts of these histories illustrate a side of the war, which has not had much recognition nationally or locally. A plaque, commemorating Haringey’s 350 conscientious objectors will be installed in May 2019.