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Work Centres

Following the public revelation of the treatment of these conscientious objectors in France in the summer of 1916, the Prime Minister promised in the House of Commons that such brutality would never reoccur and, as thousands were killing each other in the Battle of the Somme, a new policy came into force. Cases of all imprisoned conscientious objectors would be reviewed and those agreed as genuine would be released from prison provided they accepted to undertake work of national importance under the control of a new civilian committee in what came to be known at the Home Office Scheme. Any man who refused, or whose plea of conscience failed to satisfy the Tribunal, would be returned to complete his sentence in jail.

A rare photograph of Bible Students with some visiting family members at Princetown

The first settlement was at Dyce near Aberdeen. There, for ten hours every day except Sunday, Bible Students such as Rowland Jackson were expected to move stones in barrows from the mines to the crushing machines and then to the roads where they were needed for repairs. There were no proper buildings at Dyce. Men, thin and sickly after months of malnutrition and insufficient exercise in prison, returned after exhausting days in the mines to dilapidated tents, thrown out by the army as unusable. Soon, as autumm arrived, the settlement turned into a field of mud; clothes and blankets wet from the persistent rain, never dried. The situation became unworkable within 3 months. On 8 September 1916 a conscientious objector died of pneumonia at the camp. Following public concern by October 1916 the camp was closed.

Elsewhere conscientious objectors were sent to Wormwood Scrubs which started to be used as a feeder location in readiness for their transfer to the newly emerging Work Centres such as that at the former Wakefield Prison, now renamed the Wakefield Work Centre.

Figures provided by The Watchtower magazines in 1916 provide us with just a glimpse of what was happening to male Bible Students of conscription age in Britain at this time.

Date In prison as failed to obey military orders Work of National importance 'HO scheme' Accepted Non- Combatant status Exempt Total
June 40 - - - 40
July 60 60 20 - 140
August 58 103 20 - 181
October 82 154 23 5 264

When the Princetown Work Centre (formerly known as Dartmoor Prison) opened its doors to accommodate COs who had accepted the Home Office Scheme in March 1917, Bible Students were among the first inmates.

On 5th April 1917 (the date of Memorial of Christ's death) some 51 Bible Students met at 8 o'clock in the Non Conformist Chapel to commemorate the event. By the summer of that year, when the population of the Work Centre rose to 900, the Bible Student community numbered between 60 and 70. This figure rose steadily to "about 110" by January 1918 when the total COs at Dartmoor reached its peak of 1,100. Since the Bible Students represented less than 2% of the total COs during WW1, how could they have reached such a high proportion in the Work Centre? There are two possible reasons, each requiring further study.

Firstly the theology of the Bible Students was such that they readily accepted the Home Office scheme. In a letter sent from the British IBSA office to Prime Minister Asquith in mid June 1916 (so before 28 June 1916, when the Prime Minister announced the scheme) the IBSA acknowledged of their members that "their services are available for the public weal if permitted to undertake work apart from Military control." This was as consistent with their understanding of the Bible as was their determination not to fight. (2 Corinthians 10:3 and Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-2) The limited statistics available illustrate this willingness for it would appear that by June 1917 there were about 220 IBSA men doing 'work of National Importance'. It is known that 66 were given such work by the Tribunals as determined by the Pelham Committee. This implies that some 164 carried out their 'work of National Importance in connection with the Work Centres (such as those at Wakefield, Warwick, Knutsford & latterly Princetown). By contrast, the book "I Appeal to Caesar" (published in July 1917) lists just 6 IBSA men among the 817 COs who may be assumed to be men who had either refused the Scheme altogether or initially accepted it and then refused it (as some did).

Secondly, the political climate in the Work Centre was such that the Bible Students may have been seen as a steadying influence and welcomed by the Manager and staff. Among the COs at Princetown were individuals from a number of faiths, philosophies and political persuasions who were quite prepared to accept their situation and work hard to make the Home Office Scheme a success. However it is also well documented that an Anarchistic faction existed who were determined from the start to disrupt the Scheme from within. These argued and fought with the warders, went on go-slows, complained, often provoked by increasingly vituperative attacks in the newspapers. As a result of the disparateness of these men, the uneasy mix of their pasts and their beliefs, and the conditions in which they were now put, the Princetown work centre would never be an easy to survive in. No wonder one CO commented that 'Dartmoor was not a place where the angels flapped their wings.'

By contrast the Bible Students represented a group of men who were prepared to accept the situation they found themselves in as 'God's will' and therefore worked for the most part uncomplainingly, recognizing that "Dartmoor is as near heaven as London, or any other place of our earthly pilgrimage." Several wrote of being "thankful that we have been accounted worthy to suffer for Christ's sake" while it is recorded that many used their spare time in prayer, meditation and study." Others embraced opportunities to share their comfort with fellow companions in affliction from other religious bodies with the result that some are said to have joined the Bible Students while others just drew strength from their example. Of course the non-political stand of the Bible Students would at times be an irritation to some. Howard Marten, committee secretary of the No Conscription Fellowship, a group who genuinely tried make the HO scheme work for the good of the COs at the Work Centre, acknowledged that at Dartmoor there were "a big section of International Bible Students, Plymouth Brethren and others who, while excellent men individually, took little or no part in the political or social life of the settlement." A picture showing thirty seven of these "excellent" IBSA men, dated to May 1918, has survived.

Commenting on the wide variety of conscientious objectors in the camp, it is interesting that Harry Stanton stated that "we were a curiously assorted company ranging from Anarchists to International Bible Students." The contrast would seem to illustrate that the two were poles apart. As would later be true in the concentration camps of Europe, the Bible Students brought order, support and comfort within the settlement.

After the war ended the Work Centre numbers dwindled as COs were slowly released. In early 1919 the IBSA contingent had reduced to 24 in number, all of whom are known by name, consisting presumably of those who had joined the HO Scheme belatedly due to age or circumstance. The IBSA men were not just "excellent men individually" but also "excellent men" collectively.

Jenny Sanderson reminisced:

"My husband felt strongly about not taking any part in war and by taking such a course he was arrested. Even though he suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis he was put into prison, later being moved to spend a year in Dartmoor Prison breaking stones. To be near my husband I moved to Princetown on the moors, such beautiful scenery. I obtained a small room and with a few other wives of brothers also in Dartmoor Prison we tried to settle making wise use of our time there. The villagers were most bitter and hostile to us, even to the point of throwing things at us, but by displaying kindness and giving a witness when the opportunity arose we were able to make friends and not enemies.

With time there were a hundred brothers in the prison and when the weather was suitable they were allowed out for a short time, this time always used for having a meeting in the beautiful surroundings, on a hillside. It was like a bowl or amphitheatre; it rather reminded us of how the early Christians must have often met together out in the open. At the end of twelve months the brothers were released and we were able to return home."