World War One: Wandsworth Prison's conscientious objectors

Prisoners at Wandsworth prison Image copyright Wandsworth Prison Museum
Image caption Conscientious objectors were housed alongside other prisoners in Wandsworth Prison

During World War One the population at London's Wandsworth Prison grew as conscientious objectors were jailed. Many "conchies", as they were called, did not let being behind bars dilute their opposition to the conflict.

Frank Merrick spent two years in prison after refusing to fight, but clearly never regretted it.

"When conscription was ordained, I was absolutely determined to have no part in it," he said, in recordings made by the Imperial War Museum in 1974.

"I became quite convinced that I would much rather be shot than shoot anybody else."

Mr Merrick, a pianist, decided to become a conscientious objector to the conflict and as well as Wandsworth Prison, he also served time in Wormwood Scrubs.

'Shock treatment'

He was one of some 16,000 conscientious objectors who took a stand against conscription laws, which led to 2.5m more British troops going to war, from 1916 onwards.

Stewart McLaughlin, honorary curator of the Wandsworth Prison museum and a serving prison officer, said imprisonment was meant to be a deterrent.

"Initial sentences were fairly short, I think to give a short sharp shock treatment, saying look you can either do this or go into uniform," he said.

"[But] those who were not put off by spells of imprisonment simply got longer and longer sentences."

As the prison population in Wandsworth grew throughout 1916 though, discipline in the jail started to break down.

A case in point was George Frederick Dutch, who refused to fight on religious grounds.

"The sergeant ordered me to fall in and I wouldn't fall in, so he said to the other two men that were with him go on push him in," he said, also taking to the Imperial War Museum in 1974.

After having his heels trodden on by the governor, he literally decided to take a stand.

"I wasn't having it, so I said, 'Look here sergeant, I give you fair warning, you do that again and I will hurt you', and he just swore at me and continued, so I lifted up the heavy army boot that I was wearing and put it down on his foot," he said.

'Punishment cells'

By 1918, conditions got worse, as Governor Maj Frederick Hastings Wallace Blake took charge of the prison and the ground floor cells.

These were previously used to house hard labour machines and punishment cells, but they started to be used as general cell accommodation.

"It was an underground cell, regulation size, very dirty and being in the basement the only light was a skylight in the roof, a dirty skylight," said Mr Dutch.

"The only furniture was a round piece of wood which was clamped into the wall so if you sat your head was upright."

Despite the sometimes harsh conditions the prisoners still remained defiant and their spirits were bolstered by protesters gathering outside the jail to support their cause.

"Various left wing groups would go outside the prison and organise protests in support of their trade union socialist and communist comrades being held inside the jail," Mr McLaughlin said.

Mr Merrick recalled the rowdy meetings.

"My wife sent in a scarf of brilliant red and when I appeared with that on the exercise ground the other chaps sang the red flag," he said.

For Mr Merrick, who died in 1981, his sentence lasted until after peace was declared.

"I was finally released in April, a year and a half after the war was over," he remembered.

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