A hundred years ago, in the present borough of Southwark, there were two centres of opposition to the First World War. One was in Bermondsey around the Christian Socialists Alfred and Ada Salter, who were both active at national level. The other, much less well known, was in East Dulwich, tucked away between Hansler Road and Shawbury Road. Here, behind where Dell Autos now is, was Hansler Hall. The gabled building still stands. Lately converted into a residence, it featured I’m told on Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Back then, as the HQ of Dulwich Independent Labour Party (ILP), it was a hub of political and social activity. From 1916 the Dulwich branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship, or NCF, met there.

The Fellowship, with 31 branches in London alone, swung into action to oppose the introduction of compulsory military service. There were repeated demonstrations on Peckham Rye in the early months of 1916, even after the initial legislation for the conscription of single men was passed at the end of January. In Dulwich the Women’s Labour League declared,

As working women and mothers of the race, we detest and abhor militarism in all its forms, because it leads to the sub-ordination and oppression of our sex and the training of our children in ideas that are ‘Prussian,’ and for which we have nothing but repugnance.

They were the women’s section of the Labour Party. From his soapbox the trade unionist Arthur Gillian said he believed that “ the real motive behind the Bill was that the enemies of workers were seeking further means to enslave them The trade unions would smash it if they could.” (Cheers) Campaigning continued, partly to repeal the Act and partly because pressure quickly built up for the conscription of married men, which came in at the end of May. .

Thereafter the NCF concentrated on supporting the men who refused military service on grounds of conscience from a variety of religious, ethical and political motives. “The destruction of our fellow men - young men like ourselves- appals us; we cannot assist in the cutting off of one generation from life’s opportunities,” was how the Fellowship’s manifesto put it.

Many objectors, probably most, saw it as a way of taking a personal stand against the war. At national level Bertrand Russell and others had hopes that their resistance might mobilise the desire for peace he believed was latent in ordinary people.

The initiator with others of the Dulwich branch was Arthur Creech Jones, a bookish civil service clerk, aged 24 in 1916. Though born in Bristol, he lived with his aunt and uncle and two cousins in Keston Road, a superior part of Peckham bordering on Goose Green. He was secretary of Camberwell Trades and Labour Council as well as of the Dulwich branch of the ILP. He may well have helped start these organisations too; it’s not clear.

For some reason neither Lewisham nor Deptford, then a separate borough, had an NCF branch, which explains why the Dulwich branch came to have members from there (as well as from other parts of the borough of Camberwell) and why the secretary lived in Lewisham town centre.

She was Sarah Ann Cahill, aged 53, the wife - or widow - of a railway signalman, born in Ireland. Hansler Hall was a comfortable stroll from Keston Road for Creech Jones. It was quite a trek for Sarah Cahill, who presumably made the journey by tram.

The military authorities caught up with Creech Jones in September 1916. At Hounslow barracks, by his own account, he refused to stand to attention when paraded, and told the sergeant, “I refuse to do anything for the Military as I am a conscientious objector.” He told the court martial, again according to his carefully preserved notes:

I view War merely as a test of might, resulting from dynastic ambitions, commercial rivalries, financial intrigues and imperialistic jealousies. It is a stupid, costly and obsolete method of attempting to settle the differences of diplomatists, in which the common people always pay with their blood, vitality and wealth.

The court was not persuaded and sentenced him to six months’ hard labour, which he served in Wormwood Scrubs.

The Asquith government handled the conscientious objectors with some finesse. For a start the tribunals that adjudicated on claims for exemption were able to direct them to service with the Non-Combatant Corps - building roads, digging ditches, and so on. Those who refused this as still assisting the war effort, or were not offered it, then had their cases reviewed in prison. Those judged genuine were given the option of transferring under the “Home Office scheme” to work supposedly of national importance at various civilian labour camps. A majority accepted.

Creech Jones was one of those, determined to demonstrate maximum opposition to the war, who refused the offer. Like the thousand to fifteen hundred other absolutists, he was released when his sentence expired, but then called back to the colours. When he refused to obey he was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour again. And so it went on. Creech Jones faced four courts martial in all and was finally released only in April 1919. He went on to become Colonial Secretary in the Attlee government. We have his prison letters but also letters to him from his cousin (and future wife) Violet Tidman. These give glimpses of the anti-war campaigning that continued outside.

At national level the NCF maintained careful records to keep track of the movement and well-being of objectors, and was always prompt to take up cases of bad conditions and ill-treatment. Ada Salter oversaw a maintenance committee that provided financial support for the dependents of the men in prison.

At local level the Dulwich branch, meeting at Hansler Hall on Wednesday evenings, heard the men’s letters read out, gave friendship and support to the families, carried out prison visits and fed information back to head office. Sarah Cahill was active in this work, as was Clara Cole, whose husband Herbert taught at Camberwell School of Art.

In July 1917 the branch published a smart buff-coloured brochure, 4” by 7½”, entitled What Are Conscientious Objectors? The main part consists of court martial statements but it also gives some interesting figures - up to that date 75 objectors from the branch had been arrested. Of the 63 men offered work under the Home Office scheme 28 had accepted; 35 had refused to accept what they held to be a compromise with militarism. Then there’s an analysis by political and religious affiliation. Of the 75 men arrested, we read, 27 were members of the ILP and 17 were “unattached socialists,” a category not explained. Twenty-seven were trade unionists. Many, says the brochure more vaguely, were members of the various churches.

One imagines the booklet was used for local campaigning, but the papers by this stage in the conflict give no space to anti-war activity. We know from Vi Tidman that there were rallies on Peckham Rye, certainly towards the end of 1917, calling for the release of imprisoned objectors.

Further reading: more can be found on the pdf of my research - Against the Tide: War-resisters in south London 1914-16 - on the University of Hertfordshire’s Everyday Lives in War website: https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk