In May 2017 I was walking on Dartmoor. I was on a clear track into Princetown from the east, with views of the prison and the tv mast.
I had walked across the open moor, through the remains of Whiteworks, an old tin mine, across Foxton Mire – a quaker to use the phrase adopted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was promised a cist called the Crock of Gold. And then I checked the directions for the walk
Turn left … and climb gently, heading straight for the TV mast in the distance. The path later gives way to a better-surfaced gritty track, the result of the hard labour of conscientious objectors during the First World War; the war ended before the track could be completed. … [From Dartmoor Walks, Pathfinder Guide, walk 24).
My interest was immediately aroused. What were conscientious objectors doing on Dartmoor and why were they building unfinished roads? I began my researches. This post is the history of a short story and how that walk in May 2017 took me and my writing to places I would never have predicted.
The Conchie Road or the Road to Nowhere
My researches turned up information about COs (conscientious objectors) and about the project to build the road. About 1000 COs were housed in Dartmoor Prison buildings, renamed Princetown Work Centre after conscription was introduced in 1916. Men who refused to join the armed forces faced a tribunal and some were granted exemptions. They had religious or political objections. The COs on Dartmoor were required to do work ‘of national importance’. There was a plan to develop the Prince of Wales’s land on Dartmoor, and the road was intended to service these farms.
The land was very poor, even when drained by the COs, and even today is very thin. It was not a project with much prospect of success and the road was nicknamed ’the road to nowhere’.
Sometimes ideas are presented to writers. The nickname of the road to nowhere nicely stood for the experience of COs in 1916 through to the years after the war. The metaphorical Conchie Road was a hard one and I wrote a short story about Sam Skelton, a political CO, who was sent to Dartmoor, who worked on the road, and who found very little respect after the war. I called it The Conchie Road.
Devon Remembers Heritage Project
I recently wrote a post about the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It involved ordinary people (that is, not historians) and supported about 30 research projects into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. One of these concerned COs from Devon. I went to a presentation about the research into the men who refused to fight. Many, many of them were Friends, and the Exeter Meeting hosted the event. You can find the previous post Devon Voices from WW1 here.
Many of the Quaker COs joined the ambulance brigades and served at the front; others refused to support the war in any way and were sent to work camps, including Princetown.
I offered my story to the Heritage Project and it is included in the archives.
Article in Devon Life
I found that many local people knew nothing about the road, or about the presence of COs on Dartmoor during the First World War. I was keen to share the outcomes of my research and the pleasure of the walk so I submitted an article to Devon Life. It was published in April 2018 under the title Pacifists’ Pathway. It presented the history of the road and the COs and recommended walkers to try it out. I took pictures of the road in December to accompany the article, having persuaded my sister to join me on a very slushy walk.
The Plaque for The Conchie Road
On November 3rdthis year I attended the ceremony honouring the COs in Princetown. We began with a vigil outside the Dartmoor Information Centre, and then walked to the point on the Conchie Road where a plaque was unveiled. It was organised by Friends. It was also attended by Simon Dell, historian of Dartmoor, who wrote the book The Dartmoor Conchies.
As we stood in silence during the vigil in Princetown a long line of soldiers, weighed down with equipment, bearing arms, faces blackened, filed past the circle of silence. It seemed very inappropriate.
At the plaque it was drizzling, cows had assembled under the trees, and we could see walkers on the path. I had been asked to read some of my story. It was a strange experience to read the passage where Sam and his mates are sent to build the road, grumbling at the waste of their energies and to read it in the place it was set, in the rain, with an audience of cows and Friends.
We also heard from the daughter of a CO, also a Friend. Her father had met and fallen in love with his wife in Princetown. He never spoke of his experiences as a CO, she told us.
2018 Exeter Short Story Prize
A few days after the ceremony I was thrilled and very proud to discover that my story had been shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Short Story Prize.
The Dartmoor Conchies (Dartmoor Prison’s Conscientious Objectors of The Great War) by Simon Dell, published in 2017 by the Dartmoor Company.
Update May 2019
You can read the story in Better Fetch A Chair, the collection of my short stories published in December 2018.
And if you want to obtain a copy for the special reduced price of £5 (p&p included) you can either email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or DM me on twitter @lodge_c and I will send you details.
Better Fetch A Chair by Caroline Lodge, published by Bookword in 2018. 142pp. Cover price is £8.99 but available for £5.
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