Tag Archives: Friends

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife, Edited by Kate Macdonald 

Some years ago, before the Covid pandemic, I was walking on Dartmoor, following a route that would take me back to Princetown. My route was clear, partly because there is a very talk mast at Princetown, and I could walk towards it despite the rise and fall of the moorland. The other reason that my way was so clear was because I was walking on a straight track, a road created during the First World War by Conscientious Objectors (COs) who had been sent to the converted prison. The track, which runs east-west from Princetown, where Dartmoor prison is located, was never finished. It appears to just peter out. It earned the nickname ‘the road to nowhere’.

The encounter with the track on the moor fired my imagination and led to some research about the COs on Dartmoor. I wrote a short story about a young conchie who worked on the road to nowhere. The story was shortlisted in the Exeter Short Story Prize and led to some further connections, an article in Devon Life, and a post on this blog called The Story of the Conchie Road (see below). As a result, several people contacted me because their relatives had been COs in Princetown and requested copies of my short story collection mentioned in the post.

I have retained my interest in the COs, their cause, and their time on Dartmoor. It was against this background that I ordered from the publisher the book featured in this post. 

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1919

At the start of World War 1 in July 1914 patriotic enthusiasm led thousands of young men to volunteer for the British army and navy. The belief that the war would be over by Christmas was soon revealed to be wishful thinking, and the war settled into a stalemate along the land fronts, especially the Western Front. It began to look as though the country and allies with the greatest number of men would win.

The supply of men willing to serve dwindled. Conscription was introduced into Britain on 2nd March 1916 for unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. This still did not supply enough men, so in May it was extended to include married men. This new regulation also introduced a ‘conscience clause’, which granted exemption to those who objected to military service. Some of those were allowed to take non-combatant roles in the army, such as stretcher bearers. Others were required to do work of ’national importance’ at two work camps, one of which was at Princetown on Dartmoor. Some were absolutists, men who refused any activity that would assist the war effort.

In November 1916 Frank Sunderland took an absolutist stand. For this he was imprisoned until April 1919, five months after the Armistice had been signed. He served his sentences in Bedford Barracks, Wandsworth and mostly in Bedford Prison near his home in Letchworth. The book is a collection of letters between Frank and his wife Lucy over the 30 months they were apart.

The histories of wars are usually concerned with battles and political power. Since the middle of the 20thcentury women’s history has been recognised as providing important additional perspectives on such events. Before the First World War suffragettes had been demanding a political voice for women through the ballot box. Lucy Sunderland provides us with a detailed look at a working class mother’s life on the home front during the war. 

This is really Lucy’s story for she has to adjust to the demands of the war, and becoming a single mother of three young children. Her husband, while not in a happy situation in prison, was fed and housed and had leisure to read and fraternise and miss home life. Some things are not included; if she experienced any harassment or criticism for being the wife of a CO she did not report it to her husband. She was careful not to distress him in that way. Nor did they discuss anything to do with the progress of the war, battles, casualties and so forth, perhaps to avoid trouble with the censors.

When Frank began his imprisonment Lucy became responsible for providing for the four remaining family members, to pay the rent on the house in Letchworth where they lived, to buy food, clothes, boots, medicines, and to pay doctors’ fees and school fees. To begin with she took on Frank’s insurance round and continued her work as seamstress. She earned a little from the eggs her chickens laid from time to time, and from her lodgers. Food became more scarce as the German navy’s blockade increased in effectiveness, and rationing was introduced. There were shortages of fuel too, especially of coal which was needed for industry and transport. 

Lucy became a single mother of three small children. She writes to Frank about her concerns to keep them in touch with their father, their educational advances, and their illnesses. Scarlet fever attacked the household, but they managed to avoid the ‘flue’, that is the Spanish influenza that killed so many healthy people as it tore through the population from the spring of 1918. We read family news, about her sister who is waiting to marry and about her parents. When her mother dies during a visit to Lucy’s house, the shock is evident to Frank and us in her account.

Letchworth had a vibrant cultural life; lectures on many subjects, ‘Adult’ school, books discussed and exchanged, and networks of sympathisers to pacifism, conscientious objectors, the New Town movement, and socialist ideas. Many of the Sunderlands’ acquaintances were Friends (that is Quakers), who were especially prominent in the support of exemptions from conscription.

The war was long, and by the winter of 1917/18 Lucy was feeling the accumulated effects of her mother’s sudden death, bombardment of north London (audible in Letchworth), Frank’s continuing absence, illnesses and dental problems, and the ceaseless demands of the household. In the summer of 1918 she took a two-month holiday in Barnstable and was restored by the countryside and how well her children flourished there. The reader too takes pleasure in the family’s enjoyment of north Devon, the sea, the landscapes, and the new people they meet. Lucy’s letters from here reflect the improving health of mother and children and their increasing family bonds. 

As the end of their separation approached Frank and Lucy discussed how they would live in the future, pinning hopes on the New Town movement (such as plans that eventually materialised as Welwyn Garden City), having learned Esperanto to enable European travel, and looking forward to increased working-class influence in political matters.

The introduction by the editor (and publisher) Kate Macdonald is informative and a well written opening for this fascination account of life on the Home Front.

The Story of the Conchie Road on Bookword (November 2018)

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland 1916-1918. Edited by Kate Macdonald and published in 2018 by the Handheld Press. 328pp

The ‘Road to Nowhere’ on Royal Hill, Dartmoor

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The Story of the Conchie Road

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 (lodgecm@gmail.com) 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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