Conscientious Objectors’ Day is commemorated on the 15th of May every year to remember the people who have refused to fight or take part in war throughout history. The history of conscientious objectors (COs) during the first world war is an important part of our collections at The Peace Museum, and while you can’t currently see our objects in person, we have a newly acquired object to share with you here.

In 2020, we acquired this amazing autograph book completed by COs at Wakefield Work Centre during WWI. After compulsory conscription was introduced in 1916, Wakefield prison was used as a Home Office Work Camp to house COs who refused to obey military orders after their appeals to claim exemption from military service were rejected. The prison had originally been emptied to hold Irish Revolutionaries, but after being repurposed housed around 600 conscientious objectors.

This album originally belonged to a Quaker, but does not include any Quaker entries. It was used by historian Cyril Pearce to develop his database of conscientious objectors during World War One, containing the signatures of individual COs during their time at Wakefield, and quotations, largely of a political nature. For instance, one entry from 1917 reads:

“Never in the history of the human race

Has the working man, received full compensation for his labour, and toil.”

Indeed, those housed at Wakefield were expected to work as part of the programme. The Work Centre was different to the prisons that ordinarily housed COs, with no locks on the individual cells, and the inmates being allowed to leave during the day so long as they undertook civilian work of national importance. They were also allowed to elect committees to bring any issues to the prison governor, for example with this 1917 petition to serve cocoa with the evenings meals at the centre which is held in the University of Warwick Modern Records Centre.

What is clear from the messages in this book is that despite many of the contributors having been moved between several prisons for refusing to fight in the war, the conscientious objectors in Wakefield Work Centre still had hopes for a peaceful future. In addition to messages of resistance, the quotes in the album contain themes of resilience, equality and hope. One CO wrote:

“It is easy enough to be pleasant,

While life flows like a song,

But the man worth while is the one who will smile

When everything goes dead wrong.”

You can learn more about individual conscientious objectors in our past Conscientious Objectors’ Day blogs here and here.

Written by Matty Kingston (Digital Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the museum)

Link: Petition for serving of cocoa at Wakefield Work Centre, with 200 signatures of conscientious objectors - Epexio (warwick.ac.uk)