Object of the Fortnight 16/10/2013
ISAAC HALL – BLACK AFRICAN-CARIBBEAN CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR As we are still in October, this latest object of the fortnight continues to celebrate Black History Month. As we have just launched our Choices: Then and Now resource it seemed appropriate to look to that for inspiration. This week’s object is not a tangible object at all, but a story of courage, resilience and bravery. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the government had a steady stream of volunteers (over one million men) to fight. By 1916, the high number of casualties and a lack of new recruits resulted in the government introducing conscription, which meant that all (fit and healthy) men aged between 18 and 41 must fight. Those who did not fight, due to their religious, political or moral beliefs, were officially known as Conscientious Objectors, colloquially known as Conchies or COs.
Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter by Fenner Brockway
One of these Conchies was Isaac Hall, a Black African-Caribbean. He came to England from Jamaica just before the start of the war to work as a carpenter. He was the grandchild of a Jamaican slave. In 1914 when the war started Hall attempted to return to Jamaica but was not permitted to leave. This meant that when conscription was introduced in 1916, he was called up to fight for ‘King and Country’. Hall was a devout Christian who strongly believed that killing was a sin; he refused to fight or do any war-related work. His refusal resulted in a tribunal where his reason for objecting could be heard, but the tribunal declined his application and said he had no right to his opinion. He was later arrested for refusing to join the army. He was taken to an army training camp. When he refused to march with the rest of the soldiers he was dragged along the ground until he passed out. When he was fit enough to be court-martialled, he was sentenced to two years hard labour.
While in prison, he refused to do any work that would contribute to the war effort so was placed in solitary confinement and put on a bread and water diet. His health declined and doctors feared he was near death. A Quaker (many Quakers refused to fight in WWI due to religious beliefs) called Joan Fry visited him and was appalled at his treatment and condition. She contacted Alfred Salter, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) who informed the government about his treatment. Conscientious Objectors were regularly discussed in the Houses of Parliament. A Keighley MP Philip Snowdon, asked about Hall. This spotlight on Hall’s situation resulted in him being released from prison 48 hours later. He was admitted into hospital to recuperate and improve his health then lived with ILP members in Bermondsey until he returned to Jamaica. Hall stayed true to his beliefs despite the punishments for doing so. He showed tremendous bravery and resilience in the face of adversity and hardship. Hall’s untold story may be found in the Choices resource and also in in the book the Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter by Fenner Brockway which we have in our collection.