Library resources for researching World War I: periodicals

Where would you look for news, reflections, debate or comment on World War I events as they unfolded? Contemporary magazines, newsletters and reports are a fruitful resource for researchers studying Quaker thought and activity during the war and its aftermath. This blog post aims to give an overview of periodicals held here relating to relief work of organisations like Friends Ambulance Unit or Friends Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee, as well as those from the peace and anti-conscription movement. We touch on general Quaker magazines of the period too: inevitably, wartime issues are a recurring theme.

Relief work periodicals

Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) produced four annual reports from 1914 to 1917 (Library reference:  Pers U/F7/AMB/1). In 1916 a monthly (later irregular) FAU magazine started up, featuring poetry and creative writing by members of the FAU. The Library has two incomplete sets, between them including the total 6 issues published until 1921 (Library reference: Pers/F7/AMB). After the end of the war, the Friends Ambulance Unit Association magazine ran for six issues between December 1919 and September 1921, aimed at keeping former members of the FAU in contact with one another (Library reference: Pers/F7/AMB).

FAU Association Magazine

Friends Ambulance Unit Association Magazine
(Library reference: Pers/F7/AMB)

Various FAU Sections Sanitaires Anglaises printed souvenir magazines, including artwork, verse and short stories, as well as some accounts of work in the field.

The Swallow: a monthly journal issued by members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, Uffculme Hospital, Birmingham (Library reference: Pers/F7/AMB) is unique as the only periodical specifically connected to a project in England. Uffculme Hospital helped fit replacement limbs for those injured in military action.

The Swallow 1(3) May 1917

The Swallow: a monthly journal issued by members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, Uffculme Hospital, Birmingham, vol. 1, no. 3 (May 1917)
(Library reference: Pers/F7/AMB)

We hold the printed reports of the Friends Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians & Hungarians in Distress for 1914-1919 (Library reference: Pers/EMER). In 1919 it merged with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) to form the new Friends Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee (FEWVRC): the reports for these two committees cover the years 1914 to 1923 (Library reference Pers/F7/WAR).

FWVRC report, 2 (Feb - Oct 1915)

Friends War Victims Relief Committee Report, no. 2 (February – October 1915)
(Library reference Pers/F7/WAR)

A number of short-lived newsletters and journals emanated from Quaker relief work in Europe, as follows (our copies are bound together; Library reference: Pers/B/AMI) -

  • L’Ami, published by FWVRC Vol. 1, no. 1 (10th month, 1915)
  • L’Éclaireur de la mission, published by FWVRC at Châlons sur Marne, Vol. 1, nos. 1 and 2 (1917)
  • L’Équipe, published by the American Friends Reconstruction Unit, nos. 1-4 (14 August – 4 September 1917)

These were succeeded by a new monthly journal, Reconstruction: journal of the Friends’ relief missions in Europe (April 1918 – May 1920) (Library reference: Pers/B/REC). This in turn was replaced by International service: bulletin of the Society of Friends’ relief missions in Europe, which ran for 35 issues between 1920 and 1923 (Library reference Pers/INT). Reconstruction and International service include field reports and photographs, reports from the London office, personnel movements, occasional obituaries of relief workers, such as Violet Tillard (International service, no. 18, March 1920), as well as art and poetry features. There are articles by prominent Friends such as Anna Ruth Fry, Edith Pye, Corder Catchpool, Carl Heath, Elizabeth Fox Howard and T. Edmund Harvey (the editor of Reconstruction).

Reconstruction 1(9), Dec.1918

Report on relief work in revolutionary Russia, in Reconstruction, vol. 1 no. 9 (December 1918)
(Library reference: Pers/B/REC)

Peace and conscientious objection periodicals

The No-Conscription Fellowship came into existence in the early months of the war, bringing together opponents of military conscription of all stripes. The Tribunal, its newspaper, was published in 182 issues from March 1916 to January 1920 (Library reference for facsimile reprint: Pers/TRIB; Library reference for original edition: SR 051.57. To help preserve the original, readers are expected to use the facsimile reprint whenever possible). We also hold The C.O.’s Hansard: a weekly reprint from the official parliamentary reports (Library reference: Pers/CENT). This too was published by the No-Conscription Fellowship, 1916-1919. As the title suggests, it covers parliamentary debates on issues relating to C.O.s, often focusing on particular cases of interest raised by sympathetic MPs. Other peace periodicals include reports and newsletters from newly formed pacifist organisations such as the Northern Friends Peace Board and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as the National Peace Council (formed 1908). Details can be found on our online catalogue.

Other Quaker periodicals

The Ploughshare, published by the Socialist Quaker Society between 1912 and 1920, ran articles on militarism and conscientious objection during the period (Library reference: Pers/PLOUGH). It was co-edited by Hubert Peet (1886-1951), himself imprisoned as a conscientious objector: The Ploughshare includes coverage of his case. You can read more about The Ploughshare in an earlier blogpost.

Ploughshare 1916 p226-227

Reports on censorship, imprisonment and debates on alternative service, in The Ploughshare (1916) p.226-227
(Library reference: Pers/PLOUGH)

War and the Social Order Committee Circular letter and news sheet, published 1917-1919, reflects Friends’ growing interest in social and political causes of conflict (Library reference: Pers L/WAR). At a local level, The Doncaster link, newsletter of Doncaster Quaker Meeting, includes accounts of relief work Yorkshire Friends were involved in, such as a hostel for German children, along with the work of FAU and FEWVRC (Library reference Pers L/LINK). General Quaker periodicals also carried occasional articles relevant to the war, including Friends quarterly examiner (shelved in the Library reading room) and Workers at home and abroad, the monthly magazine of the Friends Foreign Mission Association and the Home Mission & Extension Committee (Library reference: B/Q5/MON). The Friend, the weekly Quaker magazine (also shelved in the reading room), contains invaluable material for researchers, such as reports of Quaker relief work, regular reports and statistics on conscientious objectors, and correspondence on the war. Most of this material has been catalogued to article level, and can be searched on our growing online catalogue. You can also access The Friend 1914-18 Digital Archive online, as part of an annual or monthly subscription.

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Library resources for researching World War I: peace pamphlets

It’s sometimes said that the richness of a library’s collection can be judged by the number and variety of its pamphlets. This Library has over a thousand boxes and volumes of pamphlets, which we aim to catalogue individually.

Pamphlets have long been used to popularise political or religious ideas, or as an important campaigning tool, and can be issued speedily in response to unfolding events. Cheap to produce and distribute, they can be printed in much larger numbers than books – yet their physical flimsiness means their chances of survival are often lower. Pamphlets, posters and ephemera are frequently among the rarest items in library collections. When they survive, they can be a rich primary source on the opinions and activities of pressure groups, campaigning bodies and individuals.

The Library holds hundreds of pamphlets produced before, during and immediately after World War I. The collection is not limited to Quaker material, but includes pamphlets of all kinds, both religious and secular[1], on a wide range of peace and war related topics[2]. Among them are a core of 400 plus “War Tracts” collected by Philip Millwood, donated by him to the Adult School Guest House, Guildford in 1921 and arriving at this Library in 1930.

All of the peace pamphlets have been catalogued, as part of our ongoing Retrospective Cataloguing Project, and can be searched using our online catalogueTIP: For a more effective search use “Advanced search” and select Library catalogue > Books, to search by title, author, organisation, publication year or subject – or use “Expert search” and search in Library catalogue > Books for a wider range of search options, including date range, publisher, language and publication type.

Grants for the 18 month peace project included funds for dis-binding 37 tightly bound volumes of “War tracts” and “Peace pamphlets”, conserving and re-housing the pamphlets in archival quality boxes, for better preservation and ease of use.


[1] Publications of the following organisations are represented:

Alternative Service Guild
American Association for International Conciliation
Anti-Conscription League
British Stop the War Committee
Fabian Society
Fellowship of Reconciliation [active from 1914 -  ]
Friends Peace Committee
Friends Service Committee
Friends War Victims Relief Committee (1914-1919)
Independent Labour Party (Great Britain)
National Council against Conscription
National Council for Civil Liberties
National Peace Council [1908 – 2000]
No Conscription Fellowship [1914- ]
Northern Friends Peace Board
Rationalist Peace Society [1910 – 1920s]
School Peace League
Socialist Quaker Society
Swiss Committee for the Study of the Principles of a Durable Treaty of Peace
Union of Democratic Control [1914- 1960s]
War & Social Order Committee (1915-1928)
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Workers’ Anti-Militarist Committee
World Peace Foundation [organisation in Boston, Mass., active from 1910]

You might also search these publishers:
Limit Printing and Publishing – owned by George Lansbury
Headley Brothers – a favoured Quaker publishing company
National Labour Press
War and Peace – pacifist journal founded by Norman Angell, October 1913

[2] Some World War I related subject areas covered  by peace pamphlet collection:

Peace, international understanding, arbitration, foreign policy and diplomacy, Hague Conference, peace conferences, militarisation, armaments, disarmament, League of Nations

Military training, Military Service Acts, Australasia Defence Acts, conscription, pacifism, non-violence, conscientious objection, absolute conscientious objection, tribunals, prisons, prison ministers, Defence of the Realm Act (1917), censorship

Christianity and war, Just war, atrocities, women, refugees, relief, food supply

Christian socialism, social justice, League of Nations

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White Feather Diaries

The white feather diaries is an online Quaker storytelling project to mark the centenary of World War I. It offers an insight into overlooked aspects of war: resistance to killing and the relief of suffering.

White Feather

Going live on Monday 4 August 2014, The white feather diaries follow the lives of five young people who lived a century ago and opposed World War I. Their stories, published periodically over the next three years, take us from the outbreak of war to the introduction of conscription and groundbreaking legislation recognising conscientious objection. Through daily posts and tweets they share their moral dilemmas and difficult decisions.

The period 1914–16 was a time of social, political and religious upheaval. The white feather diaries capture this change through individual journeys. All five diarists featured were, or became, Quakers.

For those wanting to delve further into these fascinating stories, each blog entry includes rich background material about the content of the post or the diarist and their contemporaries.

The white feather diaries blog starts on Monday, and you can get involved now by liking the Facebook page or following the White feather diaries on Twitter.

Research for the project drew on some of the resources held here at the Library, such as the Hilda Clark Papers (Temp MSS 301), Howard Marten’s papers, including White feather: the experience of a pacifist in France and elsewhere (Temp MSS 67/4), the John Brocklesby Papers (Temp MSS 412) and John Hoare: a pacifist’s progress: papers from the First World War, edited by Richard J. Hoare (1996).

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Library resources for researching World War I: Wartime Statistics Committee

The Wartime Statistics Committee was established by Meeting for Sufferings in June 1917, a year after the introduction of conscription, to collect statistics on men of military age. Its records are of value for researchers interested in British Quakers and World War I at a national, local and individual level.

In the years up to the war, the Society of Friends campaigned vigorously for peace and against militarism, as an expression of its continuing peace testimony.  The declaration of war in August 1914 presented a new challenge, as patriotic fervour swept the country and voluntary enlistment soared in response to a mass military recruitment campaign.

Like other young men of military age, young Friends were exposed to intense pressure to enlist, and from March 1916 they were obliged to do so by law. Many objected on grounds of conscience, appearing before their local Military Service Tribunal: some offered themselves for alternative work (such as service with the Friends Ambulance Unit), while others were “absolutists” who refused all service associated with the military (and were frequently imprisoned). Some Friends did enlist, however, as two recently published accounts of Quaker schools and World War I describe (Sidcot in the Great War by Christine Gladwin, and Great ideals: Leighton Park and the First World War by John Allison and Charlotte Smith).

What can the records of the Wartime Statistics Committee tell us about these choices?

Wartime Statistics Committee returns

Wartime Statistics Committee “Returns of service during wartime” – 1 of the 4 Kalamazoo binders (Library reference YM/MfS/WSTC/R/1-4)

The Wartime Statistics Committee was set up in June 1917 under the convenorship of Edith M. Ellis (1878-1963). Its remit was to obtain and tabulate statistics of members and attenders of military age who were working for, or in connection with, Friends Emergency Committee, Friends War Victims Relief Committee or Friends Ambulance Unit.  In July Meeting for Sufferings decided that “associates” (i.e. non-Quakers closely associated through adult schools, Bible study groups, or similar) should be included, as well as members and attenders.

No minutes of the committee have survived, but we can follow its gradual progress in reports to Meeting for Sufferings. It finally reported[1] on 3 November 1922 that returns had been obtained from all but seven monthly meetings[2]. In most cases the information covered the period up to December 1917, a few going on to March 1918.

YM Proc 1923 p.232

Wartime Statistics Committee final report to Meeting for Sufferings, November 1922 (Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1923, p.231-232)

The brief report tells us that an analysis of 1,666 returns for members of the Society of Friends showed, for example, that 40.2% of men of military age applied for, and were granted, exemption as conscientious objectors, and 17.3% on other grounds, while 33.6% enlisted. However, these statistics are far from straight forward, as we found when preparing this blog post. The report refers to figures for members of the Society of Friends – presumably excluding hundreds of returns for attenders and “associates” – but it is not even clear whether all members’ returns were analysed. Tantalisingly, no mention is made of data gathered on occupation, age, pre-war social or religious service, specific wartime occupation (for example, which Quaker organisation, whether combatant or non-combatant military service). The report suggests that this rich data was tabulated, but unfortunately no tables survive. As we discovered though, a file on the “Statistics Scheme” among the records of the Service Committee (Library reference YM/MfS/SER/3/2) does include sample tables and keys to at least some of the codes used on the returns.

While the analysis and final report may be scanty, the returns from which they were compiled do survive, and are of great interest for researchers. These “Returns of service during wartime” (Library reference YM/MfS/WSTC) consist of record sheets for named individuals sent in by monthly meetings, grouped by wider quarterly meetings (QM) into four “Kalamazoo” binders. The arrangement is described on our online archive catalogue, as follows:

South Australia Two Months Meeting, Bedfordshire QM, Berkshire & Oxon QM, Bristol & Somerset QM, Cumberland QM, Derby, Lincoln & Nottinghamshire QM, Devon & Cornwall QM and Durham QM.

Essex & Suffolk QM, Kent QM, Lancashire & Cheshire QM, and London & Middlesex QM.

Norfolk, Cambridge & Huntingdon QM, Sussex, Surrey & Hampshire QM, Warwick, Leicester & Stafford QM.

Westmorland QM, Yorkshire QM and Scotland General Meeting.

Each monthly meeting’s returns are filed alphabetically by surname, members separate from attenders and associates. The return sheets include sections for personal details, pre-war occupation, pre-war social, religious or public work, employment or service record since the start of the war, and a record of tribunals, courts, decisions and sentences. Click on one of the images below for a closer look.

The returns offer scope for a re-analysis of the national or regional data about the wartime experience of Quakers and those associated with Quaker meetings, and, perhaps more importantly, fascinating biographical data for those researching individuals or local meetings during the war.


[1] Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1923, p.231-232

[2] Witney, Witham, Canterbury & Folkestone, Ratcliff & Barking, Alton, Southampton & Poole, Staffordshire, and Hereford & Radnor


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Library resources for researching World War I: Friends Ambulance Unit

The records of the Friends Ambulance Unit are the focus of this blog post, the latest in our series on resources for researching World War I.

Established in the First World War and revived in the second, the Friends Ambulance Unit was an unofficial Quaker organisation, constitutionally independent of the Society of Friends. It both provided an opportunity for active service for Quakers and other pacifists who felt called to play a part, and also, after the introduction of conscription in 1916, came (eventually, and to a limited extent) to be recognised by the Military Service Tribunals as providing an acceptable form of alternative noncombatant service. Its records are held in the Library, along with personal papers, photographs and published accounts of its work.

SSA14 at Dunkirk

FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 14 at Dunkirk 1916 (Library reference: TEMP MSS 881/PHOT/SSA14/1/5)

From the earliest days of the War, many Friends felt called to offer service that would be compatible with the Quaker peace testimony. A call for young Friends to volunteer was published in The Friend of 21 August 1914, and a training camp was established at Jordans, Buckinghamshire in September 1914, where about 60 young Friends assembled to prepare for active service – first-aid to the wounded, stretcher-drill, sanitation and hygiene, and field-cookery as well as physical training. The First Anglo-Belgian Ambulance Unit, later Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), set out for Dunkirk on 31 October 1914. The Friends Ambulance Unit came to number over a thousand members.

There were two sections – the Foreign Service Section and the Home Service Section. The Foreign Service Section worked on ambulance convoys and ambulance trains with the French and British armies in France and Belgium; provided help to those affected by the typhoid epidemic in Ypres (December 1914 to May 1915); staffed hospitals and hospital ships; provided relief to civilians, helping establish orphanages, water purification and the distribution of milk and clothing.

Measuring spoons and instructions (in French and Flemish) for using chloride of lime to purify water. These were distributed by the FAU in the countryside surrounding Ypres after German bombing cut off the main water supply in November 1914 (fArnold S. Rowntree Papers, Library reference Temp MSS 977/4)

Measuring spoons and instructions (in French and Flemish) for using chloride of lime to purify water. These were distributed by the FAU in the countryside surrounding Ypres after German bombing cut off the main water supply in November 1914 (Arnold S. Rowntree Papers, Library reference: Temp MSS 977/4)

The Home Service Section dispatched food, petrol and medical supplies, coordinated training at Jordans, and dealt with applicants for service, as well as sending members to staff to hospitals in England. Its General Service Section organised work for conscientious objectors who could not join the FAU for financial or other reasons – in agriculture, forestry, education, construction, surgical appliance and food manufacture, or service with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee, the Friends’ Emergency Committee and the Y.M.C.A.

FAU group photo at Oxhey Grange

FAU Training Camp group photograph, Oxhey Grange, Hertfordshire, August 1915 (Library reference: Temp MSS 881/PHOT/JOR/41)


What sources does the Library hold on the work of Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War?

The Library holds a substantial collection of material relating to the Friends Ambulance Unit in World War I – the records of the FAU itself, contemporary and souvenir publications, photographs, personal papers of FAU members, works of art and objects, as well as secondary sources on its work. A selection of sources is given in our subject guide Friends’ service in the First World War available on the Library’s web-pages, and full records for many of them are available on our online catalogue. This blog post aims to highlight some of the most important.

Ambulance Train 16

Ambulance Train 16 with members of Friends Ambulance Unit (Library reference: Temp MSS 881/PHOT/ATR/2)


Printed sources on the FAU

The first resort for anyone researching the FAU is the comprehensive official Unit history by Meaburn Tatham and James E. Miles, The Friends’ Ambulance Unit, 1914-1919: a record (1919). There is no subject index, but it includes a list of Unit names at the end.

Lists of members were printed at various dates after the War for reunions and for contact purposes, including joint World War I and World War II lists in 1959 and 1975. For most researchers, the 1919 published list is the most useful: it includes names of FAU members who died in service, and – of particular interest for local research – lists of members with addresses, arranged by English county, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and overseas, plus lists of deceased members.

The Library also holds contemporary publications of the FAU and commemorative anthologies of Unit newsletter material. Here’s a selection:

    • Friends Ambulance Unit (19141919). Report. 1st – 4th (1915–1917)
    • Friends’ Ambulance Unit magazine no. 1–6 (1916–1921)
    • The swallow: a monthly journal issued by members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, Uffculme Hospital, Birmingham Vol. 1, no.1 – Vol. 3, no.5 (March 1917 – July 1918)
    • The little grey book. Published by former members of FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 13 (SSA13). Includes a list of members.
    • A train errant: being the experiences of a voluntary unit in France and an anthology from their magazine (1919). Published by former members of No. 16 Ambulance Train. This train was given to the British Red Cross Society in 1915, staffed at first by the Royal Army Medical Corps and later by Friends Ambulance Unit. Includes a list of personnel. Also includes republished extracts from The orderly review, a newsletter first published in 1915, which has not survived in our collections.
    • Lines of communication: a souvenir volume, being pages from the train magazines which were published whilst on active service, together with descriptions of ambulance train life (1919). Published by former members of FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 17 (SSA17). Includes a map of operations and a list of members.
    • The Fourgon: Ambulance Train no. XI, B.E.F. France: souvenir number, January 1919 (1919)
    • Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19: an account of the work of a motor ambulance convoy of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, B.R.C.S., 1916-1918 (1919)
    • “Old seventeeners”: being members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit who served on No. 17 Ambulance Train (1919). Includes a complete list with dates of their service on the train and permanent addresses

Extensive news of FAU activities was reported in the British Quaker weekly The Friend; many of these articles are currently being added to our online catalogue.

Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19 (1919)

Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19 (1919)


Friends Ambulance Unit archives

The records of the FAU include Committee minutes, Executive Committee minutes, personnel records, newsletter records and photographs. Personnel records are strongest, with a number of series – most importantly the Personnel record card indexes. The records have been fully catalogued and more details are available here on our online archive catalogue. Here is a list with references (each series reference should be preceded by the collection reference: TEMP MSS 881/)


  • C: Committee minutes (1914-1920)
  • EC: Executive Committee minutes (1916-1921). 3 volumes

Personnel records:

  • PER/CARD/1 AND 2: Personnel record card indexes. Series 1 records members who served in France and Series 2 is the central personnel card index. Both are available on microfilm in the Library – the originals are not usually produced for readers.
  • PER/CF: Census forms (application forms) for current serving members.
  • PER/CFL: Census forms (application forms) for members who had left FAU.
  • PER/CLE: Census forms – clearing file for those in process of leaving.
  • PER/REG: Registration forms. In fragile condition.
  • PER/INF: Workers trained by FAU working for other organisation.
  • PER/ABS/1: Absence record book. Includes information on those rejoining FAU after leaving, 1915-1918; a list of killed and wounded 1915-1918; chronological records of names joining the Unit, 1914-1919. This volume also shows some calculations which may be useful: average service in months (monthly) 1914 onwards, and Unit numerical strength, 1917 onwards.
  • PER/LOC: Personnel location diary for the work in France, showing changes of function and job.

Photographs, drawings and other records:

  • PHOT: Photograph series. 341 photographs catalogued to item level.
  • ALB: Photograph album specifically for Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19.
  • DRAW: Drawings. 2 only.
  • LET: Letters. 3 only: these are clearly stray items.
  • NEWS: “Newsletters”. In fact these are production records and drafts, rather than newsletters (published newsletters and souvenir volumes described above are in the printed collections; their shelfmarks can be found through the online catalogue).
  • PLAN: Plan. 1 plan for a proposed FAU hospital.

This is a high quality archive, in relation to what has survived, but it is not as extensive in size as might be expected of a comparable organisation. Minutes, personnel records and visual materials are well preserved and represented, but field records, whether staff or group meeting notes, daily/ weekly/ monthly reports, correspondence with area Headquarters, or Head Office, or files relating to FAU-military relations, are all absent from this collection.

Members’ record cards TEMP MSS 881 PER/CARD/1 and 2) are the most frequently used part of the archive. They have been microfilmed to protect them from damage by handling, and plans are afoot for future digitisation. Some other parts of the collection are fragile and may not, as a rule, be available for production.

Friends Ambulance Unit Dependants Fund Committee was formed to assist relatives and dependants of men serving in the FAU. Its records consist of one volume of minutes (1916-1919) and a volume of Treasurer’s accounts (1916-1919), separate from the FAU archive (Library reference MS Box U1/2).

FAU service card for Lionel Sharples Penrose

FAU service card for Lionel Sharples Penrose



Personal papers and other records of FAU work – a selection of unpublished sources

Other personal accounts have been published or privately printed, often by descendants of FAU members. Find out more by searching our online catalogue by subject Friends Ambulance Unit (1914-1919).

Cotterell, Ambulances at Gizaucourt, winter 1917

Ambulances, Gizaucourt, December 1917. Watercolour by Arthur Cotterell. In: Autograph book of Friends Ambulance Unit members 1917. (Library reference: MS VOL S 284)

FAU SSA14 song book

FAU SSA14 song book (Alan F. Ardley Papers. Library reference: Temp MSS 452)


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Library resources for researching World War I: prison experiences of conscientious objectors

Most of the men who found themselves imprisoned for conscientious objection during World War I were characterised as absolutist objectors. These men were not willing to participate in the war effort to any extent, turning down non-combatant duties and alternative work which would contribute to the war effort. The absolutists primarily consisted of members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, formed by Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, members of the Independent Labour Party  and other socialist groups, Quakers and members of other religious bodies such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses – or indeed those who counted themselves as members of more than one of these groups.


Set them free

“Set them free”. Postcard, unknown source, undated [1916-1918?]. Part of Rowland Philcox Papers (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/5)

Our manuscript collection provides a real window into the experiences of these men, in the form of correspondence, diaries, accounts and official documents.

The Winchester Whisperer, the clandestine prison newspaper written by COs in Winchester Prison, has been getting a lot of attention recently in the media and rightly so – you can read an article about it here.

However, there are other less well known collections which paint a fuller picture of what life was like for imprisoned COs during the war. You can see a list of some of these  collections in our subject guide on Conscientious objectors and the peace movement in Britain 1914-1945, available on our website here:

To highlight the collections we can look at some common themes which emerge from the material, mainly contemporary correspondence and diaries.

A challenge to the authorities

The absolutists really challenged the government’s enforcement of the Military Service Act and the procedures in local and central tribunals, military courts, and civilian prisons for dealing with these men. This is reflected in the manuscript collections as the men describe their treatment, being passed from pillar to post through the civil and military courts systems, from barracks, to civilian prisons, and to work camps. The initial attitude taken by the authorities is described by Cornelius Barritt (1883-1967):

“In the evening an officer visited me in my cell and asked ‘How long are you going to keep this up, you belong to King and country now and must do as you are told’, to which I answered ‘I shall keep this up as long as strength is given me to do so'” (Cornelius Barritt, Diary while in the hands of the military. Library ref. TEMP MSS 62/MISC/DIA/1)

Barritt was first tried in March 1916, then taken to France where he was brought before Field General Court Martial and sentenced to death on the 10th of June, later commuted to ten years penal servitude. He spent time in Winchester Prison, before being sent to work camps in Dyce and Wakefield. As an absolutist, he refused to participate in the work scheme and was sent back to Maidstone Prison, where he remained until 1919.

Cornelius Barritt's death sentence

Cornelius Barritt’s ‘soldier’s pay book’ showing his sentence: “Sentenced to death. Sentence commuted to 10 years penal servitude by General Sir D. Haig” (Library ref. TEMP MSS 62/COR/LT/4)

The government seemed to underestimate the power of these men to stick to their principles, and many of the collections describe soldiers, prison guards and judges gradually coming to respect the strength of those principles.

This recognition and ceaseless campaigning on their behalf led to attitudes softening somewhat in some government circles, and much debate in the cabinet over their treatment. Some COs were released in 1917 on medical grounds and certain privileges were granted to them in prisons.

As well as challenging authorities, the COs found it somewhat a challenge to organize a common strategy among them, as their ideas on the forms of objection differed and changed throughout the war. This is well reflected in the letters of Roland Philcox (1877-1965) and Joseph C. S. Elliott (TEMP MSS 197), who were active in the No-Conscription Fellowship and described in detail the range of attitudes of the men they encounter in prison. Philcox shows the uncompromising attitude some of the absolutists adopted:

“These N.C.C. [Non-Combatant Corps] men reported themselves in the ordinary manner, they are quite willing to do work but not killing. They are the shirkers and have let us down, for we stickers out are in a minority.” (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/1)

Rowland Philcox correspondence

Correspondence from Rowland Philcox during his imprisonment as a conscientious objector, 1916-1918 (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/1)


A new generation of prison reformers

Another common thread running through the personal accounts of imprisoned COs in World War I is the insight into prison conditions they gain from their time in civilian prisons and how this develops into an interest in prison reform – carrying on a strong Quaker tradition.

Many of them describe in detail the difficulties of solitary confinement, poor sanitation, limited opportunity for conversation with fellow inmates, and – a constant feature in all the accounts – prison food, with Philcox (a vegetarian) even including a handwritten menu for Maidstone Prison! (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/1)

Elliott, who rarely complains about prison conditions, describes an encounter in Mountjoy Prison to illustrate the attitude of the clerk, but it shows the toll the experience has taken on him physically:

“Just then another clerk said ‘You lost some weight in here!’ So the clerk said sneeringly:- ‘Yes that’s his disobedience; he would not have lost 3 stone if (he) did what he was told.’” (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/2)

The men were often on punishment diet of bread and water for refusing to undertake tasks they felt conflicted with their beliefs.

The ultimate sacrifice

What emerges most strongly from the accounts and correspondence of these men is the strength of their conviction. They speak passionately and intelligently about their reasons for opposing the war.

Philcox expresses the strength of his conviction eloquently in an early letter when the men are being threatened with the death sentence in France:

“I expect my comrades at liberty are agitated by the news of our probable fate, but I suggest that they do not devote all their efforts to procuring our release. Remember that the ideas of patriotism and militarism are surrounded with the glamour of self-sacrifice which the heroism of innumerable soldiers has cast upon them – sacrifice hallows any cause…When the final hour arrives…the principles of International Fraternity will be placed on an equal footing to the prejudice of patriotism.” (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/1)

In the papers of Arnold Rowntree MP (1872-1951), there is an extreme example of the hardship endured by C.O.s – a vivid demonstration that the path of the absolutist was not an easy one, taken by cranks and shirkers. The account tells how H. Firth arrived at the Dartmoor work camp malnourished after spending 8 months in Wormwood Scrubs and Maidstone Prisons. The men appealed on his behalf, on seeing his weakened state, but he was immediately put onto heavy quarry work. After one collapse, they moved him on to ‘whitewashing’ which was done through the night, from 7.30pm to 5.30am. He eventually ended up in the camp hospital after another collapse.

The account recalls:

 “He was in a very emaciated condition and complained then and repeatedly of great weakness and thirst….On January the 8th he again applied to the doctor, complaining of the cold, and was met with the usual taunt that it was selfish, and that the soldiers in the trenches had to put up with worse

On that day he (the doctor) met Firth’s request for eggs for food with the remark that they were all needed for wounded soldiers. Three eggs arrived the next day when Firth was dead, for he died at 8.55 am on Wednesday morning, February 5th. The previous evening, a friend suggested  that Firth’s wife should be telegraphed for, but the doctor replied that it was quite unnecessary. Death  was due to diabetes .”  (Arnold S. Rowntree Papers, Correspondence with conscientious objectors. Library ref. TEMP MSS 977/2/12)

The brief selection of highlights above just starts to scratch the surface of the amount of material we have which really gets inside the minds of conscientious objectors and makes their prison experiences vivid for today’s researcher.

Rowland Philcox letters

Letter written on prison lavatory paper by Rowland Philcox and smuggled out of prison. Part of Rowland Philcox Papers (Library ref. TEMP MSS 197/1)


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Library resources for researching World War I: Friends Peace Committee

The first of our World War I resources blogposts focuses on the Friends Peace Committee, a committee of Meeting for Sufferings (the standing representative body of Quakers in Britain) that had already been in existence for many years before the outbreak of the War.

What was the Friends Peace Committee?

From its formation in the late 1880s, Friends Peace Committee was a vigorous Quaker committee with a strong outward looking character. Through a network of correspondents in Quaker meetings and active involvement with other peace organisations it aimed to establish local and international links with the wider peace movement.

When war was declared in 1914 the Peace Committee was already actively engaged in publishing and distributing peace literature – books, posters, postcards – campaigning against the growth in armaments and the threat of militarism, promoting arbitration, influencing public opinion and petitioning government.  As the literature being distributed shows, Quakers were ready to speak out on social and economic issues – “The armaments of the world… increasingly enrich the war traders and absorb the earnings and energy of the peoples in unproductive labour. They provoke suspicion and distrust and endanger the outbreak of devastating war” (report of Peace Committee for the year 1913-1914, London Yearly Meeting Proceedings, p.116).

The Peace Committee strongly urged Friends to become involved in other peace organisations and activities, locally, nationally and internationally. Its own publications show a perhaps surprising willingness to appeal to its audience in non-denominational, sometimes purely lay, terms.

Civil liberty (Peace Committee, 1913)

Civil liberty or military despotism, postcard issued by the Peace Committee of the Society of Friends, 1913. Library ref.: Vol. T/218-219i

The Peace Committee was concerned to involve young Friends, and its membership was not limited to those already serving on the Meeting for Sufferings. Women had played an important role in the Committee from the beginning, including some indefatigable campaigners, such as Ellen Robinson (1840-1912), and later, during the War, Marian E. Ellis (1878-1952) and Joan Mary Fry (1862-1955).



What sources does the Library hold on the work of Friends Peace Committee during the First World War?

Peace Committee archives: minutes

Peace Committee minutes 6 Aug 1914

Peace Committee minutes 6 August 1914 ( PE/M5, p.194)

The Library holds the archives of Friends Peace Committee from 1888 to 1965,

when its work was taken over by the new Peace & International Relations Committee. The World War I years are covered by two minute books for the years 1912-1916  and 1916-1921.

In the first year of the War a War Sub-committee was formed, with a membership extending outside the Peace Committee. Its records consist of one minute book recording eight meetings between 2 January and 2 November 1915.

Publication and distribution of peace literature was an important part of the Peace Committee’s activity, and mentioned regularly in its minutes and reports. Its Literature Sub-committee maintained a separate volume of minutes for the years 1912-1915.

Archives of the Peace Committee and its sub-committees during the years of World War I:

  • Peace Committee minutes (1912-1916)  (reference PE/M5)
  • Peace Committee minutes (1916-1921)  (reference PE/M6)
  • Literature Sub-committee minutes (1912-1915)
  •  War Sub-committee minutes and papers (1915)


Peace Committee reports

The Peace Committee’s annual reports to Meeting for Sufferings are published in the printed Proceedings of London Yearly Meeting (the annual gathering of British Quakers, now known as Britain Yearly Meeting).

  • Report for year 1913-1914              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1914 p.111-117
  • Report for year 1914-1915              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1915 p.10-16
  • Report for year 1915-1916              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1916 p.17-21
  • Report for year 1916-1917              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1917 p.51-55
  • Report for year 1917-1918              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1918 p. 39-41
  • Report for year 1918-1919              Yearly Meeting Proceedings 1919 p. 57-60

The peace testimony, war and the question of service in wartime were obviously dominant concerns for London Yearly Meeting during the war years. The printed Proceedings record minutes on these subjects sent up for consideration by quarterly meetings around the country, as well as minutes and public statements of the Yearly Meeting itself.

Reports of other Quaker committees are also of interest for understanding the role of the Peace Committee: it would be mistaken to see its work in isolation from that of the new committees which sprang up in response to the needs of the times, sharing both members and interests, such as the Service Committee, the War Victims Relief Committee and the Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians & Hungarians in Distress (the latter two of which eventually merged).  These organisations will be the subject of future blogposts of their own.

War Sub-committee minute 3, 2 Nov 1915

Extract from War Sub-committee minute 3, 2.ix.1915, referring to service of its members on a “multitude of committees”

An index was issued with each year’s printed Yearly Meeting Proceedings, printed at the front of each year.  The Library also holds a cumulative typescript index covering the period 1907-1932 (unpublished; available in the Library reading room).

Peace Committee membership records

Peace Committee was one of the larger central committees, with an expanded membership varying from 35 to 42 during the period of the First World War. Names of individual members were published in the printed annual lists of members of Meeting for Sufferings and its committees. A month by month record of appointments made by Meeting for Sufferings can be found in the minutes of Meeting for Sufferings. The Library has compiled an index of all Friends who served on the Peace Committee, including birth and death dates and dates of service (unpublished; available in the Library reading room).

Suggestions of Friends to serve on Peace Committee or its sub-committees also came from the Committee itself, and the Committee’s minutes are the main source of information about attendance of other Quakers who weren’t actually members of the Committee. For instance, on 6 August 1914, an emergency meeting of Peace Committee “with other interested Friends” was held, with Thomas P. Newman (in the chair), John Armstrong , J. Marshall Sturge,  F. J. Edminson, Herbert Corder, Mary L. Cooke, J. G. Alexander, Stephen Hobhouse, Marian Matthews (Letchworth), Marian Ellis, Harriet Alexander, Theodora Wilson Wilson, Alfred F. Fox, and E. Claude Taylor.

Peace Committee publications

Publications of the Peace Committee between 1914 and 1919 are included on the Library’s online catalogue, including books, pamphlets, circulars and postcards. To find full details, you can search the catalogue by organisation or by publisher, and limit your search by date.

The Peace Committee also produced a series of posters, some of which survive in our picture collection.

Further sources

Horace G. Alexander. “A nearly forgotten chapter in British peace activity – 1915.” Journal of the Friends Historical Society, vol. 55, no.5 ( 1987), p. 139-143. First hand account of the work of the War Sub-Committee by Horace G. Alexander, who served on it as a young man.

Margaret Glover. Images of peace in Britain from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War. PhD thesis, University of Reading, 2002.

Thomas C. Kennedy. British Quakerism 1860-1920: the transformation of a religious community.  Oxford University Press, 2001. Especially chapter 9, “A ghoulish terror of darkness” p.312-387.

Thomas C. Kennedy. “Many Friends do not know where they are.” Quaker theology, no. 11 (2005).  (Available online here).

Paul Laity. The British Peace Movement 1870-1914. Oxford University Press, 2001.  Origins of the Friends Peace Committee (p. 118-123) and the pre-war peace movement (p. 176-215).

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