Seaford Seven among the objectors

The North Camp Seaford where the Conscientious Objectors were held. (The spire of East Blatchington Church can be seen on the left)
The North Camp Seaford where the Conscientious Objectors were held. (The spire of East Blatchington Church can be seen on the left)

We recently remembered the fallen of the Great War and there were memorial services across the area.

I went to see the poppies at the Tower of London and was deeply moved by the sea of red ceramic flowers filling the medieval moat. The idea to commemorate the war-dead with poppies was actually American but it was adopted by the newly formed British Legion in 1921. It was in that year that artificial poppies went on sale to raise money for the Haig Fund.

Another view of the North Camp, Seaford

Another view of the North Camp, Seaford

Not everyone wears a poppy, many Quakers wear a white poppy instead, or as well as, a red one. I was recently asked to speak at a local Quaker meeting about Sussex in the Great War and I was interested to listen to the next speaker, Michael Boulton. Michael is the author of a 1967 book called ‘Objection Overruled’ about the conscientious objectors of the First World War. The book was commissioned by Bertrand Russell and has recently been republished. It is a fascinating account of the conscientious objectors, many of whom were not Quakers but members of the Independent Labour Party, (ILP) a socialist party established in 1893.

Conscription was considered at the beginning of the war and when it was declined by parliament in 1914, Claude Lowther, MP of Herstmonceaux, took matters into his own hands and began to recruit local men to join the Royal Sussex Regiment. During the early years of the war, recruitment was steady but began to falter during 1915 when the horrors of the front were widely reported. Conscientious objectors were able to avoid military service but in January 1916 compulsory conscription was introduced by the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The act required all single men between 18 and 41 to be called up for military service. In February 1916 a yellow ‘Form3236’ was sent out to hundreds of thousands of men instructing them to join the colours at the nearest recruiting office. Ironically it was even sent to men who had tried to join the military previously but had been deemed unfit.

Men who objected to joining the army could apply to the local tribunal. This was a committee which usually consisted of members of the local council, the clergy and a military representative. The tribunals became even busier in May 1916 when the act extended conscription to married men.

One man who refused to fight was a 28 year old printer from Tottenham. James Murfin (known as Fred). He was a Quaker and a member of the ILP. He applied to the local tribunal for an exemption certificate because of his religion, but was refused. The United Kingdom was one of the few countries in the world that actually allowed for conscientious objection. Parliament instructed tribunals to give ‘every consideration to a man who has religious or moral grounds’ but they generally thought it their duty to recruit as many men as possible irrespective of their objections.

In May 1916 Fred was arrested and appeared at Tottenham Magistrates’ where he was fined £2 for failing to join the army. When he refused to pay the fine he was handed to the military where he was joined by several fellow quakers. They were told they were now in the army and sent by train to Seaford. They were taken to the North Camp where they would be told there would be no trouble if they assisted in running the camp. They refused.

It is interesting to note that in 1916 the Seaford Tribunal actually went on strike for a number of weeks when they found that their decisions were being overruled by the Eastbourne Tribunal. At least one of these had escaped military service by working as a civilian in the very camp that the conscientious objectors were incarcerated.

While in Seaford the men were subject to a court martial for disobeying orders and were told they were going to be sent to France to be shot. While en-route to Seaford Station one man, a teacher, George Stuart Beavis, was handled roughly and his glasses were smashed. At the station they had a long wait for their train and the sergeant offered to take off their handcuffs but the men refused saying they wanted to be seen as prisoners. In David Boultons book, these men are described as the ‘Seaford Seven’. The other men were Wilfred Frear, a watchmaker; Alfred Taylor, Philip Jordan, a baker; Edwin Walker, the manager of a photographic department, and Arthur Walling, a station master’s clerk. All were from north London.

As they were being transported abroad the House of Commons was being told that the men were not going to be sent to France and would not be shot.

On arrival in France the men were indeed sentenced to death. However, fearful that this stance would cause a backlash at home and would hinder recruiting, the Government instructed Haig to commute all death penalties to 10 years’ imprisonment. The Seaford Seven were reprieved and returned to English prisons where, with days of the end of the war in 1919 they were released.