The Lady Superintendent of Cromwell House Hospital

Nurses at Cromwell House with Eliza in the middle

It’s International Women’s Day and I thought that in tribute, I would write about an ancestor of mine who I have been researching recently. It’s about my 4x Great Aunt Eliza, who I have discovered was a pioneer in the Victorian nursing profession.

Eliza was born in 1843 in Hampshire. Her Father, George, was a linen draper in Southampton, who later went on to be a Justice of the Peace and a Magistrate in Brighton. Eliza, was one of many children. Only two of them were boys and only one of them survived past childhood (my direct descendent).

I found Eliza on the 1881 census where at the age of 38, she was living at Cromwell House Hospital in Highgate,  London. But she was not a patient at the hospital – she was a nurse. In fact she was ‘Lady Superintendent’ of the hospital.

In the 1800s nursing was not seen as a very respectable profession for women. It was only during the Crimean War (1850’s) that the influence of nurses like Florence Nightingale changed attitudes. Slowly nursung became a suitable profession for women.

Cromwell House was, located in the suburbs of London. It was a C17 mansion and in 1869 a children’s convalescence home opened there. It was part of the Hospital for Sick Children whose main branch opened in the 1850s at Great Ormond Street.

Prior to this, private convalescence homes existed usually at the seaside. In 1852 there were homes at Mitcham,  Margate, Brighton, Torquay and Eastbourne. These homes relied on philanthropy to finance them but were far away from London and would not take in children under four years old.

The Hospital for Sick Children, treated youngsters with chronic illnesses such as tuberculosis. In 1868 the governors realised that the same children kept being re-admitted because they were being treated then sent back to unhealthy, over-crowded housing. The governors agreed that what they really needed was more recovery time without taking up valuable bed space. Cromwell House was the answer.

Cromwell House was staffed by a senior nurse, 2 assistant nurses, a convalescent nurse (a teacher), a cook, a kitchen maid, 2 Housemaids and a porter / gardener. As lady Superintendent, Eliza would have overseen the whole operation.

In 1881 there were 13 adults at the house (including Eliza) and 43 children aged 2 to 11. Each nurse was responsible for 9 to 11 children. The daily duties of the nurses included washing and dressing each child in their care, dressing their wounds, taking temperatures, administering medicines, making beds, serving meals, giving them tea at 4pm and putting them to bed.

The staff at the hospital worked long hours, often 7am to 7pm. And as well as attending to the children they were also required to look after the house, sweeping and dusting, scrubing tables and lockers and washing bandages and soiled linen. They were also required to carry children to and from the garden.

The children were encouraged to spend a lot of time outside. They had a playground with swings and chutes and vast lawns to play on. Local visitors bought them flowers and fruit and parents could visit on a Sunday. In the summer a barrel organ and dancing monkey would entertain them. The children were also taught to read and write.

Cromwell House

Cromwell House closed down in the 1920s. It was no longer thought of as a suitable place and the convalescence home was relocated to Tadworth Court.

I don’t know how long Eliza stayed at Cromwell House because I could not find her on the census in 1871 or 1891. But on the 1901 census she was a retired nurse, visiting her Father and sisters in Brighton.

I refer to Eliza as a pioneer because she held a high position in nursing at a time when it was still unusual for women to be involved in the medical profession. The job must have been tough with all those children in her care. And I still have lots of questions and research to do – where and when did she train to be a nurse? Was she stationed elsewhere?

Anyway, today I’m thinking about all the women pioneers, especially those whose names are lost to history. May their strength and spirit live on in their female ancestors today.


Return to Old Belchite: A Field Trip.

Archaeology in the heat

For two weeks in July 2022 I went on an archaeology field trip to Spain. The dig was based in the old town of Belchite a National Monument in the northern province of Aragon. The town itself was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and Republican Prisoners of War were forced to build a new town next door. We stayed in the new town which was based on a model grid pattern of traditional two and three story houses with the focal point of a central square close to the church and city hall.

Belchite City Hall – the largest in all of Spain for the population of the town.

Aragon is the driest part of Spain a landscape of flat, dusty plateaus which gave way to small hills (pimples) punctuated with the occasional olive grove and urban conurbation. It was easy to imagine the Romans settling here and evidence of this was common. Roman ceramics were seen in abundance lying on the surface of ploughed fields.  In one place which we visited ceramics were located near the remnants of Roman pottery kilns which were overlooked by an iron age hill fort.

Aragon Landscape
Large kiln in the countryside
Iron Age Hill Fort

There was no conclusive proof that old Belchite was inhabited as far back as Roman times. But the group discovered that some Roman stones had been used in the building of some of the major structures in Old Belchite (in the churches for example). In fact, nobody really knows the origins of the town. The oldest materials which we found on the dig were Moorish ceramics from the 1100s.

We had a very specific task as archaeologists which centred around the Medieval heart of old Belchite. The first task was to remove the dirt and rubble from plaza San Salvador to reveal the surface of early Medieval cobble stones. We did this using hoes, pick axes and spades. Next we used trowels to profile the individual stones. When overnight rain washed all the dust away it was wonderful to see that the stones were actually an array of colours – grey, red and yellow. Unfortunatly the run-off settled in the bottom of the small drain which ran through part of the square leaving a crust behind on the stones we had cleaned up the previous day.

Stones and the drain
More of the drain and stones

We cleaned up about 2/3’s of the square. But we couldn’t get too close to the remains of the buildings (in this case a former mosque which was later converted into a church, then used as a prison) because of their fragile state. Old Belchite’s crumbling red brick buildings have been slowly collapsing over the years. In fact, the first thing I noticed when I arrived was there being considerably fewer standing buildings than during my previous visit 5 years ago. Some efforts had been made to save some of the largest buildings. But many of them were in such a bad state after 90 years they were not worth preserving.

In front of the Mosque / former prison

As well as the drain running through the street (which would have eventually emptied out into a small canal) there were other interesting features in the square’s stonework. These were shallow craters where the larger stones were missing. The craters contained the odd peice of shrapnel, a bullet case and possibly part of a hand grenade and it just so happened that these were in areas where barricades were put in place during the civil war. That was just enough evidence to keep the conflict archaeologists among us happy!

The second task of the field trip was to clean and tidy Calle del Senor which ran from the square to the Calle Mayor. The street was onced lined with houses and was one which Nationalist troops used to escape from the town during the Battle of Belchite in 1937. For cleaning this street we used the spades and hoes again as well as dustpans and brushes but it didn’t take up too much time – although sometimes it did feel like we were just moving dust from one place to another!

Calle Senor, 7am

Besides, the days were hot slowly ramping up to 40 degrees during the second week which led to frequent breaks and long siestas. As a result we worked on the site 7-11.30am and 6-9pm and much of the siesta-time was spent at Belchite’s swimming pool which emptied of locals after 2pm.

A place to snooze under the trees at the swimming pool

As well as site work there was research to do, villagers memories to record and ceramics to label. Trips out included a walk around the part of the old town outside of the fence. There lay the ruins of the church belonging to a former seminary the rest of which had been completely destroyed, the camp where the prisoners of war were held and where some displaced villagers lived, as well as some previously inhabited caves.

The prison camp
The board outside the prison camp
The seminaries church

It was my first archaeology field trip and I put my name down as a volunteer straight away when I saw it advertised (before lockdown). I volunteered because although I work on an archaeological site, I’d never been on a dig before. I also wanted to do it because I’d visited the site before as a tourist and had fond memories of my visit. It was a place which conjured up many emotions. And as it happened, it was a fantastic experience, hard work but also great fun. Would I do it again? Of course.

Working hard and playing hard!

Red Ellen: The Peterborough Connection

I first came across the name Ellen Wilkinson in conjunction with research on the 1926 general strike in Peterborough for my MA dissertation. It appeared that Ellen had written a book about the strike with Frank Horrabin, Peterborough’s first Labour MP and Raymond Postgate published in 1927. But I never thought too much about her and then read that a play called ‘Red Ellen’ was being performed at the Nottingham Playhouse in April 2022. So I went to see it.

The play was based in the 1930s and 1940s and portrayed Ellen as a complex character a trade unionists never quite finding her place in politics and being unable to square her anti-war and peace ethics with the fight against fascism. Therefore it only had one brief mention of Frank who had a relationship with Ellen in the 1920s – so I decided to research that time of her life through local newspaper reports from Peterborough.

Poster for ‘Red Ellen’ at Nottingham Playhouse

Ellen first spoke in Peterborough on 11 May 1926 during a tour of 47 mass meetings which took place across Britain in support of the General Strike. The general strike was a 9 day stoppage of workers in a variety of industries in support of Miners who were in dispute with their employer. The tour covered 2000+ miles and accompanying her was Peterborough’s prospective Labour MP, Frank Horrabin. The Peterborough Standard reported that the Corn Exchange where the Peterborough meeting took place, was packed with people sympathetic towards the plight of the miners.

Ellen’s partner in crime, Frank Horrabin was a married man. I have written about Frank and his wife Winnifred (nee Batho) previously on the blog site. But Ellen’s appearances in Peterborough coincided with the time she and Frank spent together throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Her friendship with Frank started with activism within the National College of Labour Councils (NCLC) although the two of them had been in the CPGB along with Postgate by 1924 all three had left the Party. It was perhaps because of the Communist Party’s hostility to the NCLC’s journal, Plebs which she and Frank wrote for. Ellen she was elected to the Plebs executive committee in 1924.

Ellen spoke next at a meeting chaired by John Mansfield in November 1926. By this time she had been a Labour MP for two years. The meeting took place at the Cooperative Hall and after speaking about miner’s wages and nationalisation of the industry (the Miners were still in dispute in then), Ellen turned her attention to the British Empire and nationalism. An ardent anti-fascist and member of the peace movement, she warned that the Conservative Party was only looking to preserve its own wealth and prosperity and that a ‘great’ country would not be achieved by filling streets with union jacks, the navy and army but by its ‘happy human souls.’ She called the British Empire

The Empire on which the sun never sets and in which wages never rise.’

In June 1927 Ellen spoke on the subject of the 1927 Trade Unions and Trades Dispute Bill extremely unpopular legislation which came about as a consequence of the 1926 General Strike. Her speech at the Stanley Recreation Ground was described as ‘straight forward’ and ‘charmingly delivered’ by the Peterborough Standard newspaper. Ellen explained how the Act would attack liberation and the rights so hard fought for during the late C19 and early C20. She said that Peterborough’s MP, Sir Leonard Brassey was wrong to suggest to fear the Bill and accused the press of distracting the working class with articles about ‘community singing’ and ‘pushball.’

But as an anti-Colonialist Ellen spoke about Empire again at the rally on Stanley Rec. She attacked foreign policy warning that Britain’s isolationist policies would lead them to the brink of war and ‘ridiculed’ the Arcos raid where 200 police raided the All Russian Co-operative Society in London. ARCOS organised Anglo-Soviet trade but the British government accused the company of subversion and of being a communist front. Ellen said that Britain was becoming isolationist by throwing trade and friendship away and said that it was done in the interests of a few Tories who she obviously disliked. This was no surprise as Ellen came from a working class family who were heavily influenced by Methodism, a nonconformist religion.

There were no reports of Ellen speaking again in Peterborough until 1929 when she went out on the campaign trail with Frank. An event which took place at the Co-operative Hall in March was reportedly packed out. It was chaired by Winifred and Frank was another speaker. Ellen started on the platform by imploring all the women of the division to vote for Labour and later turned her attention to the Tory government. Then she spoke of poverty using the example of slums in Peterborough where 7 people were forced to share a bed and many people shared one tap. She mentioned the looming prospect of war again telling the crowd that Labour stood for peace. In fact, Ellen and Frank were guests of honour at a No War demo at the Mansfield Hall on 27 May.

From the Peterborough Standard newspaper 24 May 1929

But back at the March meeting Ellen spoke about Brassey again. Brassey was a wealthy land owner whose family owned Apethorpe Hall near Northampton. Ellen made her feelings quite clear stating that although she would like to speak to Brassey she had heard he was a ‘rather unpleasant’ man and quipped that nobody had seen him in Parliament as ‘he seemed to like the Mediterranean better,’ she quipped to applause. Ellen had a reputation as being an amusing as well as fiery speaker.

The election took place in May 1929 and resulted in a hung Parliament. It was fought in the context of unemployment and was also known as the ‘Flapper’ election because it was the first election in which women over 21 could vote. Frank won his seat and became the first Labour MP for Peterborough. Ellen was also re-elected having been the MP for Middlesbrough since 1924 and there was more to celebration later in the year when the Labour Club opened on Fitzwilliam Street in Peterborough. George Lansbury opened the club in October and Ellen and Winnie opened a grand bazar held the following week.

A photo from the play Red Ellen

There were no reports of Ellen speaking in Peterborough again until the campaign for the 1931 general election was underway. At the Mansfield Hall in April, Ellen was back taunting the district’s wealthy land owners. This time her ire was reserved for Peterborough’s Conservative candidate and Olympic standard athlete Lord Burghley aka, David Cecil of Burghley House near Stamford. Ellen quoted an article from the Peterborough Standard in which a journalist stated that Burghley would have won the Fitzwilliam point to point even if he had not taken his horse. She warned he would have a worse time during the coming election. The newspaper reported of this meeting that Ellen

splashed about vigorously in economic rivers and threw up the clouds of the kind of aromatic spray with which Labour orators indulge their audiences.’

Additionally the writer said that Ellen ‘weaved fact and fiction together’ as she had done on a speaking tour during the general strike. The writer was clearly not a fan – but neither were the wealthy landowners. G. E. Fitzwilliam of Peterborough’s Milton Estate responded to Ellen’s statement that it was over for the likes of Burghley, Exeter and the Fitzwilliam’s at the opening of a Conservative Bazar where he stated that Brassey had 20 years service to his country, no-one had ‘done more’ for their county and country than Exeter and Lord Burghley was running for his country in American and Germany remarking on his athletics skills.

But before the end of the year it was all over (politically) for Ellen and Frank as both lost their seats in the election. Ellen was in Peterborough on election night and spoke at the Mansfield Hall where she was rapturously received and told the crowd not to be down hearted. The political flow she stated would soon turn, and she was right – Ellen was re-elected in 1933. But for the MP the reason why Horrabin lost in the 1931 general election was because they had not canvassed on the doorstep. Ellen stated that people believed that only the rich gave employment – so only they knew how to handle the economy.

‘Tory economics’ Ellen declared ‘was the economics of a lunatic asylum.’

The campaign for the 1931 election was the last time reports of Ellen Wilkinson appeared in the Peterborough’s press. It seemed to coincide with a parting of ways with Frank Horrabin for the two disagreed over the strategy of the ILP in the early 1930s and stopped writing together.

References: Matt Perry ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson, 18, 42, 46, 136, 139; Peterborough Standard: 14 May 1926, 8; 25 November 1926, 9; 17 June 1926, 9; 1 March 1929, 4; 2 October 1929, 8; 8 August 1930, 7; 3 April 1931, 8; 23 October 1931, 11; 30 October 1931, 11.

A Sing Song and a Scrap: Attending the 90 Anniversary of The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

It was a bit of a spontaneous decision to go to Hayfield in the Peak District and join in with the 90 Anniversary celebrations for the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

Village heritage board

We arrived on Friday night, the day before the main commemorations took place travelling north after work. The journey to Hayfield took about 3 hours and took us right over the top of the peaks. Quite spectacular especially for somebody who lives in the flat lands. After arriving in time for pizza at a local Italian followed by a pint of the Hayfield Brewery’s Trespass at the Royal Inn we settled down in our accommodation.

Trespass board in Hayfield Chemists

To put the Mass Trespass into context, after the First World War young people started to travel outside of the big industrial cities to spend time in the much healthier countryside. With regards to Hayfield, a village in the High Peak close to both Manchester and Sheffield, it was reported that 6000 day trippers were visiting the village each weekend by the 1930s. Easter weekend in 1930 was visited by 13,000 people alone. These stats demonstrated the importance of rural spaces to the urban working class.

Mass Trespass sign in car park

After a lovely breakfast at Rosie Lee’s on Saturday morning and a bit of an exploration up to the snake path, we headed to the village hall to check out an exhibition. It contained poetry written by children about their walks up to ‘Twenty Trees’ and submissions from Loughborough University students for plans for a visitor centre at Hayfield.

Twenty Trees (although there are actually less than that)

Next, we checked out the marquee outside the Royal Inn which contained stalls from local countryside assosiations, book stalls and even the International Brigades Memorial Trust was there (a number of the British Batallion who died in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 took part in the mass trespass). We purchased some books, a commemorative badge and a souvenir programme. Then we had a pint of Trespass and Kinder Downfall each while we waited for speakers to start in the function room.

Some of the loot from the marquee

The moors on which the young people from the cities used to walk on was once

The moors of the Peak District which were popular for walkers during the Interwar period had once been common land. But access was limited by the 1930s because of the aristocratic land owners who wanted them for grouse shooting. Just 764 acres out of the 84,000 which formed the High Peak were publicly accessible by the tome of the mass trespass. Additionally, of the Peak District’s 215 square miles there were only 12 public footpaths. Consequently, campaigners started to trespass onto the moors to protest the lack of public access.

On the Moor with shooting cabin in the background
Red Grouse calls

From in front of a ‘right to roam’ banner the compere told us that we were all part of the struggle for more publicly accessible land which the Kinder Scout Trespassers had been fighting for. There were similar sentiments from some of the speakers who were Caroline Lucas MP, Kate Ashbrook of the Ramblers and Open Spaces Society, Yvonne Witter of Mosaic, Craig Best from the National Trust, and journalist Stuart Maconie. Keith Warrender who wrote a book I purchased in the Marquee called Forbidden Kinder, also spoke about his research. The crowd sang John Ball and The Manchester Rambler with musician Brian Peters before the afternoon had finished. It was all very inspirational.

Caroline Lucas MP
Stuart Maconie

On Sunday 24 April 1932 Benny Rothman and a crowd of people who demanded access to the countryside marched up the Snake Path to William Clough and up onto Kinder Scout. Gamekeepers were unable to stop the crowd of 400 who had travelled from Manchester. Contrary to popular belief there was little fighting on the moors but a gamekeeper was injured in a scuffle, leading to arrests when the young people returned to the village later that day.

The start of Snake Path at Hayfield
Plaque at the start of Snake Path, Hayfield

On Sunday 24 April 2020, we got up early and walked up the snake path, past twenty trees, and over the moor to the William Clough path. But rather than going onto Kinder Scout on this trip we headed around the reservoir and back to the village. On the way, lots of people walked in our direction for the mass trespass of 2020 – wild swimming in the cold, deep reservoir. This was too draw attention to the fact that there is very little public access to rivers and waterways in England.

Snake Path through the Moor
William Clough leading to Kinder Reservoir
A valley stream
Route map from souvenir programme

The result of the mass trespass organised by Rothman was that Kinder Scout and the Peak District was designated the first national park by the post-war government in 1948. It opened in 1951.

The story of the Mass Trespass is a great peice of radical history. But even in 2022 the public only has access to 7% of the land in England and less than 1% of the population owns half of the land. With more and more of our green spaces being built on, in both rural and urban environmemts, the struggle for public access to land is more important than ever.

‘Right to roam’ banner

Notes: Info comes from the 90 Anniversary Souvenir Programme. Photos by Hazel Perry. A Singsong and a Scrap is the title of a Chumbawamba album and a line in the album track, ‘You Can (Mass Trespass 1932).’

Millfield Radical History Tour

I am pleased to present my very first radical history waking tour of Peterborough. The tour will take place on 8 August 2021 and there are two times to choose from. The tour is part of the Millfield Festival 2021 in conjunction with Peterborough Presents.

The tour will start from The Triangle and will weave through the streets of Millfield to the Link Road Memorial and will take between 1hr and 1hr 30mins. The tour is free and booking is via the link below:

Memorial Fountain on the Triangle.

Tales of the 84 Sanitary Section, Italy, 1917-1918.

‘Here for five months we have toiled in all weathers from blinding snow and hail through deluges, to scorching sunshine and dust clouds.’

This quote was written by one of the 84 Sanitary Section in July 1918 when the RAMC men had been in position on the Asiago plateau in Italy for 5 months. 

Part of the 48 South Midland Field Ambulance, 84 Sanitary Section was a non-comatative group whose role  was to look after the hygiene of billets, supplies, water and soldiers. Unarmed and consisting of health and safety specialists these men did not encounter the front line, except for times when the casualties were high and extra stretcher bearers were required.

When entrained for Italy in November 1917, it must have been a relief for the men of the 84 to leave the wet, mud and blood of France and Belgium behind. They left St Omer on the 6th and arrived in Italy a week later.

‘The journey was one long picnic – lovely weather accompanied us from the north down through the heart of France to Marseille and onto Ventimiglia… added to this was the joyous reception of the Italian people.’

The Italian front is often forgotten in the history of WWI. British Army divisions were sent there in late 1917 to assist the Italian troops who had come to an impasse with Austro-Hungarian troops in the mountains of the North.

From Mantoua, where the section arrived on 11 November, the 84 marched north east to the foothill of the Italian Alps and spent 4 months by the Piave at Montebelluna where there were,

‘hard working hours’ and ‘intense cold followed by moonlight serenaders.’

In February 1918 two of the British Divisions left Italy and returned to the Western Front. Those remaining, the 7th, 13th and 48th divisions left for Asiago in March where they upgraded defences, took part in night raids and patrolled the area.

The 84 sanitary section left Piave on 13 March spending 10 days resting at Vigardolo on the plains before joining the divisions at Asiago. Evidently, it was a difficult journey,

‘Who can adequately describe it! A wearisome cycle ride for some, a broken down lorry and a useless box car.’

However, once installed, there were trips to Lake Garda and occasionally easy work for some of the men on the plains below.

Lake Garda.

The section was joined by my Great Grandfather ‘Hal’ on 31 March, during ‘one of the most difficult times of the sections career.’ Hal had left Southampton, England for Le Havre, France on 1 March 1918 and after a couple of weeks training, entrained for Italy.

Perhaps ‘difficult times’ referred to the events of June when the Second Battle of the Piave River (or the Austro-Hungarian Operation Solstice) took place. The battle started at 3am on 15 June when canons opened fire and Italian lines were attacked with gas along the middle Piave River and Adriatic coast by the Austro-Hungarian soldiers.

Italian River

This was a strategic move by the Austro-Hungarians to cross the Piave River and they managed to achieve this objective pushing 15 miles wide and 5 miles deep into their enemies territory.

The second of the part of the strategic two pincer movement was for the Austro-Hungarians to cross the Asagio plateau with the aim of attacking the town of Vincenza. However, resistance from Italian and British troops was fierce.

Resistance was also fierce around the river Piave. The river was swollen after days of rain which made the bridges unsafe while British planes bombed the enemy and attacks from Italian troops cut off supplies and reinforcements of Austro-Hungarian troops. The invaders were eventually ordered to retreat back across the river.

Meanwhile, on 23 June, Austro-Hungarian troops breached the British 48 division defensive line on the Asiago plateau. With British soldiers weak from a ‘mountain fever’ otherwise known as Spanish Flu, the enemy took advantage. However, they were repelled the next day and forced to fall back leaving British troops to mount large scale raids on Austro-Hungarian positions.

Mount Grappa, east of the Asiago plateau.

The ‘Battle in the woods and clouds’ was over. But it was the beginning of the end for the Austro-Hungarian army who would finally be defeated at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in November. In the meantime the 84 moved to Grenezza for a peaceful but wet summer:

‘Do you remember those spells of cold rainy weather, when we wore drill suits and sun helmets to keep us cool? Don’t shiver!’

The quotes in this article have come from a scrap book that was written and illustrated by members of the 84. In it, the sanitary section charted their adventures in France and Italy and shared stories about their experiences. Hal was an art editor for the book.

Of course, I have written before about Hal’s death in Italy. To clarify, in October 2018 Hal caught ‘mountain fever’ and after four days in the care of the South Midlands Field Ambulance, was transferred to the 39th Casualty Clearing Station at Dueville. Hal died 24 hours later from bronchial pneumonia and was interred at the CCWG cemetery at Monteccio Precalino.

References: 84 Sanitary Section ‘Souvenir Book,’; tourism; Wikipedia;; images by me (Mount Grappa), postcards were collected in Italy by Hal and returned to his family with his belongings.

Rememberance: Salient Points.

Today, Remembrance Day 2020, a copy of this new journal came through my letterbox. It’s called Salient Points and is a journal open to anyone to write for founded by the Great War Group.

The journal looks great, set out well and is really eye-catching.

Cover of Salient Points Issue 1.

I wrote an obituary for a Great Great Grandad who was killed in Italy, October 1918. I’ve mentioned him a few times before in this blog and it is included in this issue of Salient Points.

The journal is not peer reviewed and is open to anyone to submit any articles on any aspect of WWI. The journals are themed however, I have a few more ideas up my sleeve looking at more radical aspects of the war.

The Great War Group are on Twitter and Facebook and here is a link to their website.


Peterborough’s Conscientious Objector: Percy Woodall.

Badge of the Non Combatant Corps.

During the 1890s, Walter Woodall (29) and his wife Clara (25) moved from West End Villas in Stamford to Uppingham a small town in Rutland. Percy was one year old by then. The family was embarking on an exciting new venture as shop keepers.

The shop was a Grocers on the High Street in the small Rutland Town of Uppingham. In Stamford, Walter had worked as a grocer’s assistant so he had experience. An apprentice and assistant were hired to work in Woodall shop and a domestic servant looked after the living quarters. Two more children were born into the family – Lily and James.

In 1900, Walter died suddenly. Clara attempted to manage the shop, however, by 1911 the family had left the grocers and moved to Peterborough where Clara had been born. The family lived on Orchard Street in New Fletton and they were joined by Emily, Clara’s mother, also a widow.

Lily, now 19, had a job as a tailoress for gents clothing at the cooperative society.  Percy, 21, was a letterpress printer and in 1915, he married Hilda. However, as the horrors of the First World War gripped Britain Percy stayed at home and did not volunteer to fight abroad.

However, conscription was introduced through the Military Service Act in January 1916. It allowed people to register their objections to going to war as COs. As a result 16,000 men were given non-comatative roles often in the medical services. However, for those who stayed behind it was not easy, for COs risked abuse in the streets for not going to war.

For the men refused to go to war their reasons were complex.  Some were humanist, some political and often they were religious. For example, those who took the Bible at face value refused to kill their fellow man and leftists did not want to fight other working class men. 

Percy was a Baptist and maybe that was why he did not approve of the war. He also had left-wing political views which would see him elected as the secretary of Peterborough Trades Union Council in the 1920s / 1930s as a member of the Typographical Association. In 1917, his occupation was recorded as a compositor.

On 20 April 1917, Percy refused to sign his recruitment papers for the Northamptonshire Regiment and was immediatly arrested for refusing to carry out an order from a higher ranking officer. He was taken to the military tribunal at Northampton and scentenced to six months hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.

COs were treated badly in prison and were subjected to mental and physical privation and solitary confinement. Out of the 6,312 men arrested as a CO in Britain, 5,970 were imprisoned as they were seen as soldiers absent without leave. Once they were released they could be arrested again, in a game of cat and mouse first developed by the Government to counter the Suffragettes earlier in the decade.

Men interned at Dartmoor Prison, names not known (Ref: Cyril Pearce).

After 3 months in Wormwood Scrubs, Percy was sent to Dartmoor Prison, a work camp where men were sent to carry out work ‘of national importance.’ However, men could be released from Dartmoor to work for the Government if they passed the initial interview when they arrived. Those who stayed behind were known as ‘Absolutists’ and they refused to do any work connected with the war or military at all.

Consequently, the work at the camp was useless. The Conchie field at Princetown for example, a moor which the men were instructed to Plough and a fill with ditches. The Government wanted COs to sacrifice as much as soldiers on the front. Therefore, the conditions at the prison were bad with malnutrition common and the spread of pneumonia. 

Research did not turn up any details of how long Percy stayed at Dartmoor, however, he wasn’t discharged from the army until March 1920, and went about his life. In 1922, Percy and Hilda had a son and by 1939 was working as a printer’s overseer. He died in the 1970s, a principled man if conscience.


1891, 1901, 1911, 1939 Census and Miltary Records from

CO database by Cyril Pearce via the IWM.

IWM website