Special Collections recently added the archives of Samuel Harrison to the Liddle Collection. Sam’s letters to his girlfriend, Annie Lax paint a vivid picture of the experiences of conscientious objectors in the First World War. Sam was born in Holbeck, Leeds, in 1889. When the First World War broke out in 1914 he did not join up, but continued working in the family’s wheelwright business.
After Britain suffered heavy losses at the Western Front, the government introduced conscription through the Military Service Act in 1916. Able-bodied men aged 18-41 were called up to fight. Sam joined the 3rd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment as a private, but was soon in trouble for refusing to obey orders.
Sam’s letters to Annie reveal that he claimed exemption from military service. Men could do this on the basis that their conscience did not permit them to fight. They were known as conscientious objectors or COs and had to appear before a Military Service Tribunal to state their case. The government recognised those whose ‘objection genuinely rests on religious or moral convictions’. Only a few conscientious objectors were completely exempted from military service.
Sam was held under house arrest in The Park Hotel at Whitley Bay with other men who refused to obey orders. Rations were short. Samuel wrote to Annie ‘To day (Sun) 2 slices of dry bread, & ham (some ham) for breakfast, & water, I mean tea. Dinner – 1 small potato, beef cabbage, & hlf slice bread dry. Tea – 2 slices of Bread & Marg, & bun.’ Several men threw pots and plates out of the window while demanding more to eat. Annie sent food parcels, but an attempt to post butter ended in disaster!
Some men went on hunger strike as Sam records on 8th May 1917 how the doctors visited ‘& told us that unless we ate, we should be fed at 2 pm’. He describes hearing through the walls ‘the heartrending groans of Harold’ as the other man was force fed. This unsurprisingly ‘unnerved’ him. Sam and his fellow hunger strikers were moved to the Northumberland War Hospital where ‘they keep bringing Nurses and Patients in to look at us as curios, & cowards’.
Following his tribunal Sam was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs. It is likely that he was assigned to building carts as his collection contains a photograph of one built by conscientious objectors. After the war the Quaker MP T. Edmund Harvey became involved in his case. Sam’s father, John, had died and the wheelwright business in Leeds was in jeopardy. Harvey’s letter dated 2nd December 1918 confirms that Sam could return to stop the family business ‘from going under’.
On 16 April 1919 Sam and Annie married. Sam became a councillor in 1932 and later the chairman of Ripponden Council. A Labour Party member, he was also chairman of Ripponden Labour Party.