Prisoners of Conscience by Erik Grigg

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 by The Collection  | Category: Events 
  • Heuston Letter

    Heuston Letter

  • The Clock

    The Clock

  • Fenner Brockway - IMG/ORG/ILP/0979 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford

    Fenner Brockway - IMG/ORG/ILP/0979 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford

  • Fenner Brockway - IMG/ORG/ILP/0978 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford

    Fenner Brockway - IMG/ORG/ILP/0978 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford

This blog is designed to highlight a display in The Collection in Lincoln in September 2017. It was organised to coincide with Heritage Lincolnshire's Heritage Open Days. The theme of their open days was Freedom, Justice and Liberty so it was thought the story of some interesting characters held at Lincoln Prison would fit nicely. As part of this project there will also be a talk on Saturday 9th of September in the Hardy Building at 2pm at Bishop Grosseteste University and a guided walk along the escape route taken by some Irish prisoners on Sunday 10th September at 3pm.

During (and immediately after) World War One there were some prisoners held in Lincoln Prison who later became famous politicians. One was Fenner Brockway, a pacifist and conscientious objector who was incarcerated for refusing to join the British Army in World War One. Another was Eamon de Valera, an Irish rebel who along with some fellow republicans, was locked up in Lincoln Prison.

During World War One, Conscientious Objectors were in a very small majority and thousands queued to join the British Army in 1914 and 1915. While they were vilified as cowards at the time, with hindsight many feel that their stand against the war took courage. With the Irish rebels they were vilified both in Britain and in Ireland during their uprising. They had contributed to a huge amount of damage to Dublin and had diverted military resources away from the Western Front where so many Irishmen died tried to stop the Kaiser's imperialism. In the wake of the Easter Rising the British started to execute the leaders, de Valera was spared this fate by a last minute reprieve, and this harsh backlash turned the tide in favour of the republicans.

Some of the people involved carried on to have quite successful careers. Fenner Brockway ended up as a Labour MP of East Leyton for the Independent Labour Party 1929-31 and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1950-64. In 1965, Fenner was made a life peer. Eamon de Valera was the Taoiseach or Prime Minister of Ireland (1932-48, 1951-54 and 1957-59) and the Uachtarán na hÉireann or President of Ireland (1959-73).


Fenner Brockway's books
We would like to gratefully thank Hazel Kent and Bishop Grosseteste Library for the loan of these books for the display.
Socialism for Pacifists.The 1916 book was written by Fenner Brockway outlying his political ideas.

LCF 1914-1919
A souvenir booklet of the work of the No-Conscription Fellowship that includes a short account of the story of the NCF written by Fenner Brockway.

A New Way with Crime

Written by Fenner Brockway in 1928. This gave a description of his time in prison: "A prison cell is seven feet by ten. I defy any man, with imagination to realise what existence in that tomb is like – shut in it sixteen out of twenty-four hours, for weeks, for months, for years."

The C.O. and the Community

A booklet written by Fenner Brockway probably in 1942 outlining his objections to fighting in World War Two.

Inside the Left

First published in 1942, this book gives and account of Eamon de Valera's escape from Lincoln Prison. On page 117 (note that he says five Irish prisoners escaped, in fact it was just three):

Then suddenly I was sitting up straight, my heart bumping with excitement. Whistles were blowing, voices shouting, doors banging. I listened intently. More warders were being marches into the prison. They were being paraded at the centre and instructions given to them. I could hear steps in the yard outside. I jumped up, dragged the stool to the window and looked into the night. Lights were flashing here and there, into odd corners. There could be only one explanation. There had been an escape.

I was as excited as though it had been myself. I put my mouth to the open pane and jeered at the warders outside. "You won't find him," I shouted. "You won't find him. We'll all escape and you won't find any of us." A warder lifted his light to my window for a moment and then went on with his task, walking gingerly, throwing his light from side to side. I stood at the window and jeered until the search of the yard has concluded and the lights had gone. Then I listened at the door, trying to appraise the various sounds until they had ceased. I was fairly confident that the escaped prisoners had not been recaptured. The warders would have shouted the news to each other if they had caught them.

It was several days before the details came through from Alistair Mac. De Valera and four of his colleagues had got away…

98 Not Out

Fenner Brockway's 1986 autobiography. This copy is signed by Fenner himself (in a rather shaky hand it must be said).

Fenner Brockway's voice

The Imperial War Museum has produced a podcast about Conscientious Objectors and as part of that programme, Fenner's voice is recorded, click here to listen.

Fenner Brockway's photographs

These have been reproduced by kind permission of the Independent Labour Party.

The picture where he is sitting at a desk is: IMG/ORG/ILP/0979 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford. The picture where Fenner has his arms folded is: IMG/ORG/ILP/0978 from The Working Class Movement Library: Salford.

Letter from the Governor

The National Archives has a letter from the Governor of Lincoln Prison dated 21st January 1916 that expresses the authority's exasperation with Fenner's lack of cooperation and refusal to obey the rules!

Tribunal questions

When conscripted a conscientious objector would apply for exemption and be sent to a tribunal to answer some set questions. Here, taken from a World War One pamphlet entitled 'Why I am a conscientious objector', are some of the questions and below Fenner's answers from the same source. The pamphlet was produced to give of conscientious objectors ideas of what to expect at the tribunals and what to say.

The Tribunal Questions:

1. State precisely on what grounds you base your objections to combatant service.

2. If you object also to non-combatant service, state precisely your reasons.

3. Do you object to participating in the use of arms in any dispute, whatever the circumstances and however just, in your opinion, the cause?

10. A) If you are not willing to undertake any kind of work of national importance as a condition of being exempted from military service, state precisely your reasons; and also B) How you reconcile your enjoying the privileges of British citizenship with this refusal.

Fenner's answers:

1. I object to combatant service because I believe human life to be sacred and because I know it would be wrong for me, holding this belief, to take human life.

2. I object to non-combatant service because it assists the taking of life and the prosecution of war, which I believe to be wrong.

3. I object to the use of arms and every dispute. However just the cause, I do not believe the method of war to be justified.

10. I believe the first duty of a citizen is to be loyal to his conscience. Only as the members of a State live according to the Truth they can see can a Sate really advance.

Fenner Brockway's play 'The Recruit'

We don't have a copy on display, but thought this might also interest you. This is an extract from a one act play he wrote in 1919 (page 14).

This scene is set behind the lines on the Western Front. Gould is a British soldier and Williams a conscientious objector (C.O.).

Gould: Excuse me. Did I hear one of your chums say you are C.O.s?

Williams: Yes, that's right.

Gould: I've wanted to meet a C.O. for a long time. I respect your convictions, but I simply can't understand you. Why is it that you refuse to join up?

Williams: I'm afraid I should take a long time to explain adequately, but I'll tell you a little of what I am going to say in my Court Martial defence if you like.

Gould: Do.

Williams: In the first place, I believe it wrong to take human life; I think under all circumstances. For me to kill in war would be just as much murder as to kill in a personal quarrel.

Gould: But surely we must defend our nation when it is attacked?

Williams: I believe that if a nation were sufficiently strong absolutely to put aside all armed defence, it would be secure from all attack. I don't believe there is a people in the world who would march with fire and sword upon another if met with food and flowers instead of shot and shell.

Society of Friends book

SOC FR/227

We would like to thank the Society of Friends for permission to display this book. The Society of Friends (commonly known as The Quakers) have always opposed war and during World War One supported those who refused to be conscripted. This A5 book that is normally kept in Lincolnshire Archives contains records of the Lincolnshire Conscientious objectors including newspaper cuttings, notes on meetings, reports of work against the Great War and letters from the conscientious objectors. Included is one long letter by John Brightmore who was held at a camp in Cleethorpes as well as Lincoln Prison.


I became interested in the story of Eamon de Valera's escape as soon as I first realised there was a Lincoln connection. After some research, I had an article printed in the 2011 edition of Lincolnshire Past and Present entitled ‘Eamon de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Prison’. I also put on my Academia page, a site where academics share research. On that site if you get a hundred people read your article you are doing well, I was amazed at the interest in the escape and at present the article has had about 3,300 hits.

The text of the article can be found online here.

Heuston letter

(REG1/Doc Box 71)

J.J. Heuston (also known by his Irish language name Seán Heuston) was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Ironically he nearly pulled a gun and shot Eamon de Valera at the start of the rising over confusion as to whether it had been called off or not. Heuston was in command of troops that held the Mendicity Institute and on the day the rising started, the 24th April, he was asked to hold it for two hours. With just 26 volunteers he held it for two days against over 300 British troops. With ammunition running low and their only defence against the British grenades was to try to catch them and throw them back before they exploded. He eventually decided to surrender to save the lives of his wounded troops. When they surrendered the British troops roughly manhandled the rebels, according to Republican sources this was because the British were so disgusted at being inconvenienced by such a small force though the British troops at the time might have put this rough treatment down to be outraged that with so many Irishmen fighting against the Germans in France/Belgium these rebels were stabbing the British in the back.  Heuston was eventually sent to Richmond Barracks and tried; being a court martial there was no jury and he was not allowed a defence lawyer. On the 7th of May he was told he had been sentenced to death for his part in the uprising and was executed on the 8th May 1916 in Kilmainhan Gaol, Dublin. He wrote a final letter to his work colleagues, the original of which is in the archives of the University College Dublin, but a typed copy was made.

This copy was found among the papers of Lt Harry Ryley Greenwood of the Lincolnshire Regiment, an eighteen year old solider from Easton near Stamford.  Soldiers from the Lincolnshire Regiment fought in Dublin (in particular the 2/4th and 2/5th battalions). We don't know why Harry Greenwood was given the letter, but his papers later ended up in the Lincolnshire Archives.

Kilmainham Prison
Sunday May 7th 1916

Dear Mr Walsh,

Before this note reaches you I shall have said farewell to this Vale of Tears and departed for what I trust will prove a much better world.

I take this last opportunity of thanking you and all my railway friends for the kindness of past years.

I ask you to forgive me for my offences which I may have committed against them and I ask all to pray fervently for the repose of my soul.

Whatever I have done I have done as a soldier of Ireland in what I believed to be my country's best interests.

I have, thank God, no vain regrets. After all, it is better to be a corpse than a coward.

Won't you see that my mother gets all the assistance you can give her, and refund her the salary due to me and also refund her the money for the Superannuation Fund.
She will badly need it all.

Gratefully yours
(sgd.) J.J. Heuston

The original handwritten letter can be viewed here.

In 1966, the station Heuston worked at, Kingsbridge in Dublin, was renamed in his honour as part of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the uprising.

Fane diary

9 FANE 1/1/4/14
This document is a journal full of letters and newspaper clippings collected by Helen Beatrice Fane (nee Newman). The articles about the Easter Rising are from British papers and so very unsympathetic to the rebels. To the British press they were stabbing the brave soldiers fighting on the Western front in the back.


Kindly loaned by Andrea Martin. Written on the lid of this clock is "Capt Partridge shot 3/5/16 at 4am Kilmain Gaol" (Kilmainham). This clock was reputedly given to a soldier from the Lincolnshire Regiment by a condemned prisoner just before his execution. He was asked to give it to the rebel's family but the solder couldn't track them down so it stayed in the possession of the soldier's family. There was an Irish rebel called Captain (William) Partridge who fought in the Easter Rising, but he was not sentenced to death, was released due to ill health in April 1917 and died two months later.  The following rebels were shot on these dates:

3 May: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke
4 May: Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O'Hanrahan
5 May: John MacBride
8 May: Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert
12 May: James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada.

If the name "Partridge" is incorrect and it was given to the British soldier by one of the executed rebels it is hard to guess by whom without further clues. Edward Daly was a Captain, but executed a day later than the note suggests. Thomas Clarke was also a Captain and shot on the same day as written in the lid and at the same time, 4am (Pearce was shot at 3.30am). His widow did visit him shortly before his execution which begs the question, if it was his clock, why did he not give it to her and if she was around, how did the British soldier not locate her?



This is a film we made about the escape to celebrate the 100th anniversary.



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