It’s been a busy couple of months here at the PPU as I’ve been travelling around London meeting local history groups, researchers, volunteers, archivists, librarians and museum curators to talk about our Objecting to War project. It’s meant a lot of bus journeys and a lot of talking and it’s been fascinating to meet so many people around the city who have been incredibly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. We’ve has a great response from our poster, so much so that one of the things I’m asked a lot is “How did you arrive at 2,000 London COs?”

How many Conscientious Objectors were there in London?

One of the difficulties in answering this question is just how to define our search area. London in 1914 was defined as a much smaller area than today’s city. The old London Metropolitan boroughs spread over an area from Hammersmith to Woolwich West-East and only Hackney to Lewisham and Wandsworth North-South. Greater London is roughly five times bigger and encompasses parts of what were, in 1914-18, several different counties. Our records of how many COs came from within the old boundaries of London proper are relatively complete – but grow more patchy as you move into the newer boroughs. In total we know of about 1,500 - but more always seem to appear every time we sit down to do some research!

The largest issue is just how much of this information is hidden! Archives and Libraries do an absolutely great job of making research material easily accessible, but despite this much of the how, why and when questions of Conscientious Objection have been forgotten. Either through all-too-brief reporting in local newspapers or tersely worded minutes, men that we know were Conscientious Objectors from other records appear without reference to why they refused military service. If that’s the case with men such as Clifford Allen (who wrote much of Repeal the Act), how many other men who stood up to say they resisted war have vanished unrecorded? Other records detail how many Conscientious Objectors there were in a community, but not their names, addresses or motivations. Even stranger, men can appear as COs at the end of the war with a long list of prison sentences, letters, poems and drawings, but with no address other than “London”.

Luckily, there are ways we can cross-check names to see who refused military service and why. Either through looking at the records of Middlesex Military Tribunals, the Cyril Pearce CO register or our own archives, we can begin to pick up information about the men and women who either were COs or supported them during and after the war. Through some careful (but usually not too difficult!) detective work, the real lives behind a statistic or sentence of a Council record book can emerge to tell us the fascinating stories of Conscientious Objectors and the Peace movement in the First World War, as well as showing us the relevance of these stories to today.

Overall, the number of COs from the Greater London area is still unknown but is probably larger than 2,000. Add in the number of supporters, opponents, political activists, MPs, reporters, soldiers and police who engaged with Conscientious Objectors in some way and the amount of people involved in the Peace movement in the First World War in London alone must range into the hundreds of thousands! Every archive visit ends up with more men being added to our records, from newspapers and minutes, letters and official records. Every archive has its stories to tell, and the majority of those stories are just waiting for someone to open the books or turn on the microfilm reader and have a look!

That’s where you could come in. We have set up small research groups in a few areas around London and are always interested in getting in touch with more people who’d like to help. With just an hour or two a fortnight from a few people in each borough of Greater London, we can get a real grasp on the answers to the truly fascinating questions of the why, how, when and where of Conscientious Objection in London.

The stories of over 2,000 COs, and of thousands and thousands of other Londoners whose lives were affected by Conscientious Objection are out there in archives and records somewhere in London. I’ll be digging through them over the next two years and hopefully, some of you will come and help out.