When I wrote about conscientious objectors in Sevenoaks earlier this year, I tried to convey a sense of how the men who objected and their families were viewed and treated in the town but any personal testimony was difficult to find. In the last week, I have been extremely lucky to find exactly what I was looking for in a book of reminiscences from Somerset.
Mollie Wren was born Ivy Florence Tester in 1912 in Sevenoaks to George Tester (1883-1962) and Emma nee Banfield (18881-1960). Known as Mollie, she married Philip Wren and later in life moved to Somerset. In the early 1990’s, Mollie, along with several other elderly women living in the Winsham area, talked about her childhood memories in an initiative run by the South Somerset Reminiscence Project, the results of which were published, with several of Mollie’s family photos included. Mollie died in 1996 and the couple do not appear to have had any children. Fortunately, her memories are clear and evocative of the challenges her family faced as a result of her father’s stance, as the family were abused, ignored and faced financial hardship.
George Tester and Emma Banfield on their wedding day
The 1911 census shows Mollie’s parents, George and Emma, living at 13, St Botolph’s Road with their son, George Albert (1906-1994) with George recorded as a builder. The family were active members of the Vine Baptist Church. By 1916 the family had moved to Cedar Villa, Cedar Terrace and, that June, George was mentioned in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in its report on the proceedings of the local Military Tribunal. The paper noted that George
wanted to save life rather than take it, but did not object to non-combatant service, to which he was referred.
George’s military records show that he was thirty three and a half, five feet tall, and working as a painter when he subsequently enrolled with the Non Combatant Corps in July 1916. That December, George was working at Newhaven when he was charged with disobeying a lawful command given to him by an officer while on active service. He was tried by court martial and sentenced to be detained at Wormwood Scrubs.
The family at Seaford Cliffs
Mollie recalled this these events in a number of interviews that were edited and published in 1995.
Father said no, he wasn’t going to fight. He just simply believed Thou Shalt Not Kill. He was sent with a lot of others to Seaford Cliffs to load food ships for the troops. He continued with that until they wanted him to load firearms. They all refused. So then we was sent to Lewes gaol and court-martialled. He was tried by Lord Salisbury, who was sympathetic to conscientious objectors. Even so, he sent my father to Wandsworth prison for a year in solitary confinement, and then to Dartmoor Prison for two years and seven months.
George (third right) in the workshop at Wormwood Scrubs
As a family, we were ostracised. I remember walking hand in hand with mother along St John’s Road. Two men, up ladders, shouted something abusive at my mother. She gripped my hand tightly and hurried me away. Father had said mother must continue to go to the Baptist church, although no-one spoke to her. I remember walking up the aisle to our pew, which was halfway up the church. My mother held my hand tightly.
A couple of teachers at Sevenoaks Council School were horrible to me because my dad had been a conscientious objector. They felt very strongly.
As my father was a conscientious objector, my mother had no government pay, and in the end she was virtually penniless. One night she knelt at the armchair by the cold grate in the kitchen, and prayed to God to help her. Even as she prayed the front door rattled, and she heard something put through the letterbox. She went through the passage and there was an envelope on the mat. No letter in it, but a five pound note, which in those days was a great deal of money. Mother never forgot this, and she always used to quote me afterwards: The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail. And it never did. Finally, kind people came to their senses and brought Mother sewing. She was extremely able. People would bring their sewing on the quiet to start with, but at least it came.
Lord Mons (actually Robert Mond of Combe Bank), who lived at Sundridge Place, gave Home Farm over as a convalescent home for wounded officers and their batmen. Mother became the sewing woman here. Her eldest sister, Fanny, became cook-housekeeper, and my uncle became head cowman.
There was no shortage of food there, despite the war. My aunt was a typical cook of that generation: a large lady in a blue-print dress and snow-white apron, with her lovely hair brushed back. I can see her now, standing at the kitchen table with enormous tin plates covered in pastry, and a gallipot of jam clasped to her bosom, ladling jam onto these plates. Then they were cut in six for the wounded soldiers. They loved her pastry.
Not only was I spoiled by my aunt, but by the soldiers, I walked out with them in the country lanes and into Sundridge village, where they bought me sweets. A lot of them were married and had children of their own.
There was a great bronze gong hanging on a stand and a stick with a leather ball at the top, I loved sloshing this gong. The soldiers tried to teach me how to work up a real crescendo, but I was too little. I just loved banging it! On Sundays we went to Chevening church in a horse brake, which had seats on either side. There was I, in the middle of all these soldiers, going off to church!
There was one ward for the batmen, and the officers were in another. I remember the long rows of beds and red blankets. One particular officer was very fond of me, and when he was he dying asked to see me. Mother carried me upstairs and told me to be good. We went in with the Matron. I remember being sat on the bed. He held my hand, and his hand was very hot. I remember that clearly but no more.
Mollie and her ‘particular officer’ at Combe Bank
In 1916, my mother took in a lodger, a Miss Bunting. This lady was a brilliant dressmaker. She’d been very adventurous and gone off to Russia and become one of the Tsarina’s court dressmakers. When the Revolution was boiling up, she fled home quickly. One night she tapped at the bedroom door and said, ‘Mrs Tester, you must come quickly! You must see this!’. My mother picked me up out of the cot, wrapped a shawl round me and carried me into her bedroom, which had a wonderful view over the North Downs. And there was this airship going along, a German airship. It had caught fire: it was blazing as it went along. I remember my mother murmuring over my head, ‘Poor souls, poor souls!’.
Father wasn’t released from Dartmoor until 1919. I was seven. Mother couldn’t go to the station to meet him after that separation, so my brother and I went. I remember running round the garden picking a bunch of flowers. It was perfectly ridiculous: I was going to meet this unknown ‘Dad’. I remember getting to the station, and a cloud of steam; and out of it came this man whom my brother rushed to, because he remembered him. Then I remember being crushed, flowers and all, against this man. When we got to the garden gate, Mother, who had been standing watching in the sitting-room window, came to the front door. Father went in, and I was going to prance in after, but my brother hung on to the back of my frock and took me round the garden. He was more sensitive that for just a little while they wanted to be alone.
George senior, George and Mollie after the war
George Tester lived on until 1962, surviving his wife, Emma, by two years. His own mother, Martha Tester nee Letchford (1845-1946) lived to see her 101st birthday. Interestingly, she had been born at Chatham Barracks where her own father, Frederick Letchford (1806-1887) was Colour Sergeant with (according to the Sevenoaks Chronicle) ‘the old 50th regiment, known as the Blind Half Hundred’. He had been born in Sevenoaks in the house which eventually became a pub, The Halfway House, and at one point, home to Charlie Draper the subject of a recent post.
Mollie and Philip do not appear to have had children but I would be very interested to hear from anyone who remembers her or any family members who may be able to share more of her and her father’s story. Thanks to Mollie and the oral history team in Somerset, we have this insight into the life of a conscientious objector and his family in Sevenoaks during the war.