Mentioned in Dispatches

We were delighted to be interviewed by Dr Tom Thorpe of the Western Front Association for his regular podcast, Mentioned in Dispatches.

The episode looks at all aspects of the Great War in Sevenoaks and can be found here or wherever you normally access your podcasts.

Hope you enjoy listening to it – let us know what you think!

Mollie’s story, ‘My father was a conscientious objector’

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.


Stories of the conscientious objectors in Sevenoaks

After the introduction of the Military Service Act in 1916, many local men appeared before the local Military Tribunal to seek an exemption from service and could appeal decisions to the West Kent Tribunal in Maidstone. I’ve written about some of these stories in a previous post. Many of these men were seeking exemptions on health grounds, working in a reserved occupation work or family commitments.

In Sevenoaks, and across the country, some men refused to serve on religious grounds. As conscientious objectors they stated that they could not take another man’s life. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant according to the decision of the Tribunal.

Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors: 4,500 objectors were sent to do ‘work of national importance’ such as farming, 7,000 were given non-combatant duties, and around 6,000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison.  However,  cases regarding conscientious objectors formed only around 2% of Military Service Tribunals’ cases.

As most of the files for conscientious objectors were destroyed in the 1920’s, I have had to rely on newspaper reports for information. I would be very interested to hear from any relatives of who might have more information on these men and what happened to them and their families following their decision to take such a stand.

Stories from the Tribunal

In March 1916, Charles Edward Farrant, 26, of 42, Cobden Road, was a cowman employed by Mr Mond at Combe Bank, and applied for absolute exemption on religious grounds. His case was supported by his employer, who stated that he was looking after pure bred stock. His exemption was refused and he was recommended for non combatant service.

Harold John Mann was a 22 year old schoolmaster of Heatherleigh, Dartford Road, employed at the New Beacon School. Mann stated that the religious views he had been brought up with prevented him from taking life in any circumstances. He also had to support his mother. In his case a temporary exemption was granted for three months.

Leslie Frank Hoad was living a 2 Gilehurst Villas, Argyle Road and had been employed as a draper’s assistant, when he appeared before the Sevenoaks Tribunal in September 1916. The fact of his conscientious objection was accepted without argument and Hoad stated that he had given up his job to work on agriculture near Swanley to demonstrate that he was willing to do something of which the country had need.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 17.21.08The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported Leslie’s appearance before the local Tribunal

However, the committee refused to grant an exemption. He subsequently appeared before the West Kent Tribunal in January 1917. This Tribunal granted him an exemption for three months, conditional upon him remaining in employment on the land. Leslie was working as a motor tractor driver when next reported as having been granted a further four month extension when he appeared before the county Tribunal again in July 1917.

Alfred Mannington Sayers appeared before the Tribunal in June 1916 and pleaded guilty to a charge of not reporting himself for military service. Detective Coley gave evidence against Sayers, stating that he declined to go because he was a conscientious objector.   The defendant’s father, agreed that there was no doubt that his son was an absentee but argued that it was well understood that ‘the tribunals had not administered the Act’. The Chair denied this and highlighted the responsibility of the court to carry out the law; the defendant had been ordered to do something by a competent authority and had not done so. He went on to remark that

defendant might be a perfectly amiable young man and did not want to hurt anyone at all, not even his country’s enemies. The bench would accept that for him.

The court then imposed a fine of forty shillings and the defendant was handed over to a military escort.

De Barry Cox, aged 22, of 4, Barrack Corner, was another man arrested by Detective Coley for not reporting for military service on the grounds of conscientious objection. He was fined fifty shillings, which was to be deducted from his military pay, and handed over to the authorities.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 17.04.30De Barry Cox served with the Non Combatant Corps

Jack Harbour a railway porter, of Greatness Terrace was similarly charged. Records for both Cox and Harbour survive, showing that each served subsequently served in the war with the Non Combatant Corps.

Herbert Sears was another conscientious objector who served with the non combatant corps. Sears had worked for the Rector of Sevenoaks, Revd. John Rooker, managing the rectory farm. He died in October 1918 of pneumonia and is buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas, together with his wife who died only days after her husband.

Harry Raven, 33, of Sunnyside, Clarendon Road, was the manager of a shirt making and hosiery business in Picadilly. Raven claimed to be

A true and consistent follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose commands he must obey. Thou shalt love thy God and thy neighbour as thy self

Raven was willing to do farm work, though he had no experience of it. The tribunal refused his case and recommended him for non-combatant service.

At the same hearing, James Samuel Bolton a married signwriter of Bradbourne Villas, Bradbourne Road stated ‘I hold it wrong to terminate human life unnaturally’.

Thousands, he added, were suffering innocently owing to the use of arms, which secured the victory to the stronger side, whether it was in the right or wrong. Bolton said that he was not a member of any religious body and pleaded that he was only able to keep himself, his wife, and family without being a burden to the community, and without being able to take part in philanthropic work. He remarked that he was not averse to agricultural, railway or police work. The tribunal refused the case and Bolton declared that he would exercise his right to appeal.

George Mullen appeared before the tribunal in June 1918. Mullen was the manager of a grocery business in St John’s for his employer, Mr Frank Rowley. Aged 44, he had been classified as grade 2 and his appeal had been supported by the Local Food Control Committee (by casting vote of the Chairman). A solicitor for Mr Rowley stated that he had had bad health for two years and had 700 registered customers for sugar. Mr Mullen had managed the business and been with him for 22 years. There were two other shops and the other manager was not fully qualified. It was revealed that Mullen was a member of the International Bible Students’ Association and conducted meetings at Tunbridge Wells. Mullen was questioned on the information that he had a son of eighteen serving in the navy, replying that he allowed his son to hold his own opinions.

Rowley’s solicitor argued that if Mullen were taken, the business would have to close down as he was not fit enough to run it on his own and he could get no one else capable to run it for him.The Tribunal dismissed the appeal but gave 56 days before call up in view of Mr Rowley’s condition.

Objectors at Greatness Farm

Many conscientious objectors worked on the farms in and around Sevenoaks. No doubt some of these men were local but others, such as  thirty-six year old Walter Flexman, had been a manager and buyer in the books and stationary department at Hamleys store in London. Flexman had lived on Brondesbury Road, North London, but in 1916 was resident at 11, Bethel Road and working for Mr Wood of Greatness Farm.

Walter Flexman had been granted a conditional exemption from combat service only in August 1916 and was offered work on the farm from the September, at a rate of three shillings day. In that December he was required to apply for a renewal of his exemption, which was supported by his employer on the farm, Mr Wood, who stated that after three months, Flexman was a real help on the farm; to lose him would be to lose valuable experience and require time in training new workers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 16.06.19Walter Flexman’s employer supported his case for renewal of his exemption

Walter Flexman was granted a renewal. At around the same time, his employer, Mr Wood appeared before the local Tribunal in the case of a Mr Cheeseman, a worker on the farm. Cheeseman was described as a skilled farm labourer. Mr Wood stated that there were six conscientious objectors on the farm but they were not skilled farm hands and had taken the place of other men who had gone to fight.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 16.16.06Walter’s certificate of exemption

A committee member asked how they men worked, to which Mr Wood’s reply was laughter and Mr Cheeseman was given a conditional exemption.

Local hostility

On the limited evidence available, the Sevenoaks Tribunal appears to have conducted its hearings in a business like way. Few men who appeared before it as conscientious objectors were granted complete exemptions. More often cases were dismissed and the applicant recommended for non combatant service. There is little evidence of local hostility toward conscientious objectors and their families but this must have existed. No doubt individuals and their families were ignored, given white feathers and viewed with suspicion by those whose friends and relatives were serving.

Public opinion generally viewed conscientious objectors with suspicion and disdain and the Sevenoaks Chronicle did occasionally carried criticism of conscientious objectors, from printing popular jokes to reporting the speech of the Earl of Denbigh when he visited Sevenoaks in January 1918.According to the Earl

We should spare no effort to make the women understand the things the Germans did. Let the women of Kent think about it, because probably they might be the first to feel it. If the British women knew and realised one quarter of the German ideas; they would see to it that no conscientious objector would dare to show his contemptible face in the public street.

Occasionally, the paper also printed criticism of objectors from serving soldiers. Rifleman H Woodfine from Hither Green, wrote a letter from Salonika in June 1916, which was printed in the Chronicle (the writer’s link to Sevenoaks is not noted). Woodfine wrote

The boys are making huge fun of the conscientious objector. In the times of Nelson and Wellington, such people would be shot. They ought to go and see places like Mons, Ypres, Louvain, Rhiems, and Alsace. I think this would alter their attitude.

After the Armistice, a concerned parent wrote to the paper, indignant at the thought that the rights of conscientious objectors would be put before those who had served.

Dear Sir

I saw in your last issue an appeal from one of the Territorials in India. I myself have a son serving there, who has been away for the past four years and a half, and who is anxious to return. The idea of releasing conscientious objectors before the man who has done his duty! I hope this will meet the eyes of those who shouted for the men to join! Are they still shouting to get them released?

Yours faithfully,


Conscientious Objectors were still viewed with suspicion after the war and were not allowed to vote until 1926. However, many of the objectors from Sevenoaks appear to have carried on living and working in the community after the war. George Mullen took over his former employer’s shop when Frank Rowley died in 1922. During the Second World War, Alfred Sayers published a collection of poetry – Poems of 20 years, that the Chronicle featured prominently, which suggests that by then he was viewed as a respected member of the local community.

It would be interesting to hear from anyone with more information on any of these men who took the difficult and principled decision not to fight.