The Conscientious Objectors’ Stone in Tavistock Square – and how it came about

Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR
Participants at CO Day 2014. Photo: Dave Pybus/FoR

This is the last of four blogs by Edna Mathieson telling the story of how the conscientious objectors’ memorial in Tavistock Square, London came about. In the first blog, she told of her early attempts to create a memorial through the Greater London Council (GLC) and how they failed when the GLC was abolished. In the second, she detailed her subsequent, successful, efforts to get support and money for the project. Now she explains how the stone itself came to be. In the third, she explained how the stone itself was created and the first remembrance of COs. Now, she talks about how the memorial service developed and looks to the future. 

In later years Bill Hetherington provided a varied and interesting list of COs from different countries and in different epochs, to be read out; Sue Gilmurray wrote the lyrics and music of several songs, two of which have been sung, with the help of the Raised Voices choir. Tony Kempster from the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship brought his guitar and sang along with choir. Jess Hodgkin, a Unitarian, called the group the Right to Refuse to Kill (RRK) Group (taken from the wording on the Stone), which name the Group accepted and kept. Denis Cobell, one-time President of the NSS, and Bob Russell, Chair of Christian CND, gave considerable support to Robert Ashby. Richenda Barbour from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom bought the flowers (white carnations) to lay on the stone: as Bill called a CO’s name, a member of those gathered would lay a carnation, bearing the name, on the stone. Pax Christi member, Peggy Attlee, daughter-in-law of Tom Attlee, WWI CO and brother of Clem Attlee, wrote Tom’s biography, “With a Quiet Conscience”. In it, she suggests that the COs of WWI, through their strongly held convictions and the courage needed to uphold them, helped, much later, to change attitudes and actions of people, and governments, around the world towards conscientious objectors.

This may be seen in the experience of George Cox, a WWII CO, who spoke at the 1998 ceremony: “It was a fundamental moral and ethical objection. I had great loyalty to my country but a greater loyalty to humanity as a whole”. (Rather like Tom Paine’s “all men are my brothers”). At his tribunal he was unconconditionally exempted rather than refused outright, as he had feared (which could have led eventually to a prison sentence). He said he had encountered little of the social stigma that others had suffered. “I got the odd joke but no nasty remarks”.

After some time, Robert Ashby moved to another post. Then the RRK Group met at various places – the Unitarian office, the rooms above Housmans Bookshop, finally, BHA offices then in Gower Street.

While the RRK were organising the annual 15 May event around the CO stone, I also thought that, again, like armed forces men and women, COs should also be celebrated throughout the UK, around plaques, trees … I initially contacted Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast. All were keen. Belfast was then in the midst of ‘The Troubles’ and people there thought it might be unsafe at that time. Cardiff held meetings at the Temple of Peace and received a very large grant to do ‘peace things’. However, they were contacted by a PhD student who wanted to do research on COs in Wales. They helped and supported him. Now – mid-2018 – Edinburgh is planning to have a sculptor craft a CO memorial, to be set either on Calton Hill or in Princes Street Gardens.

In the 1990s I also contacted Birmingham, Orpington, Oxford. Orpington did not manage to hold a celebration – the local authority was not keen on the idea. Birmingham held events for some years. Now, about eight towns/cities hold some kind of ceremony.

Further, Goldsmiths College (University of London) wrote a play based upon three CO tribunals, which were held in the old Deptford Town Hall in 1916. This has been made into a film to be taken around the UK. The Peace Museum at Bradford has written a piece based on ‘Oh! What a Lovely War – Resistance!’

There are probably other ideas, thoughts, happenings, which no-one as yet has heard about, but, no doubt, will later. May it continue … !

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