Conscientious Objectors in Oxford in the First World War

Speaker : Sue Smith, who has studied the subject in depth at Oxford University.

There were about 100 Conscientious Objectors (COs) in Oxford during the War, but many of the records have been destroyed. In the early part of the War the Armed Services used regular forces, but by 1916 we could no longer replace troops in sufficient numbers, so universal conscription was introduced. Everyone eligible was ‘deemed to be enlisted’. This meant that those who could not, or would not, join the Armed Forces were subject to a Military Tribunal which examined their case and delivered a verdict. Certain categories (eg those in nationally important employment, or who were ill) were able to get exemption. But those who objected to military service on ethical grounds had a much more difficult time.

The Tribunals usually consisted of men who were established local figures, and not likely to share such views. They also had a representative of the Military, who exerted an influence on them. In any case COs, among the general public, were suspected of cowardice or unmanliness, and often abused. In reality, COs, and in particular Quakers, often served as medics and ambulance men in very dangerous circumstances on the front line.

Altogether in the country during the war there were about 18,000 COs, who objected to service either because of religious objections to killing, or who objected on political grounds to the War. 6,000 of these were sent to prison. Conditions were often harsh. Many COs were sent to the notorious Dartmoor prison, and we were shown pictures of a large group of COs there.

The Oxford COs were a mixture, and came from all classes. Some COs, after the War, became well-known figures especially if they were from the upper class. Raymond Postgate, who later founded the Good Food Guide, spent time in prison, but was driven by taxi to jail. Another CO, a Quaker (Sydney Langford Jones), was a painter and sculptor, and made figures during his detention out of porridge oats. Alan Kay was of German descent, and a CO, and committed suicide in 1919.

The COs were not without sympathetic support. In and around Oxford there were the Morrells in Garsington, who provided a refuge, the Bishop of Oxford who forced a debate in the House of Lords, the Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray and many Quakers, some from influential families. Though the antagonism to them lasted for several years after the War (they were not allowed to vote until 1926), they led eventually to legislation (first in Britain, then spreading to many other countries) that guaranteed the right of COs to refuse to join the Armed Forces.

The talk was followed by a very rewarding discussion.

Power and Personalities – Politics in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford

Speaker : Simon Wenham

Simon began by giving us an overview of the national and international politics at that time, It was a time of great change as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation which led eventually to reform and social change. The two main parties – Tories and Whigs – were led by MPs who needed to be wealthy as they were unpaid, and also property owners, Anglican in religion, and male. The shadow of the French Revolution still hung over politics early in the 19th century, but
protectionism gradually gave way to a more philanthropic and tolerant view of society.

The Irish Potato Famine led under Peel to reform of the Corn Laws, and Electoral reform
came in 1832. The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 caused outrage. Corruption
was rife in the voting procedure as a result of bribery and “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs.
Catholic emancipation was also an issue, as were the £10 property requirements. The Poor Law Reform Act of 1836 made provision for the setting up of workhouses, but these were regarded as a last resort for the most desperate. The workhouses in Oxford were built on the Cowley Road, and in Gladstone Road, Headington. The Chartist movement was inspired by Poor Law reform, and locally Minster Lovell became known as Charterville.

Simon Wenham then moved on to talk about Oxford in particular and the rivalry that
existed between Town and Gown. This had surfaced early on in 1355 with the St
Scholastica riots. This began with a student protest about poor ale at the Swindlestock
Tavern, and it escalated into full-scale riot in the town.

The population of the city rose significantly from around 12,000 at the beginning of the
19th century to around 49,000 by 1901. Flooding and the risk of Cholera was a constant issue and eventually improved drainage and lowering of the water level in the rivers alleviated the problem, although as we know flooding in Oxford still occurs rather too often.

The 1882 rule allowing Dons to marry resulted in increased philanthropy in the town, under the influence of wives and daughters. There were three attempts to bring the railway to Oxford. These were opposed by landowners and the University but eventually the first station was built on Western Road, although the workshop went to Swindon.

Parliamentary elections in Oxford were marred by corruption, and Oxford was at one point stripped of its franchise. But from the 1870s onwards the power of the town became more dominant, as did non-conformism. The town was led by several notable figures, including James Hughes, Walter Gray and Robert Buckle. All of them became mayors.

Oxford gained County Borough status in 1889, after adjusting the figures to reach the required number of 50,000 inhabitants. The Town Hall was built in 1897.

The Suffragette movement was also active in Oxford. A rally at the Martyrs’ Memorial ended in chaos. The most significant event in Oxford’s economic life came with the arrival of William
Morris. His car factory had a transformative effect, changing a rather sleepy city into a
major manufacturing centre.

Summer visit – Oxford Morse tour

On July 12th Alistair Lack led a group of members around various venues associated with the filming of the Morse series, and later the Lewis and Endeavour episodes.

He began by giving us some facts about the number of episodes involved, the scriptwriters, the composer Barrington Phelong and the relevant viewing figures. Kevin Whateley was by far the longest -serving actor, having been in all three series and for 30 years. An interesting addition to the information about personalities was that there was a close bond between Colin Dexter and John Thaw who played Morse. They enjoyed a mutual fondness for liquid refreshment in the Morse bar of the Randolph Hotel.

We began our tour outside St John’s College in St Giles, which was the fictional college attended by Morse. He failed to complete his degree course after an unhappy love affair. We stopped at St Michael’s Church at the Northgate which was associated with an incident when a victim was pushed from the top of the church tower. However we also learned that many scenes supposedly filmed in Oxford were actually filmed elsewhere, often on the outskirts of London. This was more convenient for the large numbers of crew involved, and kept costs down.

We were then taken into Exeter College grounds and the college chapel. This was the venue for Morse’s final scene when he heard his favourite piece of music, Fauré’s Requiem. He was then filmed collapsing outside having suffered a fatal heart attack.

We were also told that allowing filming was much more popular with some colleges than with others, although it was a welcome source of revenue. After a brief stop outside Walter’s in the Turl which features in one episode, we finished our tour outside the Sheldonian which played a part in the most watched Morse episode of all.