Hitchin Quakers plan town centre peace garden to commemorate town’s First World War conscientious objectors

PUBLISHED: 07:24 24 January 2016 | UPDATED: 07:24 24 January 2016

Hitchin Quakers Allan Whitaker and Bob Harrold next to the headstones of the conscientious objectors

Hitchin Quakers Allan Whitaker and Bob Harrold next to the headstones of the conscientious objectors

Archant

Plans for a peace garden in Quaker grounds in the centre of Hitchin are gathering pace as the group looks to commemorate the stand made by conscientious objectors during the First World War.

Headstones in the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds Headstones in the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds

The Hitchin Quaker Peace Garden project around the Friends Meeting House at Paynes Park aims to create a place of tranquillity and meditation for people in the town.

The plot is being designed as somewhere where people can come to experience and contemplate peace in their own lives and in the wider world.

Work on the garden will start this year – which marks the centenary of the introduction of conscription in the armed forces in 1916, and with it the option for men to make a principled stand and refuse to fight on moral or religious grounds.

Quaker Bob Harrold explained: “Many Quakers felt they could not in good conscience join up to kill people, and refused conscription.

Headstones in the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds Headstones in the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds

“These conscientious objectors were routinely subjected to accusations of cowardice by their families, friends and the general public – and many were imprisoned.

“Peace and non-violence are values of great importance to Quakers, not just in the abstract, but as a way of life.

“Recognising the sacredness of every human life, we aim to seek ‘that of God’ in all people.

“Many Quakers are involved in peace-building projects in areas of the world where conflict and violence are commonplace.

Joshua Whiting pictured at the former meeting house in nearby West Alley Joshua Whiting pictured at the former meeting house in nearby West Alley

“Quakers were involved in campaigning against the introduction of conscription in 1916 – and successfully lobbied to include the ‘conscience clause’ in the Military Service Act 1916.

“To claim a conscientious objection you had to go before a tribunal. Most interpreted the act by assuming conscientious objection would only be against refusing to kill directly, and thought people would be happy to serve in the army in non-combatant roles.

“This didn’t go far enough for many Quakers who refused to participate in any form of military service as it would contribute to the prosecution of the war.

“Men were arrested, sent to military barracks and court-martialled with a resulting prison sentence, to be served in a civilian prison.

The old entrance to the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds The old entrance to the Hitchin Quaker meeting house grounds

“It was all very tough on those who endured it. More than 80 COs died in prison or as a result of their experiences.

“Others became physically or mentally ill, never fully recovering.

“In May 1916 50 COs were to be court-martialled and executed for disobeying orders on the front line in France.

“Some received punishments, including being ‘crucified’ for several hours on a wooden frame or barbed wire.

“In June 1916 they were court-martialled and sentenced to be shot – which was immediately commuted to 10 years hard labour.

“Absolutist COs continued to be held in prison or labour camps until 1919. They were disenfranchised by the government for five years after the war for their refusal to participate in war activities.”

A century on people will be encouraged to experience all the facilities the area has to offer, to take a stroll around the graveyard where hundreds of Quakers are buried – and to contemplate the fact some of those interred in Hitchin may even have been COs.

Bob added: “The plan is to create a path around the Quaker Meeting House grounds, joining a number of ‘points of interest’.

“These may be inscriptions with quotations about peace. There will also be natural features such as areas of wildflowers, a willow archway and an enlarged pond.

“We plan to have external art such as sculptures and mosaics, and more benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the peaceful environment.

“All points of interest will blend in to the simple style of the meeting house and grounds.”

Do you belong to a religious or secular community in Hitchin which would be interested in working on this project? Are you an individual with an interest in the project who may be able to give advice or practical help? Email Hitchin Quakers at hitchin@quaker.org.uk to find out more.

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