Friday, 28 November 2014

Ealing’s Conscientious Objectors: Case Study No. 5

Burr, William Hugh  of 61, Oswald Road, Southall: Ealing’s Youngest CO?

William Burr had just turned 18 in January 1916 when the first Military Service Act was passed, making single men aged between 18 and 40 liable to conscription into the armed forces unless they could make a case for exemption under one of seven headings. He made his application to Southall Local Tribunal on the sixth of these, f. On the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service - rooted in his case like that of many others in religious conviction.

Extracts and information from Central Military Service Tribunal and Middlesex Appeal Tribunal: Minutes and Papers, Case Number: M126. (

Unlike quite a lot of others whose beliefs led them to make a conscientious objection, William Burr did not attempt to claim absolute exemption from participation in the war effort, stating clearly that he asked for “Exemption from combatant service only”. Specifically and repeatedly he expressed his willingness to serve in the RAMC, without adding any reservations about taking the military oath as Albert Evans had done; in fact he said he had attempted to join that body but had been told the unit was “not open”, giving this as one reason for his appeal.
Notice of Appeal. (2) Grounds on which appeal made:
The grounds on which I appeal are:-
(1) I do not consider that I had a fair hearing.
(2) I was very unwell at the time with a severe cold being confined to bed te two previous days & having a difficulty with my speech for which I am attending hospital. I was rather depressed & nervous not being able to express myself as I should.
(3)  I am a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ  & therefor object to taking life (as taught in the New Testament). But I am willing to serve in the RAMC or other work of National Importance. I was asked by the Local Tribunal if I would object to working in an aeroplane factory & I answered “No”. Wishing to help my country as much as possible without taking life & violating my conscience.
Wm H Burr
Sept. 29th 1916.
P.S. I have been Examined by the Medical Board and passed as C.1.

Although “exemption from combatant service only” was sometimes granted to “absolutists” who could not accept it, no such offer was made to Burr by the local tribunal. One factor may have been his age, tribunals being inclined to deny that 18-year-olds could have formed settled principles. (The inconsistency of such an attitude was not lost on the anti-conscription lobby: old enough to kill but not to refuse to do so, to “give” their lives but not to take control of them, to take a binding oath but not to have a conscience...)  The Southall decision tends to imply that his comparative moderation counted against him:-
Reasons for the decision of the Local Tribunal
The Applicant and his Father both attended before the Tribunal and stated (amongst other matters) that he (Applicant) was quite willing to work at an Aeroplane Factory or other similar works and the Tribunal were unanimously of opinion that applicant had not proved his case.

Decision of exemption from combatant service
17 Oct 1916

So in this case the appeal was successful. The Middlesex Tribunal may have been impressed by two pieces of testimony in support of Burr’s application, confirming the sincerity of his beliefs and agreeing with his interpretation of his religion.
R. Wallace Martin of the Pottery, Southall. Can testify that Mr. William Burr has  been meeting with those known as “Brethren” since before the commencement of the present war. Our meeting place is the Gospel Hall, Hammond Road. Southall Green.

September 11th 1916
Dear Sir,
I have known Master William Burr... to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ for about three years, and his conscience would not be at rest to take up arms to kill his fellow Man...
Alfred White, 22 Kingston Rd., Southall.

Notice of Decision
19 OCT. 1916
[The Appeal Tribunal] have decided that: the man be exempted from the provisions of the Military Service Act 1916. The exemption is from combatant service.
The ground on which the exemption is granted is that a conscientious objection to combatant service, has been established.

William Burr gave his occupation as Joiner (Wood) and had been in the same line of work from the age of 14; his employers were Avery and partner [? – illegible], Joinery Manufacturers of Hartington Road, Southall.
His brief answers to the wordy, tendentious multiple-question form in use by tribunals in mid-1916 give few more details about him. He described himself as a member of the Plymouth Brethren from about 3 years previously (and of no other anti-war organisation), but denied that he was merely following a line (‘tenet’) laid down by that body:
6. (b) No. Each member is responsible for himself to God.
(There were other Plymouth Brethren COs; like WHB they appear not generally to have been absolutists).

From census records, he was evidently living with his family at the same address in 1911 and 1901 as in 1916, and attended school in Southall. His father, also called William, was a carpenter and builder.

Sadly, after surviving the war (and the flu pandemic) he seems to have died at the young age of 28, in 1926 (Uxbridge, Middx. records).

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