Some 250 conscientious objectors are recorded as coming from the Nottingham area during World War One. Others may have gone unrecorded. One such is Harry Wheatcroft; the celebrated rose grower born in Handel Street, Sneinton, who was eighteen when conscription was introduced in May 1916. He thoughtfully presented himself at the local police station, to save the authorities the trouble of picking him up, and was duly sentenced to hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs for his trouble. The experience was so deleterious to Harry’s health that, on early release because of his poorly state, doctors recommended outdoor work. So it was that what became Wheatcroft Roses that eventually brought fragrance, colour and grace to the world.
Michael Mears’ one-man show, This Evil Thing, filled the Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse to capacity, kicking off the city’s Peacebuilders’ Festival. Based on written transcripts and memoirs of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway, Mears asks himself “what would I have done in their place?” It was far from a soft option.
The show opens with James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester, interred in a muddy pit near Cleethorpes. There was no cell available for this young man of conscience, so an off-hand comment by the commanding officer was taken literally, and Brightmore was consigned to a pit “10 feet deep, three feet wide at the top, tapering down to about 15 inches.” He had two thin planks on which to stand. One guard takes pity on the young man in a hole and slips him a pencil stub and fag packet on which to write of his plight to his family.
By turn, Mears recalls the resistance of Fenner Brockway, who insisted on singing “The Red Flag” whilst incarcerated, notwithstanding injunctions to silence, and of Bertrand Russell, who became active in the No-Conscription Fellowship. This, alongside its secretary, Catherine Marshall, and chairman, Clifford Allen, who coined the telling description of conscription as ‘this evil thing’.
More than 16,000 men are recorded as conscientious objectors in The Pearce Register of British World War One Conscientious Objectors, compiled by the peace historian Cyril Pearce, and freely accessible online as part of the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project. In some communities, particularly in the North of England, there were extensive support networks for COs, so that spread of conscience extended much further.
Mears revisits Brightmoor in the closing moments of his tour de force production, reaching upwards to the light as a skylark sings. Brightmoor was eventually released, and the pit backfilled, as Mears told a substantial chunk of the audience who stayed for the post-performance question and answer session. One contributor remarked that the most eloquent testament to the sacrifice of the WW1 COs was that conscientious objectors during the Second World War were treated much better.
Mike Mears' This Evil Thing was on at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday 28 April 2017.
Spokesman Books website
Russell Press website
Nottingham City Peacebuilders website