The conscience of the nation: the work of three Quaker MPs during World War I

The Military Service Act came into force on 2 March 1916, and Quakers nationally are marking the centenary. Our new online exhibition Matter of conscience: Quakers and conscription gives an overview of the introduction and impact of the Act.

The story involves the hard work of three Quaker MPs who fought for the Act to include an exemption for men who had a religious or moral objection to violence and military service; furthermore they fought for the exemption to be based solely on an individual basis, not aimed at groups, such as former exemptions from military service which had been granted to certain groups in society including the Quakers themselves.

All three men would suffer for taking this stance, facing charges of encouraging shirkers and being painted in an unpatriotic light at the time of greatest distress for the nation. It would also cost all three their seats at the next election in 1918.

The Quaker MPs were Arnold Stephenson Rowntree (1872-1951), T. Edmund Harvey (1875-1955), and Sir John Emmott Barlow (1857-1932). The Library holds a small collection of parliamentary election addresses for John E. Barlow and more extensive collections of personal papers for Rowntree and Harvey, as well as various publications by and about them. Rowntree and Harvey were very active Friends and therefore also feature heavily among the central archives of the Society, from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, which Harvey was involved with creating, to the Friends First Day Schools Association, which engaged much of Rowntree’s time after the war.

Arnold Stephenson Rowntree was a member of the close knit network of Quaker Rowntree and Cadbury families. He was educated at Bootham School in a fiercely anti-conservative environment, and became a Liberal MP for York in 1910. While at Bootham he became close friends with T. Edmund Harvey who would later become his brother-in-law. After Bootham he started working for his uncle, Joseph Rowntree at the confectionery company of the family name, where he would end his working life on the Board of Directors, retiring in 1941.

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1918 election flyer for Arnold S. Rowntree (Library reference: TEMP MSS 588/1)

His attitude to the war was quite complex. Although a pacifist, he was a committed Liberal and believed everything possible had been done to avoid the war. He also understood the urge to self-sacrifice which drove young men to sign up, which helped shape his belief in non-combatant alternative service. This led to his central role in the establishment of the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1914.

T. Edmund Harvey was also educated at Bootham, then at Yorkshire College (now University of Leeds) and Oxford. He spent time studying in Germany and France, developing an understanding of these countries that would stand him in good stead in the years to come. After a time working at the British Museum, he became warden of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, the first university settlement – a centre of social service and reform.

He entered the House of Commons in 1910 as a Liberal MP for West Leeds. He was an impressive orator and his speech during the debate on the Military Service Bill was a key moment for pacifists; Arnold Rowntree described it as a great moment and claimed he did not bother to speak after, as planned, as he could not better it. Harvey also argued for kind treatment of Germans resident in Britain during both World Wars. He helped set up Friends War Victims Relief Committee in 1914 and contributed to the relief effort throughout the war and after into the 1920s.

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Carnet d’etranger for T. Edmund Harvey issued for foreign relief work in World War I. (Library reference: FEWVRC/MISSIONS/3/1/2/1)

While both Rowntree and Harvey worked hard to gain a civilian option for alternative service for conscientious objectors (C.O.s) who refused to come under military command, even in non-combatant roles, many absolutists saw this as a compromise and therefore a betrayal. Their attitude is reflected in a letter from Rowntree to his wife, 6 Jan 1916:

“I have Richard Roberts here tonight and he says all the Fellowship of Reconciliation men are dead against alternative service and I think are out to break the machine.”

John Emmot Barlow, Liberal MP for Frome, Somerset, came from an old Quaker family near Stockport. Educated at Grove House School, Tottenham, he became a business man in his father’s Manchester firm dealing in import and export of various goods. He married Anna Maria Heywood Denman, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and international understanding, and herself stood for Parliament in 1922.

Barlow’s family reflected the divisions of the time: although he was strongly opposed to conscription, one of his sons served in the army and was severely wounded in World War I. Another son joined the FEWVRC in foreign relief work. Barlow didn’t play on his son’s military actions in the next election though, when faced with accusations of letting his country down, and lost his seat in 1918.

All three men would suffer at the 1918 election for their association with the anti-conscription pacifist movement. While Harvey stood down in 1918, Barlow and Rowntree both lost the election to Conservative candidates.

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1918 Election poster, Arnold S. Rowntree (Library ref: Box L 228/4)

John Barlow continued to be involved in local government into later life, and Rowntree and Harvey would go on to be engaged in various areas of work tackling social issues and taking on roles in Quaker committees.

We hold two main collections of personal papers from Arnold S. Rowntree which give slightly different angles on his work during the war. TEMP MSS 558 is a collection of personal papers including letters. The wartime letters show the stress he was under, how busy a time it was, and give personal insight into the people he was working alongside and their reactions to unfolding events.

TEMP MSS 977 consists mainly of working papers and official correspondence from Rowntree’s time as an MP, providing an insight into how a backbencher lobbies and influences to gain ground on an unpopular position.

Among other material on T. Edmund Harvey, we have his papers as a member of the Committee for Work of National Importance (known as the Pelham Committee) TEMP MSS 835. As well as official documents such as minutes and papers, this collection contains a large amount of correspondence from and on behalf of COs, and is an important resource for World War I researchers. Again this adds a very personal dimension, as well as the official view of the effect conscription had on men in World War I.

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Examples of the hundreds of letters sent to T. Edmund Harvey by, and on behalf of C.O.s when he served on the Pelham Committee (Library reference: TEMP MSS 835/1/A-B6)

For more information, please check out our online exhibition Matter of conscience: Quakers and conscription.

Read more about continuing Quaker work for Peace

Look out for more displays and blog posts on World War I throughout the year, here and on our Facebook page.

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8 Responses to The conscience of the nation: the work of three Quaker MPs during World War I

  1. Susan Smith says:

    Excellent post and thanks too for the online exhibition. Manages to state complex issues very clearly and simply, such as the different positions taken by the COs. Thanks very much.

  2. Excellent post – wish their voices were here with us today.

  3. Pingback: Совесть нации: деятельность трех британских квакеров-парламентариев во время Первой мировой войны

  4. bogbeagle says:

    What is the Quaker’ viewpoint re Voting and Taxation?

    I ask, because as I perceive it, every vote is a demand that violence be done to other men … it’s a way to compel others to act according to our own personal preferences.

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thanks for your comment Bogbeagle. Taxation is a complex issue – Quakers don’t object to it, in fact Quakers campaign to ensure corporation pay fair taxes. However, Quakers do renounce violence and war, and many object to their taxes being used to pay for weapons of mass destruction. Quaker MP Ruth Cadbury is presenting a Taxes for Peace bill to Parliament, which would allow conscientious objectors to direct that portion of the tax they pay away from military expenditure to promoting peace. You can find out more on the website of Conscience, the campaign for taxes for peace, not war

      As you read in the blogpost, some Quakers have been, and still are, involved in politics, seeking a more just and compassionate society. Elections, and the opportunity for dialogue with our representatives, are just one part of this.

  5. Mark Frankel says:

    On a minor point, T. Edmund Harvey was never chairman of the Pelham Committee. When Henry Pelham died at the end of 1916 he was succeeded by Edward Hildred Carlisle.

  6. Pingback: Peace in Faith and Practice:  Quakers and Conscientious Objection – Museum of Peace

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