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Letters from WWI COs

Published: May 1, 2020


Learning Isolation: Quakers, Faith and Prison Letters, 1914-1919

Today, much of the world’s population is finding out what it is like to live in isolation, to be confined to a few rooms, to have very limited face to face conversations, and to be deprived of the natural fellowship of friends and family, and of their liberty. Two books from Handheld Press on the imprisonment experiences of conscientious objectors in the First World War may offer some useful insights.

In 2016 Kate Macdonald, then a visiting research fellow at Reading University in the UK, was staying with Quaker friends in Reading, Elizabeth and Tom Heydeman, while she worked on First World War research. One evening they asked her if she would like to read the letters of Elizabeth’s grandparents, Frank and Lucy Sunderland, written over the two and a half years, while Frank had been imprisoned for his conscientious objection to military service from 1916 to 1919. The family had typed up the letters from the fading pencilled originals over thirty years, but had not found a way to make them known to a wider readership.

Kate was transfixed by the power of the stories that the letters told. They gave working-class testimony from an era when the voices of the less educated were rarely written down, and they were pacifist history, from a uniquely radical community setting. Frank and Lucy were part of the Quaker community in Letchworth, north of London, and while not Friends themselves, they attended Meeting regularly. Some of Frank’s most assiduous visitors in prison were Friends, and he studied Quaker teachings along with other Christian authors in his cell, and in discussions with fellow prisoners.

Kate was also intrigued by the feminist aspect of the letters, since they revealed a unique story of women pacifists in the First World War, a perspective that is also rarely written down. As the story of one woman keeping her family going as a single parent and principal support to her imprisoned husband, these letters were valuable, and deserved to be published as a continuous narrative. Their impact is in the richness of their social and historical detail, and the texture of ordinary life that is so often missing from histories of the war. The letters were an accident of history: if Frank had not been imprisoned, Lucy and he would never needed to have written to each other. Her literacy and vocabulary range clearly extended throughout this period, and her reports of what she was reading grew more adventurous, and more political.

Two years later, Kate had set up her own independent publishing house, Handheld Press, as an extension of her work on twentieth-century forgotten fiction, and to bring into print remarkable stories from scholarly research. She published the Sunderlands’ letters as The Conscientious Objector’s Wife in 2018, focusing on Lucy Sunderland’s story, and on her network of Quaker friends and neighbours who supported her as a single parent and sole income earner, through sickness and in health.

Handheld’s interest in conscientious objectors (COs) and in the Quaker experience in wartime has brought a second book of First World War prison letters to publication, again a unique and largely unknown family archive.

Quaker historians Rebecca Wynter and Ben Pink Dandelion have edited the prison letters of Wilfrid Littleboy, a strong Quaker figure among British Friends in the first half of the twentieth century. He served as Clerk on many influential committees, and his wartime experience as an imprisoned CO helped to reshape British human rights law. To be published in May 2020 by Handheld Press, A Quaker Conscientious Objector. Wilfrid Littleboy’s Prison Letters, 1917-1919 is an astonishing collection of stoicism, humility, cheerfulness, wisdom and endurance in isolation.

Littleboy was an ‘absolutist’ CO. A young accountant in Birmingham, England, he chose to go to prison rather than undertake the alternative of farm labouring or ambulance work that he felt would still contribute to the waging of war. He was one of the two Clerks of Warwickshire Monthly Meeting, when both were arrested in 1916. Eventually appearing before a tribunal, Littleboy was spent much of the time until April 1919 locked up. He was imprisoned in two English gaols – one in London and then another on the moors in Devon – often alone or unable to speak with his fellow prisoners.

One hundred years later, what can the experience of prisoners of conscience from the First World War teach us? How can they help us understand how best to moderate our energies and nurture our skills in making the best of what we have in the time that has been given to us, while we wait out the progress of the Covid-19 virus and keep ourselves safe?

Frank Sunderland’s response was in communication: talking to his cell mates, holding impromptu study discussions and debates, and writing as often as regulations permitted to Lucy, who was his sounding-board and his comfort. For him, communicating with the world enabled him to retain his identity as a conscientious objector, by rehearsing and testing his Christian commitment to the path he had chosen. Talking and writing gave him assurance, and strength to endure the sentence that he had no way of knowing would last for so long.

Wilfrid Littleboy became increasingly convinced of the spiritual rightness of his actions, sure that he was obedient to God’s leadings, in his clear and absolute opposition to war. This strong spring of faith allowed him to remain remarkably cheerful throughout his isolation. He found immense solace in reading and learning and was a prolific correspondent, as his letters attest, but his clear sense of being guided spiritually underpinned his solid good humour and optimism. He felt he was exactly where he needed to be, a sense of living an accompanied life that never left him during all the following decades of Quaker service. He found opportunities to be in fellowship with other Quaker inmates and other prisoners, for merely moments as he cleaned out cells, or sometimes for snatched conversations.

Both the Sunderlands and Wilfrid Littleboy can show us today how, in times of great adversity and global upheaval, the Quaker discovery of silent worship in the 1650s still has the power  to support and sustain us, as individuals and in community. Littleboy could not always physically see his fellow COs but they were able to maintain a spiritual bond that transcended face to face contact. We are called to do the same in these current times, to  feel and practice  community even when we cannot enact it physically.

All Handheld's books are distributed in North America so may be ordered through local bookstores.

from Kate Macdonald, Handheld Press (4/29/2020)