Life of Stebbing conscientious objector subject of Saffron Walden talk

Cornelious Barrett 3rd from right back row

Cornelious Barrett 3rd from right back row - Credit: Archant

A talk about the conscientious objector Cornelius Barritt, who was sentenced to death in 1916 for refusing to take part in the First World War, has been arranged for Sunday, June 14.

Barritt, born in Stebbing in 1891, was one of the ‘absolutists’ – men who not only refused to fight, but refused to do anything that contributed to the war effort. That included doing a civilian job to free another man to join the army.

These men were imprisoned, often in solitary confinement and were not allowed books or letters. They refused to follow prison rules or to do the work given to them such as sewing mailbags, as it was work for the Government.

Although he was sentenced to death, like other conscientious objectors, his sentence was reduced to 10 years. He was released in the summer of 1919.

As Ben Copsey from the Peace Pledge Union, which is giving the talk said: “Cornelius Barritt was one of very few First World War conscientious objectors to have experienced nearly everything a conscientious objector could during the war.

“From the death sentence to imprisonment through courts martial, tribunals and the short-lived Wakefield Experiment, Cornelius’ story isn’t just his own, but a chronicle of the brave and principled stand of conscientious objectors against militarism and all the horrors of war.”

The Government of the day relented in the end because of public pressure. Notable and influential people agreed that it was not right to imprison people for a sincere belief just because it was not popular with government policy-makers.

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The Government then tried what became known as the Wakefield experiment. Barritt was one of 120 absolutists sent to Wakefield Prison, where they were offered comfortable housing and treatment, as long as they were ‘quiet and obedient’.

The experiment lasted only three weeks. The absolutists said it was not an easy life they were after. They wanted their freedom to work in ways that did not help the war.

They refused to obey prison rules, but said they would carry out ordinary day-to-day tasks. At first the men would put in solitary confinement but three days later, they were dispersed to other prisons.

The talk has been arranged with the Essex Record Office which will bring along a number of documents to display.

The talk will take place at the Friends Meeting House, 69A High Street, Saffron Walden, from 3pm-4.30pm. The event is free and there is no need to book.