The Quaker objectors to war who played their part in saving lives

Peace and Remembrance poppies at Bainbridge Quaker Meeting House.

By Judy Nicholls

A local hero of World War 1, John Leyland of Bainbridge, was featured in a well attended exhibition, Go anywhere, do anything, at Thornborough Hall in Leyburn recently.

Leyland was awarded the Croix de Guerre during that war, and was not the only Quaker to receive a medal for bravery – even though technically they were conscientious objectors. 

There have been many levels of conscientious objection, from those who refused to wear army uniform or do anything at all connected to the war, to those, like Leyland, who served in the war by working in the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU).

They could not and would not kill: many soldiers who came back injured from the front have the FAU to thank for their safe return.

The focus of the exhibition was on the history of Quaker humanitarian relief, as in Ireland before WWI, and included their involvement in Kindertransport and their present day relief work. 

Margaret Burtt, formerly of Bainbridge, remembering her uncle, John Leyland.

The exhibition also included photographs of people holding portraits of relatives who were conscientious objectors and telling their stories including Margaret Burtt, formerly of Bainbridge, about her uncle John Leyland.

Originally these photographs were part of an exhibition, ‘Echo Chamber’ shown in London and created by Fiona Cam Meadley, Dominic Thomas and Ruth Davey.

Many conscientious objectors were imprisoned and records show that some were shot at dawn after inadequate trials: the threat of execution was used to try to pressure them to become soldiers. 

In their local communities they were labelled as cowards by being given white feathers. Now they are remembered with dignity at the National Memorial Arboretum. “The silent help from the nameless to the nameless” which is quoted on the memorial acknowledges the quiet spirit in which service was given.  

There was information from Richmond Castle about the ‘Richmond Sixteen’ who were imprisoned there during WW1. The group was made up of a Quaker, five International Bible Students (a group which has been known since 1931 as Jehovah’s Witnesses), and members of the Methodists, Congregationalists, Churches of Christ, and Socialists.

The exhibition at Thornborough Hall was part of Richmondshire Remembers, a series of events organised during 2018 to commemorate the end of WW1.  There was also an explanation of the origins of the White Poppy movement. There has been a white poppy for peace and a red poppy for remembrance on the Bainbridge Quaker Meeting House railings all this year in memory of the end of WW1 – remembering the dead and injured, and striving for peace. The white poppy movement was started, not by Quakers, but by wives, sisters and sweethearts whose men had been killed or injured during WW1. They made the white poppy a symbol of peace, and a search for alternative ways of solving conflict than by resorting to violence. 

The sound track of voices featuring CO’s from WW1, recorded by the Imperial War Museum sound archives, is available in CD form to hear/borrow from Judy Nicholls, Askrigg. (