I am a new volunteer at The Labour History Archive & Study Centre and my first task was to delve into a small box of correspondence and documents related to a Captain Mildred. We do not know by whom or why this was passed to the museum but when I opened the box I was delighted to find a treasure trove of correspondence addressed to the Captain, various news cuttings and leaflets. The majority of the contents related to the Captain’s role during WW1 when he was in charge of Conscientious Objectors who were held at Horfield Prison in Bristol awaiting decisions made by Appeal Tribunals . In 1916, volunteers to join the British Army were dwindling and so the Government had introduced conscription, whereby men had to serve their country in the military for a specific period of time. A clause was added allowing those whose “conscience” did not allow them to bear arms, to be freed from military service – for example religious objectors who believed it was against their religion, such as Quakers, or pacifists who were against war in general. Many Conscientious Objectors (COs) did want to do “their bit” and became stretcher bearers or helped in factories. However, some refused to do anything at all that was involved in the war and these were known as “absolutists”. Capt Mildred was in charge of, some of these men as they awaited decisions about their future.
Undeniably, there is evidence that many COs were treated harshly in prison. 5.970 were court martialled and 819 spent over two years in prison; indeed, 73 were known to have died as a result of their treatment. However, was it possible that individual Officers, working within the constraints of the system, helped to make life for some of these men, more bearable?
Captain Daniel Mildred – The Face of Compassion?
I found several letters from relatives and those who were representing imprisoned conscientious objectors in the Captain’s papers and they are full of praise for the Captain’s understanding and compassion. As I read the letters written by relatives and peace campaigners on behalf of the COs in Capt Mildred’s care, I realised that although they were very critical of the harsh conditions under which the men were kept, many had extremely kind words to say about the Captain. Until now, these have been lost to history.
One lady – Miss Agnes Edith Bendy –who represented some of the prisoners, wrote him several letters. In one she states:
“may I take this opportunity to thank you for all the kindness you have shown to my friends in your charge; we are so used to hatred from the world that the slightest consideration is appreciated..............”