Corder Catchpool: Leicester's heroic conscientious objector

On 15 May each year, people around the world mark International Conscientious Objectors Day.

Black and white portrait of Corder Catchpool (left) and his wife (right) in 1927.
Corder Catchpool and his wife in 1927, before the outbreak of the second world war. Portrait: Public domain

First held in 1982, International Conscientious Objectors Day was established to commemorate those who, by refusing to fight in armed conflicts for spiritual or ethical reasons, have maintained the right to refuse to kill. Here in Leicester, a memorial stone on the Peace Walk in Victoria Park commemorates 250 first world war conscientious objectors from the city and surrounding area.

Leicester-born Corder Catchpool was one such conscientious objector. Born in July 1883, he lived on Saxby Street in the Highfields area of the city for the first twelve years of his life. His parents belonged to the Society of Friends (or Quakers) and the family attended worship at the Quaker Meeting House on Prebend Street. 

As a young man, Catchpool harboured hopes of becoming a doctor but was unable to afford the tuition fees, so instead began work as a railway engineer in London. He subsequently moved to Darwen in Lancashire, where he became involved in an ambitious new scheme to create a 'garden village' for workers at the Quaker-owned Greenfield Mill. The project was halted, though, following the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914.

As a lifelong Quaker who advocated pacifism, Catchpool was, from the start, unswerving in his conviction that it was wrong to fight in the war. The Quaker movement’s longstanding commitment to peace at all costs, known as the Peace Testimony, dates right back to its founder, George Fox’s, 1661 declaration that: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever.” 

Catchpool was, though, determined to help relieve the suffering of those affected by the conflict, and so he volunteered for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU). For the first two years of the war, he served as an ambulance worker in France and Belgium in unimaginably hellish conditions, transporting injured soldiers from the battlefield to the nearest military hospital.

He later published an account of his experiences in On Two Fronts, based on the many letters he wrote home during the conflict. In one particularly moving passage, he describes the carnage that followed the first use of poison gas by the Germans at Ypres, Belgium. For nine days and nights in April 1915, he and his colleagues barely slept, as, in constant danger of being shelled by the Germans, they transported to safety the “poor, choking, gasping, dying asphyxiated beggars” who poured into their ambulance post.

Later that same year, Catchpool was promoted to the position of adjutant, but he did not stay in the role for long. The introduction of the Military Service Act, in January 1916, made enlistment compulsory for most young men. If Catchpool had stayed with the ambulance unit, he would have remained exempt from compulsory military service. Instead, he decided to resign from his post and join the ranks of those Quakers, known as absolutist conscientious objectors, who refused to participate in any kind of war-related work. He later explained his reasons for this change in stance:

“At home, men who stood for the same ideals as myself, were being reviled as cowards and shirkers, and forced into the army against their principles… It seemed to me more honest and manly to take my stand with them, make public profession of my faith and accept the consequences.”

It was not long before Catchpool fell foul of the authorities. In January 1917, he was arrested in Birmingham, along with several other Quakers, and taken to the Norton Army Barracks in Worcester. A couple of weeks later, he was court-martialled for refusing to obey a military command and sentenced to 112 days’ imprisonment with hard labour in London’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs. Upon his release, he was immediately rearrested and transported to Devon, where he faced a second court-martial. This time he was sentenced to a further six months’ imprisonment in Exeter Prison. Thus began an endless cycle of court-martials and prison sentences, which, in total, lasted for more than two years.

Prison life was made deliberately tough for conscientious objectors. Catchpool’s dank and dismal cell offered little in the way of home comforts, and he was allowed only the most meagre of food rations. He was required to stitch mail bags for long periods each day, and, perhaps worst of all, conversation with other prisoners was strictly forbidden. Even as he languished in prison, however, this remarkable man was already preparing for post-war life. A year into his imprisonment, he was given permission to have books in his cell. With an eye to the future, he decided to learn German in the hope that he would be able to participate in relief and reconciliation work once the war was over.

The conflict finally ended in November 1918, but Catchpool had to endure a frustrating wait of another five months before he was eventually released. Unsurprisingly, bearing in mind all that he had endured in prison, he was in poor health, both physically and mentally, and would live with the consequences for years to come. In particular, he remained susceptible to recurring bouts of insomnia for the rest of his life.

Within months of leaving prison, Catchpool was ready to put his new language skills to good use and headed to Berlin to help with vital Quaker relief work in war-ravaged Germany. It proved to be a memorable visit. Following a bout of flu, Catchpool fell seriously ill and a young Quaker from Birmingham, named Gwen Southall, was tasked with looking after him. The couple were married the following summer, and Catchpool resumed work at Greenfield Mill in Darwen.

Photographs of Corder and Gwen Catchpool in later life
Corder and Gwen Catchpool in later life. Photographs: Public domain

Catchpool made a success of his role as welfare officer, even at one point persuading Mahatma Gandhi to visit the mill on a fact-finding mission, whilst the Indian leader was in Britain to attend a conference. Gandhi accepted an invitation to stay overnight at the Catchpool family home but, in the end, the two peace-loving men never met. By the time that the visit took place, the Catchpools, together with their four young children, had already left to take on a new challenge at the Friends’ International Centre in Berlin.

When the Nazis seized power in early 1933, Berlin became an increasingly dangerous place in which to live and work, particularly for anyone promoting peace and reconciliation. One morning in April of that year, the Gestapo came to search the family home and cross-examined the pair for over five hours before taking Catchpool away for further questioning. This proved to be the first of several similar incidents, but it did not deter the Leicester-born Quaker from helping several acquaintances, who were at even greater risk of Nazi persecution, to flee Germany.

Eventually, amid mounting concerns regarding their children’s safety, the couple returned home in late 1936. When the second world war broke out three years later, Catchpool was typically vocal in his call for peace. He became a member of the Bombing Restriction Committee, which urged both the German and British authorities not to bomb civilian targets, as well as volunteering as a stretcher bearer and air-raid warden in London.

Corder Catchpool’s eventful life ended as a result of a mountaineering accident in the Alps in September 1952. As a first world war conscientious objector, he was vilified and incarcerated for over two years, but refused to allow the experience to define his life. Putting his health and safety to one side, he continued to campaign tirelessly for peace and reconciliation thereafter, both at home and abroad. It just goes to prove that heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

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