National Archives reveals conscription appeals of World War I Middlesex men

By Culture24 Reporter | 23 January 2014

Only a small number of the tribunal papers contesting World War I conscription survive. An intriguing new archive tells some of the stories involved

A black and white photo of a grocer standing by his shop during the early 20th century
Harry Herbert Harris outside the greengrocers which caused him to claim exemption from serving during World War I© Crown Copyright
Charles Rubens Busby, a butcher from Cricklewood who asked to avoid conscription so that he could continue to run his shop during the First World War, had an unwelcome note of caution added to his appeal letter: writing anonymously, a local resident called Busby “a proper rotter of a man” and a “rotten shirker”.

The Middlesex Appeal Tribunal was swayed by the critic, who questioned why Busby should stay while “married men have had to shut up their shop and go”. He subsequently served with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force during the final two year of the war, but is now one of more than 8,000 correspondents whose records make up a new archive of exemption requests from the county, made available online in an intriguing set of stories organised by The National Archives.

A fellow butcher stayed at home marginally longer. Aden Stone claimed the economic necessity of looking after his premises, only for the panel to rule that he had bought out a local competitor specifically to increase his responsibilities. He was granted exemption for a day.

Although most visitors to the site might immediately think of conscientious objectors, less than 5% of the 11,307 appeals heard between 1916 and 1918 fell under this category. One of them, Harry George Ward, had his case debated in the House of Commons after citing his socialist values, but the tribunal ruled in favour of its chairman, who argued that Ward’s beliefs ruled out his claims to a conscience.

These papers are a little-covered aspect of the war, partly, perhaps, because only two collections of them survive. The idea is to reveal the impact of the period on businesses and families far from the fronts, such as John Gordon Shallis, who lost four brothers during the war and was left to look after his “crippled” mother while his father carried out Home Defence duties with the Territorial Force. Shallis’s appeal, understandably, was upheld.

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An image of a faded yellow letter written in black ink during the early 20th century
Percival Brown's wife suggested his exemption request should be dismissed© Crown Copyright
An image of a faded yellow letter written in black ink
Charles Rubens Busby had concerns over his shop© Crown Copyright
An image of a printed notice of appeal from the early 20th century on pink paper
A Notice of Appeal by Harry Herbert Harris© Crown Copyright
An image of a light brown certificate of military exemption from 1916 on yellow paper
An exemption certificate© Crown Copyright
An image of a navigation page on a website showing a war diary and an interactive map
A tagged operation war diary from the site, which is part of the First World War Centenary programme© Crown Copyright
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