Granddaughter's shock discovery leads to story of World War I conscientious objector who served as medic

By Ben Miller | 12 November 2014

Rarely-told tale of those who decided not to fight in World War I given greater coverage after granddaughter's shock discovery in York

A greyscale photo of a first world war soldier in uniform
Ronald Priestman in a photograph taken by Walter Scott in 1916© York Museums Trust
A pay book, medals, service stripes and personal objects, left behind by a Quaker and pacifist during World War I, have been rediscovered by the medic’s granddaughter, who has spoken of her “very special” surprise while visiting a museum with a friend.

A photo of a close-up of the front of a book which says soldier's pay book for active service
The pay book seen by Priestman's granddaughter, Laura, at York Castle Museum© York Museums Trust
Laura Potts, a founding member of York Against War, only realised that her grandfather, Ronald Mallor Priestman, had donated his wartime insignia to York Castle Museum when she saw them on display in a case. Curators have cared for them since 1964.

“I couldn’t believe it – I saw the pay book and then I saw next to it ‘A soldier’s pay book, R M Priestman from Ilkley, Quaker and pacifist’,” says Potts, who was amazed by the objects from her ancestor’s service in a Casualty Clearing Station at the front in France.

“I exclaimed to my friend, in the middle of the museum on a busy Saturday afternoon, ‘that’s my grandfather.’

“When I got home I looked into it, and later spoke to my mother and museum staff, and I discovered that my grandfather had donated several items to the museum.”
A photo of a small scrapbook from world war one with blue ink writing visible inside it
Priestman donated his belongings to curators 50 years ago© York Museums Trust
Inspired by Priestman, who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1914 to 1919, Potts and her brother, Graham, contacted curators to offer more treasured items to the display.

“I told the staff that we had more of my grandfather’s belongings from the First World War, including diaries and photographs, which Graham and I have now decided to donate too.

“The diaries and photographs my brother has sent to the museum provide a detailed account of daily life at a Casualty Clearing Station on the Western Front.

“My grandfather was a very special person in my life and my brother and I are very pleased to be able to follow his lead in donating to the museum.

“I’m so glad to be able to contribute to the little-heard story of those who decided on principle not to fight in the First World War.”

The new diaries will feature in a film as part of a new exhibition in the Community Rooms at the museum, curated by York Quakers.

“We were amazed to hear from Laura – this is such a rarity,” says Philip Newton, an Assistant Curator of History, who believes the objects and recollections of the family will give the display a “much more informative” context.

“Her grandfather’s items are of particular interest to us because we have relatively little in our collections relating to the Quakers during the First World War.”

Priestman wrote his diary daily between October 1914 and August 1916. Passages from the book will be transcribed on the museum’s website.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a small scrapbook from world war one with blue ink writing visible inside it
The pay book is part of the Recruitment Office section© York Museums Trust
"You will produce this book whenever you require an advance of cash on account"© York Museums Trust
More from Culture24's First World War section:

Agreement to "maximise potential" of Britain's most intact First World War aerodrome Stow Maries

Last British survivor of Gallipoli Campaign to be country's first boardable World War I ship

First World War fashions from the Illustrated London News archive
Latest comment: >Make a comment
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.