in Britain in World War Two

Joyce Allen's Story
In those days it was common practice for people with a cause to climb on soapboxes in parks and on street corners to proclaim their views. Joyce was only 15 when she heard a PPU speaker one Sunday evening, and she immediately became a member. She called herself 'a starry-eyed activist, concerned with saving the world'; she thought the CO tribunals were 'a farce'.

'It's idiotic for a species to go to war. And from a Christian point of view there's no excuse for it. "Thou shalt not kill." As war has grown more technological, one sees the stupidity of it. Most people accept that it's stupid in that way, but they don't think that you can do anything about it. I think they feel powerless, and I don't think I ever did, over that. I always thought that human beings had it in them to stop it.

'When conscription came in I was teaching. I could have asked for exemption, but I wanted to register as a CO.' On April 2 1942 Joyce Allen became the first woman to appear at a CO tribunal. 'They asked me all sorts of questions and I was quite keen to answer them.' She was told to continue teaching - and was astonished to find herself in newspaper headlines: 'Girl conchie teaches boys'; 'Girl conchie attacks British constitution'. The press badgered the headmaster to say whether he would sack Joyce. 'But of course he didn't get rid of me: it was difficult to get staff then. I had over 40 supportive letters - the bulk of them from men in the RAF! I think they were scared out of their wits, these young chaps dropping bombs, and wished they could get out of it. The man who was giving me Latin lessons, though, was really antagonistic and refused to teach me. A member of the PPU offered to teach me instead, and she put the fee I paid her into the PPU funds.'

The Society of Friends (Quakers) set up the Friends Relief Service to help the victims of war. One of its leaders was Roger Wilson, who had been sacked from the BBC because he was a CO. He travelled all round Britain organising work in hostels for people whose homes had been bombed. Joyce Allen was in one of the teams. She worked in the Friends Service Centre in a poverty-stricken area of Liverpool.

'When I started at the FSC the fleas came out to meet me! - they always got on to a new arrival. They'd been picked up in the baggy trousers of these young chaps going round the houses, and started colonies in the hostel. We tried everything. Sometimes we'd look at the children and see their flesh covered with pin-pricks: they'd been bitten so often they'd stopped coming out in spots.... People from Canada and America sent children's clothes. We tried to get the children to go to school, we got grants for people in real need, we sent mothers who weren't coping to a sort of home for mothers and children, all sorts of social work like that.'

The Peace Pledge Union also set up a relief project, the Pacifist Service Units, in major cities. This gave COs the chance to give active assistance without taking part in the war effort. The workers learned first aid, did firewatching work at hospitals and at community centres for people bombed out of their homes, collected emergency food supplies, clothing and cooking utensils, ran mobile canteens, and started initiatives in social work of all kinds. The PSU later became the Family Service Units (FSU), working in deprived inner-city areas, and still in operation today. Both the PSU and the FSU are regarded as having laid the foundation stone for social work with families whose complicated problems have made most other agencies write them off as 'beyond help'. | continue


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