in Britain in World War Two

Tom Carlile's story
Tom Carlile was born in London's East End, and that was where he worked as a volunteer during the Blitz, helping wherever and however he could. He was a socialist. 'In our world, if you were a socialist, you were anti-war.' He was against the state having control of his life, too: he refused to register, and made plans to evade arrest for it. In his eyes, it was not an arrestable offence. 'I became an anarchist, I suppose.'

Tom heard about communities being voluntarily set up for working on the land, and he thought that this was what he'd like to do, although he was untrained. 'I was painfully aware that I wasn't an agriculturalist. I didn't know what a cow looked like before 1940, and in London we grew nothing in our gardens.'
The Quakers who ran the Whiteway colony near Gloucester welcomed him. He was given a bed and his meals and a small wage; for a year he dug, milked, and planted vegetables. Finally the police discovered where he was; he moved on, this time to the garden of a hospital where a few other COs were also working. Two detectives checked him out and told him to expect a summons.

'I was a law-abiding anarchist: I told them every time I moved. I wanted them to know what I was doing. But once I was in a police court I could be imprisoned. So I decided to move on so that the police were always a stage behind me.'

Tom moved from one agricultural job to another - labour was in short supply and he was always welcome - for two years, each employer quickly telling him when a summons had arrived so that he could move on. The work was tough, the life uncomfortable, but there was friendship from fellow COs. On one land project the men lived in a cricket pavilion. It was often bitterly cold. There was no radio, but they could listen to records on a wind-up player, and they borrowed the cricketers' bicycles to go on visits to friends and loved ones within reach.

Tom's partner, Maisie, had joined him at the Whiteway colony and stayed on there. When she told him she was pregnant with their child, he decided to face arrest. The Gloucester magistrate told Tom he was an outlaw: 'In the old days, we would have sentenced you to death. If we get more like you, we'll have anarchy.' Tom was in prison for 6 months, including a spell in Wormwood Scrubs, where a fellow prisoner was the composer Michael Tippett (later President of the Peace Pledge Union). Tom heard a music recital by two pacifists, composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears, who had both returned from a long stay in the USA to register as COs. They weren't supposed to speak to Michael Tippett, so they invited him on to the platform 'to turn the pages' of their music for them.

When his prison sentence in Gloucester was over, Tom was ordered back to the land, but he refused to go. 'I wanted to work in the coal mines because I thought that was worthwhile work and socially necessary.' The weary authorities left him to it. Tom started work at Pensford Colliery in Somerset, and stayed there for nearly twenty years.

He was not the only CO to work in the pits. There was a shortage of miners towards the end of the war. Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin introduced compulsory conscription into the mines for nearly 50,000 young men aged between 18 and 25, mostly drawn by lot and threatened with large fines or imprisonment for not complying. They were called 'Bevin Boys'. Many of them were accused of being COs, but in fact there were only 41 COs among them, sharing appalling conditions and a kind of work alien to them all.
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