in Britain in World War Two

Bernard Nicholls' story
It wasn't until the late 1930s that Bernard Nicholls gave serious thought to war. Then he told his parish priest that he couldn't see how Christian faith and war could be compatible. The priest was outraged and the next Sunday preached a sermon attacking the pacifist position; he 'finished it with a ringing statement that anyone who adopted this view could be neither a Christian nor a gentleman'. So Bernard walked out. 'I went through a lot of youthful agony about it, not happy at being the odd man out. But in spite of the oddness, and the shame and disgrace it was felt it brought on them, my family stuck by me. I was their son, and that was that.'

Bernard's application for exemption was dismissed, and he appealed. While waiting for the Appeal Tribunal, he heard about the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and the Pacifist Service Unit, got in touch, and was soon being asked to organise and lead a group of APF helpers. When the Blitz began, Bernard and his team worked at night in a shelter near London Bridge, and in the day helped bomb victims in any way they could. 'The camaraderie was very real.'

He also worked in the APF's open-all-hours drop-in centre near Trafalgar Square, and got to know the Westminster City Council's air raid shelter officials quite well. The Council's chief shelter warden soon spotted Bernard's ability, and asked him to set up and run a shelter especially for street dwellers, alcoholics, the mentally ill and others who didn't mix easily with the majority in the underground air raid shelters: to be 'not a dump,' the chief warden said, 'but the best'.

So one of the arches under Charing Cross Station was converted into a shelter, and run by Bernard's team. 'It had a capacity of 200, 3-tiered bunks and a lovely fireplace that would have graced a country residence. The Council fitted up a marvellous canteen facility, a medical aid post and baths and lavatories. And thus we began the Hungerford Club. One of the most exclusive clubs in London - you couldn't get in without a special pass from the Westminster shelter service.'

'Quite a lot of the men were veterans of World War One, and a great many were very interesting people. They were odd-men-out, contractors out of society, non-conformists, which in a very real sense we were too. Sometimes a few would get abusive and violent when we told them why we weren't fighting, but nothing undermined the basic mutuality that existed between most of them and us. Some of us spent a night or two in the shelter when things were difficult, which gave the sense that we were sharing their sort of life.'

Bernard was so busy he almost forgot to go to his Appeal Tribunal. 'I dropped everything, and dashed there just as I was, with dirty hands and a boiler suit, arriving out of breath.' He had a 'jolly good discussion' with his interviewers, explaining that whilst he had contracted out of society to protest against war, his way of contracting back in was to volunteer for humanitarian service, not to be forced into it. The chairman said 'You're a very obdurate young man'. It was the trade union representative on the panel who asked Bernard why he'd turned up in his boiler suit and got him talking about the Hungerford Club. A fortnight later the news came: Bernard had been granted that rare thing, unconditional exemption.

'I think it was because I'd shown I'd already committed myself to a course which involved giving up career prospects, and living on £1 a week. The verdict was very important to me, because it increased my regard for the British way of life and sense of justice. I accepted it as a verdict of trust, and it enormously increased my sense of social commitment and obligation.'
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