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My dad was a conscientious objector in the 1950s

Latest from our Education Worker, Karen Robinson

International Conscientious Objectors’ Day is a special day. Observed on 15 May each year, the day is a rare opportunity to come together to remember and honour conscientious objectors past and present, in this country and all over the world. This year it felt especially tender, close, real, loving. This year I was thinking especially of one particular conscientious objector – my dad.

My dad was born on 18 September 1933. He died in the early hours of 17 January this year. Four months ago. Holding his hand. A gentle, peaceful time. A wonderful, salt-of-the-earth woman downstairs, who had worked for decades as a nurse in the NHS, quietly popping up to see us every half hour, to see how we were. Warm, solid, unobtrusive. My dad was 89.

My dad’s name was Raymond Robinson, known to his friends and colleagues as Ray. In this blog I will explore Ray’s family background and early influences which contributed to his decision to become a conscientious objector, and his experience of alternative service in the late 1950s.

In recent years on International Conscientious Objectors’ Day I have posted this photo of Ray as a little boy with his father, my grandfather.

My grandfather’s name was Harold Robinson, Harry for short. Ray looks about three years old here so I’m guessing the photo was taken in about 1936, not long before the beginning of the Second World War. In the back garden of the house in Norfolk House Road in Streatham, south London, where Ray grew up, where years later Shirley (later to be my mum) used to come and visit during their long courtship, and where later still, in the 1960s, my grandparents were still living when my sister Heather and I came along.

Harry and my grandmother (Hilda Robinson) met at a Labour Party gathering in South Wales, in the late 1920’s / early 1930’s. He was from a mining village in the South Wales valleys. She was a doctor’s daughter from south-east England. Hilda was older than Harry. She was born at the very end of the 1800’s. Many of the boys and young men she knew growing up, went off to the First World War in 1914-1918 and never came back. She became a pacifist and remained so all her life. She was also a committed socialist. She was very close to her dad who was a vet as well as a doctor. He was involved in the setting up of the Labour Party. Hilda remembered Keir Hardie (Leader of the Labour Party from 1906-1908) being a visitor to the house. This is Hilda as a young woman.

In her younger days Hilda was a pharmacist’s assistant. She was outgoing, and at times outspoken. Passionate about the causes she believed in. She spoke on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner. In her writings she called Harry her rock. Harry was a quiet, gentle man. He was an insurance agent for the Co-op. It was their shared values which brought them together.

A few years after the photo of Harry and Ray in the garden the Second World War started. During the war Harry was a conscientious objector. He did alternative service – working on the land. I got the sense that he was not able to come back to his family in London each night but stayed on the farm. Ray was six when the war started. He remembered that each time his dad came back from the farm, he and his mum would comment on how brown he was. When the bombing got very intense in London, Hilda took Ray temporarily out of the city – to a safer, rural area to the south. But later in the war they returned to Streatham.

Ray was twelve when the war ended. Before the end of the war he made the transition to senior school. Hilda took his education very seriously. The local school was a good school academically but Hilda did not want Ray to go there because the military cadets played such a prominent role in school life. She visited other schools and interviewed the headteachers until she found a school with the ethos she wanted for her son. She was happy with the school they chose. Ray had mixed feelings at the time, at least at the beginning. If he had gone to the local school he would have been with children he knew from primary school and he wouldn’t have had the long bus journeys there and back.

Ray remembered, as a teenager, going regularly with Hilda to campaigning / business meetings of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in their office at Dick Sheppard House in Endsleigh Street, London. The PPU actively supported conscientious objectors during the Second World War. It is very likely that when visiting the PPU office, Ray saw the PPU poster which had been printed during the war:

Ray went on to study Economics at the London School of Economics. I believe it was here he met Roy Hattersley, who later went on to be a Labour MP and Labour Minister. There is a photo showing Ray and Roy as members of a Labour Party youth delegation to a Labour gathering in former Yugoslavia.

Later Ray studied Russian for a year at Oxford University. Shirley and Ray were in their 20’s when they got married in the late 1950’s in a Unitarian church in south London. They had first met in a church youth club when Shirley was 15 and Ray was 17. The ‘church’ was actually a simple prefab building.

I believe the previous building had been destroyed in the war. This photo was taken in their honeymoon hotel in Bournemouth. They did not know a fancy dress party was planned, but Shirley improvised with what they had and came up with these outfits!

After the Second World War conscription continued until 1960. It was known then as National Service (following the National Service Act 1948) (1,2). In the 1950’s National Service was for two years. As I understand it Ray did not have to do National Service while he was still studying but thereafter was liable to be called up. When he was called up he applied to be recognised as a conscientious objector. He had to explain to a tribunal why he objected to serving in the military. He was registered as a conscientious objector and it was agreed that as alternative service he would work as a youth club leader with the Quakers in the East End of London.

In fact the role with the Quakers was a joint one with my mum, Shirley. (Shirley was a qualified teacher by that time, and she sometimes said with a twinkle in her eye that she thought it was her qualification which helped them get the joint role. Today that would not be unusual, but then when women’s rights were so much more limited, it was definitely worthy of that twinkle. Ray did not have a profession at that stage).

I am not sure how long Ray’s alternative service was but I am guessing it was at least as long as the two-year National Service. During that time Ray and Shirley worked for the Quakers in Barking and Hoxton as youth club leaders. Below is the front cover of the 1958-1959 annual report of the Bedford Institute Association, Quaker Service in East London. It was published in March 1959. Ray and Shirley were listed as the wardens of Barking Friends Meeting House.

Over the years, my sister and I have heard many vivid stories, particularly from Shirley, of their time working together for the Quakers in the East End. Shirley told of lengthy preparations for a party. Over weeks the young children in the club had been painting a huge number of small recycled tin cans in bright colours and these had then been painstakingly tied on strings and suspended from the ceiling in a striking and colourful display. Shirley commented that the older members of the club could have ruined it in a very short space of time by cutting the strings, but they knew and respected that it was the young children’s work and the display was left completely intact for the big day.

On another occasion the teenagers had been preparing and rehearsing a show to which the public and family and friends were invited. One of the sketches involved two of the toughest lads dressing up in ballet tutus and pirouetting. On the evening of the show one of the lads couldn’t face doing it. And so Ray stepped in to save the day. His performance in a ballet dress with his knobbly knees brought the house down. Another time one of the tough lads approached Shirley and asked if she could teach him to ballroom dance. Separately, another lad asked if she could teach him to cook. Both sets of classes had to be done behind locked doors in Ray and Shirley’s flat on the premises, for fear of the lads’ peers finding out.

Perhaps the most dramatic story was when they were working in the Hoxton youth club. The Kray twins were well known in the area and sometimes came to the youth club and demanded to be let in. On one occasion they knew the twins were coming and Ray suggested that Shirley went to the front door to keep them out. This was seen as sensible I think for two reasons. Ray and Shirley were young youth club leaders, not many years older than the oldest young people in the club. However, at that age Shirley was considerably more streetwise than Ray. Shirley had lost her mum a few months after the end of the war, when Shirley was eleven years old. After the death of her mum she had run the household single-handedly for years, doing all the shopping and cooking and cleaning, and organising the ration books for her father and herself. She was also a woman; it was generally believed that the Kray twins would not be violent towards women.

So, Shirley found herself in a small vestibule with glass sides at the entrance of the club, alone with the twins and with the task of keeping them out. They tried to embarrass her and intimidate her by using slang to describe female genitalia. Without a moment’s hesitation she said ‘Oh, you mean ….’ and proceeded to use the medical / anatomical terms for the parts of the female body they had been referring to. This amused Reggie Kray, he seemed to have felt they had met their match, and they left soon afterwards. The Kray twins were actually the same age as Ray – they too were born in the autumn of 1933. Shirley is 87 now and still tells this story to new people she meets.

In another aspect of their role as youth club leaders, Ray and Shirley accompanied a group of young people from the East End of London to Cologne in Germany to meet and stay with a group of German young people and their youth club leaders. The project, to give young people in Britain and Germany the opportunity to meet each other, and to promote understanding and reconciliation, was organised by British and German Quakers. The visit took place less than fifteen years after the end of the Second World War.

During their visit to Cologne Shirley remembers being driven round on the back of a moped by one of their German hosts. His name was Dieter. He drove her for a long time, along destroyed street after destroyed street, through a huge area of Cologne, an expanse which still lay decimated by the war.

Back in London Ray had a conversation with a Quaker involved in the work in the East End, an older man who he really liked and respected. The man valued Ray’s work with young people and encouraged him to consider joining the probation service. Soon after Ray decided to train as a probation officer, a profession he went on to commit his whole working life to. In the course of his work Ray was very interested in, and made big efforts to help develop, community service as an alternative to custodial sentences for some crimes. As a probation officer he was part of a movement calling for and encouraging community service. I remember him telling us about the training sessions about community service he ran for local magistrates.

It is quite possible that some of the young youth club members from Hoxton and Barking are still with us, maybe still living in the East End. If so, I guess they would be in their late seventies / early eighties now. Some of them may remember their youth club days and if so I like to think they look back on them as important and life-enhancing times. Certainly for Ray and Shirley, their time working as youth club leaders with the Quakers (in Ray’s case as his alternative service) had a profound, positive, and long lasting effect on their lives.

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