The Aberdeen work camp for the men who refused to go to war

More than 250 conscientious objectors were sent to break granite at a quarry at Dyce, Aberdeen, in a secret work camp that soon lit a local outcry.

Tuesday, 24th April 2018, 7:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th April 2018, 7:19 pm
The conscientious objectors pose for a photo -surrounded by granite - at the Dyce work camp. PIC: Creative Commons.

The camp at Dyce Quarries was set up in August 1916 as the Home Office faced a rising prison population, which was partly driven by those who refused to embark on military service following conscription.

The men, who were mainly from England and usually university students or professionals, were sent to the North East of Scotland to break granite for 10 hours a day.

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As the conscientious objectors arrived in Aberdeen, the Battle of the Somme was raging in northern France.

At Dyce, the men slept in condemned tents used in the Boer War with each man given a straw bed and three blankets each. Prisoners complained of poor health, severe weather and leaky accommodation.

Within weeks, the camp became common knowledge in Aberdeen and fired up an increasingly hostile exchange of letters in the local press.

When the men at the Dyce camp started to complain about their living conditions following the death of a comrade, WJ Roberts, of Stockport, from pneumonia, the contempt towards the camp could not be contained.

The men were branded “degenerates” in the local press, with one correspondent suggesting that vital revenues for the war effort be raised by running trains of passengers to view these “humbugs”.

Another letter writer, from Dyce, described them as “social lepers” during wartime who had no right to vote during peace. It was suggested that, like aliens, they should have not contact with the outside world.

One serving soldier wrote to the Aberdeen Evening Express after becoming amused about the complaints of the COs.

The letter said: “It seems pretty evident that the malcontents are aristocrats of the Labour movement and over-educated prigs.”

One soldier’s mother wrote to the Aberdeen Daily Journal in September 18 1916: “They are not willing to fight and are now grumbling because they are not supplied with, I suppose, soft beds and all the luxuries of life.

“It makes me feel that we women should be allowed to deal with them when we think of our brave sons up to the waist in mud and water and suffering untold hardships to enable these comrades to have a soft job, even if it is at Dyce Quarries.”

Men from the camp, who were robustly defended in the newspapers by local clergy, formed a press committee and started corresponding with local papers with a camp news sheet - the Granite Echo - also formed.

One letter came from Guy A Aldred, from London, who became a prominent figure in the CO movement after being sentenced to nine months in prison in June 1916 for failing to comply with military orders. First sent to Winchester Prison, he was later transferred to Dyce.

His correspondence with The Press and Journal followed a failed camp vote to work 10 hours a day. A five hour shift was later settled on given the poor physical condition of many of the men.

Mr Aldred wrote: “If manual labour is useful, I will perform it. I view it as no penalty. But I will not be conscripted into slavery all the time.”

He fuelled further indignation after anti-military publications started to appear around Dyce and in the city, with editorial signed in his name.

The Press and Journal reported on September 16, 1916 that Aldred was among several men from the Dyce camp who spent a Saturday evening in the city.

The newspaper reported how the men stood out for not wearing a hat - “a distinctive peculiarity of most members of the fraternity” - with the group also marked by their “long hair and demeanour, which differs widely from that common in this part of the country.”

Aldred went on to deliver a talk in a hall in the city’s George Street on the socialism of William Morris.

The death of WJ Roberts in the camp led to its ultimate closure.

Pressure from the Committee for Conscientious Objectors at Dyce forced a visit by a Home Office deputation on September 16 1916 and a subsequent inquiry into conditions there.

It was decided that tents should be abolished and arrangements made with local farmers for the men to stay in lofts and barns. Improvement to food was also to be considered.

However, it was announced in the House of Commons the following month that the Dyce Camp was to close with the men transported out within a week. Some went to other work camps - while others preferred to go back to prison.