I’ve blogged before about Allan M. Laing, the author of Carols of a Convict who in the 1930s and 1940s would become the monarch of the New Statesman literary competitions.
Cyril Pearce (author of the excellent Comrades in Conscience) has very kindly helped me by sharing the information about Laing in his database of conscientious objectors, and the results are interesting.
in May 1916 Laing, who had been secretary of the Liverpool No-Conscription Fellowship, was tried at Liverpool police court (together with someone called A. White) for distributing leaflets. He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Refusing to be drafted into the non-combatant corps, he would in 1917 be sentenced to one year’s hard labour, which he served first at at Winson Green, Birmingham, and then at Wormwood Scrubs. (It was in the later days of his time at the Scrubs that he wrote Carols of a Convict). He was then returned to the Army, re-arrested, presumably for non-compliance, and sentenced to two years hard labour. He went to Winson Green again, until he was discharged and released in April 1919.
What intrigues me at the moment is this letter in the Times of May 17, 1917, a few days after Laing’s conviction. The Latin title (presumably supplied by a learned Times sub-editor) has Bertrand Russell declaring ‘I am here who did it’:
The timing of this makes it seem likely that Laing and White are among the six that Russell is referring to, and that Russell’s leaflet is therefore the one that got them into trouble. Is there any way that I can be certain of this?
Russell’s request to be prosecuted was taken up, and he was fined £100, which he refused to pay, so some of his property was seized. (He was also dismissed from his post at Cambridge and refused a passport to go to lecture at Harvard.)
As a distinguished intellectual with upper-class connections, Russell was punished a good deal less harshly than protestors without his status (Laing was an insurance clerk before the War.) Even when he did eventually go to prison, Russell was treated with more respect than other objectors, and was able to work on the introduction to a book on logic while in jail.