Yesterday I spent a very productive afternoon in the Special Collections Room of the J.B. Priestley Library at the University of Bradford.
One of my interests is the career of Allan M. Laing, the conscientious objector who wrote Carols of a Convict while banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, and later became a prolific writer of light verse and parodies.
The Special Collections Room is packed with material related to Priestley and other Yorkshire novelists (including a complete set of Willie Riley), but also has a treasure trove of items connected with Peace movements of various kinds. Among these are the papers of David J. Mitchell, who in the 1960s was intending to write a book about the absolutist conscientious objectors of the Great War. He gave up on the project, mainly because someone else had projected a similar book, but not before he had done a good amount of research, which included an extensive interview with Allan M. Laing.
He met Laing and his wife in September 1963 while they were holidaying at Netley House, the Holiday Fellowship Guest House at Gomshall in Surrey (for the eighth year running). The Holiday Fellowship had links with the Co-operative movement and the Ramblers’ Association, causes aligned with Laing’s political and social attitudes.
At that time Laing was 76, and Mitchell’s notes describe him as ‘short, bouncy, vivid strawberry nose, v. lively, great rambler.’ (I think that word is ‘vivid’; Mitchell’s handwriting is not always clear. The strawberry nose wasn’t due to drinking – Laing was a lifelong teetotaller and non-smoker.)
Laing talks about his father, ‘an upholsterer with a literary bent’ who once won a poetry prize from a local newspaper. Allan Laing was born in Dundee in 1887, but the family soon moved to Liverpool, where he lived for the rest of his life. After leaving board school, Laing became an office boy at 6/- a week, and by 1914 was working as an insurance clerk (‘doing well, had passed all exams’)
In 1914 he became engaged to Florence, who, like Laing’s sister, worked in the Post Office, though they would not marry until 1922. Mitchell’s notes describe the Florence of 1963 as ‘sturdy, white-haired, with him but v. quiet and did not “interfere”‘. He says that she did not share Laing’s views about the War.
When War broke out, Laing joined the Liverpool branch of the No Conscription Fellowship, and became its secretary. He became good friends with Sydney Silverman, later a Labour M.P. (‘They rambled together, and later met as prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs.’)
His views were well-known and ‘atmosphere got nasty in office, the girls esp. being scornful and distributing white feathers, sticking one in buttonhole of overcoat, etc.’ His parents supported him, though.
In May 1916, he was sentenced to a month in Walton Gaol for distributing anti-conscription leaflets (I’ve blogged about this before). In 1917 he was arrested for refusing conscription and taken to Seaforth Barracks. By this time, he said, the really bad treatment of C.O.s had been toned down, and he was not persecuted. He refused to accept a military issue blanket, though, and was very cold. He had a statement all ready for the Court martial, but was not allowed to read it out himself. (‘Officer read it for him and made a perfect mess of it.’)
He was sent to Wormwood Scrubs ‘where sheep and goats were separated by offer of alternative service (the Home Office Scheme). He says he felt no inclination to take this offer. ‘There was one very refined man from our branch who took it. He hoped to escape some of the worst features of prison life.’
Laing says the first year of imprisonment was worst. This was the year he spent in Wormwood Scrubs. Prisoners were not allowed to talk; books and letters were limited. Prisoners were locked in their cells from 4 p.m. till the morning, with no means of writing. This was when he composed (and memorized) ‘Carols of a Convict’.
‘The thing which still brings a lump to my throat’ [and Mitchell notes that ‘while telling me this his eyes fill with tears and he berates himself for weakness’] ‘was when local (Willesden) NCF members still “free” would gather outside the prison walls and sing “God be with you till we meet again”.
Released from Wormwood Scrubs he was immediately rearrested, given another chance to agree to be a soldier, and then was sent to Winson green prison, Birmingham, under a ‘Blimpish governor’. He recalls that the prisoners discussed whether or not to have a work strike under cover of hymn singing in the prison chapel. They decided against it.
He was released in April 1919. Unlike many conscientious objectors he was able to return to his old job at the insurance office. It was made clear to him, though, that he could not expect promotion, and he ‘was giggled at and insulted by some of the girl employees’.
Since 1922, when he married and bought a small house for £700, he made his living as a freelance writer. He refers to ‘scissors-and-paste articles for the Liverpool Post’ and to the literary competitions at which he became the undisputed champion.
His most profitable literary enterprise was the short book of ‘Prayers and Graces’, published by Gollancz, which earned him £1000. Later in life he offered himself as a writer for occasions, writing short occasional poems, or speeches (He charged 5gns per thousand words for speeches.)
It’s a vivid interview. I wonder if the rest of Mitchell’s archive is as lively as this.
Bill Greenwell is working on a history of the New Statesman competitions, and I shall consult with him before compiling all my Laing material together into a short biography. Any information about him from elsewhere would be very gratefully received.
Many thanks to Alison Cullingford, the Special Collections Librarian, for making me so welcome yesterday. She is a Priestley expert, and alerted me to a Priestley conference in Bradford in October. Unfortunately this clashes with a family event, and I don’t think I’ll be able to go, but I thought I’d give it a mention here anyway.
One last thing. Asked about his fellow non-CO prisoners in the Scrubs, Laing told Mitchell:
All sorts. The one I remember was a lad of 14, in for homosexuality. When asked what he was in for would answer off-handedly: ‘Oh, carnal knowledge.’