William Rowell Burwell (1892-1965)

WW1 Conscientious Objector

William Rowell Burwell, 1913
John Burwell

This article is based on extracts from his unpublished memoir, ‘The Closed Door or The Memoirs and Comments of a Local Preacher’, which he wrote in 1938.

‘I am the third generation of unsuccessful candidates for the [Wesleyan] Methodist ministry and all three of us continued to render loyal service to the church.’

Rowell Burwell (1828-1899)

‘My grandfather, Rowell Burwell, may possibly still be remembered by some of the older members in the Witney circuit. His father would not allow him to proceed with his candidature because he was lame – having six toes to each foot – and as the ministry in those days involved a considerable amount of walking, he no doubt saw the wisdom of his father’s opinion. He had a little pony and chase in which he made the extensive journeys to take his preaching appointments. He lived at Milton-under-Wychwood and had a chapel built against his house and shop. When he was not preaching elsewhere he invariably took the services in his own little chapel. I believe he was a better preacher than shopkeeper. He had no heart for collecting debts. The reputation given him in the public houses was that he fed their bodies all the week, and their souls on Sunday, all for nothing!’

William Rowell Burwell (1859-1909)

‘The obvious way in which he was exploited induced his eldest son – my father – to leave home. He obtained a situation as a grocer’s assistant in London. It was here that he felt the call to preach. He began to study but the long hours which his work involved made the reading of books an arduous task. I never heard whether he actually sat for the ministerial examination or not. I believe he abandoned it as being hopeless and settled down disconsolately to the grocery business, only finding a way of escape from it a few years before he died, in 1909. His devoted service to the church can be vouched for by many who remember his sterling work in the Bates Hill circuit, Redditch. He there laboured in the Sunday and as Circuit Foreign Missionary Secretary.  In the last office he succeeded in doubling the circuit’s contribution to Foreign Missions. In this way he did his best to make up for the bitter disappointment in not being able to enter the Foreign Field himself.’

William Rowell Burwell (1892-1965)

After his father’s death, the Memoir records that the family home was broken up and he moved to Oxford. He became a Local Preacher in 1912, and attended Wesley Hall, Cowley Road, Oxford. The Memoir contains a fascinating account of his early attempts at preaching.

‘The Rev Henry High asked me if I would be the assistant Sunday School superintendant at Garsington, because frequently the appointed preacher did not turn up in the afternoons. He said it would be excellent training for me because an address would have to be given and I could try my sermons over on them! I agreed to accept the task and it certainly was an excellent experience. I have never found difficulty in holding the attention of children, and felt that if they could listen to my sermons there could not be much wrong with them for adults. For all that, I sincerely hope and pray that no one will say the things to my children that I said to the children at Garsington. How the tears used to stream down their anxious and troubled little faces while I described to them in lurid detail the torments of the damned! I would wind up my address with some such words as, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” I have often wondered whether my efforts had any permanent results, and whether in Garsington Chapel there is to be found today any soul who would not have been there but for my proclamations.’

Cliff College (1914-15)

In October 1914 he went to Cliff College for a year’s study, to prepare for candidating for the ministry. 

‘All this while the Great War was raging, and frequently hints and suggestions were flung out about joining the army. Mr. Chadwick was frequently urged to close down and send his men into the army. To this he replied that they would have conscription in the nation before they had it at Cliff College. Once a Brass Hat came to talk to us of the great need the nation had for men, of the great sacrifices men were making and the usual patriotic recruiting matter that was then emanating from pulpit, press and platform all over the country. Many joined up and I decided to do so too, but for some reason that I cannot explain didn’t.  I wrote and told my Mother that I had decided to do so, and she replied that she was proud to think that her son was ready to fight and die for his country.  After that flutter of patriotic fervour, things again returned to normal and my candidature for the ministry took its normal course.

Problem of military service

After being rejected for the ministry in July 1915, he left for London, where he found a job in the East End.

‘The problem of military service was ever with me, I had seen the sacks of straw suspended between trenches to represent men into which the recruits were taught to thrust their bayonets.  The thought came to me like a flash “That is not the way Jesus taught us to behave towards our enemies.  In fact that is just the opposite of what he taught.” I think that is a very elementary conception of what is now known as Christian Pacifism, but it was a conviction that came to me with sufficient force to make me resolve to endure whatever was involved in refusing to fight. My firm belief was that when conscription came I should be shot. And yet I must admit that I had a premonition – that I feel could have been shared by but a few young men – that I should survive the war.’

‘It was about this time that I had a letter from my devoted friend at Cliff. He was now an officer in the army in virtue of his secondary school education. What he could not understand was why I had not joined the army now that for me the ministerial examination was out of the way, while he, who was contemplating taking the exam next year, had relinquished his prospects and joined up. 

I wrote and told him that I could not see how I could reconcile the conduct of a solider with the Sermon on the Mount.  He wrote back in a temper, supposed I had got a very special and extraordinary conscience, while he, and millions more like him, were wrong in relinquishing prospect and even life itself to protect our homes and loved ones.  I wrote back a letter I would now give all I have to recall.  I said, “In your duties as an officer you will have to kill people, what is more you will have to order other men to kill, and my only hope is that you will be able to do it in the spirit of Christ.” He never replied. I read sometime afterwards that he had gone out to France and been killed soon after his arrival at the front.  He may not have been cut out for the ministry but he was certainly never intended for a soldier, and I feel that it was my letter that killed him.’ 

The loneliness of a Conscientious Objector

‘I was terribly lonely in London, I knew none who shared my views, in fact I felt that there was no one else who was resolved to be shot as a coward and a traitor rather than to shoot and be shot at as a patriot. After a few months of this unbearable existence in London I gave up my job and before my notice had expired secured another situation in Leicester.

A very different state of affairs met me in Leicester.  I found the pacifists organised and having regular meetings. I attended these meetings but never took an active part in them.  I well remember a large meeting being held one Sunday night in the Friends Meeting House, The place was filled with “Conscientious Objectors.” The Military Acts had just been passed and that was the legal description of us in the Act.  I got up to speak and said, “This is generally regarded as a war against militarism; if it is we are a defeated country, the enemy has invaded the land, and we who are supposed to believe in non resistance are the only people who are really resisting him.  We are the people who are trying to save England from all she fears; we are the true patriots and posterity will give us the verdict.’

Court Martial

‘On the first anniversary of my arrival in Leicester I was court martialled at Glen Parva Barracks and subsequently sentenced to imprisonment… My ideas on Christian pacifism had advanced for I well remember in my written statement to the court martial I outlined my religious beliefs. “To me” I said, “The New Testament clearly teaches that the relationship between us and our fellow men is the same as our relationship with God. How we judge we shall be judged, how we forgive we shall be forgiven, as we are merciful we shall obtain mercy: we cannot love God, if we do not love our fellow men.  Therefore for me to declare war on Germany would be to declare war on God which is abandoning my religion altogether.  I regret that, much as I love my country, I cannot do this for it.” At the end of these proceedings the president asked me if I had anything I wished to add.  I regretted having given them so much trouble and thanked them for the kindness and courtesy with which I had been treated while in their hands. The Rev. Cullis Colwell, who was then my minister, and the Rev. Seaward Beddow, who was my friend, gave evidence of my character.  I was sentenced to fifty six days imprisonment without hard labour.  This I served in Wormwood Scrubs prison.  A sergeant and a private escorted me to prison.  The private seemed very sympathetic and as we passed through the wicket gate said, “Cheer up, it will soon be over.” Under such circumstances little statements like that are very precious.’

Wormwood Scrubs Prison, 1916

‘It was a strange world into which we entered. I was put into a little cell about a yard square and thought that this was where I was to spend my sentence. That however was only a reception cell.  The formalities of reception lasted until after dark.  It was November.  These preliminaries being over we were taken in single file to our cells. We entered, in front of the warder, the long dimly lighted hall through studded door and iron gate. We were given a cloth number badge to button on to our coat. Mine was B 3.43. That is B Hall, 3rd. landing, 43 cell.   While we stood at a desk receiving these I could hear a continual ‘click click up the other end of the hall that seemed to get nearer and nearer.  Eventually a warder came near to where we were standing. He was looking, through the spy hole in each cell and switching out the lights, which in this prison were electric.  It was an uncanny thought that came to me. “This is a living cemetery; all these little doors are graves and in each of them is a living corpse a man with like passions to myself. I am going to be buried alive in one of these graves.  Some of them are going to be buried for two years. I am only going to be buried for fifty six days.” While I was indulging in this melancholy soliloquy, I found myself at the door of  B 3.43, into which I was directed, and told to make my bed and get into it.  I did this quickly, the light was put out, and I found myself in abysmal darkness. I slept well after an exhausting day. 

This is not the place for a detailed description of the British prison system. The effect upon my mind and soul however must be given. I was under its influence long enough to find out what was the matter with it, and to develop a hatred of it that would be impossible to describe.  I was awakened by a clanging bell the next morning — how I came to hate the sound of that bell that brought the only enjoyable experience in prison – sleep – to an end. My cell door was unlocked and left ajar. I had no idea what this was for but I learned afterwards that we had at this time to empty our slops. My door was locked again and I was left alone with my thoughts. The next time it was unlocked I was told to place my mug on an enamel plate and stand at the door to receive a pint of porridge and eight ounces of brown bread.  This was repeated at tea time. The midday meal was different each day of the week. I was taken the first morning before the Chaplain who asked me my religion. When I said ‘Methodist’ he asked me if I were a member.  “A local preacher.”  “Oh, you are on the plan, are you?”

I was then locked in my cell which had been cleared up in my absence. I sewed rings on mail bags all the time I was in prison, a task at which I became very quick. I could have done twice the hard labour task, being used to working with my hands while a man in the next cell, who was the editor of a Quaker magazine, could not do half his task and made his hands bleed trying to do that. Injustice number one; – Some men were always hungry. I was myself and used to make my food last as long as ever I could and didn’t waste a crumb, while others had more than they could eat.  Injustice number two; – Some men found prison life a terrible experience, the silence, solitude and repression were to them exasperating. To others it was a rest cure.  Injustice number three; – Some men had long sentences while others like me had short ones for the same crime.  Injustice number four; – I soon realised that there can be no such thing as human justice… How thankful we ought to be to know that Jesus will be our judge…  But he would never fulfil the demands required to become an English magistrate!’ 

Evils of the Prison System

‘I did not suffer any real hardship in prison. It was not until I had crossed off the last of the fifty six scratches on my cell wall – less a sixth remission for good conduct – and I had been sent to Wakefield prison where the cell doors were not locked, and we had our meals together on the ground floor and worked in association. After the day’s work was over we were allowed out of the prison and could hold meetings or classes, or do whatever we liked.  It was here that I found out the effects of prison. I had lost all confidence in my self control. After being under lock and key for forty five days I felt like a bird let out of a cage.  When the restraining lock was undone and I was free and compelled to exert some effort to secure my daily bread, I discovered I had become a criminal.  I entered prison a normal man, with average self control and an average sense of social responsibility — now I had neither.  If that is the effect upon me, what can be the effect on a man in whom these faculties are weak already when he enters that wicket gate? I could now murder anybody.  I was terrified lest I should commit suicide. The wire netting that is stretched across the first landing was not in position in this open prison. My cell was on the top landing and I dared not go to sleep in case in a semi consciousness I threw myself over the rails outside my cell door.  After existing in one room it was a terrible effort to have to turn out and go to a shed to work.  How can you expect a man, after two years in prison, to rush all over the town trying to find work? The struggle for existence is great for all working class men but it is hopeless for a man who has been locked up and had to make no effort either to get work or to earn his own living.’ 

‘On Christmas day 1916 we had a religious service at which the junior Chaplain preached a sermon on “I came not to bring peace but a sword”.  The sermon was of course directed against the conscientious objectors.  I think I was the only one who enjoyed it.  One man, I heard afterwards, asked to see the Chaplain the next morning.  When he arrived at his cell the man said, “I wish to protest against your deliberate misrepresentation of the teaching of Christ.” At the end of the sermon he said, “I wish you all a happy and peaceful, though I fear abstemious, Christmas.”  We were then led back to our cells to eat our Christmas dinner of tinned meat and potatoes and bread, and to contemplate the sermon and the Chaplain eating his turkey.  There was singing outside the prison wall and some men cheered and waved their handkerchiefs out of their cell windows for which hilarity they were duly punished.  One man was punished for wishing his warder a happy New Year! What one warder will ignore another will report.’ 

‘I felt that the Chaplain’s Christmas sermon revealed an essential element of the teaching of Jesus which the pacifist movement lacks.  We need to combine the Pacifism of the Quakers with the aggressive evangelism of the Methodist. Some people think pacifists are too pugnacious.  I don’t think they are pugnacious enough.’ 

‘All the days in prison are so much alike that it is impossible to distinguish one from another. The nights – as I have already said – were by far the most wonderful part of prison.  My nights seemed to be filled with the most vivid dreams. I used to go home almost every night and the dream would he so realistic that it would be hard to believe that it was only a dream.  I can quite believe that John Bunyan dreamt his Pilgrim’s Progress in prison.  How fortunate we are that he was imprisoned in a saner age than ours, for if he had been imprisoned today he would have had nothing but a slate and a slate pencil to record his heavenly vision!  What books of the New Testament might never have been written if St. Paul had been an Englishman instead of a Roman.  This is a scandal. How might our literature have been enriched if writing materials were available for such prisoners as desire them?

The next brightest spot in my imprisonment, after the nights, was the weekly Methodist service.  This was held on Thursday afternoon. This and the Anglican service were the only occasions when we could use our voices. How wonderful it was to be able to sing praises to God with a voice that was rusting with inaction.The Methodist Chaplain was a dear old man, I never knew his name, who had spent the best of his life in India as a Missionary.  He rarely preached without bringing in by way of interest something about the foreign field.  One Thursday a month he came and visited us in our cells.  This pleasure was conferred upon me but once.  It was a memorable occasion.  I was wondering why we had not been taken to Chapel when he unlocked my door and came in.  I had only had warders in the cell with me before and they came to search my cell and person at all sorts of unexpected times.

This occasion when the Methodist Chaplain visited me was the only occasion while I was in prison that I heard a ‘normal’ human voice.  The warders always spoke in a bullying way which I have every reason to believe was not natural but acquired.  He asked me if I were a Methodist or had just given my name in as being a Methodist because I had attended a Methodist Sunday School. I told him I was a local preacher, had been a candidate for the Ministry last year, my father was a Methodist and had wanted to be a Missionary, and his father was a local preacher, and on my great Grandmother’s side I could trace an unbroken line of Methodist ancestry back to the time of John Wesley himself.  I don’t know whether he was overwhelmed at such a galaxy of Methodist pedigree or whether he was impressed with the thought that so thoroughbred a Methodist could be found in a felon’s cell but he became very serious and said, looking into one corner of the cell, “There is one problem that this generation must solve, and that is the problem of war.”

Wakefield Work Centre, 1917

‘I left Wormwood Scrubs early in 1917.  They tell me there is a statue of Elizabeth Fry on the gate of that hell on earth.  I was too preoccupied when I arrived to notice it, and in too big a hurry to get away to notice it when I left. I left with two other men, a Plymouth Brother and a Christadelphian. The Christadelphian had been a Methodist and changed because of the attitude of the Methodists to the war. The Plymouth Brother told him he didn’t think much of his reason!  My first thought was to buy a paper; of this the Plymouth Brother did not approve on the ground that we are not of this world!  … I was disappointed in my newspaper. The world seemed to be just where it was when I left it, still bent on mutual massacre … Surely war is insanity of an infectious, suicidal, homicidal character, and a pacifist conviction seems to be the only certain inoculation against it.  I remember little of the journey to Wakefield except the bickering and quibbling of my two theological companions.

Fear of Suicide

It was in Wakefield that all the horrors of prison took possession of my soul…  I found myself bordering on insanity, terrified lest I should do myself or someone else an injury in a moment of unconsciousness. I was afraid to go to sleep because the cell door was unlocked; if only it could have been unlocked gradually. To be locked up for forty five days and then suddenly to be unlocked!  The care with which the prison system seeks to prevent its victims from committing suicide is elaborate. No boot laces that would be long enough to hang oneself with, no knife that could be used to cut ones throat, wire netting stretched across from the first landing to break a man’s fall, lest, when his cell door is opened, he should throw himself over. The wire netting is now missing, my cell is on the top landing, the door is always unlocked. All my powers of self control have been starved out of me. It was a terrible nightmare.’ 

Dartmoor, 1917-18

‘How delighted I was when I was informed that I had been chosen with several others to go to Dartmoor.  We made the long and tedious journey in through coaches.  Another party was already settled in from Warwick. The cells here are smaller than Wormwood Scrubs or Wakefield. That is because Dartmoor is a Penal Settlement and the convicts spend less time in their cells and more time working in the quarries, on the farm, reclaiming moorland, in the workshops, iron work, boot repairing, making mail bags, rope making, laundry, and stone breaking etc.etc. I was put on the coal cart.  A party of us were harnessed to a heavy truck which we had to load up with coal and take round to various stoke holes.  This was not a very pleasant occupation; another unpleasantness was that here also my cell was on the top landing and there was no wire netting to break my fall. I was still afraid of going to sleep for fear of walking in my sleep and throwing myself over the rails round the landing. 

At dinner I learned that there were much happier jobs outside.  A man I had become acquainted with in the train told me that he had got a job on the farm. He had to go all round the country with a warder, feeding the animals. How envious I became.  It had been the ambition of my youth to be a farmer, but my father had said I had better give up the idea because I should get my feet wet.  A week or so later I learned from this man that he had applied for another job in the hospital; in the event of him getting this place he would have to give up the farm job.’

‘So I became a Dartmoor Shepherd.  This same man had a cell on the first landing, now he was moving into the hospital to take up residence there, I removed into his cell and lived happily ever after!  The open air life soon restored my mental balance and I spent a very enjoyable fifteen months in Britain’s most dreaded prison. It is a thing almost incredible that all the time I was living a pastoral life on the wild wastes of Dartmoor, millions of men were doing their utmost to destroy each other.  How could anybody have any desire to join in this mutual massacre? One campaign has been described as “insane horror that achieved nothing”. Why confine that description to one campaign isn’t it applicable to the whole war? What did it achieve that has been of any lasting benefit to the human race?   Nothing worthy of the life of a single soldier.’

Such a University as never was

‘The greatest blessing of Dartmoor to me was the intimate association of very remarkable men.  My greatest friend was a B.A. It was wonderful for me to have a friend who was a B.A. He was the first person who really gave me the impression that my ideas and opinions were worthy of serious consideration, which was a great stimulusto thought. Another friend I had was very intellectual and after leaving Dartmoor soon became a Canon of the Church of England. I met great souls there as well as great minds and all the men there were men who held strong views and held them tenaciously. The arguments in the kitchen -  for instance – frequently spoiled the foods.  Atheist and Plymouth Brethren, Christadelphians and Russellians [Jehovah’s Witnesses] and every conceivable and inconceivable denomination were represented.  It was a university such as never was and my mind was broadened and my tolerance of the views of others greatly increased.’

Princetown Methodist Chapel

‘During this time I had done no preaching.  I spoke on a few occasions in Dartmoor.  I was once asked to speak in the Chapel outside but declined feeling that it would be contracting out.  On one occasion the Rev. Leyton Richards, who was then Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, applied to the Home Office for permission to speak to the conscientious objectors to war service in the Prison – while we were there it was not called a prison but a settlement. His request was refused. I felt this to be a great blow and began to scratch my head to devise ways and means of getting to hear him. There was a warder who used to go round the farm with me occasionally on Sunday mornings who was a steward in the Methodist Chapel.  I asked him, in an offhand manner, whether he wanted a good preacher for the Chapel Anniversary or anything special. He assured me that that was just what they did want, and did I know anybody? Well yes, I knew of a man named Richards.  He’s a jolly good preacher and think I could get him if the committee thought he would do.  He said he would ask them. A week or two later I asked him if he had done anything about it. Yes, he had, and the committee were willing to have him. 

Enough said. I immediately got the matter fixed up and in the year 1917 or 18 the Rev. Leyton Richards of Carrs Lane, Birmingham, preached the anniversary sermons in Princetown Methodist Chapel. There never was such an anniversary before or since. The place was packed.  The shutters between the pulpit and the vestry had to be removed to increase the accommodation. The aisles were filled and what sermons!  Mr. Richards enjoyed himself more than anybody. Several people went out during the sermon, his inescapable logic being too much for them. I remember he preached a sermon on Liberty and another on “The teaching of Jesus is the only solution to the world’s problems.”

“Some say education is the solution, some culture, and now the latest discovery in this year of grace is the sword. Well, if the sword is the world’s saviour, let us as quickly as possible turn our Churches into drill halls and. our preachers into drill sergeants.”  At this the door slammed as an indication that one or two had been bowled. Not only did all the conscientious objectors who wanted to hear him get in, but the warders and their families and all the other natives of the village who wished to hear him, were there. None of these would have heard him inside the prison as they would not be allowed there. I think this was one of the most successful bits of diplomacy I had ever undertaken.  Of course no one knew that I had had anything to do with it.

Employment Scheme

‘I was in Dartmoor just over a year, and left just before the second shearing began… This was in June 1918. The Home Office had devised a “New Scheme” as it was called. The futility of keeping thousands of men shut up wasting their time making mail bags or scratching the barren surface of the Moor had penetrated their minds.  We were now to be released providing we obtained situations within a certain prescribed list of trades and occupations.  My own profession was in the list and so I soon got a situation in North Wales and was allowed to go to it.  I often wondered why I was in such a hurry to leave Dartmoor.  I was very happy there.  I believed I was in love and anxious to earn some money so that I could get married, but things took a different course and marriage did not come my way until ten or twelve years later.’

Attitudes to COs

‘My welcome back into the world was a mixed affair.  I shall never forget how my old landlord took my hand in both of his and shook it heartily.  He didn’t agree with my stand but there was a depth of sympathy, love and understanding in him that warmed my heart. A lady said, “Your sufferings are nothing compared with the soldiers”. I agreed. Unless they had thrown us all to the lions they could hardly have produced an equivalent of the trenches.  Our sufferings were moral and it was the hostility of our friends and our obstruction of the current of popular feeling that was hard to bear. Today the equanimity with which ex-service men contemplate the next war compared with the cold shivers that pass down my spine, when I think of it, makes me wonder whether our hardship wasn’t the harder to bear.’

‘I lived for twelve months with the Welsh people [at Pwllheli]… Their attitude to pacifists was tolerant. The patriotic bitterness had not penetrated so far west. On the whole the people seemed too passive to be pacifists; a man must be something of a fighter to stand up to the British Government and the British Army.  There were however some pacifists who befriended me and the Methodist Minister was a pugnacious kind of pacifist.’ 

Unemployment, 1919

In July 1919, W R Burwell candidated unsuccessfully for the Wesleyan Methodist ministry for the third and last time.

‘I found situations hard to get and spent a few months in unemployment.  Gradually I sank into a depression.  The soldiers were all being discharged and naturally they were preferred before conscientious objectors.  I gradually realised that not only didn’t the MethodistChurch want me, but nobody wanted me.  How sick I got of asking to be allowed to work for my living.  Hawking my body from one employer to another, begging then to accept it, begging for what is every man’s birthright. I gradually degenerated, lost pride in myself; it’s not want but notwantedness that constitutes the greatest hardship in unemployment.’ 

As he could not get work, he became self-employed, setting up his own business in Leicester in 1920.

‘The war was over, but not for the likes of me. Those who are committed to the solving of the problem of war have signed no armistice; our struggle has scarcely begun. How to use one’s powers to the best advantage, how to get one’s message across, how to make man see that Christ, and Christ alone can save the world from destruction is the problem for which I am still seeking a solution…  I frankly confess that until now I know no better way of spreading pacifism than by preaching, and no better place in which to do it than the pulpit.’ 

W R Burwell became a LP in the Humberstone Road Circuit, to which he belonged before his arrest. In 1921 he joined the Bishop Street Circuit, to which he was still attached when he wrote his memoirs in 1938. He continued to preach about peace.


W R Burwell, ‘The Closed Door or The Memoirs and Comments of a Local Preacher’, typescript (supplied by his son, John Burwell, to Englesea Brook Museum), 1938

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