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Fred Murfin

(1888-1971) – Absolutist

Fred (shown seated) was one of the 35 absolutists, or extreme conscientious objectors, taken to France to be court martialled and shot. Although conscientious objection was not illegal, those who refused to do alternative work were treated harshly. Fred and his fellow COs were ‘reprieved’ after questions were raised in parliament. He later retired to Carbis Bay.

Credit: Truro Quaker Archive and photo copyright Co-operative Press

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In 1965 Fred Murfin wrote from Carbis Bay about his shocking wartime experiences.  As an absolutist conscientious objector (CO), he was particularly critical of clergymen who boasted of the number of young men they encouraged to sign up. In the photo he is shown seated.

When war broke out, Fred was a printer at Louth in Lincolnshire, moving to Manchester where he came into contact with the Society of Friends or Quakers.  He joined the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF).  Conscription was introduced in early 1916 and single men like Fred were called up first.

He went before the tribunal in late March 1916 and got a non-combatant certificate.  When he appealed this he was asked whether he would kill wild beasts, replying: ‘The Germans are not wild beasts, sir!’  He was later arrested, tried for desertion and forced to wear military uniform.  Still refusing to obey military orders on grounds of religious conscience, he arrived by train at Seaford Camp.

Fred was selected as one of the ‘Seaford 7’ to be sent to France.  Refusing to go voluntarily, the men were handcuffed.  Fortunately, for them one of the COs left behind telegrammed the No Conscription Fellowship headquarters which led to questions being asked in the House of Commons.  On board ship they met 16 conscientious objectors from Richmond in Yorkshire.  Fred advised them all to refuse to leave the ship until they had made their official protest and demanded an escort as befitted their prisoner status.  Fred also deliberately left his puttees behind.

On arrival at Boulogne attempts were made to scare Fred with untrue stories of a previous group of COs being shot the week before.  Despite this the COs refused to obey orders to unload goods at the Boulogne docks.  As absolutists, Fred and the rest refused to do any work that would free other men up to kill.  

Waiting for their court-martial had its humorous moments as drunken soldiers would be pushed in among them.  At home rumours were circulating that COs were being shot in France so one Quaker supporter, Rowntree Gillett, turned up in a parson’s dog collar to visit them.  As time dragged on they were even allowed baths and played leapfrog on the cliffs. 

The Field General Court Martial was held before a parade of soldiers and officers. A death sentence was passed on the men but was then ‘commuted to ten years penal servitude’ after a long pause.  A French soldier called them cowards and at Southampton they were booed off the ship. The rest of the war was spent in Winchester and Maidstone prisons where the COs agreed to make wartime mail bags until they discovered ‘For Naval Use’ stamped on the material… Further protests followed.

Credit: Truro Quaker Archives and Co-operative Press