John Sturge Stephens

(1891–1954)– Cornwall’s ‘first’ conscientious objector

At the outbreak of war, John cancelled his ‘friendship’ trip to Germany and joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. When it came under military control in 1916 he returned to England and faced the tribunal. Accused of ‘living here… by the blood of our Army’ he was sent to work on a farm.

Credit: Archives and Cornish Studies Service

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John Sturge Stephens was a Quaker born on 26th June, 1891. He was brought up at Ashfield, near Falmouth, by his father John Gilbert Stephens and mother, Isabel. John Sturge was exceptionally tall which later led to his nickname, der lange John. He studied Classics at St John’s, Cambridge and was gifted at learning languages which helped pave the way for his affinity towards working with people from other countries. Before the outbreak of war John had been awarded a £100 scholarship from the Society of Friends for an international friendship trip to a German university. 

John wished to carry out a non-combatant role during the First World War in order to provide help without being under military instruction. Thus, he travelled out to Sermaize, France in 1915 in order to join the Society of Friends Relief Expedition. His writings show his clear opposition to any kind of warfare; he felt that Jesus Christ’s followers should oppose evil with ‘the great law of Love as the only remedy’ and that conscientious objectors ‘gladly bare [bear] the taunts of pro-Germanism which are hurled against all who desire to crush the spirit of war with love, and not force’. Interestingly his brother enlisted as a dispatch rider in the Army.

During his time in Sermaize John was first involved with the War Victims Relief Organisation, then the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU), taking many photographs. He opposed the placing of the FAU under military authority in 1916 and consequently moved back to England. He faced the tribunal the same year and was accused of merely doing ‘woman’s work’; a member of the tribunal explaining that he had ‘no right whatever to live in England at all’ and that he should ‘go to another island’ because he was ‘living here merely by the blood of our Army’. The Tribunal decided by majority that John should join a non-combatant corps. He is often credited as the first conscientious objector in Cornwall to be forced to do farm labour.

John continued to appeal to his local tribunal to reconsider his case for exemption throughout the rest of the war.  He also continued to resist in other ways, for instance, a letter in March 1918 stated that John was ‘no longer performing work on a farm to their satisfaction’.  

Immediately following the war, he went with other members of the Society of Friends to Germany to attempt to create a peaceful and democratic future. He visited numerous countries, including France, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy and Germany. Later, he became a History lecturer at the University of Birmingham. John’s views changed during the Second World War, which he felt had a more just cause. He continued international relations not only through his numerous letters, but by providing a safe haven for refugees.

Credit: Archives and Cornish Studies Service and Exeter University Students Ben and Helen