Wilfred Tregenza

(1880-1974)  – Accused of being a deserter

Being stoned on the way to church was just one of the hazards encountered by Dartmoor Prison’s conscientious objectors, like Mousehole-born Wilfred Tregenza and Tom Tremewan of Perranporth. No less than 19 of the 62 Cornish conscientious objectors came from Tregenza’s home parish of Paul, which was also home to a divided artistic community.

Credit: Marazion Meeting House

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Wilfred Tregenza led a life of integrity and distinction. Born in Mousehole in Paul parish in 1890, his father was mayor of Penzance.  He was one of eight boys, all of whom went to university. From the village school he won a scholarship to Truro School, where he became head boy. He excelled both academically and in sport and became the first Cornish boy to win a scholarship to Cambridge.

A man with a good sense of humour and brought up a Methodist, Wilfred at one time considered entering their ministry. After gaining a double First in Mathematics he was just setting out on a teaching career when war broke out. His response was to register as a conscientious objector like three of his brothers; warfare being contrary to Jesus’ teachings.  He joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) in France in 1915. His service was of such quality that there is a document awarding him the Red Cross Star Medal, but his certificate is annotated with the words ‘does not require one’. 

When mass conscription was introduced in 1916, Wilfred heard that some COs had been sentenced to be shot.  He was so moved by this news that he returned to England to face conscription himself. On September 28th 1916 his tribunal was held in Truro and reported in the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph. The tribunal was at fault legally by refusing to accept that the FAU was not a branch of the army. They treated him as a deserter and handed him over for a court martial. He was ‘discharged from the army with ignominy’ and the written verdict remained one of his most valued possessions.

Sentenced to ten years hard labour, Wilfred spent the rest of the war in various prisons. At Dartmoor Prison, the conscientious objectors were mostly employed on stone breaking and building a ‘road to nowhere’. The Bishop of Exeter refused to allow the COs to use the prison chapel and one inmate describes them ‘going up to the church for a service and being stoned on the way. The parson was standing on a flat tombstone. I won’t say cheering them [the local residents] on, but any rate encouraging them’ (We will not go to War by Felicity Goodall (2010)).

Once the war was over Wilfred joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He married his wife, Mary, at Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire in 1920. With his record, it cannot have been easy for Wilfred to obtain his first teaching appointment at Stroud. He soon became a headmaster and was later invited to join the Inspectorate. Wilfred’s final triumph was to chair the Butler Committee on Education.

When Wilfred retired, he returned to his native Cornwall, living first at St. Just and later at Heamoor. He was a founder member of the Penzance and District Christian Council and very active in several Old Cornwall Societies as well as Marazion Meeting.

Credit: Marazion Meeting House