Trials of a hanging judge and soldiers of conscience

Devils on Horseback. Picture: Meiying Gan
Devils on Horseback. Picture: Meiying Gan
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The actors knew, as they began their one-act show, that they were walking across graves.

The council chamber that was their theatre had heard the same words a century before – and from a gilt frame on the wall, the magistrate who had spoken them was looking down.

Tim Crook's father, John

Tim Crook's father, John

Lt Col William Wayland, a “stern, unbending Conservative”, as his obituary had it, took a particularly hard line on those who refused to go to war. Prison was not good enough, if death was an option.

The former Mayor of Deptford and later MP for Canterbury is a forgotten figure in the history of the First World War, but the dramatisation of conscientious objectors’ tribunals over which he presided sheds new light on an unpleasant chapter on the home front.

Author and playwright Tim Crook chose Wayland as his central character – but it was his own father who was uppermost in his mind. He would, he said, have “very much disapproved”,

John Crook, from Sheffield, was an officer in the York and Lancaster Regiment, during the Second World War. He fought at Normandy and the horror of what he saw never went away.

“It was quite clear that he had what we would now call post-traumatic stress, but he was never treated,” his son said.

“He would go on alcoholic rages, and long after he died I realised that the timing of them coincided with the anniversaries of battles in which he had lost so many comrades.

“He left me a prayer book that was stained with what I thought was red wine. It turned out to be human blood.”

The circumstances in which the blood must have been spilled left his son worried that his sympathetic portrayal of objectors, and his demonisation of Lt Col Wayland, despite his distinguished wartime contribution in other areas, might be seen as betrayal of what his dad had fought for.

“I think dad would have been appalled,” Mr Crook said. “But he would also have been impressed with the understanding of what was involved. I hope he will see it as a tribute to those who fought and also to those whose ethics led them not to.”

The first performance of Devils on Horseback took place in the old town hall at Deptford, where Wayland had held court, and where his picture is among those still lining the walls.

The narrative is a fictionalised version of his tribunals, but is based on historic accounts.

Such courts were convened all over the country, and a new Yorkshire production – now expanded into a full-length play – will be localised with references to hearings in Leeds, from where prisoners were shipped to the cells beneath Richmond Castle.

Wayland’s tribunals were renowned for the magistrate’s hard line, sometimes sending offenders for their punishment to France, where the maximum penalty was death.

“He raised an enormous amount of money for the war effort,” Mr Cook said. “But he was also extremely prejudiced against conscientious objectors. I’ve probably made him more of a beast than he was, because he was far from alone in his views on conscientious objectors. They were widely vilified – people called them pansies.

“But I would not have had the courage to what they did in that climate.”

Conscription laws saw some 2.5m British troops called up after 1916, but around 16,000 conscientious objectors refused to fight.

Some were locked up, others put to work or forced into servitude.

Connor Matthews, a Leeds actor who portrays the magistrate William Wayland and also directs the play, said: “I want the audience to dislike him. His sentencing went above and beyond what was necessary – he didn’t need to act in the way that he did.”

Lt Col Wayland died in 1950, aged 80, but one of his descendants attended a performance of the play and gave “good feedback”, Mr Matthews said.

• The Yorkshire production is at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, on July 21.