“You might as well try to dry a floor by throwing water on it, as try to end this war by fighting.”
The words of Richard Lewis Barry, a socialist from Derbyshire imprisoned at Richmond Castle a century ago for refusing to participate in the First World War, etched into the walls of his cell.
Now this, and the words and pictures of other conscientious objectors, mainly from the north, who were incarcerated in the 19th-century cell block in before they were shipped off to France to face court martial and a possible firing squad, are to be saved from crumbling away by English Heritage, thanks to a major £365,400 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The prisoners, known as the Richmond Sixteen, included a clerk at the Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York, a Sunderland FC footballer, a socialist from Mirfield, West Yorkshire, and a Cambridgeshire bookseller.
Among the group were Quakers, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and socialists.
They and other conscientious objectors scratched into the walls of the cells their stories, political slogans, hymns, tributes to the loved ones, intricate drawings - and even dark humour, like in the case of Barry.
Hidden behind the door of one of the eight cells is an inscription written by Percy Fawcett Goldsbrough, the Mirfield socialist, who was taken from Pontefract on Friday August 11, 1916 and imprisoned for disobeying orders or as he put it, for “refusing to be a soldier”.
As the cell block was not constructed for the long term, rain water has penetrated through cracks in the roof and the walls, and the layers of lime wash and plaster on the walls are flaking off, taking the graffiti with it.
English Heritage’s Voices of Rebellion project will ensure it is preserved for future generations and will enable the public to view the cells for the first time in more than 30 years.
Until the work is complete, people will be able to visit the cells virtually, via the English Heritage website which has a range of new resources exploring the history of the Richmond Sixteen and showcasing the graffiti.
English Heritage’s chief executive Kate Mavor said: “These graffiti are an important record of the voices of dissent during the First World War. It is remarkable that these delicate drawings and writings have survived for 100 years. Now we can ensure that they survive for the next century and that the stories they tell are not lost.”
Marjorie Gaudie is the daughter-in-law of Norman Gaudie, who in 1916 was centre forward for Sunderland FC and one of the Richmond Sixteen.
She said: “On the eve of Conscientious Objectors’ day it is important to remember men like my father-in-law, Norman Gaudie. They were courageous men.
“He acted from the deepest conviction that all life is sacred. He knew it was wrong to take a life and so he refused to fight. He was prepared to die for his belief and that took immense courage.”
As well as the graffiti of the Richmond Sixteen, the walls of the cells are covered in thousands more drawings, etchings and inscriptions from the first half of the 20th century. A full inventory will be compiled to give a deeper insight into all those who spent time within the walls.
Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/richmond16 for more information.
What became of the Richmond Sixteen?
On 29 May 1916, the Richmond Sixteen were sent to Henriville military camp, near Boulogne in France.
Some in the War Office were determined to make an example of these men, who were given 24 hours to follow orders or risk being shot for disobedience. Soon after the men were ordered to help unload war supplies, but they refused and were sent for court-martial.
In the meantime, the news had leaked out and Arthur Rowntree, MP for York, called for their release. On 24 June 1916, in a dramatic scene, the court-martial passed a sentence of death but this was immediately commuted to 10 years of hard labour under orders from Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.