DAY 17
Hester Thomas

Thomas Whitehead

100 days
100 lives
100 words

Nothing was said. About you being a conscientious objector (CO).

Arrested in 1916 and court-martialled, you were sent on an alternative Cook’s Tour: Pontefract Barracks, Ferriby, Withernsea plus Wormwood Scrubs, Wakefield and Dartmoor prisons.

“Conscientious objectors (CO) were largely reviled in the First World War, treated as shirkers, faint-hearts and traitors refusing to fight for their country.

It is not surprising that Tom Whitehead and his family said nothing about him being a CO. Regardless of their views, it would be diplomatic not to upset anyone either during or even after the war when many COs were still badly regarded.” Hester Thomas

Creating the Centena

Tom was married to my maternal great aunt Olive. He was an artist. A portrait and landscape painter, he exhibited widely: at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Royal Academy, the Royal Scottish Academy, Leeds Art Gallery and in local Halifax and Bradford galleries.

In the 1960s, my sister and I would visit Tom and Olive while staying at our Nana’s home (Olive’s sister) in Bradford. We would take the bus to their house in Halifax and have tea together.

Nana, Olive, my sister and I would talk and Tom would sit smoking his pipe and watching us, quiet and inscrutable. The walls were hung with his paintings and etchings. The portraits were alarming for the sitters’ eyes did as Tom’s did: they watched.

In 2003, twenty five years after Tom’s death, a woman who had bought one of Tom’s paintings via my sister, was filing Family Tree Magazine at the library where she worked. She flicked through the pages and noticed Tom’s name beneath a portrait of Charles Humphries – a CO in Dartmoor Prison. She gave the article to my sister who thought it sounded as if Tom was a CO too. This was news!

My sister wrote to the prison to ask if they had any records of COs. No: a fire had destroyed them all.

A few clicks on the keyboard and there was Tom's record with details including his arrest date and where he had been imprisoned.
Hester Thomas Hester worked with The Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors created by Cyril Pearce and available online via the Imperial War Museum.

Working on this project, I was teamed with Bradford’s Peace Museum. For my research on Tom, they advised I consult The Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors created by Cyril Pearce and available online via the Imperial War Museum.
A few clicks on the keyboard and there was Tom’s record with details including his arrest date and where he had been imprisoned. There was also a reference to Peter Carton’s (CO) autograph book held by the Peace Pledge Union. They sent me a copy of Tom’s entry – a saucy pencil sketch of a young woman bearing a passing resemblance to great aunt Olive!
But how had Tom ended up in prison? In January 1916, the Government’s Military Service Act introduced conscription making military service compulsory for millions of men across Britain. Although it included a ‘conscience clause’ allowing men to object on moral grounds, this was not an easy option.
Tom was court-martialled at Withernsea and sentenced to hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs, London. He was moved after just three weeks to Wakefield Prison and from there to Dartmoor Prison.
Our family has found two of Tom’s drawings from these times. Probably there are more to emerge. In the meantime, I like to think of Tom as one of the unofficial war artists for COs.

General register: https://search.livesofthefirstworldwar.org/search/world-records/conscientious-objectors-register-1914-1918

Tom’s record:
https://search.livesofthefirstworldwar.org/record?id=GBM/CONSOBJ/3691

Tom Whitehead’s autograph in Peter Carton’s autograph book © Descendants of Peter Carton

Lives of the First World War

Find out more about Thomas Gustavus Whitehead on Lives of the First World War

About the Author

Hester Thomas

More About Hester Thomas

With Special Thanks

Research for this centena was supported by Bradford’s Peace Museum and the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors created by Cyril Pearce and available online via Lives of the First World War

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