100 years on since the outbreak of the First World War, throughout the year we will be remembering those who lived, fought and died for their country. We start with a family of Quakers, who resided at Peckover House in Wisbech – Diane Smith from Peckover takes up the story…
As I settled down to begin my research for a new exhibit at Peckover House, I have to admit to certain misgivings. The tomes that faced me, looked large and uncompromising. They would take days of wading through on the way to understanding what the Peckovers, as Quakers, would have done during the First World War.
Conscientious objectors have not always enjoyed the best of press and the Peckovers with their Quaker beliefs would most likely have had a “conshie” approach to war. From past research, though, I knew how much good the family had always done for others and didn’t believe they would have behaved any differently in these new circumstances.
I need not have worried. The more I read, the more admiration I felt for the Quakers and the more I understood about the decisions they made. The Quakers are against all war and believe that violence and hatred feed evil, whereas love can defeat it. For them, it isn’t just the cruelty of war that is so abhorrent, but also the destruction of hope and love it brings. Their beliefs meant that they could not bear arms, but neither could they stand by and ignore the fact, that war had broken out. They had a huge choice to make and the decisions they made succeeded in helping countless numbers of people during the war years and afterwards.
When the news of the outbreak of war in 1914 reached the doors of Bank (later Peckover) House on North Brink, Wisbech, it must have brought more than just the bad news that every household in the land shared, it would also have presented them with a profound moral challenge.
In 1914 Alexander, Lord Peckover, by then an elderly gentleman of 84, and two of his daughters, Alexandrina and Anna Jane, were living at Bank House, but his eldest daughter Elizabeth Josephine had her own family in the south. She and her husband James Doyle Penrose had four sons. It was these young men who had to face the moral dilemma as Quakers, of the role they should play in the war. The eldest son at 18 was Alec, his brothers Lionel and Roland being 16 and 14 respectively. The youngest, Bernard, was only 11 and so had no immediate need to make a decision.
My research showed me that the Quakers, often known as Friends, debated the situation and, because the essence of their belief is in individual responsibility to follow their own conscience, answered their country’s call in various ways. Some went to fight with their fellow countrymen, some refused and suffered imprisonment for up to three years. Others decided that they could still live by their principles by serving humanity in war torn regions. One group of such people served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, another group helped enemy aliens in this country through the Friends’ Emergency Committee, and a third went abroad to aid victims of war.
Alec, Lionel and Roland decided to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. The FAU grew quickly and served at the Front, carrying the wounded from the battlefields of France. As well as their work at Dunkirk, the Unit soon had two hospital ships and eventually had at least eight hospitals in France and Belgium. Unfortunately, no records have yet been unearthed to tell us exactly where the boys’ work with the Unit took them, but many hundreds of men in the FAU worked at the Front and with transporting sick and injured men from the battlefields of France. The work would have required a great level of bravery and contributed hugely to the work that was so badly needed.
The Society of Friends had made the general decision to help the civilian sufferers of war, whether the need came from the destruction of homes by invading armies, exile, epidemics, starvation, overcrowding or other war hardships. The plight of all people was seen as of equal importance, irrespective of race, politics or religion.
The larger of the two books used in my research was by A. Ruth Fry, “A Quaker Adventure”. The book describes the huge contribution the Friends made in France, Belgium, Holland, then in eastern Europe and Russia. By the time I reached the end I was full of admiration for these people, who, in deciding it was wrong to fight, still gave their all to help in other ways.
The second of the two research books gave a different insight. “War as it is“, by Wilhelm Carlsen, was written in 1900, fourteen years before the outbreak of war. Another family member, Priscilla Hannah Peckover, who was a keen and talented linguist and translator of peace tracts, translated this book from the original Danish. The book describes the horrors of war and the destruction it brings to family and community life. Its message is clear; war should be avoided at all costs.
However, just over a decade later and faced with the fact of war, the Peckovers and Penroses, like many other Quaker families in England and America, reacted in a very practical way. Their beliefs still upheld, even strengthened, they did what they could to help the victims of war and were not afraid to put themselves in the firing line in doing so.
I found myself admiring these people more than ever before. There may no longer be Peckovers living in Peckover House, but their spirit definitely lives on. The more we research, the more we interpret with exhibitions throughout the year and share what we find out with our visitors, the more the house comes to life.
You can find out more about the Quakers during the First World War in a new exhibit at Peckover House, which opens on 1 March 2014.