2016 marks the centenary of a number of important events for Britain during the First World War: the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the Easter Rising, and the Battle of the Somme are just three examples. Perhaps less well known but no less important, however, was the passing of an Act of Parliament which was to reshape Britain’s efforts for the rest of the war: The Military Service Act.

The Military Service Act was a bid to increase the number of recruits available to the army through the introduction of conscription, (compulsory enlistment into the armed forces). The initial Act was passed in January, and proscribed that all unmarried, widowed, and/or childless men between the ages of eighteen and forty-one were liable to be called up for service. This was extended in May to include all married men, a move which ended Britain’s use up to that point of volunteer only troops in World War One.

The Military Service Act did allow for some exceptions however. Those whose conscience was opposed to military service could apply for exemption, as could those whose trade could be argued to be of more national value than enlistment. Men too infirm or unwell could also apply, as well as men who felt their business or family would suffer exceptionally without their support and input.

These applications for exemption were dealt with through a series of local tribunals – of which some of the papers are held by Archives+.

James Kellett was a member of Audenshaw Council during the war, and served on one of these local tribunals to determine the outcome of applications for exemption. His papers offer us a fascinating insight into the way applications in Manchester were organised and processed – as well as some of the problems which occurred along the way.

Kellett was called upon in November 1915 to sit on the tribunal, just three months before the Military Service Act was introduced. His role, as he was told, was to…

“…hear and decide upon claims for the exemption of unstarred men from enlistment, whose skill and knowledge render them indispensable to the trades and undertakings in which they are employed, and also on the other hand, as to whether any men already starred can be spared from the occupations in which they are engaged.”

Kellett's call to service

His tribunal dealt primarily with those who applied for exemption based on occupational grounds: local traders, businessmen, and their employees, who argued their businesses would suffer exceptionally if the men in question were called up to fight.

The Audenshaw tribunal listened to the arguments and determined the outcomes, but by early 1917 was coming under increasing criticism about some of its practices.

Take the letter forwarded to Kellett on January 12th, 1917. In it, attention was called to the fact that representatives of the military were remaining present when the tribunal was deliberating, after the point at which the applicant and their representatives had been asked to leave. The letter reminded the tribunal that it may “exclude the parties and the public during the hearing… for the purpose of conferring upon any question affecting the decision of the application”, and that the military also represented one of the parties in the tribunal. The military representative, the letter said, should also be asked to leave alongside the applicant, a move which would ensure there could be no interference in the tribunal’s proceedings.

Only fifteen days later another letter was forwarded to Kellett, this time about the tribunal’s granting of exemptions with the condition of joining a volunteer corps. The letter argued that the blanket application of such orders was counter-productive, given that it had in some cases been applied to men who either could be, (or already were), engaged in work as special constables, Red Cross activities, or for St. John’s Ambulance Brigade:

“The obligation to join a volunteer corps may render it impossible or unduly onerous for the other public service to be taken up or continued.”

There were, essentially, other options for national service besides the volunteer corps, and the tribunal should consider them.

The Audenshaw tribunal was also upbraided for its lack of use of advisory committees on the cases it was hearing, as a letter of May 1917 reveals:

“…Advisory committees must be made more use of and their opinion should be obtained in all cases before taking cases before the tribunal…”

These committees were meant to be made up of representatives of the trades the applicants worked in, in order to allow the tribunal to make an informed choice when considering applications. It was a problem which persisted with the Audenshaw tribunal, as another letter June 1918 raised the issue again:

“As the exemptions of the men employed in the various trades are considered, steps are to be taken to enquire if such trade is represented by an organisation.

…the secretary of such organisation should be advised to attend before the central advisory committee when the cases are being considered, especially those connected with the food trade when the local food controller should be requested to attend.”

This letter also gives some details about how the tribunal was organised, recording for instance that between July 6th and August 7th, hearings were planned to be heard for all applicants in the public utility and gas sectors all rope and twine manufacturers, yeast merchants, dairymen, as well as other “miscellaneous” trades.

In the same year, during August 1918, Kellett also sent some details concerning the numbers his tribunal had processed over the preceding nine weeks, the results of which provide an insight into the scale of the tribunal’s activities.

From June 13th to August 15th, some 2,180 men had been seen by the tribunal, from towns all across the Manchester area. Of these, 301 had been enlisted in the army, with the remaining men granted exemptions.

Numbers of men processed

Following the war, Kellett received a message of thanks from the government for his service in the tribunal, signed by the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Though his papers unfortunately do not contain the minutes of the hearings, which would allow us to look more closely at the men involved, they nonetheless provide an important and informative account of how the tribunals operated in the Manchester area.

Lloyd George thank you note


This blog post was researched and written by Isaac Boothroyd, a volunteer at Archives+.

References & Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the staff of the Archives+ at Manchester Central Library for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:

  • Papers of Alderman James Kellett and the Audenshaw Tribunal, 1916-18. Held by the Manchester Central Library and Archives – GB127.M138/2484