The introduction of conscription in 1916 saw the appearance before Military Service Tribunals of men who did not wish to fight on moral or religious grounds.
Bolton had its share of Conscientious Objectors (or ‘Conchies’, as they were disparagingly termed) and this could cause family rifts. One such story is that of the Dunnico family of Farnworth.
James and Mary Ann Dunnico had moved to the Bolton area from Denbighshire, North Wales, in the 1880s. James was a coal miner, but in later years became an insurance agent.
The first four of the couple’s children were born in Wales, the eldest son, James Herbert, and daughters Mary, Sarah and Edith. Sons Francis, Hugh, Ernest, David and daughter Bertha were born in Little Lever and Farnworth.
The eldest son James Herbert, known as Herbert, had been born in 1875. By the time he was 10; he had started work in a Bolton factory but studied in his spare time and won a scholarship to University College Nottingham. He was then ordained as a Baptist minister.
Herbert Dunnico did not believe in the need for war and was a member of the Peace Society, becoming Secretary in 1915. In 1916, he formed the Peace Negotiation Committee to call for a truce with Germany and end conscription, but the aim failed.
Most of Herbert’s siblings did not appear to share his views. Francis joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, Hugh the Royal Engineers and David the Royal Army Medical Corps. Only the second youngest, Ernest Owen, was a pacifist.
As a member of the clergy, Herbert Dunnico had not been subject to conscription and was approaching the upper age limit of 41 anyway. Ernest, however, was 20 years younger and working as a grocer’s assistant, hardly an exempt occupation. Nonetheless, his beliefs caused him to stand his ground and refuse to enlist, with the result that on 1st April 1916, he was before a Military Service Appeal Tribunal in Salford.
Ernest told the tribunal that he was willing to face any penalty, even death, rather than undertake military service. Asked why he also objected to undertaking a non-combatant role, helping the sick and wounded at the battlefield, Ernest declared that he did not wish to patch men up just, so they could go out and butcher others again. Refusing the appeal, the chairman, Judge Mellor, told Ernest not to assume such a self-satisfied air.
Ernest was assigned to a Non-Combatant Corps, the 4th (Western) Division to work on logistics or supplies, and sent to Kinmel Park Training Camp, near Abergele in North Wales. However, as an Absolutist, categorically opposed to the war, he refused any form of service. This lead to him facing a Court Martial in October and a sentence of 112 days with hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Whilst in prison, Ernest Dunnico was told he would be released if he accepted a place on a Home Office alternative work scheme, often referred to as the Brace Scheme, after the committee chaired by Under-Secretary of State William Brace MP, that administered it. Two prisons at Wakefield and Dartmoor were adapted as ‘work centres’, the work often being tough outdoor tasks such as breaking rocks. Ernest refused.
In February 1917, Ernest faced another Court Martial at Kinmel Park, having still refused to obey orders and was sent to Winson Green Prison, Birmingham. In August, he was transferred to the 5th (Western) NCC, attached to the 3rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, but the pattern repeated itself and a Court Martial at Oswestry sentenced Ernest to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour at Strangeways Prison, Manchester. Whilst here he became ill and was released on medical grounds in April 1918. Documents relating to Ernest’s release from Strangeways are held in Bolton Archives and Local Studies.
Eldest brother Herbert had always been a committed Socialist and at the 1922 General Election he was elected Labour MP for Consett in County Durham, serving until 1931, when he was defeated by the Liberal candidate. He never regained a seat in Parliament, but was involved in local government in Ilford, Essex, where he lived with his wife Harriet and son, Herbert. He was knighted in 1938 for ‘political and public services’. He died in October 1953.
No doubt further influenced by his brother, Ernest Dunnico attempted to enter politics, being adopted as Labour candidate for Hexham, Northumberland in 1928, but losing the 1929 General Election to the Conservatives.
Interestingly, in a newspaper report about Ernest’s adoption as a political candidate and a later one following his defeat, he is referred to as ‘Major’ Ernest Dunnico, a curious title for a former Conscientious Objector, unless he had joined the Salvation Army!
I could find nothing more about Ernest Dunnico’s life after his political defeat, other than his marriage to a Hilda Wardle in 1934 in Kendal, Westmoreland and his death in the Kings Norton area of Birmingham in 1978, aged 82.
Lois Dean, January 2016
Bolton Archives and Local Studies, box ZZ649/1-3: items relating to Conscientious Objector Ernest Owen Dunnico of Farnworth, 1918-1920.
IWM Lives of the First World War (https://search.livesofthefirstworldwar.org)
Manchester Evening News, Saturday 1 April 1916 (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
Peace Pledge Union website (www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/cos/st_co_wwone.html)
Peace Society entry in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_Society )