Robert Owen (Robin) Page: Canterbury College student stands up for his convictions
‘As a Christian, I believe War to be wrong and think that our aim in life is Love, and not Hate and Fear. I cannot find anything in the New Testament which, to my mind, in any way supports War, and I do find much that is against it’.
At the age of 20, recent university graduate Robin Page, found himself confined in a military barracks awaiting court martial. His crime was his belief that war was wrong.
While not a member of a church, Page described himself as a Christian and told the court martial he could not find anything in the New Testament that supported war while he found much that was against it. War was profitless and calamitous, he told the court and because he regarded war as 'simply organised murder' he was not prepared to do any non-combatant work for the military machine.
His sentence of two years hard labour was served at Paparua Prison.
Robin Page was fully supported by his family during his incarceration and letters he wrote to them generally paint a determinedly cheerful picture of prison life. With youth and health on his side he seems to have coped well with the tedium of the daily round working in the prison smithy and eating the plain, repetitive diet which featured porridge, mutton, bread and potatoes.
That Robin Page should become a conscientious objector is perhaps no surprise given that his mother Sarah (nee Saunders) had become a vigorous opponent of the Defence Act when compulsory military training was introduced in 1911. Both his mother Sarah and grandfather, Alfred Saunders, who had been a Member of the House of Representatives, were noted for their independent, political thinking. But with Canterbury College strongly in favour of the war effort, Robin Page demonstrated great personal courage in going against this tide of opinion.
Robin Page was a very able student winning a Senior Board Scholarship in 1912 when he was at Christchurch Boys High School and a Junior University Scholarship in 1915.
When he was called up for military service in January 1918 he had just completed his BSc at Canterbury College and had spent the summer break on a cycling trip to Nelson, Pelorous Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound with his brother and friends.
His appeal was heard on 16 January 1918, but dismissed. The aspect of his appeal hearing that the newspapers drew attention to was that he 'had scruples about tending wounded men'. What Page actually told the hearing was: 'No doubt helping the wounded is part of the war, and I object to that'.
After the appeal he received a call-up notice which he ignored and thereby became a defaulter. He made no attempt to evade the police and proceeded to enrol at Canterbury College as an Msc student. He was arrested on 11 April 1918 and taken to Wellington where after a 'lengthy theological argument' with the commanding officer, he was given 28 days detention in the Alexandra Barracks 'to think it over'. His mother stayed in Wellington and visited him throughout.
The day before his arrest the professorial board at Canterbury College had passed new regulations which said that military defaulters could not attend lectures. They also insisted on posting his name on the college notice board, although asked not to do so by the students' association executive, even though they regarded his views as 'extreme and mistaken'.
His court martial finally took place at Featherston Camp on 28 May. An account written by his mother who attended the court accompanied by the mother of George Ballantyne, a conscientious objector who had been sent to the front, shows that Page was more than capable of standing up to the cross examining of the president of the court, Major Talbot. When Talbot told him 'that fourteen men thinking as he [Page] did had been sent to the firing line where they had all except one changed their opinions and taken up the rifle’, Page asked if reason, or force, had been used with them and asked for proof of Talbot's facts. Talbot said he had been told, and one must believe what one was told, to which Page replied, 'he must ask leave to disbelieve. Rob asked if Talbot knew the treatment which had driven Archibald Baxter (one of the 14 sent to the front) insane and described it. Talbot asked how he knew and Robin said “he had been told”, and asked if Talbot hadn't been told too.'
Having heard some grim stories about the treatment of conscientious objectors in Wanganui, Robin Page hoped not to be sent there and was no doubt relieved to be sent to Paparua though there are no further extant letters until 31 August when he wrote an entertaining account to his aunts about life in the prison. While he did not complain about conditions there his aunts, Ellen and Ann Saunders, were clearly unimpressed, writing later that:
The prison had been hastily built, and the cells in which the prisoners were confined for such long hours were so roughly put together that the rain and even the snow were sometimes blown into them, damping the occupants' bedding and their small stock of clothing. The second winter that Robin spent at Paparua was unusually stormy and severe, and some of the older and less robust prisoners suffered greatly from the cold. This cold, the monotonous ill-balanced diet, and the long confinement in badly lighted cells told heavily on the health and spirits of many of the prisoners.
Like many of the other prisoners Page caught the flu during the 1918 epidemic, but in his usual style presented this as a positive experience because the cell doors of those who were sick were left open, and they were given a more varied diet.
Robin Page's imprisonment had a profound effect on his younger brother Fred Page, who was a university student at Canterbury College studying for a BA. Every Saturday he cycled the nine miles from the Page home in Papanui out to Paparua where each prisoner was allowed to receive one visitor for a short meeting. For those prisoners whose wives or mothers lived too far away for them to visit, Fred would write an account of their loved one.
Robin Page's BSc and two Senior Scholarships in Pure Mathematics and Chemistry which he had won in 1917 were presented in absentia in June 1919. After his release on 30 August 1919 Robin Page resumed studying at Canterbury College.
Robin Page graduated MSc with first class honours in chemistry in 1921 and in the same year began a life-long and distinguished career at the Woolston Tanneries. He was appointed works manager there in 1924 and ten years later became a doctor of science. During his career he published numerous articles on the chemistry of tanning visited tanning research institutes overseas, and became a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. In 1934 he married Nancy Glen and the couple had two children. Dr Page died in 1957.
Robert Owen Page's defence at his trial by court martial, Robin Page Scrapbook, Page family collection.
Robert Owen Page's defence.
'Senior Scholarships', Ashburton Guardian, 24 January 1912, p.4; 'University Entrance Scholarships', Dominion, 19 January 1915, p.6.
'Military Service Boards', Press, 17 January 1918, p.4.
'Untitled', Mataura Ensign, 19 January 1918, p.4.
To Father from Robin, 16 April , Robin Page Scrapbook, Page family collection.
Sarah Page, 'Wartime Reminiscences', The Working Woman, March 1936, p.6
Brian R. Davis. 'Page, Robert Owen', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 17-Dec-2013; Jim Gardner, 'Tradition and Conscience: Canterbury College and R.O. Page, Conscientious Objector, 1918 – 1919', in History Now, May 2003, Vol 9 No 2, p. 7.
Sarah Page to My Dear Family, 28 May 1918, Robin Page Scrapbook, Page family collection.
Ellen and Ann Saunders, 'He's for the Morning’:Alfred William Page: His Journal: Also some recollections of his life, (Christchurch: A.Wildey, 1939), p.23.
Transcription of letter from Robin [to his family], 1 December 1918, Robin Page Scrapbook, Page family collection.
Ellen and Ann Saunders, 'He's for the Morning', pp. 20 - 23
'Diplomas presented', Sun, 21 June 1919, p.7.
Ellen and Ann Saunders, 'He's for the Morning', p.23
'Dr R.O. Page', Press, 15 July 1957, p.7; Brian R. Davis, 'Page, Robert Owen'.