John Percy Fletcher, the Society of Friends and the Campaign against Compulsory Military training in New Zealand, 1909-1914

‘We cannot meet the Defence Authorities halfway, as General Godley once suggested, we cannot meet them anyway. There must be clear, frank hostility between us.’[1]

This uncompromising statement of opposition  to the compulsory military training introduced by the Defence Act of 1909, was written by John Percy Fletcher, an English Quaker and pacifist. Fletcher has been described by David Grant as the ‘real driving force’ behind the Anti-Militarist League in Christchurch.[2] But what was Fletcher doing in Christchurch, and why was he such an important figure in the anti-conscription movement?

First 'Annual Meeting' New Zealand Friends, Christchurch

First 'Annual Meeting' New Zealand Friends, Christchurch 1912.

Fletcher was born on 7 February 1884 at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire. His father was a Congregationalist minister. Leaving school at 14 he worked as a solicitor’s then a stockbroker’s clerk, before being awarded a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1908. After a year there he embarked upon an almost Orwellian tramp around Britain, sleeping rough, in order to study social conditions in the country, before taking a job as an organiser for the Agricultural Organisation Society in the North of England. He then decided to work his way around the world, studying social and labour conditions, arriving in Australia late in 1911.[3] A man of enormous drive and conviction, he was immediately caught up in the anti-militarist struggle there and was instrumental, with two other Quakers, in establishing the Australian Freedom League in April 1912. After some weeks of indefatigable and successful organising in Australia, Fletcher came over to New Zealand to attend the Society of Friends’ Annual Meeting. His report on the campaign in Australia and the obvious parallels with events in New Zealand clearly made an impression on the New Zealand Quakers, as did  his unwavering conviction that there should be no accommodation of any sort with the Defence Acts in either country.

 The implementation of the Defence Act in New Zealand began on 3 April 1911. Shortly afterwards, in June 1911, Charles Mackie and Louis P. Christie  founded the National Peace and Anti-Militarist League in Christchurch. Notably Mackie, in his account of the early years of the organisation, paid special tribute to the support and work of the Society of Friends. Yet, unlike in Australia , there was a conscience clause in the Act: Those where the ‘doctrines of their religion’ forbade the bearing of arms could plead exemption. However, exemption could only be claimed from combatant duties, which would satisfy Seventh Day Adventists but not Quakers or Christadelphians. Furthermore, the potential objector had first to register, enrol, take the oath of allegiance and be ordered to parade before stating his religious objection to bearing arms. Few COs, and certainly not the Quakers, found this acceptable.  Finally, the Act made a curious distinction between religious objectors and conscientious objectors, entitling only the former to claim exemption.[4] This was to become central to Quaker arguments against the Defence Act, as they defended the rights of  all those who objected to their call up on conscientious grounds.

Quakers had a long-standing tradition of pacifism and opposition to war preparations. They perceived militarism ‘as a hydra-headed conspiracy, antithetical to Christianity and to their historic peace testimony’.[5] They felt that the Defence Act overthrew British traditions of freedom and conscience and violated the sacred rights of parental control. It amounted to the military indoctrination of youth, it interfered with their education and it  was morally dangerous; they objected particularly to the immorality of camp life. Opponents of the Defence Act in New Zealand argued that compulsory military training was a scheme hatched by supporters of conscription in Great Britain, in the hope that success in the colony would lead to the introduction of conscription at home. The Society of Friends in England saw it similarly and were alarmed at the news, Herbert Corder suggesting that the Defence Act was the work of a ‘little clique of military minds 12,000 miles away’.[6]

The number of Quakers in New Zealand was very small, the census of April 1911 suggesting 412 members. They were barely organised, limited by the geography of the country and the very difficult travel conditions. Nonetheless the Auckland Friends in particular had already been vocal on peace issues. Moreover, there was a tradition of itinerant Quaker ministers coming to the colony to assist the scattered Friend settlers. Already alarmed by the proposed Defence Act the Society sent Thomas  Hodgkin in 1909 to attempt to secure  a conscience clause for religious objectors. A deputation from the Society of Friends to see the Minister of Defence on 5 December 1909 included the English Quaker Elizabeth Rutter. The deputation recorded with satisfaction that their exemption from military service would be allowed and that in return they might  accept other service as a proof of patriotic loyalty. This statement immediately caused controversy amongst Quakers in New Zealand. Thomas Wright in Auckland urged all Friends to ‘fully avail themselves of the wish of the Government to meet the position of the conscientious objector…the exemption is ours and in justice to ourselves we should respectfully claim it.’[7] Others were not so sure. Was it right that Quakers be exempted but others appealing on grounds of conscience were not? If one accepted alternative service was not that tantamount to recognising the authority of the Act? What was this alternative service and under whose control would it fall, the military or the civil authorities? These questions would become more urgent as the Act came into force.

In 1910 Herbert Corder and his wife Mary were sent out by the Society of Friends to investigate. Corder spoke at many meetings in opposition to the Act, including a large and successful meeting in Christchurch in July 1911. One of his last acts was to accompany a deputation of New Zealand Friends to see Major-General Godley, to try to reach agreement as to how they could serve the government in a non-combatant role and under civil rather than military auspices. Godley suggested ambulance work but would not agree to the St. John’s Ambulance service because it was outside his control. This issue would remain the major stumbling block both before and during the war. Upon their return to England the Corders reported to the Society of Friends, who established a new Joint Committee of Australasian Defence Acts, to act in an advisory role for Friends in both New Zealand and Australia. ‘For our generation’, said the Meeting, ‘the crucial struggle is being waged there’, and ‘our liberties depend on the result’.[8] The Society agreed to provide funds and literature, and to support any legal challenges to the Defence Acts.

Mr Herbert Corder lecture ticket 1911

The 3rd Conference of New Zealand Friends in May 1911 decided that Friends should register their sons in accordance with the law but also state clearly  that they had a conscientious objection to serving, whilst willing to render service of an equivalent nature. Later in the year a delegation from the Society of Friends met the Minister of Education and informed him that Friends would rather emigrate than don uniform, and that they would undertake no alternative service if it was under military control.[9] They argued that exemptions on the grounds of conscience should not be restricted solely to religious objectors.

First General Meeting of the New Zealand Society of Friends (Quakers)

First General Meeting of the New Zealand Society of Friends (Quakers), Auckland 1914.

Quakers in New Zealand had begun to receive funds from England to help them combat the Act , and they set up a small committee to allocate them. This funding would be vital to the campaign. I have estimated that a minimum of £1,783 was sent to New Zealand, a staggering £207,282 in today’s money. This  funded a huge amount of literature, paid for the hire of meeting halls, the legal fees to assist young men brought before the courts, and the payment of fines and, significantly, it was used to send organisers from England. After the Corders’ visit other English Quakers followed, including Allen Rowntree and  Doctor J. H. Thorp. In September 1912, a Friends Peace Deputation was sent out from London, consisting of William Alexander and his wife Harriet, and Alfred Brown. Their aim, reported the New Zealand Herald, was to ‘tour the Dominion on a peace mission and to unite all Quakers residing in the country’.[10]  Brown arrived in Christchurch at the beginning of November 1912, before travelling south, but thereafter he spent much of his time in Australia. The Alexanders arrived in Auckland shortly afterwards and focused their attention on the North Island but found organising opposition to the Act in the North difficult, bewailing the lack of committed workers. They did, however, visit Christchurch in January 1913, and often spoke admiringly of the city as the centre of activity.

What also helped Quakers in New Zealand were close ties with family back home in England. Of particular importance was Alfred Gregory, secretary of the William Penn branch of the Brotherhood of Life in Dargaville, whose brother Thomas Churchus Gregory in Bristol mounted a virtual one-man crusade against the Defence Acts. (See separate article.) He inspired other Quakers in England to take up the cause and his appeals for funds to support the anti-conscription campaign in New Zealand  brought in numerous donations, both large and small.

The fall of Joseph Ward’s Liberal government saw the Reform Party pass a Defence Amendment Act in November 1912, which included a concession to conscientious objectors; they could  appeal for exemption to the magistrate, who would decide on the validity of their appeal. Quakers in London hailed this as an ‘implicit confession of the failure of previous methods of dealing with those who refused to serve’.[11] But in truth, apart from the slight liberalisation in favour of religious objectors, the Act was designed to place greater pressure on defaulters and following the passing of the Act the Authorities stepped up their persecution. Opponents of the Act had long used public street meetings as a forum for their views. In early 1913 the Authorities attempted to shut these down. In Christchurch the City Council invoked by-laws relating to the obstruction of traffic to stop anti-militarist meetings, whilst allowing others to proceed without interference. Such blatant bias drew support from the wider community for a ‘free speech campaign’ and in the midst of this John Percy Fletcher arrived in Christchurch on 3 July 1913, on this occasion sent with the authority of the London Yearly Meeting to assist the campaign.

 David Grant has suggested that, of all the groups and individuals involved in the struggle, ‘ the most outspoken figure was John Fletcher… who took the fight to the streets in an unrelenting campaign, during which he was arrested, fined and imprisoned’.[12] One observer said admiringly that ‘Percy Fletcher’s solid powers as a speaker in the open air are of great value in the campaign and his voice is a good one’.[13]

Within a month of his arrival Fletcher had been elected President of the AML, and arrested for posting handbills. He was fined 20 shillings plus costs, refused to pay, and was imprisoned for 7 days. He wanted, he said, to share the lot of the boys who have been imprisoned, and by doing so he had ‘been brought into fuller fellowship with those who suffer’.[14] Fletcher travelled throughout the country lecturing, including a meeting in Ashburton in August 1913 which was disrupted by protestors who had been paid to prevent the speakers from being heard. In response he, Mackie and Reg Williams wrote a four-page leaflet addressed ‘To the Citizens of Ashburton’ which was delivered to every home in the town. Installed in the NPC office, he launched and edited a new Monthly Circular, the first edition appearing in October 1913. The Lyttelton Times of 11 October  reported that he had been arrested again, this time for obstruction whilst speaking in Sydenham, and fined 10 shillings. Once more he was imprisoned.

As prosecutions continued to rise, the government in what Ryan Bodman has called ‘an implicit admission of defeat, thinly disguised as a benevolent concession’[15] now sought to extend the terms of exemption beyond the religious to all those who claimed exemption on ‘conscientious grounds’, as long as they agreed to do alternative and equivalent service. The latter re-opened divisions within the Society of Friends, which now sent another deputation to meet  the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister. Alexander and Fletcher were part of this deputation, which presented a memorial from the Society of Friends in London pleading for freedom of conscience. Prime Minister Massey challenged the right of citizens from another country to interfere in the affairs of New Zealand, and reiterated the government’s determination to ‘administer the law of the country in regard to compulsory military training  in strict compliance with its spirit’. Sir James Allen, however, expressed some sympathy with the conscientious objectors but told the deputation that ‘it was not right that any young fellow should be let off service without making an equivalent sacrifice’[16] and he asked the Society of Friends to help him define suitable alternative service.

Alexander, shortly before he departed New Zealand for England, wrote to the Minister of Defence, although stressing that he did so in a personal capacity. He thought that as long as the state was demanding some service from all young men then it was probable that the vast majority of conscientious objectors would accept a reasonable alternative service. In his travels around New Zealand, he said, he had noted the poor state of the roads, and he suggested that road building and repair would be a good national service.[17] Fletcher, however, was having none of it. Responding to Alexander, he castigated him for writing to the Minister, and said that his ‘attempts to obtain a partial solution of the problem by means of the Conscience Clause has been a continued source of embarrassment to the Peace Workers in Christchurch’.[18]  Fletcher was concerned that the NZ Friends might follow Alexander when they met for their General meeting in Auckland. If they do, he said, ‘it will be the end of the Friends’ influence in the Peace and anti-militarist work in this country’.[19] This influence was attested to by Eveline Cunnington, a well-known Christian Socialist and voluntary social worker in Christchurch, who wrote to a friend thus: ‘I consider that the Quakers and anti-militarists are doing a good work. They are pointing to the hills; they are the idealists without whose spur and impetus Humanity would stick on the low levels forever.’[20]

Fletcher need not have worried; a minute of the Friends’ Annual Meeting recorded that they strongly opposed alternative service, declaring that ‘it is but part of the Defence Act, which we cannot countenance in any way’.[21] In the event local authorities in New Zealand, when asked what work they could provide, refused to co-operate and the scheme never got off the ground.

Another English Quaker, Margaret Lloyd, arrived in New Zealand early in 1914, being welcomed by the Canterbury Women’s Institute at their meeting on 11 March, where she gave a talk on the progress of the suffrage movement in Britain. According to the Lyttelton Times she was the ‘daughter of General Lloyd, of the Imperial Army.’[22]Once in New Zealand she quickly became active in the peace movement, attending the Christchurch court hearings every week, and Mackie reported that ‘she is doing good work and will be a great assistance to the cause here’.[23]  Lloyd represented the Society of Friends as part of a large deputation of anti-militarists who met Prime Minister Massey in June 1914. She protested at the Navy League being allowed to give lectures in schools, expressed the hope that the government would not allow itself to be in thrall to ‘the machinations of certain large firms’, and urged the government to set up a Department of Peace as an example to other countries. Massey was impervious to the demands of the delegation: ‘The present government is going to stand or fall by the Defence Act ‘, he said, ‘and it will not go back on it to the slightest degree.’[24]

However, the number of prosecutions continued to rise, with 400 in Christchurch alone in February 1914. In Christchurch some 75 per cent of those who should have turned up for drill were failing to do so, whilst in the year ending 30 April 1914 there were 234 lads in New Zealand sentenced to military detention, though it’s not clear how many of these were ‘conscientious’ objectors.  Alfred Brown felt that ‘the New Zealand Act in its present form is doomed’[25] whilst Alexander wrote later in the year of ‘ the coming victory in New Zealand’.[26] We will never know whether or not this was the case.

The onset of the First World War changed everything. Jingoistic passions, war fever, the pressure to conform, all combined to force the anti-militarist movement into a temporary retreat. The NPC and AML abandoned public meetings and instead organised  study circles, led by Margaret Lloyd, ‘as it was apparent that the community had been infected with the war fever, it being far from the wish of the Council to accentuate the excitement already at high pitch’.[27]

John Percy Fletcher left New Zealand in August 1914. He immediately threw himself into the anti-war movement in Australia, before returning to England  just in time for the first National Convention of the No-Conscription Fellowship. He was immediately elected to the National Committee, and also became a member of the Meeting for Sufferings, the executive body of the Society of Friends, and a member of the Friends’ Service Committee. He was welcomed as ‘an already seasoned campaigner’, whose ‘first- hand knowledge of what was, in effect, conscription “down under”, made him a most valuable asset’[28]. In the summer of 1916 he was one of the NCF members arrested and tried under the Defence Of The Realm Act for the publication of the pamphlet Repeal the Act. Refusing to pay his fine he served two months in Pentonville Prison. After his release Fletcher ignored his call-up papers and evaded the authorities until July 1917, when he was arrested, tried as an absentee and handed over to the military. At his court martial in Wallsend on the 17th August he was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. The Acting General Secretary of the NCF, writing in 1919, said that he had been ‘a great inspiration to all of us’.[29]

That sentiment had been echoed by those in New Zealand. At their AGM in August 1914, the  Anti-Militarist League recorded that: ‘We feel greatly indebted and wish to convey our gratitude to him for his labours in the cause of peace…We shall ever regard him as our elder and teacher.’[30] A highly- principled and single-minded man, described as ‘a shining example of the concerned religious-political agitator Friend, skilled in agitation, committeeing and deputationing’,[31]he was at the forefront of a group of English Quakers who came to New Zealand to assist in the campaign against compulsory military training. Their endeavours, and funding from the Society of Friends in England, helped to establish what became a very effective movement, arguably on the verge of success before the outbreak of the First World War. Moreover, they galvanised local Quakerism and brought Friends together in a way that had not been seen before. This helped New Zealand Quakers during the war, where ‘their ability to form a united stand helped continue the growth and development of a corporate identity…and accelerated a sense of independence from England’.[32]

 - Martin Crick


[1] J. P. Fletcher to W. H. F. Alexander, 14 February 1914, Mackie Papers S41,Box 6, F17, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[2] David Grant,’ Where Were the Peacemongers? Pacifists in New Zealand During World War One’, in New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918, ed. Stephen Loveridge, Victoria University Press, 2016 p.221.

[3] The Friend, 5 January 1962, p.8.

[4] Peter Brock, Against the Draft: Essays on Conscientious Objection from the Radical Reformation to the Second World War, University of Toronto Press, 2006, p. 212.

[5 R. Stearn, ‘Edwardian Peace Testimony: British Quakers against Militarism and Conscription c1902-1914, The Journal of the Friends Historical Society , Vol.62, No.1, 2010, p.50.

[6] The Friend, 9 January 1914, p. 25.

[7] Australian Friend, 20 December 1910, p.427.

[8] The Friend 27 March 1914, p.123, The British Friend September 1913, p.258, in Stearn, ‘Edwardian Peace Testimony’, p.59.

[9] Auckland Star, 11 July 1911, p.5.

[10] New Zealand Herald, 23 November 1912, p.8.

[11] A Blot on the Empire: Conscription in New Zealand, Society of Friends Peace Committee, London,1913, p.8.

[12] Grant, ‘Where were the Peacemongers?’, p.221.

[13] Ellen Wheeler Howell to Arnold Rowntree, 22 October 1913, Arnold Rowntree Papers Relating to Military Service in Australia and New Zealand 1911-1916, Temp. Ms 977/1/2, Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, London.

[14] J.P. Fletcher to Society of Friends Joint Committee on Australasian Compulsory Military Training, 14 August 1913, Minutes of the Australia and New Zealand Committee 1903-1964, YM/MfS/ANZC, Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, London.

[15] R.  Bodman, Don’t be a Conscript, be a Man!’ a History of the Passive Resisters’ Union 1912-1914’, PGDip Dissertation, University of Auckland, 2010, p.25.

[16] New Zealand Herald, 20 December 1913, p.11.

[17] W.H.F. Alexander to Sir James Allen, 21 January 1913, Mackie Papers S41,Box 6, F17, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[18] J. P. Fletcher to W H F Alexander 14 February 1914, Mackie Papers S41, Box 6, F17, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[19] J. P. Fletcher to W H F Alexander 12 February 1914, Mackie Papers S41,  Box 6, F17, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch

[20] Eveline Cunnington, The Lectures and Letters of E.W. Cunnington, Printed by the Lyttelton Times, Christchurch, 1918, p.139.

[21] The Friend, 17 July 1914, p.528.

[22] Lyttelton Times, 23 July 1914, p.6.

[23] Mackie to Charles Howell 15 April 1914, Mackie Papers S47 Box 6, F26, S47, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[24] The Defence Acts: Anti-Militarists’ Protests, The Press, 8 June 1914, p.10.

[25] Alfred Brown to Charles Mackie, 22 July 1913, Mackie Papers, S180, Box 10, F37, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[26] W H F Alexander to Charles Mackie, 24 October 1913, Mackie Papers, S88, Box 8, F32, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[27] Charles Mackie, Report of the Work of the National Peace Council from Its Inception to 1915, p.11, 2017.38.1429. Mackie Papers, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[28] Peace News, 12 May 1950, p.5.

[29] E. E. Hunter, Acting Secretary of the No-Conscription Fellowship, to Charles Mackie, 7 March 1919, Mackie Papers, S546, Box 15, Folder 57, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.

[30] Christchurch Anti-Militarist League Minute Book, 11 August 1914, MS Papers-0445-67, Efford, Lincoln Arthur Winstone, 1907-62, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

[31]Margaret West and Ruth Fawell, The Story of New Zealand Quakerism 1842-1972, (Auckland, Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, 1973), p.54.

[32] K.R. Adams, ‘The Growth and Development of the Society of Friends in New Zealand 1840-1920’, MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1986, p.208.

John Percy Fletcher, the Society of Friends and the Campaign against Compulsory Military training in New Zealand, 1909-1914