Brighton World War One Hero Jailed

richad pennifoldLike many others, the wall to wall media coverage of the First World War led me to me hearing the stories of my Great Great Uncles’ deaths and injuries in the killing fields of the Western Front. However, I knew nothing about these men as I grew up. I do remember their sisters, one of whom brought up my Grandma with a brutality that can still be felt today. (That reality is perhaps best left to the novels of Pat Barker.) My hero from the “Great” War isn’t a member of my family. And he saw no action. In 1916, Richard Pennifold was one of thousands who worked on the railways in Brighton. Official Brighton history tells us that the railways transformed the town by bringing holiday makers to the former Royal Sex and Drug Pleasure Park. However, the railways also brought manufacturing industry and “migrant labour”. Thousands worked at Brighton Locomotive Works building engines, and in other engineering factories across the town. As late as the 1960s, the majority of workers in Brighton could be described as “blue collar”. Richard Pennifold worked for the railways, and as the war started he was an active National Union of Railwaymen (women were admitted during the war), and Vice President of Brighton and Hove District Trades Council. In the run up to 1914, trade union struggles had intensified and Richard, like many, moved from questioning what made a “fair days pay for a fair days work” to the injustices of Capital and Empire. Richard hadn’t volunteered to fight. In 1916, the government decided that not enough men were volunteering to replace those killed on the Western Front, so they brought in conscription. But when Richard received his call up papers he refused to join in the slaughter. Despite his popularity as a union representative, his colleagues “didn’t share his position“, and he was jailed for two years as a “conscientious objector”. Most of his workmates probably thought him mad at best, and at worst a traitor. “I experienced the might of the state” I can only guess what he faced in British jails 100 years ago. Another Brighton socialist, ILP member Max Sanders, who was also jailed wrote of his time in prison that he had “been branded as one of the vilest criminals“. He wrote about his time in Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Maidstone, where he did hard labour: “I hope it will neverbemy lot to be so cold and hungry again…….there I experienced the might of the state“. His daughter Beryl described how a once fit man came out weak “with a wonky heart after being kicked down the stairs“. Richard, like Max, certainly weren’t cowards.. After two years , the war was finally over, and he was released.His colleagues “welcomed him back” in March 1919. He threw his energies back into Brighton’s trade union movement, and the Communist Party which he joined. In fact it was his Communist Party membership that forced him to step down as President of the Trades Council in 1934 as the TUC banned Communist Party members from being delegates to all trades councils! It could be argued that Richard should have been with the rest of his class in the trenches, where had he survived would  undoubtedly have join those soldiers resisting the officer class. Ultimately, this resistance was to lead to mutinies, insurgencies and the revolutions that ended the war. In 1916 though, this would have been seen as a ludicrous idea, at least in England. (Perhaps there is a lesson there for us today, that however difficult the political environment can be for socialists, the ideas and combativeness of the working class can sometimes change very quickly.) There is practically nothing in the history books about Richard Pennifold – the same history books that ignore the role of revolution in ended the war, pretending that Britain won! But the heroic stance of ordinary/extraordinary workers in every town should be honoured. They are the true heroes of The Great Slaughter. BHDTC_Logo Footnote The only history I have seen of Richard, from which the two quotes are taken, come from “A history of Brighton Trades Council and Labour Movement 1890-1970”. Amazon has no copies, though Brighton University Library does have a copy, and Brighton and Hove Unison also have a copy in its growing local labour history library. Brighton museum is currently running an excellent display about the lives of local people during the war, including Max Sanders. It’s well worth a visit. Their video is below. Unfortunately, I have no other information about Richard, and the museum hadn’t heard of him. If anybody has any more information about Richard, or his family, I’d love to hear it. And if anyone has any more local labour movement history they would like to share, pleas get in touch via the comments on this blog or via Brighton and Hove Unison or Brighton and Hove District Trades Union Council.

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