#whitefeather diaries
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

About John 'Bert' Brocklesby

John Hubert (“Bert”) Brocklesby was born and grew up in Conisbrough, near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Brought up as Methodist, Bert had been drawn to both Quakers and Baptists, but had remained with the Wesleyan Methodist Church and become a lay preacher, only later becoming a Quaker.

As an eleven-year-old during the Boer War, he was confused when he realised that both sides were praying for victory to the same God. Bert was 25 when the war broke out.

First loyalty

Monday 2 November 2015
John 'Bert' Brocklesby

A week after his bruising experience in Conisbrough, Bert found himself preaching in another church. He took a more cautious approach, but delivered the same message. He later wrote about the experience.

Brocklesby family photograph

A week later I was appointed to preach at the Swinton Wesleyan Methodist Church. I knew now that those matters which I had thought to be self-evident were violently controversial; yet I felt that I must proclaim the Gospel of Peace.

In the middle of my sermon I paused to offer apology for the controversial nature of my subject. A man in the congregation called out, "Go on, brother, we hear plenty on the other side.”

This was my last appearance there for many years, yet I knew I had a little band of warm supporters there.

It was one of my first big shocks to find that Gipsy Smith, J.E. Rattenbury, Josiah Mee and Captain Davis, all ardent evangelists, became ardent recruiters for what I could only regard as the Devil's work. I was horrified that the pulpits of Methodist churches should become recruiting platforms.

Now did I begin to have my first serious doubts about the theology that would allow its exponents to invite men to undertake mass murder, with that same persuasive eloquence that they had used to bring men to Christ. This looks awfully like the sin against the Holy Spirit. God only knows. But this we learned later, that as evangelists their day had passed. They had scattered the sacred embers, and never again could they revive the old fires.

I went to the Superintendent Minister, Nicholas J. Willis, to ask for his opinion and support in this controversy. He said, "As there is a division of opinion in the church on this matter, I prefer to take neither side."

I wept to think that on such a vital question the leading minister had no lead to give. But more mature consideration has convinced me that he was only at the same point as William Wilson, that if obeying the Gospel were to endanger the unity of the Methodist Church, then Methodism must have first loyalty; after all, was not his stipend paid by the Methodist Church?

And was it not again the same dilemma when big Booth, ex-Methodist of the Burcroft Sawmill, accosted me in Low Road?

            "When are you going to join up?"

            "I am not going to join up."

            "Why not?"

            "War is against the commandments.”

            "Oh, bugger the commandments!"

This surprising comment left me almost without answer (perhaps the aim of an emphatic swear word) but I said "You may, but I don't”. When I told Father of this incident, he was very amused. "You should have told him," said he, "He may bugger the commandments, but some day the commandments will bugger him."

Bert is harsh on the Methodist Church. Other Methodists opposed the war, and some wrestled with their consciences before reaching different conclusions. Nonetheless, Bert was clearly upset by people who appeared to give their first loyalty to the unity of a religious organisation rather than the theology underpinning it.

What's the right balance between commitment to personal convictions and working for unity with those who disagree? Is it right to remain neutral for the sake of unity?

This is an edited extract from Escape from Paganism, the unpublished memoirs of John 'Bert' Brocklesby. Used by kind permission of his daughter, Mary Brocklesby.

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Chris Jennings on
Did John Brocklesby become a school teacher in the 1940's in Scunthorpe? If so he taught me. Several of my fellow pupils remember him. I hope you can reply even if the name is just a coincidence. cs.jennings@virgin.net

Submitted by ElizabethP on
Hi Chris, He may well have taught you. He was a member of Scunthorpe Quaker Meeting according to his Library entry: http://quaker.adlibhosting.com/Details/archive/110012909
Memorial stone for conscientious objectors
Wednesday 30 March 2016

Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.

Sketches of what a CO feels like
Wednesday 23 March 2016

On arrival at Boulogne, Bert and his comrades from Richmond Castle discovered that another group of conscientious objectors had also been sent to France with the threat of being shot if they continued to refuse orders. They did not know whether the other group – which included Howard Marten ­­– had given in or been executed.

Bert was concerned that campaigners in Britain should hear about what was going on and know that they were in Boulogne. He described what happened next.

Drawing on cell wall
Wednesday 16 March 2016

Bert was sent to Richmond Castle where a unit of the Non-Combatant Corps was based. Within a few days he was on his way to France.

A conscientious objector in prison sustained by the spirit of international brotherhood
Wednesday 9 March 2016

facing arrest for refusing to join the Non-Combatant Corps, Bert handed himself into the police station.

Conscientious objectors singing love songs to huns
Wednesday 2 March 2016

Bert Brocklesby was called before a tribunal in Doncaster when he claimed a conscientious objection to joining the army. He wrote out a transcript of the hearing.

Pamphlet challenging national service
Monday 9 November 2015

Bert seems to have preached less often as he became more involved in campaigning against the war. He described how he came to know Quakers through the anti-conscription campaign.

Monday 26 October 2015

The war that began in 1914 was expected to be over by Christmas. John ‘Bert’ Brocklesby found himself preaching in his own church just after the beginning of 2015. He wrote about the response he received.

Monday 25 August 2014

To Bert, war required either hatred or callousness. Writing about the early days of the war, he linked his convictions with a rejection of hatred – and a question about prayer during wartime.

Monday 18 August 2014

How did Bert come to be such a strong pacifist? Unlike Howard, he did not grow up in a pacifist family. His brothers Philip and Harold joined the army shortly after war broke out.

Monday 11 August 2014

The beginning of war saw thousands of men rush to enlist. Those who chose not to do so faced criticism.

Monday 4 August 2014

In the summer of 1914, the prospect of war felt far away to Bert Brocklesby, a teacher in the Yorkshire town of Conisbrough near Doncaster.

Related Materials

Bert and his brother Phil
Monday 2 November 2015

Bert was one of many Christians to be shocked and angry about the willingness of most church leaders to back the war.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican army chaplain on the front line from 1915. Initially a supporter of the war, he became increasingly anti-war as the war progressed. He describes a key moment in his change of heart, when he was 33.

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