Harold Pinter's document of appeal against National Service (Catalogue reference: LAB 6/468)

This is a brief guide to researching records of British conscientious objectors and those exempt from service.

Records of British conscientious objectors are varied and incomplete. Those records which do exist are mostly available at The National Archives and local record offices.

  • What do I need to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • the name of the person
      • the date range and location to help focus your search
  • What records can I see online?

    • Middlesex military service appeal tribunal records (1916-1918)

      Search case papers from the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal and a sample from the Central Appeal Tribunal in London.
      The case papers are for those applying for exemption from conscription and include conscientious objectors.

      Browse MH 47 for minute books and letter books of the tribunal, and other related material.

  • What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

    • Lothian and Peebles tribunal records

      Contact the National Records of Scotland for sample records of the Lothian and Peebles tribunal (ref: HH 30).

    • Records held elsewhere

      Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.

  • What other resources will help me find information?

    • Newspapers

      Consult local newspapers at libraries or the British Library Newspaper Collection which may provide details of tribunal hearings at local level.

    • Books

      Search The National Archives' bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, look in The National Archives' library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

      William Spencer, Family history in the wars (The National Archives, 2007)

      Will Ellsworth-Jones, We will not fight! (Aurum Press Ltd, 2008)

      James McDermott, British military service tribunals, 1916-1918 (Manchester University Press, 2011)

    • Websites

      Read our blog on Commemorating Conscription.

Did you know?

The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced compulsory conscription to Great Britain for the first time in modern history. Before this act, the armed forces were generally made up of volunteers.

While conscientious objection was not specifically defined in the act of 1916, the government recognised those whose 'objection genuinely rests on religious or moral convictions'.

Only a small number of conscientious objectors were exempted from service absolutely. Most were obliged to serve in non-combatant roles or faced courts martial.

Few records of conscientious objectors survive, especially after 1921. Those which do survive are generally samplessample - a relatively small amount of material, chosen as an example of the overall collection.

Britain abolished National Service in 1960.

In 1921 the Ministry of Health decided that all papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service and tribunal minute books (except those of the Central Tribunal), should be destroyed. Thus the vast majority of files do not survive.