Firth, Henry William (1888-1918)

CO who died in Princetown Work Centre, Dartmoor

Henry Firth was the first Conscientious Objector to die in Dartmoor Prison, which had been reopened as Princetown Work Centre. Before the war, he was a Primitive Methodist, and a Local Preacher, and worked in a shoe factory in Norwich.

Princetown Work Centre

Firth was first sent to Maidstone Prison, then transferred to Dartmoor under the Home Office Scheme. This was designed to relieve pressure on the prison system, due to the large number of COs in prison – estimated at about 6,000.  Under this scheme, COs could be released from prison on condition that they undertook civilian work under civilian control in specially created work centres, such as Princetown. There were no locks on the doors, the inmates could go outside in the evenings and on Sundays, and wore plain clothes, not prison uniform, but conditions were still harsh.

They followed the coffin

Mark Hayler, a Quaker, also in Princetown as a Conscientious Objector, nursed Henry when he became ill in February 1918. In an oral history interview, he described what happened.

‘I was working at the hospital at the time I attended him. I was a sort of orderly you know, he was only a boy, twenty-one, and he was a local preacher with the Methodists, and his wife came down from Yorkshire, and I can see her now sitting not in the cell but on a chair outside the door.

He had pneumonia. He’d been badly treated at Dartmoor, he should never have been sent out on the moor in bad weather. He should have got an indoor job and he got this cold and he got pneumonia …It was the only funeral from Dartmoor and the whole of the men attended the funeral, they insisted, they couldn’t have prevented them and they followed behind the coffin down to the railway and it was put on the little train at Princetown and taken down to Plymouth … which is about ten miles away.

And we went to the station and it was all arranged by our own people … and some of the COs got hold of some fog signals and they put them on the line here and there. As the train went out of the little station at Princetown these went off, a sort of farewell. And I remember nearly a thousand men sang a hymn, ‘Abide With Me’.’ 

Died of neglect

Firth was a diabetic and, according to the inquest, the cause of his death on 6 February 1918, was a diabetic coma. The coroner conveniently ignored the neglect, and poor medical attention, which contributed to his death. Three eggs, which, after much pressure, had been specially ordered for him did not arrive until after his death.

Hayler misremembered some of the details as Firth was from Norfolk, not Yorkshire, and he was 30 when he died. Perhaps this is not surprising as the interview was about 60 years later.

Not the only CO to die at Dartmoor

Henry Firth was also not the only CO to die at Princetown. There were three others, including Henry Haston.  According to newspaper accounts, people threw stones at his coffin when it arrived in Plymouth.

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  • Henry Firth is recorded on a wooden plaque made in 1923 giving the names of 70 British WW1 COs known to have died as a result of their treatment, and the Plaque is now held in the Peace Pledge Union office. This information has been provided by Bill Hetherington, Honorary Archivist of the Peace Pledge Union. The page has also been updated to include further information he has been able to provide about Henry Firth.

    By Jill Barber (26/03/2016)

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