Imprisoned for their beliefs

One little-known aspect of life in New Zealand during World War One are the experiences of conscientious objectors, known as COs, who were imprisoned because of their belief that to take part in war was morally wrong.

At the end of the war there were 60 COs in Paparua Prison near Christchurch, and many more throughout the country. At least nine imprisoned COs came from the Ashburton district. Seven were members of a little-known fundamentalist Christian group, the Testimony of Jesus.

The Testimony of Jesus was a religious body that had been in existence for more than twenty years in England and was also active in Australia. In New Zealand there were about 700-800 members who were looked after by 24 ministers or evangelists, who were dependent on members’ donations. The group had no written constitution but lived by the teachings of the New Testament. They believed that the bearing of arms was forbidden by Christ.

The Canterbury Military Service Board, sitting in Ashburton, first heard the appeal of one of the group’s members on January 3, 1917. Robert Clayton Patton, of Mt Somers, told the board that his religious beliefs would not allow him to take up arms. The whole of the teaching of Jesus was against taking up arms and was binding, he said.

3. A rare photograph of a group of conscientious objector prisoners at Paparua Prison, Christchurch, during World War One.


When conscription was introduced in 1916, the New Zealand Government made provision for religious objectors to military service. For an appeal against conscription to be successful, the religious objector had to belong to a church that espoused pacifism as a central tenet of belief. This meant that the only New Zealand Christians who could be exempted under the act were members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, the Christadelphians and the Seventh Days Adventists.

When non-combatant service was offered as an option to the religious objectors, many refused to take it up and instead served prison terms, rather than serve under any kind of military authority.

This is what happened to Patton, who told the Military Service Board he was not prepared to act in any capacity that was under military control.

The following month, four members of the Gray family came before the Board. They too said they could not serve in a non-combatant role. The Chairman dismissed the appeals of John and David Gray, but allowed William and Samuel to stay on their farms and take their chances in the ballot. The following year William Gray was also arrested and imprisoned.

Isaac and John Aicken, who like the Gray family came from Lowcliffe, also appeared before the board in February 1917. Isaac’s appeal was unsuccessful, while John was allowed to take his chance in the ballot.

Albert Edwin Joyce and Robert Stockdill, were two other members of the Testimony of Jesus from the Ashburton district who refused to serve in the military and were imprisoned for their beliefs.

1. David Gray, is the soldier seated left who is watching a fellow CO being dressed in military uniform.

Voices against war

Voices Against War is a Christchurch based project supported by the Disarmament and Security Centre and the University of Canterbury, which is researching and publishing the stories of some of COs and their supporters. Their stories can be read on the Voices Against War website.

The COs were a small minority who were often abused and vilified by the majority of the population, especially those who had family members fighting overseas, who saw the COs as ‘shirkers’.

Yet, supported by such organisations as the Christchurch-based National Peace Council and the Anti-Militarist League, the COs were also pioneers of an anti-war movement that has persisted and achieved important milestones, such as New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation of the 1980s.

So far only one of the Ashburton men features on the Voices Against War website. David Gray was mistakenly transported to Europe along with Archibald Baxter and twelve other objectors in 1917, and a little of his story has been gleaned from Archibald Baxter’s writing.

Know more?

Can you add to the story of the conscientious objectors from the Ashburton district? We especially want to know what happened to them after the war, or know of any photographs.  You can contact the museum through our Contact page with any further information or enquiries.

By Margaret Lovell-Smith


  1. A cartoon showing a ‘shirker’ getting married in an attempt to avoid conscription, published in the Observer, December 11, 1915.
  2. A rare photograph of a group of conscientious objector prisoners at Paparua Prison, Christchurch, during World War One. Credit: George Samms’s family.
  3. David Gray is the soldier sitting watching a fellow CO being dressed in military uniform. There are few photographs of COs, during or after the war. If you know of any, please contact Ashburton Museum. Photo: Archives New Zealand, AD1 10/407/3.

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