During the Second World War close to 800 men were considered to be defaulting conscientious objectors, and punished by being sent to detention camps for the duration of the war. Intended to be a cross between a prison and a work camp, the detention camps were established around the country, the inmates clearing scrub and weeds from the surrounding countryside, or digging drains, making tracks or planting shelter belts.
Alan Graham provides an excellent description of life in the detention camps in his book A Matter of Conscience: A Pacifist Through Six Wars. It is a story of petty punishments and major attacks on the rights of men who stood up for what they believed.
He writes that
‘At an early hour each week day, the detainees were put to work – hardly productive – mostly outside the barbed-wire fences cutting scrub ostensibly to make the land suitable for returned servicemen after the war. Lunch was taken out by the gangs and breakfast and dinner served in a common mess hall inside the compound. Our evenings were free within the compound until 8pm when the doors of our huts were locked and we were left to our own devices.
For clothing we were issued a nondescript sort of “uniform”, which consisted of grey or khaki trousers and shirt, the latter without a collar, presumably to assist in identification in the event of an escape – it was not the kind of shirt that most men of the day who were in circulation would wear.
Visitors were permitted, but for those of us who like me were in a camp far from their homes visits were infrequent. This was a privilege that could not easily for this reason be enjoyed.
The “screws” [guards] had several ways of controlling behaviour in the camps. One of the most effective, at least for some detainees, was the withholding of so-called “privileges”. These consisted of such perks as the regular issue of an ounce of tobacco, the freedom to receive visitors and to send and receive mail… We were allowed to write two letters a week – in total that is. If I wrote to my mother, Rita [his wife] had to do without a letter that week. Even then the letters had to be restricted in size – no doubt to relieve the workload of the screws, who had to censor them. We could write two sides of an A4 sheet… If we wrote anything that was unacceptable, the offensive part was either blue-pencilled out or even cut right out of the page, making it quite impossible to read what had been on the other side of the sheet.’
When Graham was finally released from the detention camp at the end of the Second World War, he was not yet free. His official status meant that he could be recalled to detention at any time, and he was manpowered to essential industry. His right to vote was taken away, and he had to apply to have it restored.
Alan Graham, A Matter of Conscience: A Pacifist Through Six Wars. Auckland: Private Publication, 1994.