The Princetown escapee

A short account of the case of Scots anarchist John Kerr, war resister

On May 7th 1917, PC Parker was on patrol in Exeter. Near the Exe Bridge, he spotted a man who he considered to be “dressed as a tramp”. Believing him to be of an age for military service, he confronted the man. This individual, who had a strong Scots accent, produced a document which identified him as John Berrick, employed under the Home Office scheme for employment of Conscientious Objectors at the Princetown Works Centre. This was in fact Dartmoor prison which had been converted in March 1917 into a centre for conscientious objectors, housing up to 1,200 men, ranging from religious objectors to Socialists and Anarchists. On the card was written “Special leave permitted to visit parents” and signed by the Princetown Director. PC Parker arrested the individual.

The police believed the document was a forgery and that the individual in question was one John Kerr, who had refused orders when sent into the Royal Scots Regiment. He was asked if he would volunteer information to facilitate enquiries. He replied that he was an anarchist and therefore against all law and order and that therefore it was his policy to give as much trouble as possible to the authorities. He refused to volunteer any information and he was charged as an absentee, appeared at Exeter Police Court on the following day.

Kerr was described in court as being of a slight build and on “the younger side of thirty”. In court he refused to put in a plea as an absentee or to make a point as a conscientious objector. He suggested that he be handed over to the military authorities as an absentee and let them investigate. He was then remanded until the following Saturday.

Kerr had been called up to the Army Reserve and refused to attend. He was then put into the Royal Scots barracks near Edinburgh. There he refused to obey orders, was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment and then sent to Princetown, from where he had escaped. At a subsequent hearing, Sergeant Furlong attended from the Royal Scots. By now complications had arisen as the Governor of Exeter Prison refused to hand over Kerr to Furlong without a magistrate’s order.

Things got even more complicated when Sgt. Furlong fell ill himself and was confined to military hospital. In the meantime a private from the regiment was sent down, but could not take the prisoner back on his own without the help of Furlong, and another soldier now needed to be sent! The Chief Constable asked in court that Kerr be remanded and handed over to the military escort. When asked by the magistrates whether he had objection to a remand, Kerr replied that he was not an absentee, but had no objection to be handed over to the military. He added that: “I thought a man was treated as innocent in England until he was found guilty. At the prison while under remand I have been kept in solitary confinement and fed on bread and water”.

This case illustrates the treatment dealt out to conscientious objectors and war resisters, particularly if they had political convictions. Life at Princetown was tough for the prisoners there, and Kerr as an anarchist had refused to submit and had escaped. His treatment whilst under remand in Exeter Prison was also reprehensible, as Kerr himself had pointed out in court.

Nick Heath


Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 9th May 1917.
Western Times, 9th May, 10th May and 14th May 1917