19th Century

A Hymn of Dissent: Inscriptions from the Dungeons of Richmond Castle

By Stephen Basdeo

A popular tourist attraction in North Yorkshire, England, is Richmond Castle. Although it is a picturesque ruin today, it began to be built in the eleventh century after William of Normandy’s “Harrying of the North” (1069–70), during which the English inhabitants of the north of England rose up against their Norman overlords. The keep was built at the end of the twelfth century, and many of the additions made to the original structure during the reign of Henry II, who ordered the construction of the barbican.

Richmond Castle and Town 1820 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Richmond Castle in the Romantic Period

The castle fell into disuse during the fifteenth century, and was partially ruined by the time of Henry VIII. During the Romantic period, however, its partially decayed state provided inspiration for several artists and writers. The keep was still in use during the Victorian period, however, when it served as the headquarters of the local militia, during which a time a barracks was constructed, although this has since been demolished.

The castle served various military and civil functions, including serving as the home of Robert Baden-Powell, during the late Victorian period and up to the First World War (1914–18). When the war broke out, many young lads enthusiastically enlisted to serve in the army, having been promised that it would be a short and jolly war which would be “over by Christmas”, and of a similar to many of the small-scale colonial campaigns fought by the British during the nineteenth century.

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Inside the dungeon

What was not anticipated by anybody at the time was that the war would drag on for four years. While the public supported the war, volunteers alone could not meet the army’s need for more men. So in 1916, the British government passed the Military Service Act which introduced army conscription for all able-bodied men between 18 and 40 years of age.

Some men known as conscientious objectors, however, refused to fight for a variety of reasons. Socialists were one such group; as an internationalist movement, some, although not all, members of socialist political parties held that it was against the principles of internationalism to take up arms against fellow workers; members of the International Bible Students Association (now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses), believed that, as Jesus had said his kingdom was “no part of the world,” then they should not get involved in earthly conflicts. There were also members of other religious groups such as the Methodists who refused to take up arms as well.

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Graffiti left by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, evident by the “Cross and Crown” logo. (c) English Heritage

The dungeons of Richmond Castle were refitted to house sixteen men, who were all members of the groups mentioned above, who refused to fight. All of them had been sentenced to death by firing squad and awaited their executions in the dungeon, having been deemed to be “absolutist” in their pacifist convictions (the fact that they were sentenced to death likely meant that they even refused non-combat roles). They had little support from the local population and were mockingly nicknamed the “Richmond Sixteen” in imitation of the names of many local regiments.

While they were held at Richmond, many of them made inscriptions on the wall. Some left drawings; others wrote out political slogans, and some of them wrote hymns. The following hymn can be seen in one of the cells:

To the Tune of: “Hold the Fort”

Thro’ the darkness, storm, and sorrow,

One bright gleam I see,

Will I know that on the morrow,

Christ will come for me,

Midst the light and peace and glory,

Of my father’s home,

Christ for me is watching, waiting,

Waiting till I come.

Who is this who comes to meet me,

On the desert way,

As the Morning Star foretelling,

God’s unclouded day?

He it is who came [illegible] me,

On that cross of shame,

In his glory well I knew Him,

Evermore the same.

Oh the blessed joy of meeting,

All the desert passed,

Oh the wondrous words of greeting,

He shall speak at last.

He and I together entering,

Those bright courts above,

He and I together sharing,

All the father’s love.

The text is taken from nineteenth-century hymn, although the tune itself dates from the eighteenth century. Whoever copied it out on the walls remains anonymous. Even more frustratingly, dating the transcription is difficult because Richmond Castle also housed conscientious objectors during the Second World War (1939–45). However, given the fact that COs in World War Two were usually relocated into non-combative roles instead of court martialled and sentenced to death, we might safely speculate that this poem was indeed been copied out by one of the Richmond Sixteen. This is because the hymn is about a man facing “darkness, storm and sorrow” and longs to meet God.

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Photo of the text as it appears on the wall. Courtesy of English Heritage / Richmond Castle

It is unlikely to have been copied out by one of the Bible Students/Jehovah’s Witnesses. During the early twentieth century, the hymn book used by the Bible Student movement was Poems and Hymns of Millennial Dawn (first published in 1890, then reprinted only with the hymns as Hymns of Millennial Dawn in 1902 and again in 1905), and none of these early Jehovah’s Witness hymn books contained the above hymn. Thus, we can perhaps at least narrow the identity of the transcriber down to members of the Methodists or the Church of Christ who were also imprisoned.

It is somewhat ironic, of course, that a CO should opt to transcribe this particular hymn on the walls of their cell. The words of the hymn were originally written to rouse Confederate troops during the American Civil War (1861-65). An anecdote connected with the hymn reads as follows:

This hymn was inspired by an incident at the Battle of Allatoona in the American Civil War. A Union garrison under Brig. Gen. John M. Corse was under heavy attack from a Confederate division led by Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French. The garrison was very close to defeat, when they received a flag-signal from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman saying “Sherman is moving in force. Hold out,” and then, “General Sherman says hold fast. We are coming.” The Union garrison, encouraged by Sherman’s message, were able to hold out until reinforcements arrived.

The Richmond Sixteen were, in the end, not executed but made to serve a term of hard labour in France but apart from the graffiti they etched onto the prison walls, very little information on any of them remains.

At present, the cells are not open to the public due to reasons of safety (and the fact that it gets very hard to breathe after about 30 minutes!), so it was a privilege for me to gain access to them. Ultimately, more research needs to be conducted on the prisoners’ graffiti; on 9 June 2018, Dr Lucia Morawska (Richmond University, Leeds RIASA) is holding an event as part of English Heritage’s The Cell Block Project, where the researchers will record the memories of people whose parents or grandparents were involved with the Richmond Sixteen or some of the later COs from World War Two.

For more information on the event see the website.

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