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William Lawrence Dixon (1893–1979)

William Lawrence Dixon (1893–1979) was a Hansard reporter from 1933 to 1959. During the First World War he was an absolutist conscientious objector. Absolutists refused army medicals, refused to wear uniform, and disobeyed orders to parade. They refused to serve in the Non-Combatant Corps, refused work of national importance and any kind of war-related service. Conditions for absolutists in prison were harsh: cold and hungry most of the time, they had little exercise and, in the first instance, only a hard board to sleep on. Talking was not allowed.

From 1914, Dixon was chief reporter on the radical socialist newspaper The Worker in Huddersfield, a town regarded as a hotbed for conscientious objectors. He not only refused to recognise the Military Service Act 1916, which introduced conscription for the first time, but the tribunals it introduced, and simply carried on working until the police came to arrest him.

On 1 July 1916, Dixon appeared before Huddersfield magistrates, charged with being an absentee. He told the court:

My broad reason as a worker for refusing to enlist is that the war was not a workers' matter in its origin, it has not been a workers' matter in its conduct and it will not be a workers' matter in its settlement. Whoever wins the war the workers will lose, unless they revolt against the entire domination of military or governing cliques. … The only people who are going to get anything out of this war and benefit from conscription are people like yourselves—the propertied classes and profit-mongering people. I shall have nothing to do with it, and you can do as you damned well like.1

Dixon was handed over to the military authorities and tried by court-martial for disobedience at Halifax barracks. He was sent to Leeds civil prison for 112 days. Rearrested in October 1916, he once again appeared before Huddersfield magistrates accused of deserting from Halifax barracks. He was sent to Wandsworth prison, and in April 1917, The Worker printed his "Reflections from Prison". "My only complaint, apart from that of injustice," he wrote, "is of a pabular insufficiency."2 In other words, rations were meagre. Willie Brook, another absolutist from Huddersfield, said that the diet was "just keeping you alive".3

By April 1919, Dixon had served four prison sentences under the "cat and mouse" regime that was introduced in 1913 to deal with hunger-striking suffragettes. Released from civil prison, he was taken to barracks, arrested for disobeying orders and imprisoned once more. He served time in prison in Leeds, Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Hull and Birmingham. In Birmingham and Hull, he edited the "Literary Outlet", a clandestine prison journal with socialist content that was well produced with artistic covers—a step up from "The Old Lags Hansard", another secret newssheet which was "written...on sheets of toilet paper and sewn together with thread."4

The privations continued after Dixon had served his time. Under the Representation of the People Act 1918, conscientious objectors were disqualified for five years after imprisonment "from being registered or voting as a parliamentary or local government elector". This was a harsh punishment for someone who cherished the freedom to vote, and the democratic culture it engendered. "This freedom preserves our lively interest…in…Parliament", he wrote in 1950." … Would not conscript voters make but perfunctory marks, and then consider it a duty done and ended? ... Would they feel much interest in the resultant Parliament or…in the speeches made there?"5

From 1921 to 1930, Dixon worked for the Daily Herald, where he was reunited with George Thomas, who had been his editor at The Worker. He joined the Official Report in 1933, having entered the Press Gallery in 1921. During the second world war, in a contrast to his first world war experience, he served as an ARP warden. He worked for the Press Association from 1961 to 1967 and then as an official reporter for the United Nations in Geneva.

In 1950, Dixon published Our Hansard6, which took an inside look at the production of the Official Report, under the pseudonym William Law—the name of another conscientious objector who was one of the Richmond Sixteen: men who were detained in Richmond Castle during the first world war, then taken to France and sentenced to death, commuted to 10 years' hard labour, for refusing to obey orders. Another explanation is that he was paying homage to Conservative MP Sir Alfred Law, who died in 1939, leaving part of his estate to a distant relative, "Mr W. L. Dixon".

Retired Hansard sub-editor Roy Hadlow remembers "Dickie" as "an amiable maverick" and "a very agreeable, and pretty learned...colleague." Former Hansard editor Ian Church recalled that he named his house on Beulah Hill in south London "Hansard House" and had a large family. He died in Dorking, Surrey, in 1979.

Footnotes

1. Cyril Pearce, "Comrades in Conscience", revised edition 2014 (Appendix 4, Fragments of Huddersfield conscientious objector stories, as reported in The Worker)

2. Reflections from Prison

3. David Clark, "Voices from Labour's Past", 2015

4. Peter Brock's essay on the "Prison Samizdat of British Conscientious Objectors in the First World War" can be found in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Volume 12, 2003

5. William Law, "Our Hansard", 1950

6. A copy of "Our Hansard" can be found in the House of Commons Library

See also Cyril Pearce's register of conscientious objectors