Was your ancestor exempt from conscription during the First World War because he was engaged in an occupation of national importance? These records are registers and letter books from local military service tribunals at Woking, Dorking and Haslemere and papers kept by the chairman of the appeal tribunal at Guildford in the English county of Surrey. During the war, the tribunals were set up in each local authority under the Military Service Acts and were tasked with deciding whether a person should be exempt from military service. People could be exempt from military service because of their occupation, ill health or infirmity, financial or domestic obligations and in some cases because they were a conscientious objector to the war. The appeal tribunal considered the cases of those who were unhappy with the verdict of their local tribunal.
The information recorded by each tribunal could vary. Therefore, in each transcript you may find a combination of the following information:
Employer’s name and occupation
Nature of appeal
Person appealing – who has brought the appeal to the tribunal
Description or notes
Decision of tribunal
Group – refers to the Group System or Derby Scheme, introduced in 1915 and ultimately seen as a failure. Men could attest but defer their service until they were called up. The scheme resulted in fewer than anticipated volunteers and closed in December 1915. Conscription became law in January 1916. Derby Scheme men were grouped according to their age and marital status. Numbers 1 to 23 were single men, born between 1897 and 1875. Each number corresponded to a birth year, for example group 1 were born in 1897, group 2 were born in 1896, group 3 were born in 1895, etc. Then numbers 24 to 46 were married men. The pattern was similar to the single men, in that group 24 were born in 1897, group 25 were born in 1896, etc.
Images are available for Guildford, Dorking and Haslemere tribunals. The image shows the original register from the tribunals. They may include additional information about your ancestor not found in the transcripts.
The records are a combination of the following registers:
Dorking Rural District Military Service Tribunal registers 1916-1918
Haslemere Military Service Tribunal minutes 1915-1917
Woking Military Service Tribunal letter books 1916-1918
Surrey and Croydon Military Service Appeal Tribunals Guildford committee 1916-1918
Military service tribunals were bodies set up by local councils for men who wanted to appeal for an exemption from conscription. Conscription was enacted in Great Britain in 1916 as part of the Military Service Act. All medically fit single men between the ages of 18 and 41 qualified for conscription. In May 1916, the act was extended to married men. The tribunals were made up of magistrates, councillors, local business leaders and/or labour delegates. The tribunals would always include military representatives to ensure they worked in the best interest of the military. These bodies were charged with accessing individual circumstances while protecting national interests.
A person had the right to appeal conscription on a number of grounds. One such example would be if he were employed in a position of national interest, such as farming or industry. Other reasons for appeal included ill health, infirmity, exceptional financial or business obligations, or conscientious objections. Conscientious objectors were not always given an exemption, but they could be assigned to non-combatant positions. Hearings were usually short, lasting no more than ten minutes. Those appealing could have a solicitor present.
The tribunals allowed exemptions on a absolute, temporary or conditional basis. Absolute exemption meant the individual would not be required for active military service for the duration of the war. For example, on 13 July 1916, John Aitchison was found to be absolutely exempt from service because he was engaged in work of national importance as a farmer.
A conditional exemption was given to a person as long as their personal situation did not change. For example, a person working within a munitions factory he could be exempt unless his employment changed, in which case it was his responsibility to report this change to the tribunal. If a change of circumstances was not reported a person could be fined up to £50. A temporary exemption was only given for a short period of time, usually three to six months, then it would be reviewed by the tribunal. William Frank Hawkes received both conditional and temporary exemptions on sixteen occasions from the Woking military service tribunal. Each exemption explained that Hawkes was exempt from service under the condition that he remained employed as a butcher and slaughter man. These decisions were temporary and lasted from three to six months until the tribunal reviewed it again.
The records have been reproduced with permission from The Surrey History Trust.