Historyworks has been commissioned to make a sound installation for an exciting audio event at York's Guildhall.  A new sound piece will be performed in the Council Chamber, the first time there has ever been a contemporary art commission in this space.  This is part of an exciting audio digital fx conference organized by the University of York's Audiolab. 

The Historyworks piece is called "To Fight Or Not To Fight" (to listen, download audioboo here)

This installation tells a York story inspired by events that took place in and around the Council Chamber of the Guildhall in 1916.  It  seeks not to re-enact the words, but instead to take a wider range of voices, using words from the archive to weave together a sound scape of the opinions of York citizens about the sanctity of life and death in war.

At the outbreak of war on 5th August 1914, within hours of the announcement from the York Herald Newspaper Building on Coney Street, there were men in uniform on every street corner.   But the people of York had complex views about whether to fight or not to fight in the First World War.  Once conscription was introduced in January 1916, many objected to being involved in a killing machine, particularly those from the Quaker faith, defending the sanctity of human life.  The local newspapers gave voice to the debate.  Some, such as the MP, Arnold Rowntree defended the Quaker pacifist position both locally in York but also in the Houses of Parliament.  York was the focus for the pacifist "absolutists", with some conscientious objectors refusing to have any contact with the war machine, whether it be digging a trench or working in a field hospital.  Yet there were voices in York unsympathetic to pacifists, labelling conscientious objectors as shirkers, and even wanting young men who refused war work to be branded with a cross on their foreheads.  

It all came to a head in this building, involving Quakers employed by the chocolate factory, Rowntrees, and the boys school, Bootham, refused to fight and had to defend their position to a series of Tribunals.  Rather than conclude a judicial process in the Guildhall, the British Government smuggled them to France to try and make them fight, subjecting them to inhumane treatments such as being tied to barbed wire fences and crucifixes, but they still refused to fight, and they were sentenced to death on 14th June, 1916.  Their sentences were eventually commuted to hard labour.  Alfred Martlew, a Clerk at Rowntrees and a committed Quaker, was deeply distressed by this experience, and was found dead nearby in the River Ouse on 11th July, 1917, the newspaper article simply stating "An Objector Drowned".

The words are found from Hansard, Friends Records, Yorkshire Press, because the original records of the tribunals were destroyed by the military in 1921.  Although you don't get the impact when you hear it as a mixed soundscape rather than the voices dispersed from within York's Guildhall Chamber, please do have a listen.  Imagine sitting in a wooden courtroom where we re-enacted the drama with the only lighting being from the desk lamps, and the voices of the Judge infront of you, and the voices from the Public Gallery coming out of the darkness behind you.


Producers: Jon Calver & Helen Weinstein

Research Interns: Sam Johnson, Joe Muller, Catherine Oakley

Voices: Ewan Bailey, Sheila Bradburn, Jon Calver, Alana Gibb, Adam Gutteridge, Ian Hardwick, Sam Johnson, Catherine Oakley, John Oxley, Henrietta Titcombe, Philip Titcombe.