WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

Please note this site has been archived


Horse-hair watch-guard a memento of prison life

Margaret Lovell-Smith - lead researcher for the Voices Against War project

What does a small knotted horse-hair watch-guard tell us about the experience of conscientious objectors in Paparua Prison during the First World War?

Detail of the horse hair watch guard made by a conscientous objector in prison. Kaiapoi Museum Ref. KDHS 79/85

A small knotted horse-hair watch-guard on display at the Kaiapoi Museum is one of very few tangible mementoes of the long periods of time that Conscientious Objectors (COs) spent locked in their cells at Paparua Prison during the First World War.

Before the advent of wrist watches, watch-guards were cords, ribbons or chains that attached a watch to its owner’s clothes. In old photographs and illustrations the watch-guard is often seen crossing the owner’s chest, from the watch which is sitting in the breast pocket to the centre row of buttons where it was attached to a buttonhole.

The Kaiapoi horse-hair watch-guard was donated to the Kaiapoi Museum in 1979 by a member of the Clarkville East Eyreton Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, Sophia Brown, and the only written information the Museum has about it, records it was made of hair from the prison horses’ tails by a conscientious objector prisoner at Paparua during the First World War.

While the identity of the maker is not known, the circumstances in which it was made can be readily imagined due to other information that we have about the prison and the CO prisoners at that time.

Conscription was introduced in New Zealand in 1916 and in 1917 COs began to be arrested and court-martialled for refusing to take part in the war. Up to this time Christchurch’s main prison had been at Lyttelton, but a new prison was being developed at Templeton or Paparua as it came to be known.

A rare photo of conscientious objector prisoners at Paparua Prison in about 1918. Fourth from left at the back is George Samms. Robin Page is sitting centre front. All rights reserved Patricia Smith.

Paparua Prison expanded rapidly, no doubt partly in order to accommodate the unexpected numbers of COs: from accommodation for 24 prisoners in 1915, it grew to have accommodation for 136 in 1920. In 1918 there were 60 COs incarcerated at Paparua in accommodation the prisoners built themselves.

On weekdays the COs spent eight hours a day at work, and for most of the prisoners this was outdoor work planting trees or working on the prison farm. The rest of the time they were locked in their small cells: from 5pm until about 7.30am the following morning and also between 12noon and 1pm when they had their midday meal of mutton, potatoes and leeks. Breakfast and evening meals, also eaten in the cells, consisted of porridge, bread and cold mutton.

Some prisoners enjoyed the quiet times in the cells as a chance to read and think. If they had a cell mate it was also a time for discussion and argument. One can well imagine a CO plaiting the watch-guard as he sat in his cell.

The horse hair watch guard made by a conscientous objector while in prison during the First World War. Image courtesy of Kaiapoi District Historical Soc. Inc. known as Kaiapoi Museum Ref. KDHS 79/85.

CO prisoners tended to make light of any discomforts they experienced in prison being always aware of the comparison that could be made with their peers serving at the front line of battle.

It was the prisoners’ families or friends who expressed the greatest criticism of Paparua. The aunts of one CO described the prison as cold, badly built, badly lit and with poor food:

The prison had been hastily built, and the cells in which the prisoners were confined for such long hours were so roughly put together that the rain and even the snow were sometimes blown into them, damping the occupants' bedding and their small stock of clothing. . . . some of the older and less robust prisoners suffered greatly from the cold. This cold, the monotonous ill-balanced diet, and the long confinement in badly lighted cells told heavily on the health and spirits of many of the prisoners.

Yet the greatest hardship for the prisoners may have come after they left prison, in the form of the hostility that they encountered in civil society. Many of New Zealand’s COs lost their civil rights for several years after they left prison. This meant they could not vote in national or local body elections or work for the government or any public body. Even those who didn’t lose their civil rights sometimes lost their job. For many the legacy of being a CO was the loss of a job or career and an uncomfortable place in the community where the label of ‘shirker’ or ‘conchie’ followed them for the rest of their lives.

Date added: 04 September 2018 | Last updated: 19 October 2018