Lost history: how two Lutterworth lads sparked town riot

Roland and Leonard Payne
Roland and Leonard Payne

The true story of two south Leicestershire brothers who caused a major riot by refusing to fight in the First World War has been told for the first time in a new book.

Conscientious objectors Leonard and Roland Payne, from Lutterworth, caused a riot involving up to a thousand people when they returned to their home town in 1918 after a spell in prison.

Roland was attacked in the street, and the Payne family’s shop and family homes were smashed up and burned by locals who thought the Payne brothers’ stand against the war was disgraceful.

At least 52 people from the small town were killed fighting in the war.

The decisive moment for the Payne brothers was January 1916, after which any Briton older than 18 and younger than 41 could be called up to serve in the British Army.

Christians Roland and Leonard both refused to fight in a war they did not believe in and became conscientious objectors or ‘conchies’. Their decision changed their lives.

‘Conchies - The Uncomfortable Story of the Payne Brothers’ is by Andy Ward, a former history teacher at Lutterworth Grammar School.

The book is based on letters from and to the brothers lent to Mr Ward by a descendant of the Paynes, plus Mr Ward’s own extensive research.

Andy Ward died in 2012, but the book was already completed. His wife Sharon has now published it, with a company called Troubadour.

Mrs Ward said: “My husband Andy was a well respected teacher of history at Lutterworth Grammar School for over 30 years.

“When he retired he was given access to letters written during the First World War to and from a pair of brothers called Roland and Leonard Payne who with their parents and sisters lived in Lutterworth.

“My husband spent five years researching the letter contents and tracking the brothers’ journey through the system put in place by the country in dealing with Conscientious Objectors.”

Mr Ward’s research took him all over Britain, investigating sources including prison and tribunal records, local and national archives and relatives of the Payne family.

He tracked the progress of the brothers through a system which first tried to force them to join the army, then court martialled and imprisoned them.

But if the Government system was harsh, the unofficial “punishment” handed out by the citizens of Lutterworth was much worse.

Hundreds of angry townsfolk took to the streets on May 28, 1918 when the brothers returned, smashing the family’s shop and homes.

Mr Ward wrote: “It was one of the biggest riots in First World War Britain ... and provides striking new insights into the mentalities of wartime Britons.”

The brothers ran for their lives, and didn’t return to the town until 1920.

Both brothers then lived in Lutterworth for the rest of their lives, again being Conscientious Objectors in the Second World War. Leonard died in 1979, and Roland in 1986.