James Smith Black was born on 4 June 1878 in Brechin, Scotland. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was living at 3 Broomfield Terrace in Whitby and was married to Meggie Hebron; they had three children: William Stuart, Winifred Hebron and Florence.
In 1914 Black was employed as a District Superintendent for the Refuge Assurance Company Ltd in Whitby. This was a position of expertise and Black was responsible for the business from Robin Hood’s Bay to Staithes on the coast, and Goathland, Danby and Glaisdale inland. He handled all the cash premiums for the region, examined all cards and contribution books and managed the accounts overall.
The Refuge Assurance Company took their responsibility towards King and Country seriously and, with the advent of conscription in 1916, encouraged their employees to attest. Those who did had the reassurance that their employer would pay an allowance to their family while they served. Seventy-six per cent of the company’s staff had offered themselves for service and the company were supporting their families at a cost of £40,000 per year. The company were, however, prepared to claim exemption on business grounds for members of staff such as District Superintendents. These men were vital to the running of the business and their expertise would be hard to replace.
James Smith Black had a conscientious objection to war. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church and had been an anti-militarist for over ten years. Black was not prepared to attest and although the Refuge Assurance Company was willing to claim exemption for him based on his importance to their business, Black chose instead to stand by his principles and apply for exemption on the grounds of his conscientious objection.
After being called up for service by the military, Black appeared before the Whitby Urban District Council Tribunal on 16 June 1916 to claim exemption. The tribunal found his claim to be genuine and exempted him from military service on the condition that he continued volunteering with the St John Ambulance Brigade. It was prepared to accept this as ‘work of national importance’.
The military representative on the tribunal, Lieutenant Graham Craig, appealed against the decision of the Whitby Tribunal arguing that volunteering for the Whitby branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade was not work of national importance. He asked for Black’s certificate of exemption to be cancelled. The North Riding Appeal Tribunal dismissed Lieutenant Craig’s appeal.
Craig referred the case to the Central Tribunal in London for advice. The case taken forward to the Central Tribunal did not hinge on whether Black was a conscientious objector, but that he had not abided by the conditions of his exemption, i.e. he had not taken up work of national importance.
The first thing Black knew of this was on 16 September 1916 when he received a letter from the Central Tribunal advising him that the appeal of Lieutenant Craig had been upheld and his certificate of exemption had been withdrawn.
Black asked the North Riding Appeal Tribunal to intervene, claiming that the Central Tribunal had not been furnished with all the facts relating to his case, nor had they been told that his claim was one of conscientious objection to war. The Whitby Urban Tribunal and the North Riding Appeal Tribunal stated they did not have any jurisdiction to challenge a decision reached by the Central Tribunal, whose decision was final.
Black wrote to the Central Tribunal stating that their decision had been reached unfairly. The Clerk to the Central Tribunal advised him that his case should be reheard by the Whitby Tribunal. Black appeared at Whitby magistrates’ court on 6 October 1916, charged with being an absentee after refusing to respond to his call-up notice. Having explained his position, the magistrates agreed to adjourn his case for six weeks to enable his appeal to be reheard.
The Whitby Tribunal refused to rehear his case because they were bound to abide by the decision of the Central Tribunal. In December 1916, the Refuge Assurance Society lodged an appeal with the North Riding Tribunal against the decision of the Local Tribunal to refuse to rehear the case. They appealed for exemption for Black on business grounds.
The North Riding Appeal Tribunal hearing began on 12 December 1916 but was adjourned to 31 December. During this time, the government issued a circular revising the list of ‘Certified Occupations’ to include ‘Approved Societies and Insurance Committees:– Chief Administrative and Technical Officers…’. The appeal was further adjourned to 20 January 1917 to allow the tribunal to seek clarification on how this affected Black’s position. The National Health Insurance Commissioner advised that Black’s occupation was not ‘such as to justify them in stating it falls within the terms of … Circular R.112.’ (i.e. he was not exempt on grounds of his occupation alone.)
The North Riding Appeal Tribunal reconvened on 20 January 1917, but because the Local Tribunal would not rehear Black’s case, the North Riding Appeal Tribunal was not willing to consider any appeal made by the Refuge Assurance Company. Their argument was: no decision has been made against which he could appeal. The case was rejected outright.
On 10 February 1917, Black appeared once again before Whitby magistrates charged with being an absentee. On this occasion, he was fined £2 and handed over to the military. He spent the remainder of the war in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned to Whitby after the war and returned to his job for Refuge Assurance.
James Smith Black appears again in the 1939 Register on www.findmypast.co.uk . He was living in The Old Manse, Chatton, Northumberland. He is listed as a ‘Minister of religion, Presbyterian’.
17 May 1947: James Smith Black of The Manse, Chatton, Northumberland, died at The Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne. He left effects to the value of £581 19s 9d to his widow Meggie Black.