The prison diary of a conscientious objector

Sitting in a prison cell at Wellington’s Mt Crawford Prison in 1941, A.C. (Archie) Barrington scrawled in the margins of two books on religion and history.

Professor John Pratt with John Barrington reading The prison diary of A.C. Barrington: Dissent and Conformity in Wartime New Zealand

He wrote about his incarceration for maintaining his Christian pacifist opposition to New Zealand’s war effort during World War II.

The illicit books—which begin from the first day of his one-year sentence—were smuggled out by the prison butcher to Archie’s family, but after the war they were forgotten about.

More than sixty years later, and after Archie passed away, they were rediscovered by his family, who typed up the notes and passed them to Professor John Pratt, director of Victoria’s Institute of Criminology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies.

John describes the find of a prison diary, which gives great insight into prison life of the time, as incredibly rare. He estimates that Archie, who he describes as a principled and courageous man, wrote approximately a thousand words a day and also included sketches of himself in prison.

“In the 40s, the prison population consisted mainly of human derelicts, like meth drinkers and alcoholics. The rest were pacifists or really serious offenders.

“It’s a very different prison population from what we have today.”

Otago University Press published John’s book, The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington: Dissent and Conformity in Wartime New Zealand, earlier this year. In it, he analyses the significance of the information in the diary about prison conditions and New Zealand society at the time.

“Why was New Zealand intolerant to war dissenters? The same behaviour in the United Kingdom and Australia at the same time would have been ignored. These are countries that we like to compare ourselves to.

“The general population was involved with, and supportive of, the war effort, but those who had different views were not tolerated.”

The book also explores the difficult and challenging prison conditions of the time, especially during the winter that Archie spent at Mt Crawford Prison.

“There was no heating and they weren’t given any special clothing—it’s remarkable they didn’t catch pneumonia. Archie was walking around in a short-sleeved nylon shirt and very thin, ill-fitting pants.”

Archie also noted the generous diet prisoners were given during the war. The problem was, though, that it was virtually the same meal every night—a big plate of meat, potatoes and carrots—and he describes the monotony of this, as well as his own attempts to add variety, smuggling vitamin-rich roots from the prison gardens.

“Archie referred to the porridge served each morning as disgusting. The urns used to make porridge were also used to make tea, so the porridge tasted like tea and the tea tasted like porridge.”

The Barrington family allowed John to edit the diaries because of his interest in prisons and prison history. The family has been involved in the creation of the book with Archie’s son, John—a former associate professor in Victoria’s Faculty of Education—writing the introduction, which describes how he discovered the diary and includes memories the Barrington family have of Archie’s time in prison.