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Fearne Cotton reveals admiration for great-grandad after discovering he was jailed for refusing to fight in WW1

Mirror logo Mirror 11/08/2017 Emma Donnan

Credits: BBC © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: BBC As Fearne Cotton sits in the cold, dank cell, the harsh reality of her great-grandfather’s daily existence really begins to hit home.

The square box cell where Evan Meredith was locked up as a First World War conscientious objector would have contained just a tiny stone bed.

The 23-year-old decided he had to get out, so he led a hunger strike with other prisoners who had refused to fight in the war – and four days later they were free men.

TV presenter Fearne says: “He must have gone to hell and back but he got through it. It worked. He freed all the men.

“That was really brave and amazing. It could have ended up going really badly.”

Fearne, 35, admits the discovery came as a shock. “I really respect that his beliefs were so strong for him and that he honoured them constantly and he knew the ramifications and went with it,” she says.

“I also respect his belief in not wanting to kill an innocent man because he didn’t believe in the war.

“But then I’m equally confused and sad... millions of people did die. I massively respect him but with a huge morbid knowledge of how many people did lose their lives.

“It’s a huge, huge shame.”

Evan later wrote of his experiences, telling how he organised the hunger strike to pressure authorities into releasing the “Conchies”.

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As well as the squalid living conditions, he also faced mental torture, banned from speaking to other prisoners.

He revealed that after four days of returning their meals untouched, he was freed under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, which allowed the early release of weakened prisoners who might be at risk of dying.

Evan, Fearne’s great-grandfather on her dad’s side, was a coal miner in Wales from the age of 13.

The job was seen as vital to the war effort, so at first miners were not called up.

But as the war continued and the need for men at the front became more desperate, there was a “comb out” and thousands were taken out of the mines.

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When compulsory military service was introduced in 1916, 16,000 men refused.

Many were accused of cowardice, but their reasons were often religious or political. In the South Wales coalfields there was a core of socialist objectors who refused to join what they saw as a capitalist war between imperial powers.

Of the 800 Welsh objectors, five died in jail during the war. Evan was arrested and taken to Brecon Barracks then sentenced to six months at Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London.

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Fearne says of her discovery on BBC1 show Who Do You Think You Are? : “It was a shock because I had no idea about that. My dad didn’t even know.” 

Visiting Evan’s cell, Fearne said: “I can’t even comprehend it. We’re so pathetic compared to that generation. You walk away thinking ‘I’m so fortunate.’”

Evan was a “category B” conscientious objector – someone who most likely opposed the war on political rather than religious grounds.

After his sentence ended in December 1918 he was re-arrested and sentenced to a year’s hard labour in a prison in Carmarthen in South Wales.

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After his hunger strike he was discharged in the summer of 1919 and went on to become a pharmacist. Fearne says: “He got himself him out of there and started up a really amazing life because of his strength and determination.”

Fearne feels something of Evan’s character has passed down through the generations.

“I’m really strong with my beliefs,” she says. “If I feel one career move is better for me and it doesn’t seem like it to anyone else, I’m going to do it anyway.

“That’s what Evan did tenfold. It’s in the family tree I guess.”

Credits: Reuters © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Reuters

Fearne also learnt of an ancestor on her mum’s side, William Gilmour, born in Ireland in around 1821, who became Medical Superintendent on the SS Great Britain going to and from the Crimea.

Fearne, who has son Rex, four, and 22-month-old daughter Honey with guitarist husband Jesse Wood, 40, said of her discoveries: “It’s an amazing thing to pass on to my children.”

  • Fearne’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode airs on BBC1 on August 24 at 8pm.

© BBC

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