Last ‘conchie’ dies aged 103

The last surviving member of a wartime ‘conchie’ community has died at the age of 103.

The last of the conchies: Donald Sutherland
The last of the conchies: Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland was a pacifist and Quaker who, at 22, left his insurance job to join a small farming community of conscientious objectors.

His daughter, Isobel has paid this tribute to him.

Born in Coventry, he was, along with Roy Broadbent, father of the actor Jim Broadbent, part of the conchie community at Holton cum Beckering and later at Bleasby.

Donald Sutherland (second left) in the community days

When Ian Sharp’s play Conchies, about these pacifist communities, opened in 2017 at the Broadbent theatre in nearby Wickenby, Donald, aged 99, made a cameo appearance and took part on tour, including at the Edinburgh festival fringe in 2018.

Don campaigned for Amnesty International, against the deployment of nuclear missiles at RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, and for Fly Kites Not Drones.

He also belonged to the international organisation Servas, welcoming guests into his home and travelling using their network.

His mother, Lilian (nee Ferraby), was a teacher before she married his father, William, going on to have five children.

An engineer in a reserved occupation, William was exempted from war service, but his brother Adam, was killed at the front in 1916.

In 1927, the family moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, where Don attended Rutherford college boys’ school, gaining his school certificate in 1934 aged 15. In 1935 he went to work in an insurance office.

He completed his studies for the Chartered Insurance Institute in 1939, the same year he witnessed an event that was to change the course of his life.

In a local park, young men training for the army were being encouraged by the sergeant to bayonet human effigies in the face and stomach.

The brutality horrified Don and soon afterwards he registered as a conscientious objector, being exempted from war service on religious grounds.

Don met Betty Skinner, a horticultural student, in 1943 at Holton Farm when she was visiting her brother Bill, a member of the community.

They married in 1947 and their first home was a Nissen hut without electricity or running water.

Three years later they moved to a cottage and smallholding in Bleasby Moor, where they raised their six children and lived for the next 45 years – and then to Burton Road, Lincoln.

In the 1950s, Don and Betty joined Lincoln Quaker Meeting and Don served as Quaker chaplain at Lincoln prison for more than 36 years.

In his mid-40s, after giving up farm work due to injury, he worked as a production controller at Ruston and Hornsby iron foundry in Lincoln.

A veteran sportsman, he won several gold medals at national competitions after taking diving classes in his 70s.

He continued to dive, swim, garden and cycle well into his 90s, and enjoyed parties, dancing, music, poetry, art and theatre way past his 100th birthday.

Family, friends and neighbours will also remember his abundant home-produced organic vegetarian food.

Don was predeceased by his daughter Helen in 1971 and by Betty in 1998.

He is survived by five children, Andrew, Alistair, Janet, Isobel and Brian, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A celebration of his life for family and friends will be held at 'The Collection' museum in Lincoln on Saturday September 24, from 4.30pm to 8.30pm.