The Exemption Court of 1916

Contributed by Michael Hall, February 2015

In anticipation of the Australian people endorsing conscription in the referendum of October 1916 the Commonwealth government issued an order on 29 September 1916 under the Defence Act. They wanted to train as many men as quickly as possible to reduce the delay in sending reinforcements to the Western Front where mounting casualties were taxing the strength of the AIF. The order compelled all men aged 21 to 35 years of age (as of 2 October 1916) to register at once for military service inside the Commonwealth. If they were medically fit they would immediately go into camp.

Those men liable for enlistment were required to report to authorities at set times and failure to do so could have resulted in a prison sentence of up to six months with hard labour. Encouraging men not to report could attract a similar sentence. Locally, men were required to report to the Queanbeyan Court House between 4 and 5 October or to the Canberra Post Office on 6 or 7 October. The police went door to door asking men whether or not they had registered. Finger prints were taken of those who were called up and of those to whom a certificate of exemption had been granted. This was done as a protection against fraud and to prevent certificates being sold or given to those who did not have a claim for an exemption.

The regulations set out two categories by which a person’s eligibility for service could be assessed and an exemption certificate granted. Men who were found to be medically unfit, or were members and officials of Commonwealth and State parliaments, judges and magistrates, ministers of religion, police or prison officers, lighthouse keepers, medical practitioners and nurses in public hospitals were exempt. Persons not of substantially European origin or descent were also exempt.

Men could apply for a certificate of exemption from service by fronting a specially convened Exemption Court. To gain a certificate they had to satisfy the court that they performed work of national significance, or that military service would cause serious hardship, or that they were the only son of a family or the sole surviving son or one of the remaining sons of a family of whose sons at least half had enlisted, or that they were the sole support of aged parents or a widowed mother or of orphaned brothers and sisters.

The Exemption Court sat for two days on 31 October and 1 November 1916 at the Queanbeyan Court House where sixty six cases were scheduled to be heard by the Police Magistrate. Four men gained automatic exemption because they were the only surviving son including Billy O’Grady (whose younger brother Stan O’Grady was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915) and Selwyn Miller (whose older brother died during the Boer War). Miller would join the British Army in 1917.

Six more men were exempted because they were the only son; Arthur Campbell of Woden, Charlie Curley from Tuggeranong and Eli Gilchrist, a draughtsman at Acton were in this group. Exemptions were granted to five others because at least half of their brothers had enlisted. Kenneth Stretch for instance, an assistant surveyor in the Federal Territory was one of four brothers, the sons of the Bishop of Newcastle. He gained an exemption because two of his brothers were serving as chaplains in the war. He nonetheless enlisted in 1917.

Temporary exemptions of up to three months were granted to ten men because they were working on the land. Not only was November the peak of the local shearing season, but there were also crops to be harvested through the summer. Two of these men, Arthur Butt and Arthur Cooper from Majura, would enlist in 1918. Auctioneer Arthur De Salis was granted a temporary exemption until the end of the year so that he could arrange his business affairs.

Another two men were granted temporary exemptions even though they had previously been rejected as medically unfit. The Court wanted them to be examined again. A further seven men successfully claimed that they were the sole support of aged parents or younger siblings.

Four men failed to appear and their cases were dismissed. Twenty six men had their applications refused for various reasons, of which twelve had brothers serving at the front. Some thought that being the only unmarried son was sufficient reason to avoid the call-up and others unsuccessfully cited various ailments. Several tried to claim that their work was of national importance including the postal assistant at Queanbeyan and the local sanitary worker. They were refused exemptions as well.

The sanitary worker, George Percival, then claimed he was a conscientious objector. When asked if he objected to being a stretcher-bearer he replied that that would be helping in the war. Leo O’Neill, who had worked in the sewer tunnels of Canberra, was also a conscientious objector. He too argued that being a stretcher-bearer or working in base depots would be aiding and prolonging the war. The Court rejected the argument and the claim for an exemption saying that it implied if there were no stretcher-bearers or the Red Cross then the war would soon be over.

In the end the court hearings didn’t matter. The first conscription referendum had been rejected the weekend before the Exemption Court sat and all those men forced into camp by the order issued in September 1916 were free to go home.


Scott, E. (1936). Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18: Vol. XI. Australia during the war.  Sydney: Angus and Robertson, p. 349-352, 357.

Queanbeyan Age, 1916, November 3