THE DISAPPEARING SUGAR-BASINS - Crewkerne, An English Town in the First World War - Part II
By Juliet Aykroyd
Crewkerne, Somerset, UK
THE FIRST YEAR
On 4 August 1914, the tranquil little town of Crewkerne in Somerset woke up to find England at war with Germany. It was no big surprise. Since July, the national and local press had been bracing the nation for conflict with alarming headlines: BARBAROUS HUNS...INHUMAN FEROCITY…. The press was the only source of news at the time, and as well as disseminating controlled information it was instrumental in whipping up patriotic fervour, with stories of German atrocities and spy scares.
One of the first events to impact on our town was an immediate rise in the cost of many foods – including sugar (of which more later). Next, on 8th August, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) became law. The government took over the railways, and it became illegal – among other things – to loiter on railway bridges, fly kites, light bonfires or feed bread to wild animals. On August 25th, Pulman's Weekly News reported an odd incident in which spy mania and martial law appear to have collided: Thomas Sharp, a labourer, was mistaken for a German spy, and took refuge from assailants at Crewkerne station. Did he think it was a government sanctuary? He was crouching under a shrub when he was seized and taken before magistrates, who fined him for contravening DORA.
Before the end of August, 200 townsmen serving in the Territorials and the Regular Army had mobilised. Mr George Blake, a wealthy local solicitor, put out a call for a thousand "hard-hitting, determined Somerset men" to enlist in a new battalion. But response was slow. By the end of September only 63 men had volunteered, of whom 10 were unfit for service. "Crewkerne has not come forward so patriotically as expected," grumbled another town stalwart, Mr H. Paget-Hoskyns, annoyed that the neighbouring town of Yeovil had done better. Mr Blake tried again: he organised a recruitment "Illuminated Mass Meeting" in the Market Square, with flags and streamers, a procession and no fewer than 5 bands, marching around the town by torchlight.
Four years later, some of the families present must have recalled that September jamboree with bitter sorrow. The war was expected to be a quick skirmish, all over in a few months. No one predicted the four years of terrible conflict ahead, or knew that of the hundreds of Crewkerne men who did eventually join up, or were later conscripted, 127 of them would die.
Meanwhile, there were at least two good reasons for the "unpatriotic" first response to the war drums. It was time for the harvest, which was "beautiful, thank God, this year," the Reverend H.D. Lewis assured his congregation. Harvesting could not be abandoned; farmers needed labourers. Moreover, two important town factories needed workers. Robert Bird & Co and Arthur Hart and Sons were requisitioned right away to produce webbing for the war. Crewkerne's skilled weavers and webbers were in big demand. Other textile works were busy too, making shirts and tents for the military. Where there was high employment and overtime there were good wages, and good wages meant flourishing shops and services. No wonder young townsmen were in no rush to abandon security, and go off to fight in some foreign country for a cause that few people really understood.
Crewkerne's webbing was put to an amazing number of uses. The woollen kind was for horse girths, harness, nosebags, slings, stretchers; the cotton for cartridge belts, parachute bindings, balloon straps, shell slings, mortar bomb carriers; the linen for army huts, aeroplane parts, saddle padding, hangars, ammunition boxes, sacks for gas masks, officers' haversacks…the list goes on: a ghostly reminder of how World War I combatants were kitted out and fragilely held together, and how the war was expected to be fought like the last one: on horseback. Another effect of DORA on Crewkerne life was the requisitioning of horses other than those used for farm work. Thousands were dispatched to the front in the early months, where most of them were killed. Later in the war, tractors – traction engines they were called – were imported from America. There were complaints about the damage they caused to public highways. Next, advertisements appear in the local press for Ford delivery vans. And so the horse-drawn plough and cart trundle off into history.
An event in November 1916 brought the war home in an immediate sense. In response to a national campaign, Crewkerne Town Council agreed to house twenty Belgian refugees who had fled the German invasion. A committee of four ladies and the Salvation Army band welcomed them at the station, and they were conveyed in a hired brake to the house of Mr Palmer in Abbey Street. Mr E. Blake guaranteed their board and lodging, and a fortnightly house-to-house collection was made for their support. Entertainments were organised: at one concert the refugees overcame shyness and "rendered songs in Flemish." It was all rather unlike the reception on offer to asylum seekers a hundred years later in the UK, and exemplifies the kind of enthusiastic outpouring of generosity that characterises so many initiatives in the Great War.
FOOD MATTERS – ESPECIALLY SUGAR
If the percentage of townsmen unfit for military service in the first recruitment drive was 10 out of 63, this was much less than the national average – a shocking 38%. It seems that apart from the high incidence of TB our town was healthier and happier than many, because of the high employment rate of both men and women. By April 1915, Bird's factory-workers' wages had gone up by 25%, and a bonus of 6% soon followed. A whole new warehouse was added to Hart's factory. Early in 1915, Mr Maunder of the War Distress Relief Committee reported "No distress in the town occasioned by war," adding "This is considered to be very satisfactory." Food prices were ramping up, but wages kept pace, and for the moment there was plenty to eat. This was to change by 1917, with the German submarine blockade and the massive loss of cargo ships. We can get a sense of Crewkerne's food supply by tracking the story of wartime sugar.
At that time more sugar was consumed in England than anywhere else in the world. The granulated sort was used in medicines, soft and alcoholic drinks and spirits, as well as cakes and confectionery, and the sweet puddings that English people love. Sugar in lump form was considered elegant: square lumps were presented in urn-shaped ceramic or silver vessels with lids – the soon-to-be-redundant sugar basins – and picked up with silver tongs to be placed daintily in a tea or coffee cup. The poorest families made do with treacle, which was cheaper (and more nutritious did they but know it), but the lure of sugar went deep: it was life's sweetener, a treat and a luxury, and supposed to be vital for children's health, a misconception which led to ubiquitous dental caries and sometimes malnutrition.
Before the war England relied on imported beet sugar from Austria-Hungary. In 1914, the price of granulated sugar was fixed at four and a half pence a pound, lump sugar at five pence. It was the first food to be rationed in 1918, at half a pound per person per week, and by then it cost seven pence a pound.
Unlike those who lived in big towns and cities, the relatively well-off citizens of Crewkerne did not have to queue for hours outside shops for basic foods. But our town felt the pinch like everywhere else. In the summer of 1917, the Reverend Lewis lamented that the customary cakes and sweets could not be provided for the annual Sunday School treat. Before refrigerators, sugar was essential in preserving fruit for winter in jams and jellies. The new Ministry of Food urged housewives to bottle as many fruits and vegetables as possible, and issued recipes for making jam with nasty-sounding sugar substitutes, like salt-and-sago, glucose (from corn syrup), or saccharin tablets, or mystery concoctions called Consyp and Sypgar. "It is not very sweet," admits the Ministry pamphlet dolefully of the glucose jam.
The advertisements of the World's Stores (Pioneers of Popular Prices), Crewkerne's most enterprising grocer, give us some interesting insights. In November 1917, they announce that they have purchased an entire shipment of tinned jam (twice as sweet as ordinary jam) from an Australian steamship, and are offering it at prices between a shilling and four pence (apple) and a shilling and seven pence (melon and lemon). To avoid being accused of hoarding and profiteering, the advertisement notes, in small print, that these are "prices fixed by THE FOOD CONTROLLER." The jam must have been a treat, for those Crewkernians who could afford it.
Sugar, wheat, butter, margarine, meat, potatoes, tea and many other foods were scarce by the end of 1917. People with gardens or allotments were encouraged keep a pig ("as an act of patriotism"), and grow potatoes and other vegetables. Country folk were luckier than townsfolk in having access to fresh produce. The Reverend Lewis announced that he would condone gardening on the Sabbath day, "for these are exceptional times." The World's Stores promoted wheat and potato substitutes, in the form of the novelty "flaked maize" – now called corn flakes – and semolina at three and a half pence per pound, and marrow beans for eight pence. It was hard for working-class families to give up bread – that ancient and convenient staple of life – and consequently it was never rationed, but deteriorated in quality.
By 1918, Crewkerne had tightened its collective belt. W.A. Thomas, the Chemist in Market Street, ran an advertisement with a picture of a gloomy haggard-faced man – "the Result of War Diet "– and the offer of an Elixir "to tone up the digestive system and strengthen the nerves...changing the outlook to one of hope and brightness." However, unlike so many war victims in France and Germany, nobody seems actually to have starved. In fact the average British diet was considerably better than before the war. Food was distributed more equally, and housewives were better informed about nutrition and cooking methods. A lot of the credit for this is due to the energies of women.
CREWKERNE'S WOMEN AND THE WAR
The Ministry of Food's War Time Food Economy campaign was promulgated largely by women, whose lives (as is well known) were profoundly changed by the Great War, mostly for the better. But the town records over these four years are dominated by men's names and men's interests. There were no women on the Town Council, and until 1918, they couldn't vote in elections, and then only if they're over 30. It was taken for granted that women factory and shop workers were paid half the wages of men.
Only sometimes do we get glimpses of Crewkerne women and their wartime lives. At the top end of the scale, Miss Frances Sparks stands out; she is from the family of one of the town's wealthy solicitors, and a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. Her monthly records of rainfall in the area are published in Pulman's newspaper. She is one of the few women's voices we hear raised in the business of running the town. In 1916, she proposes that because of the dim wartime street lighting, it might be sensible to paint the edge of pavements white. The council rejects her idea.
Then there are the women fund-raisers, energetically rattling boxes for contributions to the war effort, organising "Sales of Work" and meetings, running clubs and tea parties and societies. One of these is Mrs Lewis, wife of our Vicar, with her Women's Bible Class and Mrs Hoskyns, active in Red Cross events. There's the newly founded Women's Institute. There are the District Visitors, volunteers from the Anglican Church community, who keep an eye on working-class families' welfare: an early type of social worker. There is Miss Walkenshaw, a teacher at the County School, showing mothers how to bottle fruit as directed by the Ministry, and make "attractive, appetising and nutritious dishes" out of wheat substitutes.
Then there are the wage earners. Many farmers were reluctant to employ women labourers. "Women are all very well in their place," announced a farmer at a Union Meeting, "but they are not fit for farm work." Factory owners were less conservative; at Robert Bird's eight girls were employed at the beginning of the war; by the end of 1915 there were thirty-two, "doing men's work." These working women had money to spend on food and clothes, on the annual two-day fair ("The female element naturally predominates in the patrons of this ancient local fixture," a commentator declared pompously), and the "Moving Pictures" on offer at the People's Palace. But work could take its toll. Lucy Evans, age 20, dropped dead one morning as she hurried to her factory job. Cause of death: exhaustion.
The suffering endured by so many bereaved and anxious women is mostly kept private. The story of Flossie Blake, age 23, is an exception. Her beloved brother William is called up, leaving her to run the family smallholding and care for their aged parents. Her hat is found floating on a pond: later her drowned body is recovered. Verdict: melancholia.
At the lower end of the social scale, there are the feckless ones, for whom male legislators had little sympathy. Mary Jacobs is caught stealing apples and fined one shilling. Her excuse that she was "tying corn late and had nothing for her children's Sunday dinner" does not wash with the magistrates: her husband is in France, and she would have been receiving Separation Allowance. An "incorrigible," Ellen Savidge is jailed for three months for stealing a navy blue silk blouse and a silver brooch. Or there is Mary Ann Bull, a travelling hawker, fined ten shillings for "using worse language than the local policeman had ever heard in the whole of his 20 years' experience."
We don't know how many attended the annual Woman's Suffrage Society meeting in June 1916, or whether they applauded the speaker, a Miss Richmond from New Zealand (where women had had the vote for 20 years), when she declared that "Woman has a perfection of her own to which she has not yet attained."
REMEMBERING THE DEAD
In his Parish Magazine of October 1914 the Reverend Lewis, gripped by the sanguine mood of the time, rejoices that "of our brave men as yet, thank God, none have been killed." By March 1915, just two soldiers from the town had died. On May 25th came the first of the few military burials in home soil, when Private Albert Taylor was laid to rest in the town cemetery. His hearse was followed by a long mourning cortege, blinds were drawn and the town hall flag hung at half-mast.
In November 1915, the newspapers published a plea from King George for more recruits, and around 500 more men from the town and district joined up. Conscription, which excluded farmers but not agricultural labourers, increased the tally in 1916. High levels of enlistment were something to be proud of. "Few towns of its size can compare with Crewkerne in the matter of recruiting," boasted a town Councillor.
But, by July 1917, Reverend Lewis is striking a different note: "Scarcely a week passes that we do not hear of another Crewkerne man who has made the great sacrifice." And he observes tragically that: "the streets and places where men foregather, formerly so thronged, are now so nearly silent." By September 1918, he is sounding desperate:"We may confidently hope that the vast American armies…will free the world from the nightmare which it has been enduring."
Thoughts of commemoration had been around from the start, and a War Memorial Committee was set up in 1917. It was agreed that the dead should not only be honoured by a monument, but remembered within a designated area of public amenity, to include up-to-date council-funded housing ("Homes for Heroes"), an avenue of trees, and recreation grounds to include a bowling green, tennis courts, a quiet garden for old folk and sandpits for toddlers. It was a remarkably imaginative scheme, and there was nothing like it anywhere else in the country.
After years of wrangling, outpourings of emotion, impressive dedication and funding raised from all sectors of the community, some at least of the original plans were fulfilled. The sandstone memorial – a cromlech with a statue of a helmeted soldier, and inscriptions round the base – was finally unveiled on 1st June 1922. The soldier, the houses and trees and open spaces are still there, at Severalls Park Avenue, West Crewkerne, as a unique testimonial to the town's enterprise. In June 2014, a re-dedication ceremony of the refurbished memorial was held on the site.
Last words from the Reverend Lewis, from a fundraising appeal booklet circulated in 1919, he writes:
"It is not enough that our young men should have proved themselves valiant in battle beyond all precedent, that our women, calm-eyed in their grief and anxiety, should have shouldered the heavy burden of their country's work…We want those who came after to say that their forefathers, having shown themselves great in the day of battle, were greater still in the days of peace that followed; setting themselves, in spite of war-weariness, with steadfast purpose, to solve the great problems of reconstruction."