Will you make a fourth?, 1915 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13635)

Nottingham in WW1

Background & Context

by Miriam Jackson

1914

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When WW1 broke out following the assasination of Duke Ferdinand on June 28th 1914, the average person in the street was not expecting war, and certainly the UK was not prepared for war. The Country and Nottingham were more concerned about Votes for Women and Irish Independence and the newspapers reflected these concerns. There was also social and industrial unrest seeking better living and working conditions and pay.

In Nottingham the visit of the King and Queen on June 24th was the summer’s major preocupation with crowds in the Market Square to see them.

Nottingham visit of the King and Queen on June 24th 1914
Nottingham visit of the King and Queen on June 24th 1914

Immediately beforehand a suffragette Eileen Casey, was arrested with explosives on her and she was charged with attempting to blow up the King; bringing the issue of ‘Votes for Women’ very much to the attention of Nottingham’s citizen’s, whatever their personal views. She appeared at the Guildhall where other local suffragettes protested, and she was sent to Holloway prison where she went on hunger strike.

On July 28th 3 Irish volunteers were killed when English troops opened fire during protests in Dublin.

Protests in Dublin over Home Rule
Protests in Dublin over Home Rule

Another focus, at the very time war was declared, was the Bank Holiday then in the first days of August, one of the few times when workers had time off work to enjoy themselves. What did people do at this time to have fun and enjoy themselves? Leisure activities included walking, promenading, visiting parks and pleasure gardens eg Forest Recreation Ground, Black Horse Tea Garden (Grovenor on Mansfield Road), Corporation Oaks, the Arboretum, the Embankment, Colwick and Wilford. Cafes such as Morley’s, the Mikado, and Lloyds (34 Long Row) were popular as were the many pubs, bars and Music Halls eg Durham Ox (now the Bodega) St George’s Hall (Parliament St) The Blue Bell (Parliament St), Barrasfords (Near Theatre Square) The Gaiety (Market Street) and Talbot’s (current Yates). Cinemas, of which there were several in and around the city – Electric Palace, Kinema, New Electra, Parliament Picture Palace, Skala, the Picture House on Long Row (still there above Ladbrokes) were increasingly popular, and additionally halls such as the Albert Hall and the Mechanics also showed films. There were also several theatres eg Grand (Hyson Green), Hippodrome, Empire, Globe and Theatre Royal bringing nationally renowned performers for plays, pantomimes, musicals, variety shows and concerts. People also went further afield taking special rail excursions and trips to the coast and countryside.

Others went to sporting events eg County Cricket championships at Trent Bridge or took part in amateur sport with football, hockey, cycling, tennis, swimming, rowing and boxing all having dedicated participants, largely men but also a smaller group of women. There were many clubs and societies eg Harmonic, Camera, Automobile, Pigeon, Nottingham Society of Artists. Yet others enjoyed gardening and growing roses and prize vegetables. The Mechanics had a programme of talks and lectures eg one by Marie Corelli a popular novelist of the day. There were many activities linked to churches and workplaces eg choirs – St John’s Carrington, Glee Club singers, Philharmonic and bands eg Police Band, Bestwood Colliery Band, Banjo band. Boots, a prominent employer had a range of clubs and societies of its own and collieries often had sports teams and bands. Young people also had many clubs and activities with Boy’s Clubs and brigades, YMCA, YWCA, Scouts, Girl Guides and girl’s clubs. Nottingham then as now, knew how to enjoy itself.

The declaration of war on August 4th cut through all of that. The Government had been watching what was happening in Europe and when Germany invaded neutral Belgium, the UK declared war on Germany. On 5th August the Proclamation of Mobilisation was made, followed on 6th by Kitchener’s Call to Arms – the UK had only a small standing army so immediately reservists were recalled. On August 8th the Defence of the Realm – DORA – restrictions were introduced and then on August 11th war was declared on Austria/ Hungary, Germany’s allies and by August 12th the British Expeditionary Force were already arriving in France singing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ as they disembarked.

Drill Hall Nottingham
Drill Hall Nottingham

Very quickly things in Nottingham began to change - with reservists and territorials called up and many soldiers billeted in various large halls or Drill Halls such as The Mechanics, Victoria Hall, Picture Palace, and the football ground. Trinity Square recruitment office was busy with men volunteering and the Nottingham branch of the Red Cross immediately appealed for help and for nurses as they started to set up Voluntary Aid Detachment hospitals – the first at Trent Bridge Pavillion - and to train those who volunteered – mainly young middle class women who shifted their involvement in philanthropic and for some suffrage activities, to war work indeed all of the women’s suffrage organisations applied themselves to patriotic and war.

Men volunteering WW1 Nottingham
Men volunteering WW1 Nottingham

The speed with which this happened showed that there had clearly been some pre-planning by the Government and the Military, as otherwise the use of various buildings, transport, and equipment etc so quickly simply would not have been possible.

The arrival of Belgian refugees in Nottingham was another early sign of the war; and quickly an appeal was made for funds to help support, feed and house them. Various factories were quickly affected both by a lack of continental supplies or by skilled men leaving, either being called up or volunteering. Taken together some factories reduced working hours or were forced to close. Indeed unemployment was at a seriously high level and so the Council devised a programme of public building of libraries and schools to help with this. Tram, bus, train and postal services, all started to experience gaps in their workforces. Food supplies too and therefore prices also were quickly hit. Appeals for soldiers, nurses, equipment, volunteers and fundraisers became regular events.

Market Square during WW1 Nottingham
Market Square during WW1 Nottingham

Some working class women very quickly found themselves in financial need as their reservist husbands were recalled to the army and they were given only a small amount of money to feed their families. A Relief Office initially on South Parade and then in larger premises on Castle Gate dealt with 1300 each week and many free school meals were given out.

Meanwhile the theatres and music halls were busy often including the singing of patriotic songs, cinemas too were very popular with some screenings used to raise funds for war relief, as well as showing footage of the war and rallying men to join up. Sporting events began to be affected with cricket, rowing, horse racing, hockey all suspended, football continued as a morale booster, but later that too would be affected with regional matches and not leagues and competitions taking place and often as fundraisers. Amateur sport similarly was affected by the exodus of young men. Pubs and cafes were open but delivery shortages began to affect them and resulting price rises began to affect their customers. Concerts, lectures and societies continued as did chuch related activities but all were affected by requisitioning of buildings, raising money for the war and shortages of supplies and men.

Goose Fair during WW1 Nottingham
Goose Fair during WW1 Nottingham

October saw Goose Fair go ahead despite the Council trying to cancel it, but October also saw the first death and funeral of a soldier who had been living in Lenton, and injured soldiers started to be brought into the railway stations and to the VAD hospitals.

VAD Hospital 1915
VAD Hospital 1915

However everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas and so made an effort to help; but as the new year started there was a recognition that the war would continue.

1915

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Nottingham Guardian’s motto for the year was ‘Be strong’ and its people certainly needed to be so.

Early in January DORA regulations were brought in immediately impacting leisure activities with reduced hours for licensed premises, no buying of rounds or treating, beer was weakened and lights were to be dimmed at night. There were objections that other major cities were not being regulated so strictly but as many troops were to be stationed in Nottingham DORA was closely enforced. Everyone must have felt these restrictions which hit all entertainment and leisure venues which had to close early.

The year was spent fully gearing up for the war with an emphasis on further recruitment of men to fight and on the building and contracting of factories to supply better and more artillery and other necessary equipment and also cigarettes. Many Nottingham factories switched to making respirators, and items of uniform, and new factories at King’s Meadow and Chilwell produced shells, with many working class women moving to work there being paid about twice as much for working in munitions than in hosiery or lace factories

Many wounded arrived necessitating more and more hospital beds, news from the various battle fronts wasn’t good, food and coal prices went on rising as supplies worsened. In May news of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U boat , killing a Carrington man, led to riots and attacks on German shops. In May also the War Service for Women Movement was set up in Nottingham placing women with various employers- a number of women were now conductresses on trams, window cleaners (wearing trousers) land workers, bank clerks, nurses, respirator makers, crane drivers, shell fillers as well as hosiery and lace factory workers etc. eg 12/6 in Boots whereas £2 in Army Pay Corps.

Women in Nottingham during WW1
Women working as window cleaners and on the Nottingham tram system

On July 17th in London the Government working with the key militant suffrage organisation – The Women’s Social and Political Union, demonstrated for the women’s ‘Right to Serve’, helping propel women into a variety of roles which brought higher wages than before the war, although long hours, higher prices, DORA restrictions and depressing news and in any case these changes were seen as only ‘for the duration’ after which things would return to normal!

From July men and women aged 15 – 55 had to register at the Mechanics, this was seen as a necessary preliminary to conscription and inevitably wasn’t popular. The August Bank Holiday was more subdued but rail excursions to the coast and countryside were still popular as were fund raising concerts and local sports matches. Goose Fair was suspended by the Council in October and many cinema screenings were used to either raise funds or recruit soldiers and at Christmas with food and fuel up in price, travel and lighting restrictions it was a ‘dull’ time. The panto however remained popular as did a Boxing Day match between Sheffield and Nottingham Forest attracting 10,000 people.

1916

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The country was finally able to field a continental sized army having recruited and trained 2,500,000 men. Knowing this would need to be maintained and as volunteers had begun to dry up given the horrendous news from the front, conscription was introduced, despite many objections. A Tribunal was also set up in Nottingham to investigate all those seeking exemption from military service. Theatre raids were made to check out if any of the cast were evading military service, and the first prosecution under DORA for ‘treating’ was made.

In March soldiers from both the Robin Hoods and the Sherwood Foresters were sent to deal with the Easter Rising in Dublin. Due to their inexperience in live situations, 3 officers and 15 men were killed – this on top of the dreadful figures from the Battle of the Somme, must have been very depressing.

Raleigh switched from making cycles to munitions mainly made by women and with the factory complete at Chilwell women were also taken on initially as crane drivers, then as munitions workers, filling shells. By April they were producing 7000 daily although the leathal TNT turned them yellow and earned then the nickname the Chilwell Canaries. Officers were appointed to help maintain the physical, mental and moral health of the girls and sport such as women’s football became popular, attracting large crowds to watch the matches.

There were fears about women drinking and about ‘loose’ women though little evidence to justify these fears. In March the first woman taxi driver Alice Astill started work and caused quite a stir.

In addition to all of the restrictions and shortages an entertainment tax was now introduced further limiting leisure options while raising income for the Government. Cinema screenings of fighting in France and the destruction of a German Blockhouse were shown at the Picture House on Long Row. In May, Claire Birkin organised a matinee for injured soldiers at the Hippodrome with Miss Denise Orme and Mr John Clarke.

Zeppelin Raid Damage Nottingham 1916
Zeppelin Raid Damage Nottingham 1916

Both the Whit holiday and the August Bank Holidays were postponed and people were encouraged to continue to work with 11/4 payment. Various ‘weeks’ were held to raise funds – war savings, tanks, weapons, gun week, and appeals for soldier comforts and christmas gifts were made and while these would have provide some leisure acrtivities the emphasis was on raising funds. In September to add further to the grim reality of life a zeppelin raid led to 3 fatalities and damage on Awkwright and Newthorpe Streets.

In November the Nottingham Society of Artists held an Art Fair again to raise funds and at Christmas there were various festivities and meals for the poor and wounded and at the theatres, Dick Whittington was at the Grand with all parts played by women and at the Theatre Royal it was Little Miss Muffett with Mariott Edgar as the Queen.

1917

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People in Nottingham must have felt very low at this point in the war with no real prospect of victory or of the war being over, and the situation with all it’s restrictions, loss and suffering simply seeming endless.

Various women organisations and their Nottingham branches had been established and the range of job opportunities opening up to young women of both middle and working classes was growing. It is debateable as to whether they felt optimistic and positive about this as they were working very long hours,10 or 12 hour shifts, with many shortages and high prices and most families had been affected by death or disability. The introduction of a bill to give all men over 21 and women over 30 the vote, would undoubtedly been welcomed but surely must have angered those women under 30 who were doing work crucial to the war effort.

There were very serious food shortages largely due to the torpoedoing of merchant ships by German submarines. The Food Controller from the Ministry of Food introduced general rationing and the Nottingham Land Cultivation committee put more and more land to cultivation and a Salvation Army communal kitchen was set up in Snienton. A cooking exhibition, and talks in theatres and schools also sought to help people cope with how to cook with the few ingredients available.

More hospital beds were again needed as more injured men arrived and money for the war was desperately needed and so a New War Bond was issued leading to the main Post Office being very busy. A hugely significant event was the decision in April by America to join the allies and enter the war agaist Germany as a result of the loss of many merchant and passenger ships. This undoubtedly lifted spirits but nevertheless things were grim with social unrest and many strikes for higher wages leading to a Government Commission being set up to deal with this. A further blow was when Nottingham heard of the death of Albert Ball, a hero, fighter pilot and MC who had received the freedom of Nottingham; huge crowds attended his funeral.

Funeral of Fighter Pilot Albert Ball 1917
Funeral of Fighter Pilot Albert Ball 1917

Fundraising events, fetes, exhibitions, rallys and the Grand Patriotic Fair all sought to boost morale and raise money but at August Bank Holiday many people headed for the coast which was said to have not been so full for 20 years – clearly people wanted to escape their everyday life. At Christmas panto remained as popular as ever and There’s a Girl for Every Soldier was in 18 pantos across the country but at the Theatre Royal they performed a revue ‘Bric a Brac’ instead of their usual panto. The annual appeal for christmas gifts for the troops raised £8000, County and Forest football teams played each other, several hundred servicemen’s children were entertained at the Hippodrome and all of the VAD hospital held festivities.

1918

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The year began with yet more bad news when it was learned that a boat bound for Egypt carrying a party of Red Cross nurses, including 2 from Nottingham, - Catherine Ball and Maud Brown, daughter of the city engineer -had been sunk in the Mediterranean. A memorial service was held for them at St Peter’s. Ironically on 17th January the bill giving all men over 21 and women over 30 the vote, became law – these nurses most under 30, had given their lives for their country and yet still would not be able to vote for it’s Government.

Nottingham communal kitchens 1918
Nottingham communal kitchens 1918

Food shortages continued with lengthy queues for essential items and the country worried about being starved into submission. It was also a very cold winter, coal was in short supply, as well as food and this lead to angry scenes in the Market Place. The first national communal kitchen was set up in the Prudential building offering nourishing food at low prices; and other communal kitchens quickly followed.

The Market Place was also the site of various fund raising events such as Tank Week and the Patriotic Fair.

Nottingham Tank Week 1918
Nottingham Tank Week 1918

Troop numbers were low due to heavy casualties on the Western Front and there was further ‘combing out’ of various industries for younger and older man to join the forces. The numbers of wounded arriving again increased and in April a further VAD hospital for Officers was opened in Lamcote House in Radcliffe on Trent the home of Claire Birkin, president of the Red Cross in Nottingham.

A further VAD hospital on the Ropewalk provided another 60 beds and Ellerslie House on Gregory Boulevard opened for paralysed soldiers. By way of light relief in April some people had free fun skating on the Granthan canal.

VAD Hosptial Nottingham 1918
VAD Hosptial Nottingham 1918

The offensive on the Western Front led to an appeal for munitions workers to work through the Easter holiday and to increase production which they did, breaking records for the number of shells filled in one day. However on June 1st there was a devastating explosion at Chilwell munitions factory killing 134 people and injuring others. Among the dead were 25 women, and perhaps more as 34 unidentified bodies were buried in 2 mass graves at Attenborough cemetery.

Chilwell Munitions Factory Destroyed Nottingham 1918
Chilwell Munitions Factory Destroyed in Nottingham 1918

An inquiry was set up but did not identify the cause or make any recommendations, and the pressure was to get back to production as soon as possible.

June saw an outbreak of flu which though mild initially, returned in October with more illness and death as people were already weakened by food shortages etc. In August a new Education Act came into force raising the school leaving age to 14- which was in contrast to the many school age children who had been on a shortened school day and had helped in various factories and with agriculture during the war years. There were strikes at a number of collieries and from rail and postal workers and the wounded and death toll on the war front continued to rise.

Armistice Celebrations Nottingham 1918
Armistice Celebrations Nottingham 1918

However, September saw the allies break through the Hindenburg line and begin to advance with fighting moving out of the trenches and into the open and unexpectedly the advance quickened. This was echoed in gains in Palestine against the Turks and led to Bulgaria asking for an armistice and the surrender of Mesopotamia and Austria and this in turn led to an armistice being declared on November 11th with huge relief and celebration in Nottingham and elsewhere.

Of course it took a while for things to return to anything like normal with wounded still arriving and many injured needing care for many months and even years afterwards. The first returning soldiers arrived in mid December by which time the Government had already issued details about the demobilisation of those – particularly women- from the factories detailing benefits they would receive.

5370 men had been killed and many more had been injured or disabled, some 1000+ people had died from flu. People had worked hard and for long hours with little to eat, few had not been touched by death or injury of someone close. While there were celebrations and memorials and the closure of hospitals and various factories, the overwhelmingly feeling must have been of relief and gratitude for still being alive and a hope for a better future that could put all of that behind them.

© Miriam Jackson 2017


  1. Main Image: Will you make a fourth?, 1915 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13635)
  2. The Great War & Nottinghamshire – Nottingham Archives
  3. Nottingham in the Great War – Carol Lovejoy Edwards
  4. Nottingham at War 1914 – 1919 – Peter Foster
  5. The Show Must Go On – Jon Mullen
  6. Forgotten Voices of the Great war – Max Arthur
  7. Fighting on the Home Front - Kate Adey
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