Southwell in the First World War

Photo:'H' Company marching to Southwell Station - 7th August 1914

'H' Company marching to Southwell Station - 7th August 1914

Howard Barrett, by kind permission of Peter Cant

Photo:Burgage Manor Hospital, May 1915

Burgage Manor Hospital, May 1915

By Alfred Loughton, with the kind permission of the Dean & Chapter, Southwell Minster

Photo:Victory Clebrations in SOuthwell 1919

Victory Clebrations in SOuthwell 1919

By Alfred Loughton, with the kind permission of the Dean & Chapter, Southwell Minster

An Overview

By Mike Kirton



The summer of 1914 in Southwell had got off to a good start. In late May there had been a successful attempt to revive the traditional Southwell Fair. Over two nights there had been a display of motor cars, a cakewalk, bread making competitions, steam roundabouts and the usual side shows. The following month Mr Ginnett’s Circus, featuring Mona Conner, ‘the finest bareback rider in the country’, made one of its regular visits to the town. All seemed well with the world.

In mid-July the local Territorial Force, together with members of the National Reserve and the British Red Cross, accompanied by Southwell Brass Band, paraded from the Drill Hall, via Easthorpe, to the Minster for the annual Church Parade. Two weeks later the Territorials, led by Captain Becher and Lieutenant Handford, had been waved off from Southwell Station for their journey to Hunmanby for the start of their summer camp. Little did they know that the crisis that was rapidly developing in Europe was to evolve into the Great War. Their annual camp was disbanded as the army mobilised.

Over the next four years around 650 men from Southwell joined the army to fight for their country, 108 failed to return and many more were wounded.  Life, as the people of Southwell knew it, was to change for ever.

[See Photo Gallery - Men of the 8th Battalion Sherwood Foresters marching to Southwell Station - 7th August 1914.]

Local families and businesses had to get used to the menfolk being away for an indeterminate period.  One employer, in particular, E Carey & Sons Ltd lace makers, had to cope with an immediate loss of a quarter of its workforce who were members of the local territorial force, the 8th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters who were on active service.  As the weeks went by more men volunteered and the following year conscription was introduced and men were spread right across the services.  There were also a number of men who were already part of the regular army and involved in the disasters that befell the B.E.F. in 1914.  The women of the town, together with early school leavers, were quickly asked to fill in for absent servicemen. 

As the territorials went off for training the local branch of the Red Cross received orders to mobilize, however, they were told not to leave their situations and places of business until further orders were received.  Arrangements were made for 60 beds to be made available for the sick and wounded.  Mr W.N. Hicking (later Sir William) of Brackenhurst Hall made Burgage Manor available and provision was made at the Bishop’s Manor and the Grammar School, if needed.  It was to be April 1915 before Burgage Manor was put into use.

Within a month of the outbreak of war the National Reserve commenced serious training and by the end of September their ranks had swelled to 95, with 11 already joining the Regulars and Territorials.  At the same time the need for more horses at the front meant that the War Office were requisitioning horses from local traders who relied upon them for hauling delivery carts.  All this adding difficulty to the daily lives of the traders and their customers.

The early days of the war saw many Belgian refugees arriving in the country in need of care and support.  In September 1914 the Newark Advertiser published an appeal for food, clothing and lodgings for the Belgians.  The town reacted positively and a month later the Degroote family had arrived from Ostend, having escaped with others in a fleet of 40 fishing boats.  They were met at Southwell railway station and taken to a house in the town.  Others followed and Southwell people held a number of fund raising events to provide essentials for them.  By the end of December the town was hosting 26 Belgian refugees.

Fund raising in the town became a regular feature and in October 1914 a ‘smoking concert’ was held at the Admiral Rodney to raise funds for the Sherwood Foresters.  By this time the reality of war was sinking in as the Advertiser published regular letters and reports from the front.  On the 25th November news of the first death in action came with the notification of the loss of Private Sidney Deeley of the Grenadier Guards.  This early death had not discouraged the ‘notables’ in the town encouraging men of military age to volunteer. A recruiting drive was led by Archdeacon Wild, the rector of Southwell, in late December and it was reported that it was well attended and there was much enthusiasm.  The Church played a leading role in supporting the troops and a roll of honour was established in the Minster.  The bishop of Southwell played a very active part and over the period of the war visited the front on several occasions.

There are winners and losers in all conflicts and one of the beneficiaries was the local businessman Mr J. H. Kirkby who ran a food store in the town.  He obtained a contract from the War Office to supply 5,000 loaves a day to the army camp at Clipstone.  This was an enormous contract for a small business and involved him investing in new equipment for both baking and delivering the bread.  All this with many of his employees called up for military service.  Their places would have been taken by women from the town as well as men who were too old to serve.  Kirkby’s sold everything from bread, ‘Prime Yorkshire Ham’, Stilton Cheese, bottled beer, stout and ‘Devonshire Cyder’, to clover and mangel seeds.

The Advertiser continued with news from the front and published many letters from soldiers, including a Prisoner of War that illustrated the on-going support from families and friends:

LETTER FROM A PRISONER OF WAR.            Sergeant W. Robinson, of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, who was captured by the Germans on October 20th, writes to his parents in Southwell, from Hamelyn Weser, Hanover, under date Jan. 20th, and which arrived in Southwell on February 23rd, says: “I am quite well, and have received all the parcels and boxes you have sent me. We were not allowed to smoke until Christmas Day, then we had a regular “beano.” Don’t forget to send me some more cigarettes, they will come through all right. There are eight of us for the parcels when they arrive, and we always share up. E. Castle is with us. We are only allowed to write one postcard a month.”


Meanwhile the need for more recruits continued and frequent recruiting drives were held.  In the first instance volunteers and reservists were examined in the Drill Hall by Dr J.F.D. Willoughby, a local medical practitioner.  Dr Willoughby also oversaw the medical treatment of the wounded soldiers at Burgage Manor Hospital that opened in April 1915 with the first 15 men being transferred from Lincoln hospital.  It seems that Burgage Manor was used mainly for convalescence and was staffed by local V.A.D., led by Miss E.M. Small (she was awarded the O.B.E. in 1919).  The group photograph [see Photo Gallery] shows Dr Willoughby seated on the front row with Miss Small; in the centre back row.  Alfred Merryweather (back row, second from the right), of the well-known local family, was a V.A.D. at the hospital prior to joining the Royal Artillery.  The local community took the wellbeing of the convalescing troops to heart and organized many fund raising events for their benefit. 

A national initiative for the collection of eggs for the hospitalized men was adopted in Southwell and run by Miss Fairbrother.  She was relentless in her efforts and organized teams of children to collect the donated eggs within Southwell and District.  When the local demand had been satisfied surplus eggs were sent off to a central depot with the help of transport supplied by Merryweathers.  In the first year 28,958 eggs were collected, with a grand total of 84,305 by 1919.  The precise number is a testament to Miss Fairbrother’s accounting!

With casualties mounting the need for hospital beds increased dramatically and in 1917 William Hicking allowed his home, Brackenhurst Hall, to be used.  His wife became the commandant.  A further military hospital had been established at the old fever hospital on Galley Hill and men were also housed in the ballroom of the Admiral Rodney public house.  Ladies in the town doubled their efforts and volunteered to give craft lessons to the patients as well as continuing with fundraising.  In addition frequent entertainments were put on for the men.  In 1915 a detachment of signallers were stationed in the town for training purposes and Trebeck Hall was opened as a soldiers’ club.  This also catered for Royal Engineers that were stationed at Norwood Park.  The Trebeck Hall club allowed them facilities to write letters and play games as well as having refreshments of a non-alcoholic nature available.  Lady friends were permitted.  A nominal charge of 6d for 3 months membership was charged and by mid-June membership had reached 200.  In addition the Wesleyan School and the Westgate Institute were made available, along with the Minster Institute’s billiard table.

As the war moved into its second year there were constant reports of growing casualties on all fronts and letters from serving men were published in the Advertiser. News of those killed clearly had an impact on the townspeople and the Minster frequently held memorial services.  Mid-October 1915 was a particularly tragic time as members of the 8th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters suffered dreadfully in a battle at the Hohenzollern Redoubt (near Loos).  The short period of 14th – 16th October saw 7 officers and 35 other ranks killed and 14 missing, who were subsequently reported as killed-in-action.  Of these, 7 were from Southwell including the two officer sons of Dr Handford who were shot within hours of each other whilst leading attacks.  In the same battle their brother-in-law, Major John Pickard Becher, D.S.O., was seriously wounded and died on 1st January 1916.  These were dreadful days for the town, which had lost heroic men but, as in communities throughout the Empire, life carried on.

Notwithstanding the tragedies the government kept tight control and one measure was the Defence of the Realm Act, 1914, which empowered the ‘competent military authority’ to issue orders prohibiting the sale of alcoholic liquor outside the hours of noon to 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  In 1916 Mrs Maria Clay of Kirklington Road appeared before the local Petty Sessions for giving ale to two soldiers from Burgage Manor Hospital outside the permitted hours.  The local policeman had spotted her daughter taking two bottles of beer into the house and observed the two soldiers drinking at the table.  Mrs Clay had suggested that the policeman might join them, but he declined.  She was fined 20s under the Defence of the Realm Act and could have been fined up to £100 or 6 months hard labour.  Mrs Clay was warned that any further offence would be severely dealt with.  Rationing also became an issue.

In May 1918 the Newark Advertiser published the following article that illustrated the complexity of the food control regulations and local confusion about how they should be interpreted and applied. 

J. J. Bates, the grocer, answered a summons at the instance of the Southwell Food Control Committee that he ‘did unlawfully supply to the Hon. Mrs Handford, of Southwell, for consumption certain bacon not in accordance with the directions prescribed by the Food Controller’.  Mr J. Ellis, the Food Controller’s executive officer, produced a copy of the regulations which provided for 5 ozs of bacon per coupon. Mary Ellen Knowles, cook to the Hon. Mrs Handford, said that on May 2nd she ordered 2 lbs. of sausages at Mr Bates’s grocery shop, left six coupons, and asked that the balance for the coupons should be made up with bacon. Besides the sausages, 2½ lbs. of bacon were sent, and Mrs Handford thereupon returned 2lbs. of the bacon.

 Mr Bates represented himself and cross-examined Miss Knowles. She said that the bacon was supplied from his shop and from nowhere else.  Mr Bates, in his own defence, pointed out that there were two kinds of sausages, for one of which double the amount of meat was allowed per coupon. ‘It was this latter kind of sausage that Mrs Handford had.’ ‘Mr Metcalfe pointed out that after allowance for the sausages the coupons remaining were sufficient for 10 ounces, whereas he understood that the amount delivered was 40 ounces.’   Mr Bates had to agree with this, but pleaded mitigation. He had read the regulations as saying that one coupon carried an entitlement to 10 ounces of bacon whereas he understood now that one card carrying two coupons qualified for 10 ounces, or five ounces per coupon. A newspaper (the Newark Advertiser no doubt) was then produced which ran a report that the Newark executive officer (Mr Ellis’s counterpart) had stated that until further notice the value of one coupon would be 10 ounces of bacon.  Mr Ellis thereupon told the bench that ‘Newark has no jurisdiction in Southwell’ whereupon Mr Bates said, not unreasonably, that he had assumed that ‘the law for Newark would be the law for Southwell’. From the bench, Mr Merryweather asked, ‘Do they vary?’, to which Mr Ellis replied that, ‘There is only one law throughout the country.’ Mr Bates, to laughter in court, said that he could not make bricks without straw, and, extending the biblical analogy, said that, ‘The Israelites passed through the Red Sea, but he had been entangled in a sea of red tape.’

      For what the bench described as a technical offence, Bates was fined 30s.  It was the first case of its kind to be heard by the Southwell magistrates.

Throughout the war opportunities to re-affirm commitment to their country came along and on 24th May 1916 the Advertiser reported that Empire Day was celebrated with ‘patriotic fervour’.  The pupils of the National School were very much involved in the event and during the day were taught the significance of the Empire.  A march to the recreation ground took place where national and patriotic songs were sung along with recitations and country dancing.

The effect of military service on local businesses was illustrated in June 1916 when the manager of E. Carey & Sons Ltd at the Southwell Tribunal requested the exemption of 17 of his men from conscription.  The manager, Mr T.D. Partington, told the tribunal that since the outbreak of war from a staff of 147 the company now only employed 67.  The cases of the 17 were put back until October (it is not known what happened in October).  Mr J.H. Kirkby appealed on behalf of 9 employees (at least 17 had been drafted into the army a year earlier).  As with Carey’s a number had been killed or wounded – Carey’s lost 16 men during the war.  It was possible for women to fill the gaps at Kirkby’s, but less likely at Carey’s as the work required lengthy training.

As the cost of the war escalated Southwell, along with the rest of the country, launched a formal ‘War Savings Campaign.  The launch meeting was addressed by Captain J.R. Starkey and the Revd W.J. Conybeare, the rector of Southwell.  The general public was invited to purchase war vouchers and pay in contributions of 6d upwards.  In addition War Loan was heavily advertised and purchases of £5 upwards were encouraged. In spite of the need for austerity, with the approach of Christmas 1916 a series of concerts took place to raise funds for the troops and to entertain the patients of the local military hospitals.  There were also reports of letters from serving men thanking the town for sending food parcels to augment their army rations.  Such events took place for the duration.

Despite the war, life in the schools carried on much as it had done pre-war, except that the eligible male teachers were quickly called up, if they hadn’t already volunteered.  The Grammar School (Minster School) engaged its first female teacher, who only lasted a month, but was soon replaced by another woman graduate.  The teaching staff was supplemented by two middle-aged clergymen and a sergeant from the Sherwood Foresters who was engaged to teach drill.  It is thought that he had had been discharged following being wounded.  Whilst the school, at this time, only had 60/80 pupils (numbers reduced during the war) the Southwellian Magazine of 1919 listed 142 names of former pupils who had joined up during the conflict, of these 23 are known to have died.  They were not all from Southwell families as the Grammar school took boarders.

During the course of the war a number of pupils left education early in order to take up positions in family businesses to cover for their fathers and employees who had been called up.  This was also a feature of the National School, which, in particular, was often approached by farmers to release pupils for work.  The authorities were prepared to release 12/13 year old boys for essential work.  The log book of the National provides an overview of life in the school and of its weekly briefing of boys on the progress of the war.  Whilst some tragedies were relayed to them, such as the drowning of Lord Kitchener in 1916, there is no evidence that they were briefed about the appalling loss of life in the Somme offensive or the various battles around Ypres.  Much of the news was suppressed by the censors and as the war progressed servicemen were prevented from relaying other than basic news about themselves in their letters.

As the war continued food supplies became difficult and the National School responded to the crisis by extending its garden and allowing pupils to grow vegetables that could be taken home.  They also organized blackberry picking for a jam factory in Mansfield, all this to help the war effort.

Childhood diseases were frequently mentioned in the school logs and it was not unusual for the medical officer to close the schools for a week or two to allow infections such as measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, etc. to work themselves out.  As the war was reaching its conclusion the world-wide influenza epidemic reached the town, many events were cancelled as people fell ill and there were a number of deaths, although the statistics have not been found.

The war had cost the lives of 108 or so men from the town and countless more returned wounded and shell shocked to an uncertain future.  Little provision was made for them as there had been no precedent for such a traumatic conflict.  During 1918 the notables in the town started to discuss the possibility of building some form of permanent memorial to the men of the town.  Various grandiose schemes were suggested and after a lot of discussion it was decided to build a memorial hall and possibly alms houses.  A cost of £5,000 was estimated and fund raising began.  In the event £466 19s 0d was raised, which was only sufficient to build the memorial that now stands on the Burgage Green.  The war-weary inhabitants did not seem to have the enthusiasm to build an appropriate tribute – post-war austerity was probably as much to blame.

Southwell Minster had been the spiritual focus for the men of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, being their diocesan cathedral.  As so many men were still serving abroad after the Armistice – some still fighting in Russia and others cleaning up the battlefields and maintaining the peace - a final act of remembrance did not take place until 5th July 1919.  This was a big occasion mixed with sadness and relief as people from across the two counties converged upon the town, along with representatives of the various services, the service was led by the bishop of Southwell.  The photograph shows something of a carnival atmosphere.

[See Photo Gallery.]

This was the end of the worst four years that people could remember.  Those left behind had risen to the challenge of supporting the home front.  In particular the women of the town had nursed the troops, raised funds for their comforts and organised concerts to entertain them.  Others had filled the gaps in local businesses, including children who had sacrificed the last year or so of their education to commence work.  It was to be a few years before women gained full recognition for their efforts and being given the vote.

Extracts from Southwell at War 1914-1919.





This page was added by Mike Kirton on 24/07/2014.

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