Sunday, September 21, 2014

Report on St Albans at War 1914/5 Conference

A Full House at the Conference

St Albans
 at War

20 September 2014

Dagnal Street Baptist Chapel, St Albans.

Lady Verulam
This was an excellent conference, run by the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society, with interesting and informative speakers, who stuck well to time. I enjoyed it immensely, and had useful chats with other attendees during the breaks. There were many references to research which ties in with information already posted on the Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site and/or on this Newsletter  and where appropriate I have added relevant links.

The Conference was opened by Lady Verulam, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, who mentioned the recently issued DVD "A County at War, Hertfordshire." Copies of the DVD were available at the back of the hall - and were all sold over the lunch break!

Dr John Bourne
Dr John Bourne's talk was entitled "Britain on the Eve of War, 1914" described the social structure of Great Britain in 1914. The Industrial Revolution meant that we had become a basically urban oriented country, although the top occupations were domestic service, agriculture and coal mining. In many ways the armed forces were well prepared - particularly the Navy - who were expected to defend the trade routes across the Empire. The Army had been greatly improved after its failings had become apparent in the Boer War but was oriented towards colonial control. It lacked the heavy guns of the German Army - and the British Expeditionary Force consisted, in part, of the reserve divisions as the front line divisions were at posts throughout the Empire. He pointed out that before the war started Germany and the Ottomen Empire were our natural allies and we had more reasons to distrust the French and Russians. He also mentioned the roles of the Kaiser, Sir Edward Gray (Foreign Secretary) and Lord Kitchener.

Dr Mark Freeman
Dr Mark Freeman spoke on "St Albans: a City on the Cusp of War" and his talk contained some interesting figures on growth of the city  in the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries - with new industries and commuting following the advent of the railway and easier access to London.

Alan Wakefield
Several aspects of the talk "Saturday Night Soldiers - The St Albans Territorials 1908-15" by Alan Wakefield are relevant to this site. He pointed out that only one in three Territorial Force summer camps were at the sea side, but the Yeomanry, because of their strong links with the local gentry were able to arrange their other camps in of near Hertfordshire [see details].  He also showed a list of the sports placed by the St Albans half battery of the Hertfordshire RFA at Lydd - which was the camp I recorded when investigating the career of James Humphries.  I was delighted to see Alan make use of my picture of Territorial Force on parade outside the St Albans Town Hall and I will follow up several leads relating to the RFA Riding School at Bernards Heath.

Dr Daniel Nagel
St. Albans is twinned with the German town of Worms and Dr Daniel Nagel spoke about the attitude of the German people of Worms to the war. They saw the war as a defensive war and when it started there was no public enthusiasm for its. Once it got underway the blockade quickly led to severe food shortages and rationing. In later questions he said that the German railways also had problems in transporting coal and food, as the priority was moving the military and staff shortages, due to men joining the army, resulted in poor maintenance.

Gareth Hughes
I found Gareth Hughes's talk "The Army in St Albans" particularly interesting as it very much parallels my own research on nearby Hemel Hempstead when writing "The London Gunners come to Town." He pointed out in August 1914 that nine battalions of the Second London Division (17th-24th & 28th battalions) were based in the immediate St Albans area increasing the population of the area from 25,000 to 34,000 - although the 28th battalion (The Artists Rifles) moved to France in October 1914. After the London Division departed they were followed in turn by troops of the 60th, 54th and 59 Divisions. Gareth showed a map showing the currently believed positions of the Chalk Hill and Gorhambury firing ranges [see Chalk Hill Rifle Range] and discussed the recruitment of soldiers at St Albans in the first two years of the war - with a very significant peak in September 1914. For a better understanding of what happened in St Albans in 1914 from the point of view of the soldiers based there he strongly recommended "The Amateur Army", by Patrick MacGill who trained in the City with the London Irish Rifles.

Dr Julie Moore
There was more to interest me in Dr Julie Moores' talk on "Feeding the City." She started with a very relevant poem, Big Steamers written in 1911 by Rudyard Kipling about where much of the food eaten in England came from and ending with the verses:

"Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?"
"Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food." 

For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you'll starve!"

This linked her talk well with John Bourne's comments about the readiness of the British Navy, and Daniel Nagel's observations about the impact of food shortages in Germany, which ended up being blockaded. It is clear that events in St Albans were very similar to events I recorded in Hemel Hempstead in The London Gunners, with the papers reporting "no need to panic" when the war broke out, and everyone being asked to avoid waste, grow more vegetables, and encouraged to eat fish. I was intrigued by her references to the milk supply and Heath Farm Dairy and will be following this up further.

The Panel Discussion
Members of the SAHAAS Home Front Research Group
There was then a panel session "The Response of Citizens to the Challanges of Wartime." This was chaired by Bryan Hanlon and the five panalists Maggie Douglas, Barry Bateman, Patricia Broad, Anne Petrie and Ann Dean were members of the SAHAAS Home Front Research Group.

Many interesting stories came out and everyone was amused by Barry's story of how a couple tried to avoid having soldiers billeted in their house by saying their (non-existent) children had whooping cough.

Anne touched on matters which were often glossed over. When I wrote about the involvement of "The Fair Sex" I had not been able to find any detailed references to individual cases in the Hemel Hempstead Gazette. Anne was more lucky with the St Albans records - with Julia and Clara being sent to prison for neglecting the children while "entertaining" the troops. Of course something had to be done with their many children when their mothers were in custody - so the children were put in the workhouse.

Maggie spoke about how the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC) - the First World War equivalent to the Home Guard of the Second World War was organised. Pat looked at how businesses coped when many of their male employees went to war - or moved to better paid employment in munitions factories. Some took on more women and boys - but complained that it took two years to train a boy - and by the time he was fully trained he left to join the army. While there was an allowance for the families left at home when the breadwinner joined the army, some families found the loss of the breadwinner very difficult. Some employers, such as Lord Grimston, paid an allowance to the families of leaving employees at the beginning of the war - but as the war continued, and more and more men left, such support was no longer practical.

At many stages during the conference there were mentions of the local paper, The Herts Advertiser, as a vitally important source of information. One reference was particularly relevant to the venue. Troops had been billetted in the Dagnal Street Chapel in 1914 - sleeping on the bare floor. Laura Gibbs (great neice of my ancestor John Gibbs) made mattresses filled with paper from the Herts Advertiser printing works (which were founded by her grandfather).

To conclude, the conference was well organised, had good speakers, and I really enjoyed it. It is clear that the teamwork going into the Society's research projects is of a very high quality and I can't wait until the findings are published in book form. In fact my only disappointment on the day was that I got so involved in discussions in the room set aside for lunch-time sandwiches that I missed almost all the Lunchtime Music Programme in the conference hall - including Don Gibbon playing a WW1 medley on the piano. However I just made it in time to hear a little of  Mary Cook playing on the organ.

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