Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A North Staffordshire Christmas in hard times -1916

Christmas 2012 will be a very difficult time for many in North Staffordshire. For some in our area they will be battling the continuing recession, some will have lost their jobs, others will have had work hours cut and pay reduced. People will also feel the impact of price rises and their feelings of misery will be compounded by the present cold snap.. A general feeling will be that this Christmas will be one to be endured, could any Christmas be worse than the one that we will face soon?

The purpose of this article is to shine a light on a Christmas that was far bleaker in terms of circumstance than the present festive season. Christmas 1916 occurs, although people would have been unaware of this, right in the middle of the First World War. 1916 was an appalling year; over 1 million soldiers had died in the epic battles of the Western Front. At Verdun and at the Somme the Armies of Britain, France and Germany had been involved in titanic struggles. In the case of the Somme began on the 1st July 1916 over 60,000 British soldiers were killed and wounded on the opening day of the Battle. The Battle of the Somme would peter out into a bloody stalemate in November with very few of the overall objectives reached a sense of futility was beginning to settle in the minds of some. In Ireland the Irish Republican Army rose in rebellion in Easter 1916 which ultimately see the beginning of the long struggle for Irish self-determination. In other theatres of war involving British War there were no great advances. In the Middle East the Turkish Army was mounting a stiff resistance to the British Army and a similar picture emerges in Greece and Italy. The successful German U Boat campaign had sunk many British Merchantmen and by the summer it was reckoned that there was only 6 weeks grain supply.  The Royal Navy had failed to destroy the Imperial German Navy at the only great naval battle of the war- Jutland. Britain’s Allies were also coming under pressure. The French had taken huge losses that year, The Russians were on the brink of collapse and America was yet to enter the war.

The principle domestic news during December was the replacement of Herbert Asquith the Prime Minister of the last 8 years with the more dynamic David Lloyd George who was thought to bring more drive and action into the prosecution of the war. The Sentinel approved of the choice but the events that crowded Lloyd George’s in tray were as daunting as Winston Churchill’s 14 years later.

Christmas 1916 was beset with food shortages, bad news from the front and the worst weather for over 30 years. It must have been a miserable time. The people of the area were now engaged in a total war and news from the front was eagerly sought. That December Burslem Picture Palace showed stirring film of the recent successful defence of Verdun as well as the ground breaking film record of the Battle of the Somme. The iconic clip of film that showed a British Tommy carrying a dying fellow soldier is made even more poignant by the fact that the soldier William Holland was from Tunstall.

But the news from the front and the prospect of a telegram bearing terrible news was a constant possibility for the households of servicemen

Mrs Cullen of Ricardo St, Buslem received the official news that her husband James of the North Staffs Regiment had been killed. A former miner he had volunteered in the early days of the war.

Another telegram reached the home of Sargent Perry of Elizabeth Street Hanley informing his wife that he had been killed. A veteran of the Boer War JW Perry had worked at Hanley Deep Pit. He left 5 children. It must have been the worst imaginable Christmas for the Perry family as the telegram reached them on the 23rd of December.

These incidents were played out in countless homes in North Staffordshire in the four years of the war.

The thoughts of families of soldiers and sailors turned to them this Christmas season and thought went into making their lives in the service of their country more bearable. Swinnerton'’ of Snow Hill, Shelton the caterer were supplying Christmas Hampers for the troops. Elsewhere mothers were exhorted to send your boy a soft woollen scarf and helmet.

For the public-spirited shopper Huntbach’s of Hanley had a large supply of British Doll’s and Toys. Germany in the year’s before the war exported many dolls into the country and hostilities had cut that supply off. Webberleys were offering a wide range of popular books again at their Hanley shop. Dewberry’s of Queen St Burslem advertised a large selection of Christmas presents. However shoppers in a Sentinel were urged to shop as early as possible. The lighting restrictions were in force and it was doing one’s loyal duty to shop in the day light.

The war however was increasingly being fought in an atmosphere of growing shortages on the domestic front as bread and meal prices increased sharply on the previous year the consequences of German Naval action

A Butcher in Tunstall wrote to the Sentinel pointing out that cheap food was a thing of the past

“ The House wife will be called on to pay more for the Christmas joint and I’m afraid to say that the higher prices that we latterly have known will prevail after Christmas”

The Bread Question even made into the debating chamber of the City Council who called for Government action as high prices were proving damaging top morale. The Council moved to open up some of the local parks into allotments to increase food production.

What is interesting in the advertisement are the products that we know such as Bovril and Oxo “that gives strength to resist cold, exhaustion and fatigue” with line drawings of our brave boys at the front. And if you over indulged at Christmas you could always reach for a glass of Andrew’s Liver Salt.

Perhaps even more interesting are the products that are no longer in use such as Doan’s Kidney Pills especially good for Miners, Pinkabolic soap and Scott’s Emulsion to protect your baby from the cold and medicinal compounds with dubious claims Nostroline cured influenza.

Of course Christmas is a time to consider people less fortune than the rest of the population. The difficult question of whether the poor of Stoke Workhouse should receive their beer ration was a vexed one. In a patriotic gesture the King George V had renounced alcohol and the Poor Law Commissioners now had this royal steer in deciding whether the local poor could have their usual libation. On an even vote 12-12 the chair a local Methodist Clergyman decided to cast his vote for temperance and the ban stood. Mr Gifford who had supported retention of the beer allowance raged in the Sentinel that it was a “great injustice”. The whole incident brings to mind the quote from the American journalist of the time that “ Methodism was the haunting fear that someone somewhere was enjoying themselves”.

The Temperance Movement was never too far away in the Potteries at that time there was an advertisement for a Milk Stout that represented a revolution in temperance drinking

There was plenty of ways to enjoy yourself even in war ravaged North Staffordshire. Charlie Chaplin who only 12 years earlier was appearing in local theatres was by now a world star and his latest film “ The Fireman” could be seen at the Majestic Cinema. The blockbuster of the time was the DW Griffiths film “Birth of a Nation” an inflammatory film in its representation of black Americans it caused race riots when it was shown in the States. The response in Hanley was more muted. Barber’s Picture Palace s had during the Christmas season the Six Marcellas. A revue played at the Theatre Royal Sugar and Spice starring Claire Romance and the Sweetie, Sweet Chorus promised wonderful dresses worn by a bevy of beautiful ladies. It went down well and my eye was drawn to a positive comment made about the dancing and singing of a young Lancastrian juvenile comedienne the 11 year old Hylda Baker “ a clever young lady”.

The pantomime at the Hippodrome was Jack and the Beanstalk “ an entirely new and costly production”.

What the visiting actors thought of the Potteries at this time can perhaps be gleaned by a quote from a young Noel Coward who was touring with a production of Charlie’s Aunt in 1916. He wrote to his mother as a homesick 16 year old “ Hanley is the most horribly depressing place I have ever been to”

There was always the Football. Stoke were doing very well that season they drew at Ewood Park in very heavy conditions and their draw at Blackpool was considered by the football reporter to be a “moral victory if not an actual victory”. Port Vale playing at Hanley entertained Manchester United during a match that month.

The weather does not seem to have disrupted the football season, as the weather in December 1916 was terrible. The worst weather for many years hit North Staffordshire that month with the worst snowfall since the 1880s. The snow caused havoc and trams were running very late and the snowfall suspended rail travel. During the Christmas weekend the Sentinel reported that the snow covered ground made conditions far from pleasant and the general desire was to cling to the house fireside.
The Sentinel reported Christmas day events at the North Staffordshire Hospital, which was decorated very effectively

“ The cheerfulness of the soldiers affected everybody. A number of men masqueraded in wonderful make up, costumes and created much merriment”

Some days afterwards the letters page carried a brief letter from a wounded soldier who was present that day on the war.

Please grant me space to say that I am extremely grateful for all our good friends in the Potteries who have done so much to make our Christmas day a happy one. As a wounded Canadian I feel deeply touched by the warm heartedness of the people of the district and I’m sure the boys here would love to chorus to all who gave their help. Thank you very much

G Aldridge 8th Canadians.

What can we conclude from this account? People in 1916 seem to have dealt with their very difficult circumstances very stoically. The letter pages are full of good cheer; there is no questioning of the war although censorship and a more deferential age would not have countenanced protest. Above all one comes away of a feeling of great solidarity and comradeship, which would be tested, in another two years of bloodshed and grief.