23 February-1 March 1915: Wages arguments

Following his concerns in last week’s Tooting and Balham Gazette, the Wandsworth Borough News reported on 26 February that Councillor Hurley had been the subject of a letter of complaint to the Relief Committee.  The full Relief Committee met a few days after the paper was printed and the Mayor read aloud a letter from the secretaries of the Women’s sub-committee.  The letter accused Cllr Hurley of disturbing the workers and “assuming an offensive tone towards the supervisor”, and said that the women who were cleaning the floor had volunteered to do so and had not done the full working day.  Cllr Hurley did not take kindly to the suggestions that he was stirring up trouble in the workroom, particularly when the vice-chair of the Workroom Committee assured the Committee that the women had volunteered and there was no hardship, visitors to the workroom were welcome as long as they “behaved in a proper way…it would be very difficult to manage over a hundred women if people come in saying they ought to revolt”.  The Mayor told him off for interrupting to declare that this was not true.  Eventually, after a lot of arguing, the matter was referred back to the Women’s Employment sub-committee.

The argument over pay was not reserved to the Women’s Workroom in Tooting – Battersea Borough Council were also considering it at their meeting on 24th February, as reported in the South Western Star.  A letter from the Battersea Trades and Union Council had been received by the Highways and Works Committee, asking that labourers should receive an increase of one half-penny per hour (approximately 10p today).  The Committee had referred it up to Council without comment, and many of the Councillors argued that it should go back to Committee in order for them to fully discuss the reasons behind a proposed wage rise.  Councillor Lane pointed out that the Council had not given a payrise when the London master builders had done so in 1913 and that there was likely to be a slump after the war “the moneyed classes were reaping huge profits from the swollen prices of commodities and the working classes were entitled to their share of the profits, they being the people who suffered most”.  Councillor Mutter noted that Silkstone, a more expensive type of coal, had gone up in price by 4s a ton, while the cheaper type had gone up by 10s a ton, meaning that poorer people had a larger price hike to deal with.  His knowledge of Silkstone apparently caused much amusement in the chamber, but he made clear that he felt the wage rise should be considered.  The decision was referred back, whilst the same Committee’s decision to grant a payrise requested by the London District Committee of the Associated Blacksmiths’ and Ironworkers’ Society was agreed.  It didn’t go through smoothly, as some councillors felt that the timing was not right and that it should also be referred back to the Highways and Works Committee, but it was adopted.

The rise in the cost of fuel was not only used as a justification for a payrise, it was also causing budgetary problems for the Baths and Washhouses Committee.  Free entry to Council baths had been granted to members of the Territorial Forces, which now had to be withdrawn and replaced with half-price entry as the cost of fuel had increased.

South Western Star and Wandsworth Borough News available on microfilm.

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16-22 February 1915: Work for Women

As noted in previous weeks, workrooms were set up around the borough to create jobs for both men and women, as well as to supply a place to make clothing for soldiers and others in need. The Tooting workroom had been set up by the local committee of the Prince of Wales Relief Fund, but there were also two workrooms in Battersea set up by the Committee of the Queen’s Works for Women.  These were at the Latchmere Baths and the Wesleyan Hall on Queens Road [now Queenstown Road].  The Wandsworth Borough News of 19 February carried two items relating to the workrooms, one was a short article about the workrooms, saying 200 women who had lost their work due to the war were employed there and that they were turning cast-off clothing into clothes for children and adults.

The other item was a letter from Kesia Beaumont Thomas, of Elspeth Road, publically acknowledging the receipt of £6 15s 4d as a result of a house to house collection for the work of the Queen’s Work for Women Fund.  Kesia Beaumont Thomas was a widowed school teacher, originally from Cornwall, her only child had been born in Russia and her late husband was a publishing agent.  The 1911 census entry for her house says that “All the inmates of this house were away from home on Sunday night April 2nd 1911”, which could be the case – although she doesn’t appear anywhere else on the census – or it could be part of the suffragette refusal to complete the census.  No records of the Queen’s Work for Women Fund in the area survive, if indeed they were ever created, although there was later a Voluntary War-Workers Association which kept minutes.

The workrooms were not without detractors, A J Hurley, owner of the Tooting and Balham Gazette, wrote in that week’s paper that he understood the scheme was to provide light needlework for women at the rate of 2s per day.  He was surprised to discover four women scrubbing the floor in the workroom for this rate, when the going rate for a cleaner was 3s per day and protested that he “would like to put the women who have fixed the rate of pay on the same job only for one day.  They would then probably have more compassion than they at present appear to possess for these poor creatures who, through no fault of their own, have been thrown out of employment and have perforce accepted the ‘light work’ to be found in the Tooting Women’s Workroom, which is supported out of public funds.  By the way, is it true that some of the older women who apply for work are advised to go to Battersea, where wood choppers and rag sorted are wanted?  Is that ‘light work’ for respectable women?”.

Wandsworth Borough News and Tooting and Balham Gazette available on microfilm

9-15 February 1915: Correspondence from an Under-Age Soldier

The February edition of the Sir Walter St Johns School magazine contains several stories relating to the war – including one about a debate on whether or not professional football should still be played whilst there was a war. The overwhelming majority of the vote went against the motion, with only 5 people thinking football should stop, and arguments including that many of the spectators at football matches were dock and arsenal workers who were not allowed to join the Army, and that those in the Forces enjoyed football as well.

The magazine lists former pupils who have joined up and the regiments to which they are attached, as well as giving details of the staff who have joined and publishing correspondence from any old boys who have written to the school. Three letters were published in February 1915, one from Lance-Corporal A L Finding of the City of London Yeomanry, who was still in Norfolk, and the other two from old boys in the Queen Victoria Rifles – H Bischiné and J W Mahony. Mahony reports that the regiment have been in the firing line “a number of times; also under shell-fire and I can assure you that is nothing to wish for… On January 5th we were shelled in our billets…Although we are Territorials we are thought a lot of by the regular regiments in our Brigade, and have been complimented by the Officer commanding the Division, several times. We have just done 72 hours in the trenches, without relief, sometimes waist-deep in water, and how have 6 days rest”.

Bischiné was not able to write of his experience in the same way, as he was under-age and was not allowed to go to the front line. He had experienced the shelling: “we were at a small village just behind the firing-line when we got shelled by the Germans. I was peeling potatoes at the time and heard a familiar whiz, and then a terrific bang, so guessed what was happening. We got the inhabitants into their cellars, and then followed them, for there was nothing else to do.”

Harold George Alois Bischiné was born in March 1898, his father was from the Alsace region of Germany and became a naturalised citizen when Harold was 3 months old. His service record is one of the ones which survived the damage of the Second World War, and it shows that he joined the Territorial Forces in December 1913, when he was 15 years old. On the form, he writes that he is an articled pupil with Messrs Harris and Cullow and that he is 18 years and 6 months of age – clearly a lie. The medical inspection record has a section for “apparent age” where the medical officer has written “17”, although it is clear they didn’t look too closely into his age. He was not discharged from the Territorial Forces until November 1917, when he was commissioned in the London Regiment, having spent from November 1914 to June 1916 in France, then on home duties from 1916 to the date of his commission. At no point does his Army Service record reveal that he was under 18 for almost the whole of his service in France.

Bischiné served through the whole of the war, married in 1921 and emigrated to Canada, working in the Civil Service in Quebec. His army service record, marriage index entry and appearance in passenger lists from the 1950s are all available via Ancestry, meaning it’s possible to find out what happened to him after the war – not always a straightforward task. However, if it weren’t for his letter to his school magazine it would look like a mismatch of dates somewhere – the magazine makes it clear he was there under-age and with the knowledge of his superiors.

Sir Walter St John’s School magazine, February 1915, ref: S17/2/5

AncestryLibrary Subscription available across Wandsworth Library and Heritage Service

2-8 February 1915: Tooting Relief Fund and the Home Defence League

The Wandsworth Borough News of 5 February carried several stories relating to the effect of the war on the borough. The Tooting Relief Fund Committee, had an argumentative start to their work at a public meeting over the make up of the committee back in September 1914, and more than once feature in the local press with debates over their ongoing duties. The meeting reported in the Borough News included a local vicar expressing disappointment that the committee’s work appeared to be mainly giving out “doles” [money], as he felt they should be devising schemes to provide work instead. He approved of the workroom for women which had been set up at the Wesleyan Hall in Tooting, and claimed that it was Socialists on the committee who were doing nothing but give out money. That last remark caused protests that “if the Borough Council was composed of socialists then they would move Heaven and earth to provide work”. Another committee member asked if they were to allow people to starve if they could not find work? Official figures apparently showed unemployment in Tooting to be low, and reliable figures were needed to prove that unemployment work schemes were successful. Reverend French agreed that if work could not be found then the only way to help was by making payments, but if that was the case his time was more usefully spent elsewhere and he resigned from the committee, as did Reverend Bevill Allen, Mr Cooper Rawson and Mr W J Mellhuish.

The other slight controversy of the meeting was the receipt of a large quantity of flour from Canada, to be distributed among the poor. Two Tooting bakers had, at the request of Mr Shepherd, offered to make this into bread free of charge, but the committee objected to this offer as both the bakers were German. Councillor A J Hurley acknowledged that it was kind of them to offer to do it, but felt that there were plenty of English bakers who would have been equally kind had they been asked. He also wondered what the Canadians would think if they knew their flour was being baked by Germans? The matter was then dropped, with no record of which bakers eventually made the bread.

The newspaper also reports on the various home defence forces that had been set up around the borough. These were localised versions of what was the Home Guard in World War Two, and reports of their activities included the Athlete’s Volunteer Force: Wandsworth and Southfields division, the Southfields Defence Force and the Home Defence League, South West London division. The report for the Athlete’s Volunteer Force referred to the donation of 6 rifles to the Wandsworth Rifle Club by Sir Henry Kimber and to plans for divisions to be founded in Tooting and Roehampton. The headquarters of the Athlete’s Volunteer Force was Wandsworth Rifle Club, so presumably the two were closely linked. Southfields Defence Force was based at the London, County and Westminster Bank, Southfields Station. The paper carried their orders for February, including parades, exercises and recruitment – they were keen for existing members to encourage others to “be prepared to take their place to defend their hearths and homes against a ruthless enemy” and wanted to keep numbers at around 800 men. The Home Defence League was based at Trinity Road and had the same commanding officer as the Wandsworth Regiment of the Volunteer Training Corps, so presumably it was formalised later. It was divided into several platoons which each had instructions in different areas of the borough for drills, with the whole regiment due to parade for General Sir O’Moore Creagh on the upcoming Saturday.

Wandsworth Borough News available on microfilm in the searchroom