7-13 March 1916: Battersea Polytechnic’s Women Students

The March edition of the Battersea Polytechnic Magazine carries updates from students and former students, including the seventh edition of the Roll of Distinction of those serving. There is also an update of the roll of honour, giving details of two former students who had been killed – Victor Haskins and Thomas Turland.

Part of the Polytechnic was the Training Department of Domestic Science, who had been actively involved in the earlier campaign to make shirts for soldiers and many of whom were now working as VADs, nurses, or in other war occupations.  The magazine has a list of what former Domestic Science students were doing, it includes two who were working as “Instructresses in His Majesty’s Commisariat Department” (this seems to have been part of the Army Service Corps) and several who were working as VADs in various hospitals around the country.

One of the hospitals listed was the VAD Hospital, Clapham Common. There does not appear to be a great deal of information about the hospital, it as at 9 Cedars Road but is not listed in any directories at the time.  The Imperial War Museum holds a souvenir embroidery from the hospital, which is referred to as the 3rd London Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital.  The Red Cross has lists of their hospitals from the war, and the Cedars Road hospital is referred to as having been accepted by the War Office through the Red Cross.  More information on Red Cross hospitals can be found here.

Photographs of the hospital and nurses are at Lambeth Archives and can be found on their photo page, where it is referred to as Battersea Auxiliary Hospital – showing that the name was a bit variable!

The student who was based there was called M Holman.  The Red Cross have lists of VADs online, including several M Holmans, but we haven’t been able to match their records to a VAD who was at Cedars Road.  Several others were at the First London General Hospital in Camberwell, which is also where Vera Brittain served initially so for an account of life as a VAD in London you might want to consider reading Testament of Youth.

Battersea Polytechnic Magazine, ref: S14/5/9

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16-22 March 1915: Battersea Polytechnic

The March edition of the Battersea Polytechnic student magazine updated the Roll of Honour and also provided several pages of images of former students who were now serving with the Forces in some respect.

The update to the Roll of Honour was a report of the death of James George Alexander Johnson, of Queenhithe.  After leaving school – including some time in a German gymnasium – he had joined the paper makers Grosvenor, Chater & Co, and therefore did some of the Polytechnic’s courses in paper-making in 1912 and 1913.  At the outbreak of war he joined the London Scottish regiment, and was killed near Ypres November 13th, 1914.  His photograph is included in this issue of the magazine, alongside other students and former students who had joined up.

The Polytechnic War Fund Committee had an update in the magazine, as reported here they were employing local women to make flannel shirts for soldiers.  Subscriptions were dropping, as students were faced with increasing expense due to the war, and the shirt-making was currently costing more than the income of the fund.  Despite this, the magazine reported that it was to continue until the end of February (the magazine coming out somewhat behind the times) and then the level of production was to drop to four shirts a week per woman rather than eight.  This decision was partly motivated by the likelihood of more women needing additional work during the winter.  The Committee also decided to stop supplying tobacco, as re ports suggested that men at the front were well supplied.  A suggestion to supply chocolate instead was deferred until the next meeting.

Regular events continued at the Polytechnic, with several pages of the magazine taken up with the report on the Annual Conversazione.  This was a chance for students to display their work and for others to have a look round what had been happening across the Polytechnic.  The report on the engineering workshops noted that “The work exhibited showed a high detail of accuracy, and much of it was done by students who are now serving in some capacity of other in His Majesty’s Forces, where we feel sure the same skill and thoroughness will be manifest in their military operations for the benefit of their King and Country”.  The Physics department were demonstrating X-rays: “Many thought that the pale green fluorescence of the bulb was ‘the Rays’, although it was not produced by the ‘X’ Rays, but by reflected cathode rays.  Our enquirer was quite disappointed when told that the X-Rays were not even visible”.

The Domestic Science department was adapting to the war in its demonstrations – a number of the dishes represented were deliberately prepared without meat, and some of the cakes had been made without eggs.  Methods of cooking whilst economising on fuel and utensils were also on display: “a complex dinner was cooked in a four-tiered steamer over one gas ring and another simple and economical meal was steamed entirely in jam jars which wer2 fitted into one large saucepan”.  A Hay Box cooker was also being demonstrated, attracting a lot of attention.

Domestic Science students were also mentioned in the magazine for their part in the war effort.  Lucia Creighton was in Serbia, managing all the cookery at a Red Cross hospital with a staff of 26 people.  It was noted this involved all the practical work as well as the management, her Red Cross details can be found online – although these are for later work.  Monica Stanley had been with the Red Cross since the outbreak of war, first at Antwerp then Cherbourg.  She was sailing for Serbia as well, where she was to be in charge of the catering at another Red Cross hospital.

The magazine also carries the first instalment of Private George Wilson’s mobilisation diary, from 5th August to 14th October 1914.  He was in the London Scottish regiment, and the diary was written up after he returned home wounded – although details of that are in the June issue of the magazine, so we’ll come back to his diary at a later date.

Battersea Polytechnic magazine, ref: S15/5/8

29 December 1914-4 January 1915: Battersea Polytechnic Student activities

We close the year with Battersea Polytechnic. This post has much of the background to the polytechnic, and they produced their own magazine which updated students on college activity and alumni information. The editorial for December 1914 comments that they would like to wish all their readers ‘“a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year”. The first half of the greeting however, cannot, we feel, be realised in its entirety this year, as present condition are too serious for that.’ Having acknowledged that the war had not been over by Christmas, the editorial goes on to encourage all readers to do their duty to help their country.

A War Fund had been set up, and the Art Department had contributed by holding an Art Exhibition, pointing out that artists are not generally “overburdened with this world’s goods” but determined nonetheless to be involved in the fundraising. The Ladies’ Sub-Committee was also very active, dealing with cases submitted by the Women’s Emergency Corps, Labour Bureaux and local clergy – they employed women workers and numbers employed had risen from 5 to 7. The women were employed to make army shirts – flannel had been purchased and the women made between 4 and 8 shirts a week. Cutting out the shirts was done by the staff and students of the Domestic Science Department, along with other willing helpers, each evening. The War Fund was also concerned over whether the care packages sent to troops should contain tobacco, or if small packets of tea would be equally acceptable – the balance was mainly in favour of tobacco.

The magazine also carried a report on the Women’s Relief Corps, an organisation designed to help women to prepare to take up other duties which may be required of them later in the war. The Civil Section aimed to train women to take up men’s posts to release them for active service, whilst the Semi-Military Service had the added task of training women in some military drill. The report assures readers that the “nature of the training is in no way intended to encourage women to attempt to act as combatants”.

The previous issue of the magazine had carried a list of all staff and students currently serving in the Armed Forces, and the December issue contained an update – as well as a photograph of Frederick Johnson, who had graduated in summer 1914 and was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. Later magazines contain photographs of other men connected with the Polytechnic.

More routine aspects of Polytechnic life were not overlooked by the magazine, it carried reports of scholarships awarded, posts obtained by students – particularly those from the Domestic Science Department – and reports of society activities. The Engineering Society had visited the Osram lightbulb factory in Hammersmith and the LCC Tram repair works in Charlton. There were also reports of new books in the library and exam successes, so although the war was clearly having an effect on the life of students, some aspects very much carried on.

Guest Post: Remembering the lost generation: Battersea Polytechnic 1914-18

A little bit of history

Battersea Polytechnic, the forerunner of the University, was founded in 1891 on a site at Battersea Park Road and opened its doors to students on 6 January 1894. Its origins lie in the Polytechnic Movement at the end of the nineteenth century which set out ‘to promote the education of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis by technical instruction, secondary education, art education, evening lectures, or otherwise and generally to improve their physical, social and moral condition.’ It remained in Battersea for the next seventy years or so, growing in size, spreading to incorporate a number of different sites in the area and becoming one of the new Colleges of Advanced Technology in 1956.

Over the years it underwent a transformation in educational provision offering the young people who flocked through its doors the chance to study for degrees in a host of subjects from Chemistry, Physics and Engineering through to Hotel and Catering Management and Economics. By the early 1960s, thanks to the growth in the number of students and staff, the sites in Battersea, which included an old furniture repository, a primary school and further afield, in Putney, a former swimming baths, had become unsustainable and the decision was taken to look for a new home. On 9 September 1966, Her Majesty the Queen granted a Royal Charter for the founding of a new University in Surrey and over the next four years, staff and students made the move to the green-field site at Stag Hill in Guildford.

Remembering Battersea

Earlier this year, the University of Surrey launched an exciting new heritage project, ‘Remembering Battersea – Help us build our history’. The project aims to celebrate the legacy of Battersea Polytechnic and the foundations on which the University is built by recording former students’ memories, inviting donations of Battersea memorabilia and seeking the help of Battersea volunteers to identify and catalogue existing items in the University’s archives.

A key part of the ‘Remembering Battersea’ project is the ‘My Battersea Story’ oral history initiative which is working to capture the individual memories and experiences of the Battersea alumni who are still with us, before that opportunity is lost for good.

The ‘lost generation’

Sadly it is now too late to do the same for the students who studied at Battersea in the early years of the last century. And of course, many of the voices of those students and members of staff who fought in the First World War were brutally and prematurely silenced when they met their deaths during the fateful years between 1914 and 1918.

Thankfully though, a number of the stories of this generation have been preserved both in the photographs and letters which have been lovingly treasured and passed on by their families and friends and in records kept by the Polytechnic itself. This means that we are nevertheless able to form some impression of what kind of men these students and staff of Battersea were.

An invaluable source for the period is Students at War: the lost generation of Battersea Polytechnic 1914-18 by Jean Shail with Maureen Shettle which combines material from the University of Surrey’s own archives with records from the National Archives and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to build a picture of the men and women who went to war during those dark years.

Signing up

The first list of Battersea students and staff who signed up as volunteers to join the armed forces in 1914 was published in the Polytechnic magazine and featured two members of the Governing Body, ten members of staff and 203 students. Throughout the war these lists continued to be published and give the names of 650 men in total who fought on land, at sea or in the air for their country. From 1915 advertisements began to appear in the Polytechnic calendar encouraging students to enrol in the Officers’ Training Corps, ‘not only for their own good but for the great service which their doing so renders the community.’ A Polytechnic platoon was attached to the University of London Officers’ Training Corps and regular drills were held both at the University’s headquarters and also at the Polytechnic.

Dr Sidney Rawson, Principal of Battersea Polytechnic from 1907 to 1915, encouraged the students who were going off to war to keep in touch and to write and send photographs and it is for this reason, according to Jean Shail, that so many of the records from the first two years of the war survive.

A soldier’s life

The letters from these students provide a fascinating picture of the training regime they went through in the camps before departing for France with references to having to do patrol or guard duty at 2 and 3 in the morning, sleeping on a hard floor under a blanket or greatcoat and being set to building bridges, trenches and piers.

There are also letters from the Front including one from a young Frenchman, Lucien Bollack, who had studied engineering at the Polytechnic and who recounts his experiences as a motor-cyclist in the French army, ‘half dressed in military, half civilian clothes’ and of being arrested as a spy ‘owing to my suspicious looking outfit.’

Another Battersea student, Sapper Sidney Burt of the 2nd London Royal Engineers, wrote of his time spent in at the Front in France building dug-outs, draining trenches and bricking the bottom of them with bricks from houses ruined by German shell-fire. He also recounts how these trenches were named after London streets – ‘We have got Oxford Street, Berkeley Street, Curzon Street, St James’s Street…and hosts of others, the idea being to prevent confusion in finding certain trenches.’

Meanwhile the memoirs of Private George Wilson of the London Scottish provide more insights into the life of the ordinary soldier from his mobilisation in August 1914, through his arrival in France and movement from one front line to another, to his account of being shot in the eye and taken to hospital on a cart round Ypres. Having lost the sight in his eye, he was finally sent home to Scotland in mid November 1914.

Lucia Creighton and Monica Stanley, two former female students in the Domestic Training Science Department signed up to work for the Red Cross in Serbia during the war. And Gladys Victoria King, another former Domestic Science student, was awarded the Military Cross for devotion to duty under shellfire while working at a hospital in France.

Battersea heroes

Tragically, 78 of the Battersea students and staff who went to war never returned. Nearly all of them served with the Army.

Jean Shail recounts many of the stories relating to their deaths in her book. Reading through them you are left with a strong impression of the many personal acts of courage and bravery and an overwhelming sense of the tragic loss of young men who had showed such promise in their studies and for whom the future had looked so bright.

There is unfortunately not the space to include details of their exploits here, but the story of Frederick Henry Johnson, an engineering student who went on to win the Victoria Cross might serve as a fitting way to remember them all. Born in Streatham, Johnson entered Battersea’s Engineering Department as a day student in 1911. He went on to become Chairman of the Day Students’ Representative Council and editor of the Polytechnic magazine. He was awarded a first class honours degree in 1914 and at the outbreak of war, applied for a commission becoming Second Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. After training in Bordon, Hampshire he left for France to join the British Expeditionary Force. He gained the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Loos when he took part in an attack on an enemy redoubt on 25th September, 1915 and continued on in spite of being wounded in the leg to lead several charges.Frederick Johnson VC

He was repatriated to London for hospital treatment and received his medal from the King on 22nd December 1915. It was the first Victoria Cross to be awarded to a member of any of the Polytechnics. A separate presentation was organised the following year by the Polytechnic at which Lieutenant Johnson was given a portrait of himself which had been paid for by subscriptions collected from staff and students.

Sadly Frederick Johnson did not survive the war. After returning to the Front and being promoted to the rank of Captain then Major, he was killed in action on 28th November 1917 having gone back to search for a comrade who had gone missing at the Battle of Cambrai. He has no known grave but is remembered on the Cambrai Memorial at Louveral in France.

A fitting tribute

The names of all the students and members of staff who lost their lives during the Great War are inscribed on the Battersea Polytechnic War Memorial which the Polytechnic commissioned with funds raised by the staff and students themselves. Originally unveiled at the Polytechnic in July 1921, it was subsequently moved to the University of Surrey and unveiled in its new location by the University’s Chancellor, HRH the Duke of Kent in November 1989 – a fitting tribute to Battersea Polytechnic’s ‘lost generation’.

For more information about the ‘Remembering Battersea: Help us build our history project’ visit https://alumni.surrey.ac.uk/battersea-new—help-us-build-our-history

To view items from the Battersea Polytechnic archives please contact archives@surrey.ac.uk or call 01483 689631.

Alison Burt – Project Manager, ‘My Battersea Story’ oral history project