4-10 August 1914: The Outbreak of War

The War. Battersea and Wandsworth have thought of little else this week… there was a notable absence of hilarity. Boisterous enjoyment did not exist. The shadow of war clouds was over everything, and everywhere in or near ton as seen the strange spectacle of holiday crowds, studying with anxiety and concern the hourly editions of the evening papers.

(South Western Star, Friday 7 August 1914)

Despite the area thinking “of little else”, the outbreak of war was only covered by one page of Battersea’s local paper, the South Western Star. The rest of the paper covered the usual round-up of the local Police Court and Inquests, local news stories and adverts. The week since the last issue had included a Bank Holiday, where the usual day-trips were complicated by the South Western Railway Company having cancelled all holiday arrangements – meaning that many of those who were planning to go away from Clapham Junction caught the Southern Railway to Brighton instead and led to record numbers of passengers. Buses were packed, the commons and parks were crowded, but the paper reported less of a holiday atmosphere and increased worry about the war.

Before the bank holiday, mobilisation of troops had been expected and the officers and men of the 23rd Battalion County of London regiment had worked into the night getting their headquarters on St Johns Hill ready for the anticipated order. The battalion were due to go to camp at Salisbury and marched to the station, only to be ordered to return as they reached Acton. More men arrived at headquarters throughout Monday, and about 50 men actually joined the battalion. Crowds started to gather to watch what was happening and waited silently all day, with only a single policeman required to keep them in order, until the order finally came in the evening. Tuesday was much the same, the declaration of war was made public at the Junction after midnight and was “received with repeated cheers”, according to the South Western Star. By Wednesday morning crowds had again gather anticipating that the battalion would march out – although by the time the newspaper went to press this had yet to happen.

Elsewhere in the area the announcement of war was causing worry. Throughout Tuesday there was a rush of panic buying, and shops were crowded with anxious customers. Many shop-owners stopped taking orders on credit, and sugar, cereals and non-perishable material started to sell out. Apparently there was a general reluctance to accept cheques, payment had to be made in cash only and as the banks had been closed on Monday there started to be a shortage of coins. Pawn-brokers did a roaring trade on Monday and Tuesday as people tried to raise cash to be able to go shopping. Some shops apparently raised prices on Tuesday, not once but three times. Others were more sympathetic to their customers and refused to let purchasers take the entire stock of certain items to ensure that there was enough for everyone. A regular overheard remark was “It’s only beginning. God knows what it’s going to be like”.

The South Western Star and other local papers are available on microfilm at Wandsworth Heritage Service.

Records of the 23rd Battalion, County of London Regiment are held by Surrey History Centre: http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/recreation-heritage-and-culture/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre