18-24 August 1914: The Board of Guardians meeting and the Local Relief Committee

Wandsworth Union workhouse J119

The Board of Guardians for the Poor were the management committee of the Wandsworth and Clapham union and its various institutions – also known as the workhouse. They were an elected body who met regularly to discuss management issues, including how their work was affected by the war and considering how to alleviate distress caused by the war. Their meeting of 20 August refers to the Local Committees being set up to deal with distress caused by the war.

This meeting was the first ordinary meeting of the Board to take place since war had broken out. So immediate were some of the potential effects of the war that the Board had held two Extraordinary Meetings in the past two weeks. They had concerns over whether or not they ought to stockpile food on 6th August, while several of their suppliers asked to be released from their contracts owing to foreseen difficulties in fulfilling them (all but the fishmonger were refused and were to be reconsidered). The second Extraordinary Meeting, on 13th August, again decided not to release suppliers from contracts so long as goods were reasonably available, and put up notices to remind everyone in their institutions to practice economy.

The meeting had a lot to consider – there was an argument over a mother’s complaint about the treatment of a child at St James’ Infirmary, which was extensively reported on by the Wandsworth Borough News. The News did not report any of the other discussions held by the Board, but their minutes had several updates following their Extraordinary Meetings. As with the Extraordinary Meeting, a big issue was how to deal with financial distress. Staff who dealt with Outdoor Relief (payments to those not in the workhouse, or Wandsworth Institution as it was then known) were recalled from holiday and they decided to co-ordinate with the local committees which councils were setting up to make sure that people were not receiving two sets of payments.

The Board meeting took place the day after the Wandsworth Committee was formed to administer the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund. That meeting was so well attended that the list of those present covers two pages of the minutes. Letters from the Local Government Board encouraging the temporary filling of vacancies were circulated to help prevent local financial hardship. A 45 person strong Grand Committee was formed, with sub-committees for each ward. The Putney ward committee alone had 40 members appointed. Each committee agreed to find volunteers for administration, with one secretary appointed by the Council, and were to have their first meeting on 27 August. It’s hard to know if the incredibly high attendance at this meeting was concern for the cause, interest in a high profile fund or enthusiasm for doing their bit for the war. Certainly attendance at the next Executive Committee meeting in September was not quite so high!

Photo – J119, Wandsworth Union, Swaffield Road

Minutes of the Wandsworth and Clapham Union Board of Guardians – full records of the Union are held by London Metropolitan Archives, copies of the minutes can also be found at Wandsworth Heritage Service

Minutes of the Wandsworth Local Relief Committee, ref: MBW/2/32/2

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11-18 August 1914: Wandsworth Council reacts to the outbreak of war

Wandsworth Town Hall 1911
This photograph shows Wandsworth before the war – the building was the Town Hall on Wandsworth High Street, which was re-built in the 1930s. The first meeting of Wandsworth Borough Council after the outbreak of war was on 12 August 1914, and it seems to have been convened specially. Two councillors were reported as having been called up for active service – Cllr M H Anderson RN and Cllr Major R F L Turner. (Lieutenant Maxwell Henry Anderson lived in Streatham Park, and Major Robert Frederick Lewis Turner in Southfields). The first actions the Council took relating to the war both concerned helping those in difficulties. The Prince of Wales National Relief Fund had been swiftly set up to help those in financial hardship because of the war and Wandsworth agreed to contribute £2000 to this. Using the value of money in 1910 as a guide, this would be about £114,120.00 today. The Council also responded to a request from the Local Government Board and formed a committee to prevent and relieve financial distress caused by war in the local area.
The only committee report at the meeting was from the General Purposes Committee – reporting on the early effects of war – the Committee had to report that the Medical Officer of Health had been called up for duties with the Territorial Force, as had several other members of staff, and that alternative arrangements were being made. The necessary leave was granted and instructions were made to pay these men half wages – an issue which will come up again in the future. The Committee also reported on the suggestion that schemes should be set up to help with the probable lack of work the War was likely to cause. Several schemes were proposed, including embankments at Southfield Slop Shoot and Bell Lane Wharf, development of Putney Vale Cemetery and sifting material at Garratt Park and Lonesome Shoots. Further reports included that the Town Hall was to be used for the enrolment of special constables, for local representatives of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Family Association and for an Army Recruiting Depot. The borough was clearly prepared to help the burgeoning war effort.

Wandsworth Borough Council minutes, 1914.
Postcard – Wandsworth Town Hall, c1911.

The Borough in 1914

Between 1900 and 1965, the area now in the borough of Wandsworth was made up of two separate, and quite different, boroughs – Battersea and Wandsworth.  Wandsworth encompassed Putney, Wandsworth, Tooting, Balham, Clapham and Streatham, and the borough of Battersea went from Nine Elms through Clapham Junction and the area between the commons as far down as Nightingale Lane.  At the outbreak of war, the Mayor of Wandsworth was Archibald Dawnay, who had been mayor since 1908 and was to continue in post until 1919.  He was a civil engineer who ran a successful firm of constructional engineers, including a large steelworks at Battersea.  Battersea’s mayor was John Archer, elected in November 1913 he was London’s first black mayor and outside of the Council ran a photographic studio in Battersea Park Road.  Archer was a member of the Progressive Alliance, many of whom would later be part of the Labour Party and Dawnay was a Conservative.

Both boroughs were part of the Wandsworth and Clapham Union, which ran the workhouse – known as the Swaffield Road Institution – and the free hospitals in the borough, including St John’s and St James’ Hospitals.  There was no National Health Service and National Insurance and pensions were still very recent, having been introduced in the wake of the 1909 budget – sometimes called the “People’s Budget”.

Education was only compulsory for primary school, although there were several grammar and other schools providing secondary education in the borough, including Sir Walter St Johns School and Battersea Grammar School.  Battersea Polytechnic opened on Battersea Park Road in 1891 providing higher education within the borough – it later became the foundation of the University of Surrey.

Both Wandsworth and Battersea contained numerous industrial sites along the river and throughout the boroughs, which were major local employers.  These included breweries, steel works, biscuit factories and bakers as well as railway works.

Many properties were owned by private landlords and rented out, several families could be sharing one house and the Councils inspected these to check for any problems, although this would largely have been in response to complaints.  Often houses would have been small and little better than slums.

Voting in parliamentary elections was restricted to men, usually the head of the household, and paying a certain amount of rent each year.  Poor men and all women were unable to vote for parliament, although they could vote in some local elections.  Restrictions on voting had not changed since 1884, despite well-publicised campaigns.

Battersea was the smaller of the two boroughs, with a population in 1914 of 167,338.  According to the 1911 census Wandsworth had a population of 311,360, which was almost double the size of Battersea and bigger than the 2012 borough, which had a population of 308,310.  Wandsworth did include areas that it doesn’t today, which is one of the reasons it was larger.

This is only a very brief overview of the borough, for more information please do contact the Heritage Service – we hold books, maps and archives which will give much more detail than could fit in a blog post!