The Long Return
While the rapid growth of the local trades and labour council may have gained the headlines in Wellington during 1919, ex-servicemen were also organising themselves so their concerns could more effectively be heard. Nationally, the question of how best to do that led to the growth of several competing groups at least two of which were present in the town.
Wellington’s contribution to the national peace celebrations on Saturday 19th July 1919 took centre stage in the pages of the Wellington Journal the following weekend. Away from headline news of ‘meat teas’ for a thousand ex-servicemen at the market hall and evening firework displays on The Wrekin the newspaper also reported on the death of Richard Welsby — who had been taken seriously ill just as the festivities ended. One of nine brothers to have served in the Great War, he had been wounded in action by a gas shell and ‘never quite recovered from the shock and injury to his lungs’ the Journal reported. According to figures released by the Shropshire War Pensions Committee, Mr Welsby was one of 1436 men still receiving medical attention in 1919 (either institutionally, or as outpatients). They were part of a larger group of over 5000 county servicemen who had been discharged since 1916, and whose ranks were swelled again by some of the three and half million men demobilised in the year following the Armistice. Successfully reintegrating them all back into society was a major post-war concern for a Government wary of unrest in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian uprising. However, with rapidly rising prices, a faltering economy and many competing interests to contend with, there was growing distrust among many former soldiers and sailors that Lloyd George’s vaunted ‘country fit for heroes’ had a place for them at its heart.
Every Man Once
Safeguarding the future prospects of those sent home from the front became a major preoccupation well before the end of the war. In September 1916, the National Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors was formed in Blackburn specifically to campaign for the provision of work for rank and file servicemen (commissioned officers were excluded from its activities). The following year a rival organisation, the Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, was created to oppose the Government’s Review of Exemptions Act. Working on the premise that any man capable of making a living in civilian life was fit to work in the military, this piece of legislation sought to re-enlist some of the million men deemed unfit for service through injuries sustained in battle. With its slogan of ‘every man once before any man twice’ the Federation provided a powerful and galvanising message and many thousands of men had rallied to the cause of both groups by the time the conflict ended.
Wellington arrived somewhat late to the scene, and a local branch of the National Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors did not get off the ground until November 1917. Its inaugural meeting was held in the rooms of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) in Tan Bank the following month, where the objects of the new group were outlined: ‘to secure adequate pensions for members and also an assurance that on returning to civil occupation they will be placed on at least pre-war status’. The Journal dutifully reported a number of opinions from the floor, providing insight into the mood of those in attendance. Mr Clarke of Haybridge Avenue, an NUR member, perhaps best captured the temper of the time when he described the group’s ambitions as,
“Tantamount to saying that they did not trust the Government to make those concessions of their own accord, and that being undoubtedly the case, they believed that it was better to organise themselves to bring pressure to bear in the Government in order to obtain them”.
Mr Pritchard, also of Wellington, added that discharged servicemen ‘should have the right not only to ask for work but for work which would be congenial: not drudgery’, while local councillor JE Woollam (a doyen of the local trade union movement) stressed the need to look to the future. He felt the ‘great desire’ to ensure those soldiers and sailors who had made the sacrifice were fairly compensated on their return to civilian life was no more than a ‘passing enthusiasm’:
“What they had to look forward to was what would take place when the gallant men had been discharged, and the wave of public enthusiasm had passed away. They must organise deliberately to look after their own interests in every way”.
After such a febrile start to its existence, the activities of the Wellington Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors were surprisingly restrained for the rest of the war, and appear to have been limited to providing a recreation area in the former billiard room in the yard of the Bull’s Head pub in New Street. However, once the war was over the body did attempt to hold other local organisations to account in the pursuit of its stated objectives. At a lively meeting at the Wrekin Hall in January 1919, the Wellington Board of Poor Law Guardians was brought to task after failing to appoint a wounded ex-serviceman, Mr A Pearce, as its new rate collector, despite the promise of preferential treatment in the official advertisement for the position. The rather flimsy excuse offered by the Guardians was that the man who had been chosen, Mr Pitchford, had four serving sons and another who had been wounded and discharged; it was their understanding he would assist his father. Despite being accused of ‘disloyalty to the board’ Reverend Nock, Chair of the Guardians, subsequently attempted to overturn the decision but was defeated by thirteen votes to five. Those resisting him were unrepentant and did not see why the current incumbent should be dismissed, especially as his position ‘was worth no more than £30 a year’.
While at least one section of the Wellington establishment appeared to confirm Councillor Woollam’s suspicion of passing enthusiasm in the lives of discharged servicemen, a more surprising source was taking note of their plight: the Wellington Journal itself! As a barometer of public opinion its interests were decidedly on the side of the establishment. Yet, any popular arguments gaining common currency might reasonably expect an airing in its Current Topics column, which could even be regarded as a sign of tacit approval from the publication — however grudgingly given! The rise of council housing, the Government’s wage stabilisation policy and the Parliamentary ambitions of the Labour movement all featured in 1919 and, in August, it was the turn of demobilised men. ‘No one can be satisfied’, the anonymous author of the column declared, ‘until every fit man is found a job. Masters and workmen alike should strain points to find room for ex-servicemen’. ‘Every ex-soldier should be furnished with a generous opportunity to do what he can’ and ‘employers should go to trouble for them’.
The Rise of the Comrades
Whether local employers really were going out of there way to help former soldiers and sailors is questionable. The Journal’s opinion piece touched upon the difficulties facing disabled ex-servicemen, whose plight also came under the gaze of the county War Pensions Committee in 1919. Dr George Hollies, a long standing Wellington town councillor and medical practitioner, spoke of the problems of finding employment for wounded men in ‘sitting jobs’. ‘The problem of the one-armed man’ he told those assembled, ‘is worse than the one-legged man’. However, an employer that really did buck the trend was the War Pensions office itself. In July, the supervision of the Wellington, Shifnal and Newport districts was handed to Mr Larter, a veteran of the Shropshire Regiment of the Expeditionary Force. He had been severely wounded in battle and had served as a recruiting officer in the town since 1916. ‘The selection of a discharged wounded soldier for the appointment’ reported the Journal ‘has given much satisfaction to ex-servicemen’, and two other disabled men had joined him in discharging his duties by the year’s end. In September, the Poor Law Guardians also agreed (somewhat ironically, given their actions earlier in the year) to adopt a motion committing themselves to a Government programme for the employment of disabled servicemen. Nationally, the Ministry of Health estimated they accounted for some five percent of the workforce, of which ‘seven eighths’ were already employed. ‘It was necessary’ the Guardians were informed in a circular ‘that the remainder should be absorbed’.
Despite initially placing the emphasis on veterans to carve out their own opportunities in the post-war aftermath, state employment programmes were on the rise in 1919. In August, Park Hall near Oswestry (the training camp through which many Wellington men would have ‘dispersed’ upon leaving the forces) was purchased by the Government for the purpose of conversion into a ‘market garden centre’ where 450 ex-servicemen would receive re-training. In Wellington, however, the impulse to collectivism remained strong and found expression through a group that ultimately became the largest and most enduring of any formed by the district’s ex-servicemen. Although it was never an organised labour movement as such, the National Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors, with its links to the trade union movement and antipathy towards commissioned officers, was viewed with great distrust in official circles. So much so, that a counter organisation was set-up in 1917 by industrialists and right wing politicians (most notably Lord Derby, who is perhaps better known as the architect of a failed conscription scheme during the conflict). A Wellington branch of the Comrades of the Great War was formed in September 1918, following a meeting at All Saints Parish Hall. In the chair was Captain TV Kynnersley, who used the opportunity to urge discharged soldiers and sailors to ‘remain aloof’ from party politics. Those assembled clearly took him at his word. After electing Sergeant-Major T Moss as Secretary, the local branch went from strength to strength and by February 1920 had over 400 members.
The Search for a Home
Despite the portents attending its birth, the Wellington branch of the Comrades of the Great War took up with gusto many of the causes of the Association of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors. Aside from appointing an ex-serviceman as its paid secretary, it continued to campaign for the preferential employment of disabled veterans — pursuing both the local Urban District Council and the owner of the Grand Theatre in Tan Bank (who had six ‘able-bodied’ former soldiers among his staff). Much like the Association, the Comrades were also pre-occupied with the search for a permanent home. Despite promises of official support from the local War Memorial Committee, its members were holed-up in temporary quarters at the Armoury outside Wellington Market at the end of 1919. While local fundraising efforts continued and furniture was purchased, those new clubrooms were still a pipedream twelve months later.
Salvation came in the unlikely form of the proprietor of Wellington (now Wrekin) College, Sir John Bayley. In December 1920, he treated the Comrades to a large supper at the Armoury and delivered to them his own unique ‘state of nation’ address, which the Journal dutifully recorded. ‘He realised that in Wellington there had been no public recognition of the men who had returned’, while of ‘disabled men and those broken in the War’ he said ‘it should not be necessary for them to play an accordion in the streets or beg for the means of existence’. Donating the sum of £250 to the search for new premises, Bayley went one better in 1921, sourcing two former army huts and removing them to a piece of land in Haygate Road, where they still form the headquarters of the local branch of the Royal British Legion (the successor organisation to the Comrades of the Great War). By the time of Bayley’s generous gift, the economy had begun to slide from a war footing into recession. Over 500 men and youths from Wellington, Ketley and Hadley were registered at the labour exchange and a committee was formed to raise funds and press the Government for action. ‘There were very many worthy cases who were feeling the pinch of poverty through no fault of their own’ declared its secretary Councillor Woollam. ‘It was those men who wanted help and especially those men who had gone and fought’. Over three years after the conflict had ended, many local veterans were still seemingly struggling to find their way in a post-war world that appeared to be anything but ‘fit for heroes’.