Bread or Stone?
A Short History of Post-War Commemoration in Wellington.
In the final months of 1918, the thoughts of local civic leaders turned to honouring the memories of Wellington’s fallen sons. So began one of the longest running sagas of the post-war era, as proposal after proposal fell by the wayside and best laid plans gradually unravelled. Who would take up the challenge where official efforts had failed in what became one of the burning local issues of the era?
Given what was to come, official plans to commemorate the town’s war dead arrived surprisingly fully formed. In September 1918, before the conflict had even ended, the Wellington Journal reported from a special meeting of the Urban District Council where it had been agreed to set-up a memorial fund. Its purpose was to help establish a new Child Welfare Centre and meeting rooms on the site of several old cottages adjoining the library and swimming baths in Walker Street. The Child Welfare movement had emerged as one of the key themes of the conflict on the home front. The carnage of the Western Front placed fresh emphasis on the need to raise a flourishing generation at home to replace those lost on the frontlines. That aspiration, however, was threatened by the high national rate of infant mortality that prevailed at the time. It created the momentum needed to establish improved maternity services across the country and included a facility set-up at the Wrekin Hall in 1916, which was now in need of new premises.
By March 1919, the scheme was still very much at the forefront of local civic ambitions but bad news was just about to follow. Wellington Urban District Council had employed Birmingham architects, Messrs Ewen Harper Brothers, to examine its proposals but the firm had found the Walker Street site unsuitable for a memorial, being too close to the road (for it would have been housed within the new building as a ‘special feature’). Some thought was then given to other locations, including the purchase of the Wrekin Buildings, but no satisfactory alternative could be found and it was decided to disband the committee — a course of action that would soon become all too familiar! A key item of debate at the final meeting concerned what form any memorial should take; in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was very little state guidance on such matters (a War Memorials Act was not introduced until 1923). So, while council members such as Doctor George Hollies regarded ‘the welfare of their soldiers’ children’ as ‘one of the noblest pursuits in which they could engage’, the Town Clerk JW Littlewood was of the view that the purchase of ‘existing utilities did not constitute what a war memorial ought to be’. In the event, it was decided to call a public meeting where the views of the townsfolk themselves could be sought. Long-serving councillor GW Harvey put on record his strong opposition to ‘public meetings in matters of this description’ but, in reality, Wellingtonians had already begun to take matters into their own hands.
Mean and Absurd
While at least two memorials plaques were unveiled in Wellington before the end of 1918, at the town’s Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist churches, they were dedicated to the memory of individual servicemen. However, the district’s first object of mass commemoration did not only honour the fallen but also survivors of the conflict — and its location was equally uncharacteristic of a traditional memorial. In April 1919, a large group of demobilised servicemen gathered at the Wickets Inn on Holyhead Road to witness the unveiling of a roll of honour recording 225 servicemen who had received gifts of money orders or cigarettes from a comfort fund administered by the landlord between 1915 and 1918. That scroll still hangs in the pub today but, just as it was being revealed, another scheme had captured the attention of the town’s establishment and residents alike.
In March 1919, the War Memorial Committee suddenly revised its decision to disband, hurriedly calling a meeting to consider a suggestion emanating from outside the town: a Shropshire-wide proposal for a ‘massive cross on the summit’ of The Wrekin, as the Journal reported it. Wellington, as one member observed, would look ‘mean and absurd’ if it ‘stood out of a county matter like that’ and the committee agreed to recommend the scheme for ‘favourable consideration’ to the public meeting it had already organised. Its reasons for doing so were not entirely altruistic. As Councillor JT Corbett pointed out, ‘a county scheme would relieve the war committee of a lot of the responsibility’ so far as having a separate monument was concerned. By June 1919, the Wrekin proposals had foundered and attention turned to a smaller county monument in Shrewsbury’s Quarry Park (unveiled in October 1921). However, the financial considerations to which Councillor Corbett alluded would continue to overshadow Wellington’s official efforts well beyond the end of the year.
The Eleventh Hour
One aspect of commemoration that did arrive fully formed in 1919 (and is equally recognisable today) was the town’s programme of remembrance for the first anniversary of the Armistice. National plans for the event were, incredibly, only formulated a week before the event and inspired, even more astoundingly, by a letter from a member of the public — Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who suggested it should be marked by a period of silence. By midweek a personal letter from the King was circulated nationally and, as the Journal observed, his appeal ‘for a reverent remembrance of the dead in the Great War and of the termination of hostilities a year last Tuesday did not fall on forgetful ears’. Following a service at All Saints, a solemn tolling of the parish church bells gave forewarning of the moment when the Armistice came into force: at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, in the eleventh month. With it, the town fell silent for two minutes as the Last Post was sounded by a lone bugle and ‘the maroons were fired in the churchyard and other place in the town’.
One notable difference from today’s Armistice commemorations was the idea of the event being regarded as a ‘celebration’, as it was described by the Wellington Journal. Mimicking July’s peace festivities, a fireworks display took place the same evening, in the grounds of Wrekin College, while across town a meeting was held at the Wrekin Hall to establish a Citizen’s Committee of the League of Nations. In the chair was Councillor John Wesley Clift, who outlined the ambition of the International initiative (‘settling international differences by reason and not force’) and asserted ‘that it was up to everyone to put every ounce of strength in the movement to prevent future wars’. With his words ringing in their ears a committee was duly formed, featuring a liberal sprinkling of local politicians, schoolmasters, doctors, trade unionists, members of the clergy and officers of the Comrades of the Great War. While the course of history would eventually come to prove the League’s undoing, the successful formation of Wellington’s Citizen’s Group (which remained active during the 1920s) rounded out a day that undoubtedly proved to be the most successful official contribution to local remembrance in 1919.
Bread or Stone?
By the time of the first Armistice commemorations, Wellington’s official memorial plans had been reshaped once more. The abortive county scheme for a cross on The Wrekin had prompted a great deal of soul searching in the letters page of the Wellington Journal. Writing in April 1919, one correspondent, known simply as ‘JFB’, tapped into an increasingly popular strand of opinion:
“I suggest that our care and interest should be more for the living. In our county alone, there are many houses laid desolate, wives robbed of their husbands, children of their fathers, the breadwinner gone, and those that were dependent on him left to subsist as best they can on the army allowance. Is it not our responsibility to see [them] properly housed, clothed, fed and educated and fitted equally with others to take their place… When the children cry for bread, why offer them stone”?
Consequently, when the public meeting called by the revived War Memorial Committee finally took place, the result was that emphasis would not just be placed on a ‘statue or visible work of art’. An endowment of beds at the Cottage Hospital (which had been on a parlous financial footing ever since the Army vacated at the end of the conflict) should also be provided, and accommodation found for meetings of the Comrades of the Great War. A national forerunner of the British Legion, it enjoyed a surge in membership during 1919 and the local branch was nearly 400 strong by year’s end.
After some characteristically protracted deliberations the committee finally decided upon the Green outside All Saints parish church as the site for its statue, which it envisaged would be similar in form to the Boer War memorial outside St Chad’s in Shrewsbury. One man who had a very different idea was the Vicar of All Saints himself, the Reverend J Sinclair-Moore. He had proven to be a contentious figure in Wellington during the war, especially after the introduction of conscription in March 1916. With it, came the introduction of local tribunals, which existed to hear applications for service exemptions in cases of hardship and from those in previously reserved occupations. On the eve of the first meeting, Reverend Sinclair Moore used the occasion of a military church parade to denounce the ‘shirkers and cowards who were hanging back and apparently failed to realise the great responsibilities devolving upon them’. Many of those men and their families took to the pages of the Journal to respond:
‘It was well known in the town they were going to appeal and they were desirous that it should also be known that they should not be branded as slackers or shirkers but had genuine grounds for at least temporary exemption’.
Now, in the post war aftermath, it would be the Reverend (also a leading figure in the newly-formed Citizen’s Committee) who would become synonymous with official efforts to remember the lives of some of those applicants and the many other Wellingtonians who fell in the conflict.
A Lamentable Lack of Interest
After several months visiting London exhibitions and examining designs from architects, the memorial committee finally presented its scheme to the Wellington public in March 1920. In the event, its campaign to raise the £1500 needed for the monument (around £65, 000 today) proved disastrous. By July, only half of the required amount had been realised, forcing the committee to abandon its plans and return all funds to subscribers. One particularly angry resident took to the pages of the Journal to vent their feelings in a poem, entitled Wellington War Memorial:
‘They lived here in our midst when the danger arose. To our dear native land from its treacherous foes. And young hearts courageous, undaunted were those.
Who went forth to fight.
Our need was the call and they gladly obeyed. Not counting the cost, and our ransom they paid. From desk and from counter, from beach and from spade.
They went forth to die.
They went forth to fight and they fell where they stood. And their graves lie far scattered by field and by flood; they died for the country, shedding their blood.
For you and for me.
Say, shall we forget them? Immersed in our gold. Our profits, our pleasure? Need we be told. What we owe them? With memory callously cold? A thousand times — No!!
We cannot do much, but we’ll cherish each name. And deeply inscribe it on pillar of fame. Letting those who neglect hide their red cheeks with shame.
While we honour our dead.
However, and as the failed Wrekin scheme had already demonstrated, the collapse of Wellington’s official memorial scheme may simply have been a consequence of it being out of step with the prevailing mood of the townsfolk. Just a week later, ‘Ex-Soldier’ wrote to the Journal to suggest the funds would be better spent ‘in giving assistance in any case of distress caused through war’. ‘The upkeep of 2 or 3 beds in the cottage hospital’ he opined, ‘would all be better than a proposed memorial that would only be a ‘landmark’ to those other than the relatives of the fallen’. Indeed, in its final meeting the memorial committee recommended an endowment to the cottage hospital as an alternative way forward; a cause of action that was taken up by the facility’s Board of Management in October 1920. Launching the scheme with an advert on the Journal, its language was telling:
‘Many however will prefer that their tribute to the memory of the fallen should go direct to the relief of suffering and pain. To these the needs of the cottage hospital must eloquently appeal’.
That appeal proved highly successful and two memorial beds, dedicated to the lives of fallen workers from Sankey’s Hadley Castle Works and the Sinclair Ironworks at Ketley (whose colleagues contributed generously to the fund through weekly collections), were eventually purchased. With the hospital board reporting ‘very persistent’ pressure on services the additional capacity those beds provided could not come too soon.
From Small Acorns
Another aspect of the town’s Armistice commemorations that proved equally influential was the erection by the Comrades of the Great War of a simple cross of laurel leaves on The Green. Bearing the words ‘lest we forget’, it formed a centrepiece of the programme of remembrance and left an indelible mark on the Reverend Sinclair Moore who later declared ‘it had surpassed anything he expected’. As the machinations of the war memorial committee rumbled on he gently, but very persistently, waged a campaign (which also played out in the pages of the Journal, in the form of third party letters supporting his worldview!) to remind his colleagues that land could easily be acquired for a simpler memorial in the Churchyard. With the collapse of the official scheme, he seized his chance in August 1920 calling a public meeting at the Wrekin Hall to consider his proposal:
“A lych gateway to be erected on the public footway at the top of the steps leading to the parish church as a memorial to local war heroes and in grateful recognition of the return of others”.
Billed as a gathering ‘to which all who are in sympathy with the suggestion are invited’, what those attending were in fact presented with was a fully realised project: replete with a set of designs and materials to be used. Crucially, at £400, the Reverend’s plans cost only a third of the previous scheme and by February 1921 final arrangements for the erection of Wellington’s most recognisable memorial were being made.
As it was, the Lych Gate would not prove to be Wellington’s first permanent memorial to the dead of the Great War. That honour belonged to the oak crucifix dedicated to ten fallen parishioners and erected outside St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in King Street during August 1920. As the decade unfolded others would follow, too. In 1921, a brass plaque was laid to fallen members of the congregation at the Primitive Methodist church in Tan Bank, while the members and officers of the Urban District Council paid for a tablet honouring 130 townsfolk, which was unveiled at the public library in April. At the time of writing its whereabouts, along with several other memorial plaques (and the two endowed beds donated to the cottage hospital), are seemingly unknown. This sorry state of affairs hardly stands as a fitting legacy to the many ordinary Wellingtonians who, despite the numerous privations of the era, still managed to find the resources to remember their fellow townsfolk when official efforts so often fell short.