A Short History of Wellington’s Meeting Places in 1919
The post-war world that greeted those returning to Wellington from the Western Front was very different from the one they left in 1914. Nowhere were the profound changes gripping society more evident than at the various meeting halls around the town. In an era before mass communication Wellingtonians gathered, often in their hundreds, to listen and comment on a range of salient issues of the day…
Life and Liberty
‘Although the war cloud had now blown over, the nation was still confronted with enormous difficulties which would have to be resolutely faced before it could settle down to a peaceful and orderly state. Everything seemed to have changed…’.
That these were the words of a local clergyman, William Wingfield Sandford, Vicar of Rodington, is perhaps unsurprising. What is less predictable is that they were not delivered from the pulpit but at a public meeting at All Saints Parish Hall in April 1919. For Reverend Sandford was leading a gathering of the national Life and Liberty movement. Its aim was to promote a higher degree of self-governance in the Anglican Church, freeing it from Parliamentary interference and enabling it to take a more active role in wider society, through strategies such as the recruitment of ordinants from working class backgrounds. The short-lived campaign, in operation between 1917 and 1919, ultimately failed to achieve its objectives but there was plenty of evidence to support the Reverend’s assertion that everything had indeed changed. The fact so many members of a body as deeply-rooted in society as the Church of England fostered such reactionary tendencies said as much, and they were certainly not the only ones calling for a transformation of attitudes…
Combating a National Evil
Despite the changing mores of the time, there was still some evidence in 1919 that Wellington was suffering a Nineteenth Century hangover. In December, Reverend Sandford was in town again but this time presiding over an annual meeting of a very different organisation: the Wellington and District Branch of the Lichfield Diocesan Society for Preventative and Rescue Work and Care of Friendless Girls. Those assembled heard that in the previous year thirteen cases had been ‘definitely helped’, with ten girls being sent to the Preventative Lodge in Shrewsbury. While Reverend Sandford saw hope for the future he felt moved to opine, as the Wellington Journal duly reported,
‘The immorality which existed in the country went to show the need of such an association of the kind at which the present time was courageously battling with the crime and the evil and seeking to prevent and rescue those who were on the high road to ruin’.
The link between morality and sexual health was a major pre-occupation in the immediate aftermath of the war. In January 1919, the Wrekin Hall played host to no less than three meetings in the space of a week dedicated to combating venereal disease, which one speaker described as a ‘greater enemy of the nation than the Germans had been’. The moral panic it created pre-dated the Great War but the high rates of infection in the armed forces kept the subject in the spotlight during the conflict, which was exactly where it stayed when servicemen finally returned home from the front. Delivering a ‘social lecture’ Mrs Kate Douglas of London emphasised the need for better housing and sanitation as a means to the ‘cultivation of a high moral tone as safeguards against sexual impurity’. However as Mr Speake, the sanitary officer for Shrewsbury, pointed out later in the year VD was also found in ‘comparative palaces’. He was speaking at a Shropshire branch meeting of the National Council for Combating Venereal Disease (NCCVD). Formed in 1913 its activities eschewed the idea of targeting particular social groups and instead placed a firm emphasis on education, representing a complete departure from traditional attitudes on the subject. Lectures such as those held in Wellington helped to force debate into the open and remove the stigma from seeking treatment for a condition that escalated rapidly in 1919 (In London alone, cases rose by 60%). The success of its strategy was illustrated in February 1920 when over 800 people attended the screening of a film about the disease, The End of the Road, at the Grand Theatre in Tan Bank. By that time, premises had also been found for a treatment clinic in Walker Street, the establishment of which were among the National Council’s primary goals.
Education For All
Health lectures were far from the only source of education available to those visiting Wellington’s meeting halls in 1919. One of the defining issues of the year was the reduction of working hours in many industries, and the rise of the ‘8-hour day’ (the principle of which was even enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles). Studies carried out at munitions factories during the war had demonstrated productivity was not necessarily linked to long hours — In fact, they found shorter days tended to improve employees’ health and increase their capacity for work. So, for the first time, many people found themselves with ‘leisure time’ but there was no shortage of ways for them to meaningfully fill it. One of the main local organisations offering food for thought was the Young Men’s Christian Association (the YMCA). In June 1919, it purchased the Wrekin Buildings from Liberal MP Sir Charles Henry and launched a hugely popular, and highly varied, lecture series with a range of speakers that included Sir Arthur Diosy, founder of the Japan Society.
By year’s end, Wellington and District YMCA had also affiliated with the local branch of the Workers Education Association (WEA). This politically neutral national body (which is still the UK’s largest provider of adult education) pre-dated the conflict but its aim to provide working people with access to higher education proved highly resonant in the brave new post-war world. A meeting of the West Midlands District WEA, chaired by local councillor George Harvey, took place at the Girls’ High School in July. There, the audience learnt of ‘a federation of 3700 organisations that sprang from the workers’ that aimed to be the ‘voice of working men and women on all educational matters’ and ‘build up a working class college for its own district’. Those attending also found out it was an essential principle of the WEA that students should govern their own classes and select the subjects to be studied — no tutor was appointed to a class if the students were unwilling. It proved to be an attractive proposition and by November the Journal reported on the ‘great success already attending the efforts’ of the new Wellington branch, which had 37 members enrolled on three-year lecture courses. Presciently, those seminars included a talk by the HA Silverman on the Economic Aspects of Reconstruction; a subject that, as meetings held elsewhere in Wellington confirm, was certainly having a profound effect on the fortunes of at least one half of the population.
Joining the League
In January 1919, the Wrekin Hall was the setting for a lecture on ‘Women’s Work’ by Cecile Matheson, Warden of the Women’s Settlement in Birmingham (an inner-city community venture that sought to combat local poverty and its causes). A well-known public speaker and campaigner, she was a prominent suffragist and wrote extensively on women’s wages and employment. When the New Year began, the headline news on gender and equality in Wellington, as it was everywhere else, concerned the six million women who had been eligible to vote for the first time in the General Election the previous December. Yet, the underlying context of Miss Matheson’s talk, which advocated a women’s committee on every town council in Britain, spoke not of a brave new world of emancipation but of further struggle. With over three million ex-servicemen to reintegrate into society, the attack on a woman’s right to work was in full swing during 1919 and championed in many disparate circles from the local Trade Union movement to the Government — which instituted an Act later in the year designed to return the economy to pre-war employment conditions.
The steady decline in employment opportunities, especially among middle class women, led to the rise of organised resistance. In September, the now-demolished Ercall Assembly Rooms in Market Street were the venue for the first gathering of the Wellington branch of the Women’s Industrial League (WIL), with Miss V Key-Jones (General Organising Secretary) and Miss Eleanor Cook of London presiding. The League was formed in November 1918, with the intention of raising women’s employment status and protecting it from the inevitable disruption the end of the war would bring. The Journal noted that ‘practically the whole of the company present’ had joined the League that night, and faithfully listed for its readers the objectives of the group:
“To secure equal opportunities and employment, for training and educational facilities, for equal treatment in regard to pay and conditions, and an adequate representation on all official committees and public bodies”.
The activities of the local WIL continued into 1920, when the branch heard from an officer of the Women’s Police Service. However, as the economy turned from a war footing to the edge of depression Wellington’s meeting rooms and public spaces began to resound with the ideas of new groups, such as the National Guild of Clerical and Administrative Workers and the Middle Class Union, all intent on protecting their perceived interests in the face of an increasingly uncertain future. The times, locally and nationally, were changing once again.