Wellington's Invisible Homefront Heritage
World War One is often cited as the first ‘total war’ in history, penetrating every aspect of daily life —on the frontline and at home. At the time of writing (February 2021), Telford and Wrekin Council is updating its register of historic buildings and there are many locations in Wellington with significant connections to homefront life during the conflict. Some traces, however, are not so discernible a century later and tracking them down requires deeper investigation, and a degree of imagination…
Among the earliest and most noticeable homefront developments in Wellington were the appearance of soldiers’ reading rooms, where servicemen could write home to their families while awaiting onward transportation to the front. Three had appeared in the town by the end of August 1914: in Walker Street, at the New Hall (from which New Hall Road takes its name) and at the nearby Central Hall in High Street — which would eventually be absorbed into the world famous Chad Valley Wrekin Toy Works by the 1920s.
The activities of each were controlled by volunteer committees, staffed exclusively by the wives of the town’s social elite. Attached to them were a trio of ‘temperance canteens’ where, as the Wellington Journal observed, ‘a soldier can have a large cup of coffee for a penny and a huge bun for a half penny as well as other refreshments.’ One of the first groups of men to use the reading rooms were those of the Cheshire Regiment, which decamped en masse in Wellington at the end of August. Their stay was well-remembered by many Wellingtonians, including a young Audrey Smith who later recalled:
‘As I look back I can still hear the jingle of harness and clatter of hooves, the call of the men to their horses “Oop, oop”. They went over to France and the whole regiment was wiped out… I like to think that those men had at least one happy memory of Wellington before they went over.’
It’s highly likely the last letters sent home to loved ones by many of those casualties would have been written in Wellington’s reading rooms, providing us with reminders (once their locations are known) every bit as poignant as the town’s many memorials to the fallen.
A Dramatic Performance
Common among the voluntary undertakings that attended to the transitory needs of passing servicemen was a constant reliance on donations from the public. As the conflict unfolded, increasingly novel ways were found to raise funds for the various facilities around town. In 1917, the Wellington Journal reported on the activities of the Crown Street Soldiers Canteen and Reading Room, informing its readers that ‘almost everyday there is increasing assurance [that the facilities] are greatly appreciated by the gallant lads who have fought for their country and have suffered in strife.’ Among the means found to support its continuation, the newspaper reported, were dramatic performances given by local actors every Wednesday afternoon and evening at the Town Hall, situated above Wellington Market.
Before the war, the Crown Street Reading Room had been the hardware store of John Kynaston, who loaned the premises to the armed forces for the duration. It is perhaps the ultimate example of Wellington’s invisible homefront heritage as the site is currently occupied by the long-vanished Seven Crowns gifts and novelties shop — a building of which it would require a great deal of imagination to assign any historical significance!
The Travelling Cinema Show
Live recitals, both dramatic and musical, were something of a staple of homefront life, not least in the form of the numerous ‘smoking concerts’ held in Wellington. Popularised in the Victorian era, they were organised to raise funds for worthy causes and utilised by the armed forces as a popular recruitment tool where men would smoke, listen to speeches and sing patriotic songs in a more relaxed setting. The Grand Theatre in Tan Bank (a site currently occupied by Pussycats nightclub) and the Station Hotel both hosted them during the conflict.
In April 1917 the Town Hall was also the scene of such an event, as the Journal outlined: ‘Colonel Pratchett, who presided, gave a stirring address on matters relating to the war, and emphasised the imperative reasons why a large number of Volunteers should be enrolled.’ In the event, it was reported, thirty men heeded the call. Towards the end of the conflict, increasingly sophisticated ways to tempt new recruits were being devised, as witnessed in April 1918 when a travelling cinema arrived at the Market. The property of the National War Aims Committee, it reportedly ‘delighted hundreds of people with a fine exhibition of films representing actual events relating to the work our men are doing in the army, navy and air services.’
One of the more unusual ways the war impinged on everyday life, and perhaps the least understandable to modern minds, was in the area of communal bathing. In an era when many homes had no plumbing for hygiene, washhouses were a feature common to all towns. So it was in Wellington where, at the start of the conflict, the local council made the slipper baths at its Walker Street swimming pool freely available to ‘uniformed men’ seven days a week. These free standing vessels (with a tap located at the shallow end to afford the bather greater privacy) were generally arranged in groups of single-sex cubicles, with an attendant that took money for a service that often had first and second class facilities. The slipper baths continued to be sporadically used by the military until 1919 although they had ceased to be free by that point. With more than three million men to demobilise, military fatigues would still have been a common sight on the streets of Wellington even at that time, enabling the last vestiges of homefront life to linger beyond the end of the conflict.