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'Over by Christmas' by Margaret Williams

Over by Christmas - a talk at the Lady Lever Art Gallery held on 11 November 2008. Local historian Margaret Williams discusses the Great War and its impact on Port Sunlight village.

Margaret Williams: Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. As Kath said, I’m Margaret Williams, the village historian and I’m going to tell you a bit about what happened in the village during the First World War. The war started in August 1914 and was definitely going to be ‘over by Christmas’. In March of 1914, Port Sunlight Village was a really, really bustling place. Not only Port Sunlight but the whole of the Wirral because you had places like New Brighton, West Kirby, Wallasey and all these places that were very, very popular to visit.

And in 1914, three million people visited Wirral by boat and 8 million visited by train. So all those millions of people came to see wonderful Wirral, to holiday and have a good time. In March, King George and Queen Mary came and they visited Port Sunlight. Hence the names of the main roads here: Kings George’s Drive and Queen Mary’s Drive that were named after the King and Queen. They came to Port Sunlight as well to lay the foundation stone of the art gallery that you’re sitting in. This is a postcard that was produced at the time showing the kings car driving past the main offices. Do you notice anything unusual about that photo? Look at the car…

Audience member: [Indistinct]

Margaret Williams: The car has no number plate. And the King at the time was the only person in the country who was exempt from displaying a number plate. I actually think that that rule still applies, that the Queen in her official car is considered so important that they don’t have to display a number plate.

These are village girls racing through the streets at the time of the royal visit. To these girls that maybe would have been 14 or 15, the King and Queen coming to the village was like a pop star! It was a really, really exciting event. This is the warehouse within a factory and it’s all the factory girls standing in line. The king and queen were on a balcony above. The girls turned and made a Union Jack to display for the king and queen. This is how patriotic people were.

Britain was great. Rule Britannia, Britain ruled the waves. And everyone was tremendously proud of being British. Of course that was all going to change. On 4th August 1914 the King declared war on Germany. And in September they had what they called ‘the great call to arms’. Everybody who was able was going to go, fight the Germans and victory for the British. Gladstone Hall opened as a recruiting office. In the first week 700 men signed up to go and fight. Within the village in the [indistinct] area, there used to be a building called The Auditorium which was a large meeting hall. This is a picture of the people inside the auditorium. Lever and the dignitaries can be seen on the stage and it was a ‘God speed’ service to the people. Everybody’s behind you, you go “God Bless You All.”

This was the scene in the streets, the crowds and crowds of people cheering. This is a lady who lived in the village and her name is Mrs. Fosey and she was so proud that her eight sons and son-in-law had all signed up at the same time and were all going to fight. What became of those men, I really don’t know, because there is nothing else in the records with any mention of them. This is a gentleman called Sgt. George Eames and that’s his wife and children. This was taken at the beginning of the war and he was to play a very important part in the history of Port Sunlight and the war. Village men lead by the village band walking to Port Sunlight station to get on the train and go to Chester. They were going to join the Cheshire regiment but they were going to join the Pals. Anyone know about the Pals regiments?

Well what it was, they decided it would be a good idea if men could join up with their friends other brothers and men that they’d worked with, people that they knew or who came from the same area. And they could all be together in the same battalion. Can anybody imagine what the downside of that would be? Yes?

Audience member: That you’d have to watch your friends die on the battlefield and there was nothing you could do to stop it.

Margaret Williams: You watch your friends die and that’s absolutely correct. And quite often you died with them. Because all the men were in one unit and so it meant that news would come back to a woman to say that maybe all three of her sons had died. Anybody see the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Well in the First World War that wouldn’t have happened. The men went and they all died together.

But they didn’t just go straight to war obviously. They went to training camps to learn how to be soldiers. This is a picture of a training camp in Oswestry with a gentleman called George Nicholson among the recruits, who as Kath mentioned, whose family has been very helpful to me. These are Post Sunlight men at Salisbury plain learning the military art of peeling potatoes! But while the men were away, the women immediately went into action. The museum over the road, Sunlight Vision, was originally a girls club. A meeting place for the village girls where they could learn arts and crafts, social etiquette. The women met there, they knitted scarves, gloves, socks and they collected money to buy things like footballs and sporting equipment. The even got in touch with somebody in Scotland and got crates of Scottish kippers to send out the training camps. But it wasn’t very long at all before the tragedy started to happen.

This appeared in the Port Sunlight magazine. On September 14th, 1914, four days before his 20th birthday, Dick Goodall was blown up by a shell. As you can see the village magazine gives quite a large obituary probably because it came as a shock that Port Sunlight had actually lost a young man but little did they know what was to come.

The next thing to happen early on in the war was the village took in a large group of Belgians. Germany had invaded Belgium and a lot of people had been forced to flee for their lives. Whole families arrived and children, families and their elderly relatives were all housed in Hulme Hall which had been turned into a hostal. Port Sunlight was going to look after these people; they’d been bullied out of their country. The people of Port Sunlight would feed them, clothe them even supply toys for the children. They were made to feel very welcome.

But, little by little the tragedy continued. Instead of getting one picture with an obituary, they just started printing the names and the pictures of the men that had been killed. Also the men that had been wounded.

Now within this group, there is our old friend George Eames. In July 1916 a shell landed in the trench and he lost one eye and the sight of the other along with the loss of fingers and multiple fractures.

Now, this is really about the time the mood in the village started to change. It was two years on and people were starting to get nervous. What had happened to this idea that these men would go and sort all the problems out and be home for Christmas? It wasn’t happening, people were astonished. In the First World War there were no reporting restrictions and people were starting to read things like George Eames, a young man, coming home to a family now totally blind. And so the mood changed. In the official records the Belgian refugees disappear and Hulme Hall is made into a military hospital along with Lever’s home, Thornton Manor. What happened to the Belgians? Officially it was said that the removal of the Belgians was down to Port Sunlight becoming a restricted area, perhaps due to the factory. Unofficially it’s been said that the mood of the British people towards the Belgians started to change as the British losses became greater. Rather than the pity for people fleeing from their homes people started to think perhaps if they had stayed and fought, my son, my husband, might not be out there now, fighting.

I must point out that with the Belgians it was not just within Port Sunlight. Belgians came across because we had a pact with Belgium so there were Belgian refugees all around the country.

May I ask how old you are? Fourteen, ok. Ok you’re living in Port Sunlight, maybe your Dad, your brother, they’ve gone off to fight. Now you’re Mum’s gone to work in the factory. You’ve been to school for the day, you come home, Does anyone know what you would do? Yes?

Audience member: [Indistinct]

Margaret Williams: Yes that’s a good point, they probably did. But what the children did do was this: they took over the allotments with the help of older villagers, older men. There’s a young girl there with her allotment, a young boy. The attitude in the First World War was; this was a war that everybody was involved with. And because your Dad, your brother, your Uncle had gone, people saw no reason to say – “Oh the poor children, we must feel for them and look after them”. The children were told; “You’ve got your part to play. You must work; you must work in the village. Provide the food, anything you can to help.”

This is the little children, and even in their play time they were encouraged to be patriotic. So this is a patriotic pageant put on by the children. Every child dressed as a British hero or heroine. One thing that did carry on for the children every year, Lever used to invite all the village children to Thornton Manor. Now in the olden days he would send down horses and carts, those great big shire horses pulling big carts and the children could climb on and go to Thornton Manor for the day. They could go on the boating pool, he provided donkeys and horses for them to ride and at the end of the day there was a picnic on the lawn and before you left you got a bag of sweets to take home with you. Well this is during the War and he still invited the children, this time in the vintage buses. And you can see driven by women this time because the men weren’t available.

Now the ladies went to work in the factory and take over all the jobs that the men had been doing now what was very unusual about this was the fact that married women weren’t employed prior to the war. When you got married you immediately had to leave work because society thought that a woman’s job was to be in home and look after the family and employers simply did not employ married women. Unless there was a very unusual circumstance but generally they didn’t. But now the women are in the factory, married, single, whatever, doing the work of the men. Just like that with the machinery, but hard physical work, stacking crates, moving things from locations and for the very fist time women were allowed to wear trousers. That wouldn’t have been permitted before the war, but because of the nature of the work women were allowed to wear trousers.

This is a picture from the first world war of the ladies football team. Does anyone know when the football league was founded?

Audience member: 1888.

Margaret Williams: Well done – give that man a prize! 1888, the same year Port Sunlight was founded. And football was extremely popular so what the girls did, they formed a team and they challenged soldiers, sailors, anybody in the military who happened to be in the area at the time, to a football match. It was very popular but you had to pay to go and see them play. And the money then, the girls put into the war effort.

Christmas 1916. This is a Christmas card that was sent to Port Sunlight from a gentleman in a trench. Very, very sad image before Christmas. Of course the previous year, something happened on Chirstmas Eve in the trenches. Anybody know what happened? Yes?

Audience member: They stopped firing.

Margaret Williams: They stopped firing and what did they do?

Audience member: A football match.

Margaret Williams: A football match! They did, they went out and they played football, but by 1916 that had vanished because the death toll and the misery was too much by then. So the pictures keep coming in and from one or four we now go to pages of them. All these men had families and they had Mothers and Fathers and wives and children. They were all dead. Now it was pretty difficult to keep in touch but people did their best.

Now at the start of the war the village magazine printed letters that the men were sending home and a lot of these letters, considering that the men were fighting a war, a lot of these letters were quite jolly. They were saying;

“Thank you very much for sending your fruitcake which I shared with my chums and oh if you get the chance could you send me some gloves? And oh by the way, guess who I ran into today? Charlie Jones, Fred Smith. Remember they worked in the printing department? Well they’re all out here.”

That was the tone of the letters. But it started to change. This is a letter from Thomas Murphy in 1916.

“Raffles grenades are in full swing all day and night and one never knows when he will bid his friends goodbye. It’s a sight to look around. The battlefield at day - not a living soul to be seen. Nothing but ruins as far as the eye can see. It’s no man’s land.”

We have another letter here from a gentleman who had joined the ambulance crew.

“Shells rained down amongst our poor lads and we stretcher-bearers never thought to see the light of day again. As two of my comrades were bringing in one poor chap, the fire became an inferno and they rested under a tree. The wounded hero said; “Go away lads and get under cover. I’m wounded and it does not matter for me. But you can save yourselves.” Needless to say our lads stuck to him and eventually got him to the dressing station.”

It’s very hard in a way to realise that this isn’t television or film. These are men that were young like you, living in Port Sunlight, this is what they’d gone out to and this is what they were writing home. And the letters went the other way. The gentleman I mentioned earlier, George Nicholson, this was a letter that his Father sent to him;

“My dear son, I’m read in the paper that the German let our lads out of this camp 50 or 60 miles from the French frontier without a scarp of food or money to make their way to France. Mrs. Dodd’s poor Albert has gone. He was killed while slipping in to an empty house with five others. Mother has been along to see Mrs Dodd and she is cut up about it. She is fairly heartbroken. The thirteen Cheshires presented a silver soldier to Lever in memory of the men of Lever who formed the battalion.”

We have that soldier on display in the museum if any of you would like to see it.)

“Mrs’ Dowey was asking for your address. You might get a package at Chirstmas time.”

So you see, it wasn’t just your parents it was people in the village - they wanted to help you if they could.

“Dear George, do let us know if you need anything and we will send it. Dear lad I must close with kind love and affection. We are your loving Father and Mother.”

And I’m pleased to say that George did make it. He was stationed in Russia where I believe the cold was terrible, there wasn’t enough food. But George did manage to get home.

At last, after one of the bloodiest wars in history, November 11th 1918, peace arrived. The headlines in the papers: ‘Triumph for our great co-parternership in arms. Armistice signed. People rejoicing, isn’t it wonderful.’ And in the background of all those headlines, still pictures of the men who were being killed. These pages went on and on and on.

I’d like to talk a bit about the war memorial. I take it you’ve all seen it? It was unveiled in 1921 but Lever was quite adamant that he was not going to unveil the memorial. Even though he had organised its building and paid for it. He was determined that the unveiling should be done by men who had actually seen the conflict, seen people die and knew what it was all about. So the first man selected was this man here. His name was Robert Cruikshank and he was awarded the V.C. Now he actually didn’t come from Port Sunlight but he worked for Lever Brothers in their London offices. He had been in the trench that was under heavy attack and his commanding officer was killed. He knew that they had to get some reinforcements to help out so he volunteered to go out of the trench and get some help.

Within a few minutes he was shot three times. So he started crawling on his hands and knees through the mud, the dirt, the bodies, still carrying to try and get help. A German sniper shot him again but still he carried on. He had four bullets in his body and he carried on and he got to the headquarters and he got the help for the men. So he was selected to be a major part of the unveiling.

Also George Eames, the blind chap, he became somewhat of a local hero. Not only because of his war service and his bravery but because of his courage in carrying on after the war. Has anybody heard of a hospital called St Dunstan’s? St Dunstan’s is a hospital in London that was set up during the First World War to specialise particularly in men who had been blinded. And George Eames was one of the first men to go to that hospital and to be helped with re-training. George was a very, very, talented singer and after the war he made special guest appearances at the clubs and societies and he was known as the ‘blind baritone’.

I’d like to read you an extract taken from the poem, ‘After All’ which was composed by Sergeant Eames after the war.

“We got our order sharp and short and with the boys I went,
over the top as you term it, ‘til every shell was spent.

We fought like tigers, hard we fought, when in less than a glance,
a bursting shell, a loud report, blotted out my sight of France.

Then next the shore of England the cliffs of Dover white,
ah friends ‘twas then I felt the strain of having lost my sight.

But people though my sight has gone, I’m glad I played the man,
and often smile when others say “You’ve done your bit old man.”

I’ve done my bit well others have, God bless them one and all,
my blindness seems with friends like you, a curtain after all.”

The war to end all wars. How sad that was. In 1921, Lever Brothers’ company produced what is known as the Golden Book. This was a tribute to all Lever Brother employees and was an account of the true cost of the war to Lever employees. Out of Lever employees, 4069 men enlisted, 503 were killed, 512 were men wounded once, 91 men were wounded twice, 20 men were wounded three times and six were wounded four times. And what about the people who came back? What were they like? The survivors had loss of limbs, loss of sight, shell shock, trench fever, malaria, rheumatism, gas poisoning, and semi starvation.

So the Great War was over at last. What did they say at the beginning? That it would be over by Christmas. And they were right in a way, except that it was Christmas 1918.

Well I hope you enjoyed that and that you’ve learned a bit more about the war and the effect on Port Sunlight.

[Applause]