Saturday, 26 March 2016

One hundred years of one house in Well Hall part 5 living through the Great War

Our house in 2014
The centenary of the Progress Estate has passed.

Now we can lay claim to about thirty of those 100 years having moved in to 294 Well Hall Road in the middle of 1964 but I gave seldom thought to the history of the house or to the people who occupied it before us.

But now I am drawn to that past and have begun to explore something of what our home would have been like a century ago.*

And because I am deep into researching for a new book on the Great War the events of that year when the Arsenal workers and their families began new lives in Well Hall has special signifigance.

The popular story of how we coped during the four years tends to fasten on the participation of women on the shop floor and in the fields; the impact of Zeppelin raids and the blackout but all too often skips over the huge hike in the cost of living.

As Henry Hyndman the leading socialist pointed out “since the war had begun prices had gone up 22%, so that now the purchasing power of a sovereign was from 13s. 6d to 13s.9d.”**

And this was the context behind the industrial conflicts which rumbled on and which some at the time and since have sought to characterise as greedy workers exploiting a country at war.

The reality was very different as Sam Hague who spoke at a meeting in Manchester was quick to point out, “there never had been a time in the nation’s history when the working classes had so solidly backed the Government.”***

The aims of the committee, 1915
Working hours increased, and under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 and The Munitions War Act 1915 workers were being prosecuted for absenteeism and striking over wages and conditions.

In Manchester the first prosecutions under the Munitions War Act were held at the Town Hall on Friday July 30 when thirty-two men employed at Craven Bros Ltd Reddish were brought before the Recorder charged with going on strike over wages and working conditions without first submitting the matter to the Board of Trade.

And in response to the rising cost of living the Labour movement set up local emergency war committees and food vigilance committees, which reported to the War Emergency Workers National Committee in London which had come into being on the day war broke out.

The idea of a food vigilance committee seems oddly old fashioned but back in 1915 it was seen by many as an essential way of preventing the  growing practice of adulterating food and the rise in the cost of living.

The London Food Vigilance Committee was a joint body made of the London Joint Committee of Co-operative Societies, the London Trades Council and the London Labour Party.

And cooperating with the Royal Arsenal Co-op in our part of London was Councillor William Barefoot of the Woolwich Labour Party.

These committees set out clear policies on how to manage shortages by insisting that “the Government purchase all essential imported food stuffs, commandeer or control all home grown food products and make effective use of ships and the control of transport facilities” thereby securing both a fair share of what was available and at a controlled price.”****

And a key part of this would be local authorities who should be “power to deal with the distribution of food stuffs and coal, and to establish Municipal Kitchens.”

There will be some who see in this a creeping form of state control but the reality was that war time legislation had already given the authorities sweeping powers but there was a woeful lack of action over the rise in rents, coal and food prices and the lowering of the quality of what was on offer to eat.

The Committees were fully aware that at some point rationing would have to be introduced and it followed therefore that the Co-op and Labour movements should be represented on official committees given that they "had an understanding of the food requirements of the workers.”

All of which brings me back to the Arsenal workers who were beginning to take up residence in their new homes and some of whom will have been actively involved in that committee.

Pictures; our house on Well Hall Road, 2014, courtesy of Chrissie Rose, extracts from documents from The London Food Vigilance Committee, 1915, courtesy of the Labour History Archives & Study Centre,  at the People’s History Museum, Manchester,

*One hundred years of one house in Well Hall,   

**Manchester Guardian February 19 1915

*** Free Trade Hall, Manchester February 14, 1915

**** The London Food Vigilance Committee, 1915

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