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Heritage: Christmas 1917 and Havering was weary of war

PUBLISHED: 11:06 29 December 2017

The First World War was still going on throughout Christmas 1917. Picture: PA

The First World War was still going on throughout Christmas 1917. Picture: PA

Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

A hundred years ago, with many Havering men away at war, the festive season was very different reports Prof Ged Martin

December 1917 was the fourth Christmas of the First World War. Everybody was weary, and there was little celebration around Havering.

The worst was obviously still to come.

Russia, in the grip of revolution, was falling out of the war. If the Germans could switch their forces from the Eastern Front, they might overwhelm the Allied Armies in the West.

The United States had now joined the war, so Germany needed to strike before American forces reached Europe.

Terrible battles would follow in March 1918.

Conscription had been introduced in 1916, compelling men to join the Army. The age limit was eventually raised as high as 51.

Local tribunals heard applications for exemption from married men who argued that their work was of national importance.

Henry Randall, 36, Collier Row’s sub-postmaster, double-jobbed as a blacksmith. He secured conditional exemption “on business grounds”. Horses were still vital to the transport system. There was even a blacksmith’s forge in Romford’s South Street.

William Adams, 38, was a “fat, bone and refuse collector” in Romford Market. He won three months’ conditional exemption, “if a substitute was not found in the meantime”.

Thirty-six-year-old Herbert Butterworth, “sanitary engineer, plumber, and house decorator” from Brentwood Road, secured six months’ exemption, but was told he must serve as a Special Constable.

Leonard Burn, 37, was the landlord of the Old Oak pub (now The Oak) at the corner of South Street and Brentwood Road. He was released from military service on condition he also worked as a farm labourer “during as many hours as he could spare.” How he could do both jobs wasn’t explained.

Pub opening hours were now controlled. Romford magistrates noted with pleasure that Christmas 1917 produced not one alcohol-related case.

Of course, most regular drinkers were away fighting. Many had been killed. Local police reported an overall 50per cent fall in cases of drunkenness.

There was a row at a Romford Council meeting about a Masonic dinner at the White Hart in High Street, later The Bitter End.

The menu included oysters, two soups, two fish courses (with tasty sauces), chicken cutlets, roast mutton, beef sirloin, pheasant, desserts, wines, spirits and punch.

One angry councillor contrasted this “gluttony and guzzling” with the experience of most Romford people: “in this town queues for margarine, tea, sugar and other necessaries of life are of frequent occurrence”.

The White Hart’s proprietor argued that the numbers attending made it “necessary to have a variety of dishes but each guest did not partake of the whole of the dishes. The working man was not being robbed of anything, because they were all on the market.”

Unfortunately, wartime high prices meant that the working man couldn’t afford oysters and pheasants.

I’m sure farm labourer Henry Wright, who’d been caught stealing four cabbages at Corbets Tey, would have enjoyed the evening.

The council passed a motion demanding government action “for the purpose of preventing class feeling and unrest”.

Alice Brooker, who lived in Poplar Street, Romford, appeared in court charged with throwing a poker at the school attendance officer, Benjamin Keeble. He’d called to demand why her eleven year-old daughter was absent from school.

Alice claimed she was annoyed that he’d walked in without knocking while she was bathing the naked girl. She admitted throwing the poker at him, but pleaded that she’d missed.

In any case, the child had been ill. I wonder if Alice’s husband was away fighting? She was bound over.

The residents of Upminster had a friendlier attitude to authority. Their long-time village bobby, Pc James Beasley, had just been transferred by Essex Police to Harwich.

Upminster people made him a “handsome presentation” – £50 in War Savings Bonds, and a gold wristwatch for his wife.

I doubt if any policeman would be allowed to accept such gifts today.

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