Heritage: Armistice 1918 - How Havering heard the news

Too many local families were still grieving for the men they had lost to celebrate the end of the wa

Too many local families were still grieving for the men they had lost to celebrate the end of the war too wildly. Picture: Havering Council - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin explains that there was relief rather than rejoicing in Havering when the First World War ended

By November 1918, everybody knew the First World War was nearly over.

One by one, Britain’s enemies collapsed – Bulgaria in September, Turkey in October, Austria-Hungary on November 3rd.

Revolution swept Germany. On November 9th, Kaiser Wilhelm fled to neutral Holland.

For Hornchurch local historian Charles Perfect, Armistice Day, November 11th, was an ordinary Monday morning. Too old to fight – he was 54 – he caught the train as usual to his London office.

But when the magic hour of 11 o’clock arrived, he was out in the Strand, listening for the thunder of the guns from the Tower, the signal that the Armistice had come into effect.

In central London, the “cheering, flag-wagging populace” exploded in joy. People piled on to buses and lorries.

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Perfect remembered a dozen young men and women sitting on top of a coal wagon, laughing and shouting.

But when he returned home that evening, Hornchurch was quiet.

Everybody savoured the “great news” but – right across Havering – there was no outward rejoicing.

As the chairman of Romford magistrates later commented, “during the last few days of excitement not a single case of misconduct had been reported”.

Why were Havering people so subdued?

One obvious reason was that, if you wanted to celebrate, London, with its swirling, happy crowds, was the place to be.

Many local people caught trains to Town, and joined the revelry there.

They weren’t deterred from travelling by the cold, wet weather, but the rain certainly didn’t make local streets very inviting.

Members of the Baptist Church in North Street, Hornchurch – the congregation had lost seven men – gathered for an impromptu thanksgiving service that evening. Other churches waited for the following Sunday.

Another factor keeping people indoors was the severe influenza epidemic, the sudden and lethal “Spanish flu”.

Responding to the “very severe” outbreak, all Romford schools had been closed on October 21st.

They did not reopen until November 18th, a week after the Armistice. Even then, attendance was poor and many teachers were off sick.

But the major reason for restraint was that too many families were still plunged in grief.

It was OK to rejoice with the anonymous crowds in central London, but too unfeeling to cheer and shout outside the homes of neighbours who were still mourning relatives who would never come home.

From Romford (including Collier Row and Gidea Park), 359 men had been killed. Hornchurch had lost 170, Upminster 66, Rainham around 60. Even rural Cranham had sacrificed seven of its residents.

Of the Hornchurch casualties, 26 came from Harold Wood, then just a few streets around its railway station.

There were 24 deaths from South Hornchurch, then just a scattering of agricultural workers’ cottages.

Not surprisingly, people marked the Armistice quietly and privately.

In Romford, an anonymous donor gave £50 – a lot of money in those days – to provide the town’s children with a victory dinner, planned for Christmas week.

At his home in Station Lane, Hornchurch, Charles Perfect celebrated that first evening of peace with a little ritual of his own.

In wartime, there’d been a rigid blackout – no streetlamps to guide enemy aircraft. Cars and bicycles had bumped and clattered around in pitch darkness.

No glimmer of light was allowed to escape any window in case it offered a target for Zeppelins.

The rules were enforced by special constables, middle-aged volunteers who’d replaced regular policemen enlisted in the Army.

“Specials” were often busybodies, who bullied householders for revealing the slightest chink of light.

Perfect had served as a “Special” himself.

Now he raised the blinds in every room, and turned up the gas light – electricity hadn’t reached Hornchurch – until his home was a beacon of happy illumination.

Three days later, Romford magistrates fined Alice Monk of Allandale Road two shillings and sixpence for cycling without a rear light.

Britain was at peace once again.