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The YMCA, the Great War and the Bard

On the corner of Gower Street and Keppel Street in Bloomsbury stands the impressive inter-war building of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The site’s earlier history, though, is important in the history modern Shakespearean performances in the capital, linked to the RSC and the National Theatre – and it provided a haven for soldiers and sailors in London in the Great War.

In the years before the Great War, a group of like-minded and well-connected people were campaigning to open a Shakespeare Theatre in London as a venue for the Bard’s plays in the capital. In 1913, Sir Oswald Stoll gave 1616 guineas towards the project (an enormous sum when working men’s wages were around 20 or 30s per week – a guinea was 21 shillings). Israel Gollancz (uncle of the publisher Victor Gollancz) led the project and by early 1914 a site had been found and cleared, and a competition to design the theatre was launched, with a view to opening the theatre in 1916 for the tercentenary of the Bard’s death. In August 1914, the project came to a halt.

During the first eighteen months of the war, the YMCA and other organisations opened up places for soldiers and sailors to relax in London. Many were based around the railway termini (and we have seen that one was opened in 1917 for US servicemen: the Eagle Hut), but in August 1916 the ‘Shakespeare Hut’ was opened by Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (wife of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a grandson of Queen Victoria).

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The hut was used throughout the war for entertainments and as somewhere for soldiers and sailors to sleep if they had no accommodation in the city. The Times reported in September 1918 that over 2,000 men were sleeping in the Shakespeare Hut each week, the most of any of the YMCA huts whose statistics they listed.

After the war, the huts on the site were made into accommodation for students at the nearby University of London (the site is close to Senate House), mainly Indian students. The site was sold in April 1922 as the site for a new School of Hygiene in the University; as Gollancz (by now Sir Israel) put it, “On the site secured for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre there will soon arise a Temple of Hygeia”. This new building and others around the university have completely changed the scene around the site of the hut.

YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

Then: YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

 

The junction of Gower Street and Store Street today (image from Google streetview)

Now: The junction of Gower Street, Store Street and Keppel Street today (image from Google streetview)

While it was lent (rent-free) to the YMCA during the war years the site had increased in value, and in the years after the war rent had accumulated from the use by Indian students. This money went towards the National Theatre movement and the creation of a New Shakespeare Company, as the campaign for a Shakespeare theatre in London became more closely allied with the one that had already been built in Stratford. Although it never became the site of a Shakespeare memorial theatre, the site was part of the story of the genesis of the National Theatre (eventually established in 1963) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (created in 1961 at the Stratford theatre)

 

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Then and Now: Searchlights over Westminster

Then:

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Now:

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

‘The Palace of Westminster, instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front, its numerous windows casting their bright reflections on the waters, as in peace-time, is now a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight.’

This is how Michael Macdonagh, the parliamentary correspondent of the Times during the war, described the view of the Palace at night in December 1917 (in his book In London During the Great War).

The current Palace of Westminster was built in the 1840s and 1850s, following the fire of 1834 that destroyed most of the old Palace. Its outline is clearly the same today as it was in the Great War. The big difference is the light. Streetlights were kept to a minimum during the war and external lights on shops and public buildings were banned. This has a big impact on the Palace of Westminster, turning it into a shadow at night. Most noticeably, the clock face is dark. In addition the Ayrton Light did not shine. (This is the light at the top of the clock tower that is lit whenever Parliament is sitting after dark, to tell the nation that its elected representatives or the Lords are still at work). In place of those lights are the searchlights, scouring the sky in search of Zeppelins and German aeroplanes.  The war also changed the sounds of Westminster, as Big Ben fell silent in October 1914 and did not toll again until November 1918.

The impact of the Great War, though, was much less than the Second World War and the Blitz,as this page at West End at War demonstrates.

 
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Posted by on 8 April 2014 in Places, Air Raid, Then & Now

 

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Going to Cologne

The London County Council sports teams’ trip to Germany in Summer 1914 had to be abandoned. By the time that they were meant to be Cologne, many of the sportsmen were in the armed forces preparing to fight against the very Germans they had been planning to race and play sports against just weeks earlier.

The August 1914 edition of the London County Council (LCC) Gazette carried the details of the sports teams’ trip to Cologne, due to take place that month. They were to compete against athletic clubs from the German city. The city authorities were clearly excited by the Anglo-German contest, as medals were being struck especially to be awarded to the winners in the contests.

Cologne Cathedral (image from wikipedia)

Cologne Cathedral (image from wikipedia)

The planned schedule for the games was:

  • Tuesday August 18th: Football
  • Wednesday, August 19th: Lawn Tennis
  • Thursday, August 20th: Swimming
  • Friday, August 21st was held in reserve for playing off draws in the sports already played
  • Saturday, August 22nd: Athletics

In the end, the great mortal contest between Britain and Germany began in earnest on August 23rd – not in Cologne, but in Mons, Belgium, when the British Expeditionary Force met the German Army for the first time. 870 of the LCC’s staff had been called up for military service (as well as 436 naval reservists) and some of these men were in action at Mons – George Baker (who worked at Colney Hatch mental hospital) and L/Cpl E.W. Stretton were reported missing, and John Yates died of wounds the next day.

The LCC’s trip to Germany is a fine example of the general lack of antagonism between Britons and Germans in the months and years preceding the Great War. It also shows how unexpected the war was, as the September edition of the magazine noted: ‘A glance at the August Gazette brings home the suddenness of the catastrophe’.

Several of the LCC organisers joined the British armed forces during the war: Arthur Attwooll of the clerk’s department, the organiser of the football matches, served in the Royal West Kents and in a trench mortar unit. Walter N Halliwell (tramways department), the organiser of the swimming, was a serjeant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Twenty-seven year old George Deane Turk, from Walthamstow, worked as a clerical assistant in the Comptroller’s Department, and was responsible for planning the athletics on August 22nd along with Otto Marum in Cologne (who was also the football organiser on the German side). Turk was also honorary secretary of the sports club.

By the end of the August 1914, though, Turk was serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He became a corporal in the 85th (3rd London) Field Ambulance, part of 28th Division, and served in Salonika. In late 1916, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Essex Regiment and was posted to the 1st Battalion in 1917. On 14 April, he was taken prisoner when his battalion fought at Monchy-le-Preux. The battalion attacked at 5.30 that morning 31 officers and 892 men strong, captured the first German line, but they suffered heavily in the counter-attack. Turk was one of 17 officer casualties; 644 other ranks were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database lists 187 officers and men who died on 14 April from the 1st Essex alone – 181 of whom are remembered on the Arras Memorial, meaning that their bodies were not found or could not be identified.

An 18-pounder Battery in action in the open, west of Monchy-le-Preux, 11 April 1917. © IWM (Q 2017)

An 18-pounder Battery in action in the open, west of Monchy-le-Preux, 11 April 1917. © IWM (Q 2017)

Turk did survive 14 April, but sadly died of his wounds on 23 June 1917. Another prisoner, Sergeant George Rogerson of the Rifle Brigade, wrote to Turk’s mother with the details. In one of the horrible ironic twists of fate that war throws up, 2nd Lt G.D. Turk was buried in Cologne Southern cemetery, one of over 1000 allied prisoners of war buried there (he is also commemorated on a grave at Chingford Mount Cemetery, possibly his parents’ grave). His service file doesn’t say whether he was in hospital in Cologne during his two months of captivity. If he was, one has to wonder whether he thought about the irony of having arrived in the city where he had planned to spend late-August 1914.

His correspondent in 1914, Otto Marum, also appears to have died during the war. The German army records on ancestry.com list an Otto Marum, born in Koln in 1885 as having died while on active service on 7 August 1916.*

For George Deane Turk and other sporty staff at the London County Council, August 1914 should have been a time when they were traveling and competing with German friends. In the end, Turk and many others ended up fighting the Germans. One must suspect that the LCC and Cologne athletes would have been among the generation hardest hit by the war, being healthy, relatively young adult men in 1914. How many, like Turk, lost their lives in the conflict?

 

Sources:

J.W. Adamson and L. Hudson (eds), A London Town Miscelleny, vol 1 (which reproduces articles from the LCC Gazette)

G.D. Turk’s  service records

1st Essex war diary

Ancestry: German casualty lists, 1911 Census, British soldiers’ service records.

* The entry for Otto Marum in a list of casualties lists his unit as “Fusla. Btt. 481 Vz Wachtm”. I would be interested to know what that means, if anyone can help.

 
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Posted by on 1 April 2014 in Ordinary Londoners, Places, War Dead

 

Honours and awards

Today a hundred military honours and awards have been announced today, mostly relating to the war in Afghanistan.  The British military Great War was, of course, vastly larger than it is today. Around a million men served in the army, navy and air force from London alone. How many honours and awards did they receive?

Cpl George Coppard MM of the Machine Gun Corps, author of 'With a Machine Gun to Cambrai' © IWM (Q 71267)

Cpl George Coppard MM of the Machine Gun Corps, author of ‘With a Machine Gun to Cambrai’ © IWM (Q 71267)

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Londoners were given awards for gallantry or good work during the war. They probably numbered somewhere in the tens of thousands, though.

Among the 10,142 London County Council employees who served, 401 were awarded British decorations: including 5 Distinguished Service Orders, 68 Military Crosses (of whom 7 earned bars for a second medal and one a second bar for a third MC award), 39 Distinguished Conduct Medals (2 bars) and 125 Military Medals (10 bars). Twenty-six earned CBEs, OBEs or MBEs, and ten earned Royal Red Cross medals. In addition to those British awards, 21 received French decorations, nine the Belgian Croix de Guerre, and another 16 earned other foreign decorations. If that figure is scaled up to the (roughly) one million Londoners who served*, we can conservatively say that tens of thousands of Londoners earned medals for gallantry and good service, possibly around 40,000.

Soldiers in the 47th (2nd London) Division alone earned two Victoria Crosses (Sgt J Harvey, 22nd Londons, and L/Cpl LJ Keyworth, 24th Londons), as well as at least 97 Distinguished Service Orders, 472 MCs, 321 DCMs, and 1909 MMs (including bars). A total of well over 2,500 for this one division, primarily made up of Londoners; as it was inherently a fighting force we can’t scale this up to the whole of London.

L/Cpl LJ Keyworth, the first VC-winner of the 47th (2nd London) Division - image from the divisional history

L/Cpl LJ Keyworth, the first VC-winner of the 47th (2nd London) Division – image from the divisional history

We have met a number of London medal winners already:

Rev Noel Mellish and Cpl George Jarratt, who each won the Victoria Cross; cricketer Reggie Schwarz who earned the MC as a staff officer; Albert Mason, the brave MM winner who was blinded in action; FP Hewkley, the gallant signaller who also earned the MM; the Hanscombe brothers Bert and and Richard who earned the MM and DCM respectively; Harry O’Hara who earned the MM as a soldier and then became a fighter pilot; Sergeant-pilot CRL Falcy who earned the DCM for bravery in the air; 2 Lt IL Roy and Arthur Newland,  who earned the DFC and DCM respectively as air aces, JH Dollittle who earned the DCM for bravery on the ground; and Arthur Feldwick who earned the Albert Medal for saving lives.

As today, it was not only men who earned medals during the Great War, of course, and we have also met ambulance drivers Mary Bushby Stubbs and Sadie Bonnell, munitions worker Hannah Spash, and nurse Beatrice Alice Allsop who all earned medals for their bravery.

In 1914-1918, as now, there is a story and a person behind every one of those awards. The men and women given honours and awards today deserve our respect, as does the memory of those who were decorated for their service in the Great War.

*One million is the rough estimate for those who served from Greater London given by Adrian Gregory in Capital Cities at War (by Jay Winter, et al), it is also roughly the figure I estimate from the number of naval and military absent voters in 1918 in Greater London increased in proportion with ratio of absent voters and service personnel nationwide.

Sources:

LCC Record of Service

History of the 47th (London) Division, ed by A.H. Maude

 
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Posted by on 21 March 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

Then and Now: Rahere’s Tomb

Then:

Rahere's Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Rahere’s Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Now:

Rahere's tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Rahere’s tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Under the threat of attack from the air, some of the treasures of London were hidden from view behind sandbags.  At the British Museum, those artifacts that could not be moved to safety after the galleries were closed to the public were protected, as we have seen.  At Charing Cross, the statue of Charles I was hidden behind wooden hoardings and sandbags.  At St Bartholomew’s Church in Smithfield, the tomb of the church’s founder Rahere was also covered with sandbags.

Unlike most London landmarks, though, St Bart’s really did come close to destruction. On 8 September 1915, the largest bomb yet dropped on London fell from Zeppelin L13 on Batholomew’s Close. The 660lb bomb caused an enormous amount of damage, creating a hole eight feet deep, gutting a local printworks,  smashing shopfronts and shattering windows. A fountain in the close was virtually split in two. One curious effect of the blast was that it revealed the timber-framed gateway to the courtyard of St Bart’s church. Thankfully it missed the nearby hospital and the soldiers being treated there.

Rahere founded the church and hospital in the early twelfth century after a vision of St Bartholomew instructed him to. The site was on the King’s land, so Rahere had to win the favour of King Henry I, which he managed to do despite being discouraged by the London barons. Rahere was often portrayed as the king’s jester or minstrel in later years, but remained prior of St Bartholomew’s until his death. His effigy was installed in the church in the early fifteenth century, where it has remained to this day – despite the danger of time, the puritans, and two world wars.

Sources:

Secret London

Ian Castle – London 1914-17, the Zeppelin Menace

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Michael McDonagh – In London during the Great War

 
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Posted by on 16 March 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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Taking in a show

There are a number of plays that we associate with the Great War, R.C. Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ and Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ the most prominent among them. For Londoners during the war, though, the theatre was a place of distraction and escape. The most successful West End play of the war was Oscar Asche’s musical comedy ‘Chu Chin Chow’.

In the days before radio and television, the theatre, cinema and music halls were the big mass entertainments available to Britons. Throughout the Great War, despite the scorn of the ‘Die Hards’ who wanted all amusement abandoned for the duration, all three flourished.

There were war-related songs, films and plays, of course. The 1914 song ‘Your King and Country Want You‘ by Paul Rubens was clearly a product of the war, with its chorus of “Oh! we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go/For your King and Country both need you so”. So too – just as obviously but much less popularly- was the song ‘The Military Representative‘ by RP Weston and Bert Lee. Other popular songs were simply sentimental – perhaps given added resonance by the pressures and separations of wartime – such as ‘If you were the only girl (in the world)

We have seen that the film the Battle of the Somme was a huge success for a few weeks in 1916, but really most audiences wanted escapism and follow-up documentaries about the war did not have anything like the same level of success. Charlie Chaplin was a much more popular choice among British cinema-goers.

A wartime scene in a play at the Coliseum in 1917 (Daily Mirror, 10/01/1917)

A rare wartime scene in a play at the Coliseum in 1917 (Daily Mirror, 10/01/1917)

The theatre, too, was a place of refuge.  Diaries and letters of Londoners and people visiting the city include numerous mentions.

Vera Brittain remembered her brother Edward’s short leave in London in her autobiography, Testament of Youth:

‘Edward’s leave, like all short leaves, vanished in a whirlwind of activities. Somehow he crowded into it an afternoon at Keymer [visiting the family], a visit to Victor [Richardson], who was now at Purfleet, a concert, and one or two theatres, which inevitably included Romance, with Doris Keane and Owen Nares, and Chu Chin Chow.’

The plays people went to see were not war plays, although there were some of those.  Michael Macdonagh went to the theatre regularly in late 1915 (in his In London During the Great War):

‘The theatres, music-halls and cinemas are doing well. None of us, speaking generally, are pinched for money. We are being paid good wages or better salaries, both with war bonus additions, and so are ready to spend freely on relaxations from the tension of the War. There are also large numbers of wounded soldiers in the hospitals, or physically well on leave, whose desire and need for entertainment is far greater than that of civilians, of course, and on no account must be denied. Matinées are held every day, and these are always well patronised. On dark nights, which are air raid nights, attendances are slack. We prefer to stay at home behind our well-curtained windows. But when the moon is out Zeppelins stay in, and we can go to the theatre with an easy mind. Places of entertainment have begun, in fact, to advertise “moony nights” as holiday resorts do “sunny days.” “Come and see the Bing Boys: it is a full moon to-night so you need not fear the ‘Bang Boys’.” Yes, the full moon was majestically sailing last night in a clear sky. The streets were thronged with carefree crowds “mooning” themselves. How we delight in the moon! We look up and laugh heartily at seeing the Man in the Moon winking good-humouredly at us!’

Walking around London in 1916, he noted down what was on offer:

‘Here are the titles of the plays at some of the theatres which I passed in the course of my walk. Strand, “Ye Gods!”; Globe, “Peg o’ My Heart”; Criterion, “A Little Bit of Fluff”; His Majesty’s, “Chu Chin Chow”; Daly’s, “The Happy Day”; Drury Lane, “Razzle Dazzle”; Duke of York’s, “Daddy Long Legs.” Ah, here is something different – Royalty, “The Man who Stayed at Home.” Even in War-time with all its gloom hilarity will keep breaking in. No situation is ever so bad that it might not be much worse!’

‘The Man who Stayed at Home’ stood out to Macdonagh because it was the only war play on offer at the theatres he passed, walking through the West End in 1916.

One play stands out beyond all others as the great hit of the war years, and it is the play mentioned in both Brittain’s and Macdonagh’s lists of plays in London. This was Chu Chin Chow, a music comedy written, produced and directed by Oscar Asche.

Oscar Asche in cosume for Chu Chin Chow

Oscar Asche in cosume for Chu Chin Chow

The play was, according to William A Everett (writing about its obvious Orientalist elements), ‘one of the greatest successes in the history of popular musical theatre’.  It opened in August 1916 and ran for nearly five years – until July 1921 – with 2,235 performances, more than twice as many as any other previous musical. This made it the longest-running play ever in the West End (although it is no longer in the top 10). It went on to be a hit on Broadway and was revived in 1940.

The play is loosely based on the tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, featuring slaves, spies, lovers, disguises and a magic cave. The Guide to Musical Theatre has a fun synopsis here.

The Times described it as an “excursion into the region of fantastic, polyphonic, polychromatic Orientalism. Mr Asche himself preferred to call it an Eastern revue. It is, in fact, everything by turns and nothing long – a kaleidoscopic series of scenes now romantic, now realistic, now Futurist or Vorticist, but always beautiful, with action passing from the sentimental to the droll and from the droll to the grim, and yet with the unity of a familiar tale, the old Arabian Nights’ tale of the Forty Thieves.” (Times 1/9/1916)

The colourful set and costumes and the music were a major part of its appeal. Asche updated the costumes each year, with  criticism from some quarters that cannot have harmed the play’s appeal with the masses:

'Do these dresses offend you?' Chu Chin Chow's new cosumes in the Daily Mirror, 4/9/1917

‘Do these dresses offend you?’ Chu Chin Chow’s new cosumes in the Daily Mirror, 4/9/1917

As Macdonagh’s description of the theatre crowd and Edward Brittain’s whirl-wind leave schedule suggest, it was not just civilians who sought escape in the theatre. Many soldiers – and particularly officers – went to the theatre if they could.

They also took the theatre to war with them. In the Imperial War Musuem’s collection is an HMV record of the songs from Chu Chin Chow, taken to war by 2nd Lieutenant C.R. Tobbitt of the Royal Engineers.

Soldiers also performed the show to each other in concert parties on the Western Front:

'Chu-Chin-Chow', played by the 1st Australian Concert Party, Bailleul, France (c)AWM E01641

‘Chu-Chin-Chow’, played by the 1st Australian Concert Party, Bailleul, France (c)AWM E01641

Or even in Germany:

a Prisoner of War (POW) production of "Chu Chin Chow" at the Freiburg POW camp, Germany. (c)AWM P03236.270

a Prisoner of War (POW) production of “Chu Chin Chow” at the Freiburg POW camp, Germany. (c)AWM P03236.270

Although one suspects that the appeal of watching a bunch of comrades performing the play was rather different to seeing Asche’s young actresses in their risque outfits.

The contrast would have been even greater because of the lack of young men in the theatre casts in London. Milton Valentine Snyder noticed a distinct lack of them by 1918 after yet another effort to conscript more young men: ‘Managers have usually boasted of the number of pretty girls in their shows. If this war continues, it is possible press agents may be driven to lay stress on the number of able-bodied men.’

Theatre, like cinema and music-hall, offered civilians and service personnel alike an escape from the pressures, dangers and anxieties of wartime. Chu Chin Chow  was great escapism for wartime (and post-war) Londoners, combining this relief from the anxieties of everyday life with a glimpse of (a version of) the orient and with music, comedy and colourful costumes. It was just what people needed in the hard years from the summer of 1916.

 
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Posted by on 4 March 2014 in Famous People, Places

 

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Then and Now: Waterloo YMCA

This is the first in a new series of short posts showing scenes from Great War London with the same location today.

Then:

Waterloo YMCA hut next to St John's Church (c)IWM Q28744

Waterloo YMCA hut next to St John’s Church (c)IWM Q28744

Now:

The scene today (image from Google streetview)

The scene today (image from Google streetview)

The new building on the left (KCL’s James Clerk Maxwell building) is closer to the church than its predecessor was, and there are no longer public toilets under the road, but you can still clearly see where the YMCA building was.

In case you’re wondering what Iron Jelloids are, they are basically lozenge sweets used to counter an iron deficiency. According to a blog post about them ‘by April 1913 The British Journal of Nursing could write that “Iron Jelloids are now well-known as a neutral, palatable, non-constipating form of Iron Tonic.”‘

 
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Posted by on 20 February 2014 in Places, Then & Now

 
 
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