Monthly Archives: June 2013

Recruiting in armour: Norman Wrighton

War brought some odd sights to London’s streets. One of these was a Shakespearean actor recruiting in a suit of armour on Charing Cross Road

From Daily Express 18 Dec 1915

From Daily Express 18 Dec 1915

Norman Wrighton was born in Staffordshire and came to London to act in the West End. In the 1911 census, he gave his occupation as ‘Actor, dramatist and poet’ and his employer as Seymour Hicks – a prominent London performer and theatre manager.

Wrighton was keen on making Shakespeare accessible to the public – including through open-air recitals in Hyde Park, and through recitals in the Music Halls (about which he wrote to the Times in 1910). He also wrote invasion plays – a genre designed to alert the British public to the threat of war in Europe and possible invasion of their country. The Stage Yearbook 1910 lists his sketch ‘Wake Up England’ being performed at the Empire in Leeds in February 1909. The previous year, his play Britain’s Awakening (in which he also starred) appeared in the West End in London.

Quite why he felt the need to dress in armour to deliver his recruiting speech in December is not clear, although he undoubtedly attracted greater attention that way (judging by a wider-angled photo of the scene, the crowd were mainly soldiers, though, which may have defeated the point somewhat). The statue in front of which he spoke is of Sir Henry Irving at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, behind the National Portrait Gallery.

Earlier that year, another of his plays ‘Kultur’ was reportedly used by recruiting sergeants in the capital. Perhaps that is was what Wrighton was reciting in front of Irving’s stature, clad in armour.

Daily Mirror 17 July 1915

Daily Mirror 17 July 1915


Posted by on 28 June 2013 in Famous People, Recruitment


The animals’ return

It was not only service-men and women who returned from the Great War in 1919. Their animals also came home – many of them ended up in the new Blue Cross Quarantine Kennels on Shooter’s Hill.

Blue Cross Quarantine Kennels, Shooters Hill (from The Blue Cross At War)

Blue Cross Quarantine Kennels, Shooters Hill (from The Blue Cross At War)

The Blue Cross fund was set up by the Our Dumb Friends League (which now known simply as Blue Cross) to help animals in the 1912 Balkan War in the way the the Red Cross helped wounded people. ODFL had their headquarters on Victoria Street in Westminster.

Not put off by the initial rejection of their services by the War Office, ODFL soon set up their Blue Cross horse hospitals near to the battlefield.  By the end of 1915, their 12 hospitals in France had treated 2850 horses – of whom 2250 had returned to duty, 92 had died and 550 were still undergoing treatment at the end of the year. During 1915 a hospital was also set up in Italy, when that nation joined the Allies. Through the war, the hospitals received over 6000 horses and cured over 5600 of them. In 1917, the Blue Cross also took up care for war dogs – with 1604 treated (of which 1088 were cured) in that year alone.

Blue Cross campaign poster, 1916

Blue Cross campaign poster, 1916

All the while, and with diminishing resources, ODFL were also treating pets back at home.  In 1916 the Animals’ Hospital it had founded in London in 1906 treated nearly 8000 out-patient animals and 1222 in-patients, primarily dogs (4955) and cats (2483).

At the end of the war, there was a new problem – service personnel wanting to bring their pets and mascots back from the battlefields. ODFL took over Charlton Kennels on Shooters Hill as their Quarantine Kennels, allowing those returning from the war to bring back their dogs to the UK by providing subsidised quarantine facilities – and therefore also reducing the risk of animal smuggling.

The Kennels lasted well beyond that initial demobilisation period and became a place for military pets to be housed when their owners’ units went overseas.  There is now a Pet Cemetery there, where those early pets and many more – including animals that saw service in the Second World War – are buried. The ‘Friends of the Pet Cemetery’ are now campaigning and organising to restore it to honour the pets buried there.

Find out more:

The Blue Cross at War was the source for much of the history in this post – it is available to read online on the Blue Cross website.

The Friends of the Pet Cemetery have a facebook page here, and have got some media coverage recently (e.g. in the South London Press)

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Posted by on 17 June 2013 in Places


A Zepp raid and a suicide

The Zeppelin raids of 1915 brought physical destruction and great terror to London. The horror was so much that the suicide of London landlord John Nicholas Petry in 1932 was blamed of his experience in a raid 17 years earlier.

The fifth air raid on London killed 47 people and injured more than 100. On the night of 13/14 October 1915, Zeppelins L13 and L14 bombed Woolwich and East Croydon respectively, while L15 dropped bombs on Westminster and across the City of London.  The first of L15’s bombs fell on and around the Lyceum Theatre just off the Strand.

Excellent map of the 13/14 October 1915 raid, from the Osprey book London 1914-17

Excellent map of the 13/14 October 1915 raid (from the Osprey book London 1914-17)

The first bombs fell during the interval of the performance at the Lyceum, striking the theatre and the roads around it. The Old Bell pub, just behind the theatre, was full of customers (including theatre-goers). 17 people were killed by the bomb on the junction of Exeter St and Wellington St, including eight in the pub, and 21 others were seriously injured.

Bomb damage on and around the junction of Wellington St and Exeter St. The Old Bell pub is on the right of the image (from Osprey London 1914-17 book)

Bomb damage on and around the junction of Wellington St and Exeter St. The Old Bell pub is on the right of the image (from Osprey book London 1914-17)

The Zeppelin continued its destructive visit to the capital, dropping further bombs around Lincoln’s Inn, Grey’s Inn, Farringdon and Aldgate. (L15 returned home safely that night, but it was destroyed a few months later by anti-aircraft fire while on another bombing mission).

The death and destruction in and around the Old Bell must have been shocking to all who witnessed it, but it was particularly disturbing to the landlord, John Nicholas Petry.

Petry was born in Battersea in 1880 and married Minnie Louisa Hopkin in 1906.  By 1911, they were running the Swan pub in Leadenhall Market and lived there with their two year old son John Bernard Petry. By 1915, they had taken on the running of the Old Bell, where they witnessed the deaths of customers and passers-by on the night that Zeppelin L15 first visited London in October that year.

The same junction today (Google maps image) - the Old Bell has been replaced by a blue-fronted cafe.

The same junction today (Google streetview image) – the Old Bell has been replaced by a blue-fronted cafe.

John Nicholas Petry, as a married man, became liable to be conscripted into the armed forces in June 1916 – when compulsory service was extended to married men. He wasn’t called up right away, but did end up joining in February 1917. His wife later claimed that this was after seven attempts to join up, which seems odd given that he was relatively fit (although he did have flat feet) and not in an essential war industry. Either way, he ended up in the Army Service Corps in 1917, where they made the most of his experience as a ‘licenced victualler manager’ by sending him out to work in the British Expeditionary Force’s canteens, initially in the 5th Army area and later (from November 1917) in the 3rd Army area. Minnie Petry also claimed that he suffered from shell shock while in France, which may have been behind his period in hospital in July 1918, but it is not clear from his service record (his condition is recorded as ‘PUO’ – Pyrexia of Unknown Origin).

When peace came, Private Petry was demobilised and returned to the pub at 23 Wellington Street. He reportedly had regular medical attention through the rest of his life.  In January 1932, he poisoned himself with disinfectant and died in the Homeopathic Hospital on Great Ormond Street.  The coroner, P.B. Skeels, reported that Petry had ‘no doubt’ suffered from neurasthenia since the air raid and had not been the same since – neurasthenia was the generic medical term for post-traumatic stress (often a synonym for shell shock).

The verdict on Petry’s death was ‘suicide while of unsound mind’ – showing the mental strain that the terror of air raids could (and can) cause. His death came too late for him to be officially recorded as one of Britain’s war dead, but his death was clearly a result of his wartime experiences – and particularly his experience of the night of 13/14 October 1915 in London.



On the raid: Ian Castle – London 1914-17: the Zeppelin Menace (Osprey)

On Petry’s life : army service record, census, and Daily Mirror and Times reports of his death.


Posted by on 2 June 2013 in Air Raid, Ordinary Londoners