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Monthly Archives: April 2014

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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Posted by on 22 April 2014 in Famous companies, Famous People, Places, Then & Now

 

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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 Air Raid, Places, 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