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North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 13
The impact of the World War

The impact was a heavy one for the men who enlisted during that first month of August 1914, for the women who were left behind and for the children in school. Everyone in the parish became involved, many deeply. "We do not think that there is anyone left in the Parish who is not engaged in work of a National necessity" declared the chairman of the parish council in response to an official request for volunteers for national service in 1917.

At the beginning of August holidaymaking occupied the thoughts of those who could take one. At the end of that month a telegram was sent to Kitchener, Minister of War:

"Over sixty men of the Parish of North Mymms, Hatfield, having a male population of between three and four hundred, have answered your call to rural England, by enlisting and volunteering to serve in His Majesty’s Forces. All other men awaiting your further call."

"A magnificently loyal wave of enthusiasm", the vicar wrote, "has swept over the manhood of our Parish. The unspeakable ferocity of the cultured savages of the War Lord has aroused and called into being all that is noblest in the hearts of Englishmen."

The men who enlisted in that first enthusiasm, gamekeepers, gardeners, labourers, an old Etonian, a university fellow, can all be identified, and all those who served subsequently. By the end of the war two hundred and sixty eight men had joined the forces of whom no less than forty six had been killed and some seventy wounded, many of them more than once. Most of them were in the Herts and Beds regiment, but others were in all services, in every kind of unit and on all the various fronts.

There was great pride in the parish’s contribution of men. The parish council prepared a list of names with a view to winning the recruiting prize offered by the Weekly Dispatch. The schoolmaster at Welham Green, Benjamin Mallett, kept a careful record of the military service of all his old boys, while the vicar, Rev C G Ward, did the same for the parish. Each month in the parish magazine the Roll of Honour gave the fullest possible news of the numerous fallen, wounded, prisoners and postings to the Front. The vicar explained the twofold necessity for the sacrifice:

"England was bound to fulfill her obligations, and she will put forth all her strength in defence of the oppressed, but while she is striking for justice and liberty, and for the trustworthiness of solemn pledges given between nation and nation, it must not be forgotten that the Germans have been preparing for years to strike a desperate blow at our Empire, our Colonies, our independence, our trade; that blow has now fallen, and we are fighting for our honour, our liberty, our homes, our women and children, and for the future of our posterity. About the justice of our cause there can be no two opinions."

The patriotism of North Mymms was of a piece with the nation. Kitchener had asked for 100,000 men for his new army; by the end of September 1914 he had 750,060.

The women devoted themselves to looking after their absent men as best they could. By November 1914 "Garments for the Troops" had already been sent amounting to:

"6 scarves, 6 hot water bottle covers, 84 shirts, 39 bed jackets, 4 dressing gowns, S nightingales, 34 pyjamas, 12 pillow cases, 9 flannel vests, 3 wool helmets, 3 pairs bed socks, 12 knitted dish cloths, 44 pairs socks, 6 pairs sheets."

The ladies of the parish formed a working party to knit for soldiers and after a year’s work a hundred women had made over six hundred articles. But this was not enough. As the forces’ insatiable demand for men grew, the War Working Party’ was called on to increase its supply’ of comforts for them. It was reformed to become part of the War Needlework league in which members pledged themselves to one garment per month and a contribution of sixpence a year.

Ladies and women joined together, not only’ in knitting comforts, but, often under the vicar’s leadership, in maintaining links with absent men. Every year they sent Christmas parcels; in 1917 two parcels went to each of the ninety-four men at the different fronts, and to ‘‘our three prisoners’’. Letters of thanks came back to rejoice them. "Our Day’’ for the Red Cross raised large sums of money in that same year £163. The produce of the harvest festival went in cartloads to the wounded in hospital - The French Wounded received their support.

Events changed the women’s and the ladies’ lives, ‘they were all working hard for their country, women will have played a large part in victory’’, the Girls’ Friendly Society was told. The attitude to wonton working on the land had to change as the farms were drained of men and the farmers were pressed to produce more food. No women were employed in 1915 and the view of the Hatfield War Agricultural Committee was that no good could be expected from training them, but in the following year Mrs Tottenham Gaussen of Brookmans was helping to register women workers and before long two ladies were actually co-opted on to the committee. Soon after, women in the parish were getting their armlets issued by the Board of Agriculture. By 1917 the farmers were filling in their forms of application for women workers. A year later all the women who had worked on the land were told to give their names to Lady Leese of Welham Manor so that they could be presented with a stripe for their uniforms.

Forewomen were needed according to one advertisement:

"Should any farmer require a fbrewoman, or leader of local women workers, Miss Davies can be engaged for the purpose. She has been accustomed to farm work, and is recommended by the National Land Service Corps. Present address: Steward’s House, Brookmans Park. The plan of engaging a forewoman or gang leader from outside the neighbourhood has been tried in many counties, arid has generally proved the most successful way of using women’s labour The employers are spared all trouble in engaging the gang, as the leaders are responsible for that, as well as for keeping time-sheets, pay lists etc.

The meagre allowances for soldiers’ dependants meant that paid work for wives and children was welcome.

Towards the end of the war, in March 1918, the ladies started a Women’s Institute, following the foundation of the national movement a year earlier. Meetings at the scout house were concerned with the food shortage. Mothers had been keeping their sons from school so that they could join the food queues in St Albans. Rationing was only then about to begin. Speakers from the Ministry of Food gave useful recipes for meatless mince, meatless joints, suetless crust and fatless pastry. Later, the subjects of talks became more varied e.g. The Work of English women in France - "everywhere they were helping on the victory of civilisation and the dawn of peace."

The children were as committed and involved as their parents, not only as farm labour but also as recruits in various war efforts. One such effort was the blackberry picking in enormous quantities for the Ministry of Food; in one good year the Welham Green and Little Heath school children together picked 616 pounds. Half a ton of horse chestnuts for making explosives was gathered by the boys.

Physically, the doctor reported, they were above average in height and weight, but their schooling suffered from farm work, in common with children throughout the country.

Throughout the war years there was a tug of war for the school children between the farmers and the teachers, with the district attendance committee sitting ineffectually in the middle, and the farmers usually winning. From 1914 the Welham Green headmaster continually reported illegal employment of his pupils, only to be told that the attendance committee would not prosecute. He closed the school periodically for haymaking, harvesting, potato setting and picking. At Little Heath school the problem was not so serious, though in 1916 seven boys left early for land work, "three of good educational promise".

The first device to meet the situation was the official issue, in that year, of certificates to older boys granting exemption from school for periods of one to three months. Eleven boys at Welham Green school had three months’ certificates, and illegal employment of boys without certificates still continued unchecked. Next year the vicar reported a new order that "Boys over 12 may be used for agricultural purposes". This was the Extended Holiday Scheme which released older boys for work while keeping the younger ones in "vacation classes" in the older ones’ absence. This meant that boys of twelve were away from school for eighteen weeks in the year and those weeks were "taken earlier or later according to local agricultural requirements".

In that dark year of 1917 the vicar wrote in the parish magazine, "While we are all war weary we must realise that the time has come to redouble our efforts." The Parish Meeting responded to a message from the Lord Lieutenant by resolving on their determination for victory. All the same, shooting parties had to continue. Boys required for beating at North Mymms Park were absent from school as if there were not enough other causes for absence.

The school children in Welham Green arid Water End were fortunate to keep their regular head teachers; Little Heath school of nearly two hundred boys and girls was not so lucky with a temporary war-supply man. Benjamin Mallett at Welham Green devoted himself to his pupils and the welfare of his old boys in the forces. Over worked, for lengthy periods teaching single handed fifty boys of all ages, he suffered a breakdown after the loss of a son. On 11 November 1918 he entered in the log book:

"At noon today I received intimation that the Armistice had been signed. The school flags were at once hoisted. This afternoon instead of usual singing in school, I marched the boys round the village singing National Anthem and patriotic Songs. This was much appreciated by local residents and thoroughly enjoyed by the boys."

At the peace celebrations, held in the school, the old boys presented him with "a handsome gold watch as a token of their respect, honour and affection for him". The damage had, however, been done. In January 1919 every boy was present, for the first time since the war began, and the task was to restore pre-war standards. "Considerable improvement will be looked for under normal conditions", warned His Majesty’s inspector.

Men over age and under age, the unfit, any farmers who claimed exemption from the forces, the clergy also exempted had remained in the parish. The vicar volunteered, but on being given a low medical category, was instructed by the bishop to remain at his post. There was more than enough work for them. In their scanty spare time twenty volunteers, including railway signalmen cultivated the absent soldiers’ allotments for them.

Farming had serious problems. In November 1915 the Hatfield War Agricultural Committee declared:

"The most important matter is the supply and regulation of labour. If the Coutry is denuded of capable farm servants the produce of the land cannot be increased and must necessarily be diminished. In the present scarcity of labour it is useless to cultivate wastelands. The Military Recruiting Officers exert what pressure they can on every available man, regardless of the position they hold The Military and Parliamentary Recruiting Committees should act in unison. A proper classification of men is necessary, distinguishing classes such as stockmen, horsemen, cowmen, ploughmen etc, who are indispensable, from ordinary day labourers"

The Committee enquired how far the public health bye laws handicapped pig keeping and was rewarded with suspension of the laws. It wanted the school attendance bylaws also suspended so that not only boys, but also girls, of twelve years could work on the land, but it had to wait a little longer for that.

The farmers themselves were working overtime, at the expense of their civic duties. Charles Honour of Moffats Farm moved in the Rural District Council that the seat of James Crawford of Potterells Farm should be declared vacant because of his absences, but Crawford explained that they were due to "stress of business", and he was reinstated. Another North Mymms farmer, W B Field, was disqualified for the same reason. Both men had also had to neglect, under pressure of work no doubt, attendance at the Hatfield Board of Guardians. Help was, however, on the way. The call up of labourers, due in January 1917, was deferred.

The shortage of labour resulted inevitably in some land not being fully used. When it became compulsory to notify any "land improperly farmed" Mrs Burn’s land at Potwells and the Gaussen’s Swanley Bar Farm were duly reported to the authorities. Substantial help came with the Corn Production Act of 1917. Farmers were guaranteed against losses on wheat and oats. The labourers were also protected, for the first time. Their wages, which had lagged well behind prices, were subject to a minimum of 25 shillings per week.

Not everything was changed. The church organisations, thrift clubs, temperance society and Band of Hope, the cottage garden competition continued for the time being, while new ones such as the war savings association were formed - "Every 6d that is forthcoming helps to drive yet another nail into the coffin of German militarism". The historic endowed charities were still distributed in the old way, though the voluntary collections moved from the traditional good causes such as poor relief to the British Red Cross. At church some alterations became necessary; services, though earlier in the evening, had to be blacked out, insurance against damage by enemy aircraft was required. There were the special Services of Intercession and the Mission of Repentance and Hope. The clergy received gifts of a new clergy seat and a silk stole, burse and veil.

The parish council maintained its peace time defence of footpaths, stiles, drains and public wells. But it also found the time and inclination to discuss larger issues - the provision of a recreation field as well as an additional burial ground, and, even then, a railway station at Marshmoor. It reflected the anti-German feeling of the nation. Prisoners of war were in Marshmoor camp. When the well top at Marshmoor needed repairs the council registered its strong objection "to the German prisoners who were occasionally working at the Siding going to draw water from the well as German prisoners were not to be trusted from committing filthy nuisances or any other spiteful damage." Several of the prisoners died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

At the end of the war there were many vacant places among the men of the parish. The women received new responsibilities and a new status. In December 1918 Miss Church spoke to the Women’s Institute about the privilege of the women over thirty having the vote and how careful they must be in exercising it. The vote, another speaker explained, was "a free gift from the men, owing to their finding it impossible to carry on the war without the women’s help. The State, created by men, was not at all perfect but now that women were allowed to help there might be a great improvement. In the local elections women should vote for those candidates who took a special interest in housing, sanitation, education and pure milk, and indeed elect a woman who knew about such matters."

Among the benefits of the war must also be counted the first housing by the district council at Barfolds in Welham Green under Addison’s Housing Act of 1918. Whether trade unions also came into the parish, as they did in many places as a result of the war time minimum wage, is not known.

Peter Kingsford, 1986


Chapter 14 - An ancient family
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book

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