The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester

In this guest post, Father Robert Beaken describes the research he has undertaken for his latest book, on the Church of England in the First World War. Father Robert is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Great Bardfield, and St Katharine, Little Bardfield, in Essex. He holds a PhD from King’s College, London, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of seven works, including Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis (2012).

“Father Robert? I think you’d better come in to the Record Office the next time you’re passing.”

My unexpected telephone caller was Mrs Jane Bedford, who then worked at the Essex Record Office branch in Colchester, and who was an enormous help to me as I researched the role of Colchester’s parish churches in the Great War. Mrs Bedford went on to explain that an old established business in Colchester had recently closed. Going through the cupboards, someone had found the records of the Borough of Colchester Social Club for the Troops and had brought them into the Essex Record Office.

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

I knew a little about the Borough of Colchester Social Club for the Troops because it was mentioned in the Colchester War Memorial Souvenir (1924), which even included a somewhat lugubrious photograph of a tea party for wounded soldiers after the Armistice. The unexpected cache of papers revealed a whole lot more information about the club and its role helping the troops in wartime Colchester.

We tend to lump together all the British soldiers in the First World War, but in fact there were three distinct British armies. Firstly, in 1914 there was the old regular British army and its reservists: what the Kaiser called ‘that contemptible little army’. From late 1914/early 1915 there was Kitchener’s New Army, which was composed of volunteers who were usually of a much higher intellectual and social calibre than the old regular troops. Finally, in January 1916, Conscription was introduced, which meant that men from across the social spectrum were called up.

Before 1914, the ‘other ranks’ in the regular army were treated with some disdain by the general public and frequently regarded as potential sources of trouble. I show in my book how attitudes towards the army shifted during the Great War as a consequence from 1915 of a huge influx of ‘civilians-in-uniform’ (some 8 million British men had worn khaki by the Armistice). To begin with, it was felt desirable in Colchester to take steps to prevent the troops passing through the town from getting into scrapes, which principally meant keeping them out of pubs and brothels, and trying to preclude gambling and stealing. Various ‘clubs’ sprang up for the troops around the town, but the largest was run by the Borough, with significant help from the churches. This was open in the Albert School of Art in the High Street between 24 September 1914 and 31 May 1919. It provided a canteen, baths, a soldiers’ help bureau, a games room, a writing room, a reading room, a post office, and a small branch of Barclays Bank.

From the papers found in Colchester, I discovered that the club initially expected to cater for 1,000 visits per week, but soon had to cope with 25-30,000 visits per week. In 1916, for example, the club used 10,804 loaves of bread, 6,139 pounds of butter, 1,645 gallons of milk, 6,973 pounds of sugar, 1,557 pounds of tea, 449 pounds of coffee, 917 pounds of cocoa, 21,672 bottles of mineral water, 11 tons of cake, 311,515 pastries, and 2,404 pounds of meat for sandwiches.

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

The club was fairly successful in keeping troops out of mischief and preserving military discipline in Colchester. As the war progressed and the composition of the army changed, it helped volunteers or conscripts who were finding their introduction to military life difficult, or who were anxious about being sent to France, to cope. Similarly, keeping busy in the club and having a sense of purpose may have helped many of the civilian volunteers who ran the club to cope with their own wartime anxiety and bereavement.

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

Papers from the Colchester Social Club for the Troops (C948)

When Mrs Bedford telephoned me with the news that these documents about the Borough Social Club for the Troops had turned up, she knew that I was seeking to reconstruct the life of Colchester throughout the Great War as part of my study of the role of the parish churches on the home front. At long last my research has been published by Boydell and Brewer with the title The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester. A copy is available at Essex Record Office and is on sale at all good bookshops and online sources. I should like to add how immensely grateful I am to Mrs Bedford and the staff of Essex Record Office for their knowledgeable help and support.

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Church of England and the Home Front, Robert Beaken

Find out more about The Church of England an the Home Front on the publisher’s website here.

 

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