Thinking about Great War communities

My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.

So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.

One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.

But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.

Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.

Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?

There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.

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13 Comments

Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, World War One

13 responses to “Thinking about Great War communities

  1. That’s an interesting contrast between the two wars. Over here, data from World War 2 is plentiful, while World War 1 information gets fairly sparse. (Granted, we spent barely a year heavily involved on land, and little more at sea.) Good stuff!

  2. x

    That is interesting. I was always under the impression that though the Dockyard was a source of employment for Portsmouth in many ways what lay beyond beyond the gates was very much a separate places. I wouldn’t go as far to say in tension, and perhaps friction is the wrong word too, more that it was the there two “communities” or entities that co-existed more than a symbiotic whole.

    @ John E

    The dockyard wall is very much an historic building its own right. And though some parts of Portsmouth have been redeveloped heavily the wall in places seems to provide a temporal barrier.

    • x

      Pressed Post by mistake!!!!!!

      So even though the dockyard itself has changed within there seems to be a greater than average (for Portsmouth) older (or historic) buildings to be found.

    • James Daly

      The Dockyard is a strange one for Portsmouth. Often throughout history the more uppity social elite resented it, and its uncouth influence, but at the same time no can discount the employment and prosperity that it offers. To resent the Dockyard in Portsmouth would be like Stoke turning its back on property, or Sheffield banning steel.

      For your run of mill working family, the wall was hardly a divider. It certainly didn’t stop the stealing! As one of my tutors was fond of saying, many of the items from the Dockyard had a strange habit of growing legs and walking out of the gate. There is a fable that if all of the items in Portsmouth that have been stolen from the yard were taken back, the city and all of its houses would fall down. My dad still has his dockie tools, albeit legally as when you were apprenticed the tools became yours when you left. They’ve outlasted many generations of tools from B&Q and the like. The Dockyard was so woven into Portsmouth society, that apparently if you were due to work on a Saturday afternoon, you could take the afternoon off if you wanted to go to Fratton Park if Pompey were at home. And then theres the countless Pompey lingo words that came from the Dockyard.

      So it was very much a world of its own, but then it did permeate out into the town too. I guess it radiated out like a radio signal – stronger in the immediate vicinity, but weaker the further you went.

  3. x

    Did your father ever “own” an example of that fabled chariot of the yard the “Matey’s Bicycle”?

    I am going off on a tangent with regard to things “borrowed” from work. Now I don’t think there is nobody who hasn’t “borrowed” from work either by accident or by design. But certainly most would not advertise the fact for a variety of reasons ranging from shame to common sense and everything in between. For a long time here in N Staffordshire there was a small lubricants suppliers with a very distinctive colour scheme the principal colour of which was a very particular deep matt forest green. One afternoon I went to work with my father across the other side of the county. Coming back home he diverted from the normal route and as we turned down a road on to an estate he turned to me and said, “Where do you think this bloke works?” And into view came a large detached 1960s house with a large double garage. Everything from the front door, garage doors, barge boards and soffits, window frames, post box, and garden gate and railings were painted in a very particular deep matt forest green. Never ever forgot it. Couldn’t believe anybody could be that blatant, stupid, or both. Or perhaps that should be so damn lucky he got away with it?

    • James Daly

      He did indeed. It was common knowledge in Pompey that you never ever got yourself caught outside one of the Dockyard gates at finish time – there were literally thousands of bikes. And of course Portsmouth being Portsmouth – small, compact, flat – cycles were ideal transport.

      I’ve never thought about it, but I wonder how much of Portsmouth exactly is painted battleship grey? Or if parts of Salisbury Plain or north Hampshire are be-decked in Army green? :P

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