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Life on the Home Front

Life on the Home Front

Documents which look at the prevailing social and economic conditions during the First World War are included in various archive collections held by the Modern Records Centre, including those of trade unions and employers' organisations. Some of the highlights from the hundred documents digitised to commemorate the First World War centenary are described below.


Memoranda for the use of Local Committees for the Care of Belgian Refugees, November 1914, September 1916

The refugees are largely of the peasant and tradesman class and very few can speak anything but French or Flemish, and many of them only Flemish

On 4 August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, in contravention of the London Treaty of 1830, after the Belgian authorities refused to allow the German army free passage through the country to France (on whom Germany had declared war the previous day). The attack on Belgium in turn triggered Britain's entry into the "Great War". These memoranda issued by the Local Government Board provided guidance to local committees on how to administer the estimated 250,000 Belgian refugees who had fled to Britain to escape the conflict. They include advice on registration, transport, housing, financial allowances, employment (for men and women), medical care and military service.

[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/522-523 and MSS.21/534]


The workers and the war: a programme for Labour, [1914]

The nation is only at the beginning of a crisis, which demands thorough and drastic action by the State and the municipalities

This pamphlet was issued by the War Emergency Workers' National Committee, a Labour Party and trade union pressure group, towards the beginning of the First World War. It called for a co-ordinated, state-run programme to safeguard the interests of the working class and "completely arrest existing distress, and prevent as far as possible further distress and unemployment in the future", including allowances for the families of soldiers and sailors, price controls on food, provision of maternity care, meals and clothing for schoolchildren, and nationalisation of the railways and docks.

[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/524]


Evidence of changes in the behaviour of juveniles in Bermondsey, 1916

Lawlessness rather than meanness. Naughtiness rather than wickedness. Horrible scene at Court when 40 - 50 children sang while their mothers wept and cursed the magistrate

In 1916 the Board of Trade established a 'Departmental Committee on Juvenile Education in relation to Employment after the War' to investigate the issue of youth employment. This memorandum on the situation in Bermondsey, an impoverished area of East London, describes some of the changes resulting from the war to the employment, behaviour and leisure activities of local children ("the hours of recreation so short that their pleasures tend to be hectic"). Other reports relating to the Departmental Committee on Juvenile Education in relation to Employment after the War are included in the section on wartime working.

[From the archive of the National Union of Teachers; document reference: MSS.179/1/13/6]


Memorandum on the increased cost of living during the war, August 1914-July 1917

Expenditure on food in the standard working-class budget, which was reckoned at 22s. 6d. in 1904, had risen to 25s. in July, 1914, and in the large centres of population it had risen to 52s. 3d. in July, 1917— an increase of 109 per cent. during the period of the war

Leaflet issued by the War Emergency Workers' National Committee. It uses government statistics to highlight the huge increase in living costs during the first three years of the war, and lists the food items included in the Board of Trade's 'standard working-class budget' (from bacon and eggs to tapioca and oatmeal).

[From the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union, document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015/3]


Circular regarding the national food supply, 21 April 1917

The real and immediate danger that lies ahead is not so much that supplies will be reduced to anything approximating to a famine basis, but that food stuffs will be allowed to be driven up to such excessive prices that the well-to-do section of the community will be able to satisfy their needs at the expense of the less prosperous

This circular sets out the policy of the War Emergency Workers' National Committee towards management of the national food supply. The committee advocates the introduction of extensive government controls to reduce the risk of shortages and profiteering, at a time when "the development of the submarine campaign has... accentuated the whole problem".

[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/539]

A War Emergency Workers' National Committee leaflet on 'Food vigilance committees' and Resolutions passed by the National Convention on the National Food Supply (attended by representatives of the Labour Party, Trades Union Congress and War Emergency Workers' National Committee) in December 1917 are also available. [From the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union, document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015/3, and the 'Miscellaneous collection', document reference: MSS.21/543]


Communal kitchens, June 1917

The Kitchens are greatly appreciated, and a notable feature has been that the daily customers are not by any means confined to the very poor classes, as some critics anticipated

This leaflet describes Croydon Borough Council's establishment of communal kitchens to provide cheap and nutritious food in working class areas - including details of the menu for the opening week. It was written by Arthur Peters, a local councillor, and published by the War Emergency Workers' National Committee.

[From the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: MSS.126/TG/RES/X/1015/3]


'The truth about direct control in Carlisle', 1917

Scenes of the most nauseating and degrading character became a common occurrence. Men fought like beasts; fierce fights raged round the doors of public-houses. The diminished police force were unable to cope with the situation. Almost every alley was littered with prostrate drunken men. The main thoroughfare of Carlisle was Bedlam and the returning trains to Gretna, with their living freight of cursing, vomiting, filthy mannered men, are memories that cause one to shudder

During the First World War the government introduced restrictions on pub opening hours and the sale of alcohol, in response to concerns that a drunken workforce was causing war production to suffer. State control went one step further in Carlisle, where the huge cordite factory at nearby Gretna had resulted in a large temporary population of "navvies" (manual labourers) and factory workers - here the pubs were nationalised or put under "direct control" of the government. This pamphlet was written by Rev. George Bramwell Evens, a Wesleyan Minister in Carlisle, in response to an attack on the state-owned pubs by the Temperance campaigner Rev. Wilson Stuart. Evens contrasts the "excesses" of the pre-Control Board days with the "diminution of drunkenness" under the new government restrictions.

A pamphlet on 'The work of the Central Control Board' by Sir Thomas Palmer Whittaker is also available.

[From the archives of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/4/43/3]


Notice regarding air raid precautions and safety, July 1917

During the progress of a raid avoid undue excitement, banging of doors, and dropping of heavy parcels or books

Approximately ten years after the first powered flight by an aircraft, the new technology was used by both Britain and Germany to bomb targets far behind the front lines in a new form of 'Total War' - attacking factories and other civilian targets in the enemy's heartland, as well as troops in the battlefield. The first aerial bombardments of Britain, in January 1915, were from Zeppelins - large airships popularly referred to as 'Baby-killers' by the British. By 1917 more effective long range bombers, such as the Gotha airplane, had been developed and were used in German raids on civilian targets. By the end of the war a total of 1,413 men, women and children had been killed in air raids in Britain. This notice was used by the Baltic Company for their premises in East London and provides advice for their employees on what should be done during day-time air raids on the capital.

[From the archives of The Shipping Federation; document reference: MSS.367/TSF/7/NO/1]