Commemorating the Great War in Croydon

By - Tuesday 18th June, 2013

The government’s plans to commemorate ‘the war to end all wars’ are inadequate – and ignore the enormous social and political cost of the conflict in Croydon and elsewhere

Photo by Jim Linwood. Image used under Creative Commons License

Photo by Jim Linwood. Image used under Creative Commons License

War is a Crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.

As we approach its four year commemoration, we need to remember that it gives an opportunity to look at the First World War War from a wide range of diverse perspectives. The quote above is from the founding declaration of War Resisters International set up in 1921. Founding members included Harold Bing. In the 1930s and 1940s, WRI helped to rescue people from persecution in fascist Spain and Nazi Germany. Bing lived in Croydon until 1950 when he went to work at the  Co-operative College in Loughborough. He was WRI chairman from 1949-1966. He died in 1975.

The tradition Bing represents continues today. The Network for Peace held a meeting on 6th June discussing an alternative approach to what it expects may be an overemphasis on the military aspects of the War. is an open discussion list for groups and individuals opposed to the official government commemorations, planning events, campaigns, and meetings that celebrate resistance to and non-co-operation with WWI. The aim is to remember the war’s true murderous and capitalist nature, and link opposition to war today with an understanding of true causes and course of the “Great War”.

Books planned for publication include Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War by British Black History specialist Stephen Bourne, and a collection of essays which will include one on the radical ex-servicemen of 1918. This is being edited by Nick Mansfield, who was Director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

How many Croydonians served in the merchant fleet and lost their lives in German submarine attacks?

Photo by Jim Linwood. Image used under Creative Commons License

Photo by Jim Linwood. Image used under Creative Commons License

So how can we explore the War period in Croydon? We need to look at the stories of those who went to fight in the various theatres of conflict, both those who died and those who survived. According to the historian John Gent over 2,500 Croydonians never returned. What devastating effect did this have on their families? Wives with children, struggling to make ends meet, were now faced with widowhood and possible dependency on inadequate Poor Law provision.

The home front could also be a battle-ground thanks to zeppelin attacks. While the one attack on Croydon on 13th October 1915 involving 18 bombs only killed 11 people, and injured 17, it damaged 800 buildings. What did this mean for the lives of those living or working in those buildings? How many Croydonians served in the merchant fleet and lost their lives in German submarine attacks?

The politics of running the local councils and Poor Law Unions had an impact on ordinary people’s lives, and were also affected by the different attitudes towards the War. Apart from those replaced in by-elections, councillors elected in 1912 remained in office throughout the War until November 1919. Finances were tight.

Despite the tensions between the pro- and anti-war factions in the local labour movement, agreement could be reached on aspects of the way the War was handled. For example in August 1917 the Trades & Labour Council approved a resolution on the war in the Middle East.

This Council, noting the terrible exposure of the criminal incompetence of high officials, as disclosed by the Report on the tragic campaign in Mesopotamia, demands that the severest punishment be visited upon the parties responsible for this sorry record of humiliating failures and disasters. We recognise that no scheme of re-organisation can be of real effective service unless direct representatives of soldiers and workmen sit upon all War Office administrative bodies.

In October 1917 it objected to traders being members of the Food Control Committee.

In the course of my current research into the period 1919-21 in another part of London, it is clear that the War continued to have lasting effects after it was over. The continued attempts to control profiteering, the tensions within the labour movement between the pro- and anti-war activists, the tensions over continued women’s employment and unemployed ex-servicemen, the way ex-servicemen were treated under the Poor Law, the arguments about the best way to memorialise those who died, and the tragedy of those ex-servicemen who turned to crime or committed suicide all show that post-war Britain was not ‘a land fit for heroes’.

Some 1,500 aircraft factory workers were dismissed at the end of the War, marching on the Town Hall in protest

The end of the War meant the loss of many jobs, as well as the return of demobilised servicemen looking for work. Gent records that in 1918 the National Aircraft Factory No. 1 was built at Waddon, employing over 2,100 people. Some 1,500 were dismissed at the end of the War, marching on the Town Hall in protest. Another feature of the War that affected Croydon was the establishment of allotments. Although the War came to an end it did not mean the end of military service. Britain intervened in the post-revolutionary Russian civil war, and British troops massacred demonstrators at Amritsar in India in April 1919.

It would be worthwhile to see if a collaborative approach between Local Studies and amenity and history groups could be agreed in Croydon to undertake research necessary to create a framework within which detailed research can be fitted, including:

  • a literature review of local histories, biographies and autobiographies that shed light on the War period.
  • the contents of the local newspapers
  • the records of the borough councils and the Poor Law Guardians

There is also merit in agreeing projects to apply for Heritage Lottery funding. An example of where this is being done is Wandsworth through the Heritage Partnership with the Heritage Service producing a framework.

The newly formed Croydon Radical History Network will be looking at how it can contribute in relation to the diverse perspectives discussed above. If you are interested, you can find out more by emailing me at sean.creighton1947 [at] btinternet [dot] com,  or Tom Black at  tomblack1990 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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