Looking back on wartime Croydon in 1917

By - Wednesday 25th January, 2017

How did the First World War impact on daily life in Croydon?

We are now into the third full year of the remembrance of the Great War. Croydon’s estimated population in June 1917 was 186,917, an increase from 169,551 since 1911. Whatever the difficulties experienced during wartime, the council continued its work as is shown in the Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for 1917. Diseases and infant mortality continued to be monitored and the sanitary inspectors visited 758 houses leading to 978 informal notices for action being served. It continued to run its own and monitor private premises of many kinds, for example carrying out 335 visits to factories.

From September to December 1917 the army took over the running of the slaughter house in Fellhangers Lane and slaughtered 2,553 bullocks for distribution to the local military depots. But only seventeen prosecutions for selling adulterated milk were enacted (six against one firm) which does suggest that Ministry of Health teams were not able to carry out as many sample testings of food as in previous years. The  annual figure had been steadily dropping to 356 from a peak of 535 in 1913.

Croydon’s Medical Officer of Health, H. R. Veitch Clark, is on record stating that he would have liked to see a fuller assessment of the problems involved in maintaining medical services in war time, with many staff in the forces and reliance on temporary staff. He particularly highlighted the increased TB examination workload, examining army recruits and treating soldiers and sailors discharged from the services because of TB. He mentions ‘the remarkably light incidence of civil infections which has characterised the major part of the war period, with the exception of the first year and a half of the war.’

The army also continued to run military hospitals in five schools taken over for the purpose, alternative arrangements having been made for the children.

A conscientious objector from Croydon was repeatedly imprisoned

During 1917, Croydon members of the 1/4th Queens regiment were in India. The 2/4th Queens was in the Middle East, involved in an almost year-long campaign in Palestine, in which the British were finally successful against the Ottomans in November. From mid-year, the 3/4th Queens fought in France and took part in the battle of Broodseinde, near Ypres.

Private Henry Buller of the 2/4th, a tea packer from South Norwood, was wounded twice in Palestine. Not everyone recorded in the Croydon Roll of Honour was in the Queens. Trooper Henry Burlace, in the Indian Camel Corps, was killed, and Trooper Leslie Moore in the Royal Bucks Hussars died of wounds received at Gaza in April. Many died of disease, like Private Charles Outtrim who lost his life from malaria in June, and Rifleman James Smith, from cholera in August.

But not everyone supported the military campaigns. In January 2017, a Croydon man, Harold Bing, who was a conscientious objector, was re-arrested and imprisoned in Winchester. He had already served a previous sentence and had been released in December 1916. This time he would remain behind bars until 1919. He features in the January issue of BBC History magazine.

The Food Hoarding order forbade people to stock up on products in short supply

Life on the home front was becoming more difficult for many, especially as rationing began to be introduced following the success of the German U-boat campaign against shipping. On February 2nd, bread rationing started. On April 5th the Food Hoarding Order was issued to prevent households from hoarding food in short supply. Food Committees, including Croydon’s, started in August, to help in supervising rationing.

The Women’s Land Army was set up in February 2017. 304 women Croydonian women were accepted for the Land Army out of 719 who were interviewed from April through to 1919.

By June, Croydon Council had opened two communal kitchens serving 1,000 dinners a day, the details of which were included in the labour movement’s War Emergency Worker’s National Committee leaflet.Towards the end of August, guaranteed minimum prices for wheat and oats were introduced, and a minimum wage for agricultural workers started.

Life in Croydon grew harder as the war years continued

The end ended on 31 December with sugar rationing of 8 oz per person per wee As Christmas 2017 approached, there were queues in Croydon because of a shortage of meat. Sugar was rationed to 8oz per person per week.

Croydon escaped being hit by German fixed-wing bombing raids which began in May. the borough was fortunate, for ninety-five people were killed in Folkestone area on May 25th, and hundreds were killed or injured in London on June 13th.

The overall picture of life in Croydon is of life growing harder for many in practical ways as the impact of war was increasingly felt across the borough. The suffering and anxiety of the many local people whose loved ones and friends were directly involved in the fighting can only be imagined.

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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