As we look to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War this month, historian Catherine Pitt reflects on the consequences it had on the city of Bath

During the First World War five-million men served to fight for Britain. In 1914 the population of Bath was around 70,000, over 11,200 men fought in the war, and more than 1,800 were killed in action or died of their wounds.

The Great War ended at 11am on Monday 11 November 1918, although it had been agreed at 5.10am that morning. When the news reached Bath, people flocked to the abbey for an impromptu service of thanks. Others swelled the streets around the Guildhall where the mayor and his wife were driven through the crowds. At Holloway a carpenter created an effigy of the German kaiser and hung it outside his shop; an attempt to burn it in Saw Close was soon stopped by city police.

On Peace Day the following July (The Versailles Peace Treaty wasn’t signed until then) various trees were planted around Bath including a Peace Oak in Sydney Gardens. In Crescent Field, in front of the Royal Crescent, crowds gathered to see doves released, although it was discovered that the ‘doves’ were in fact homing pigeons that flew back around rather than away.

A MEMORIAL FOR BATH

One of Bath’s main concerns immediately after the war was how to commemorate those who had died. The corporation (the council) was seemingly slow to react. Controversy was over cost, form (whether there was memorial hall or cenotaph) and location.

By the early 1920s many of the local schools, businesses, colleges and churches had their own memorials. In 1923 Bath Abbey created a memorial chapel and also built the cloister vestry (now the site of the abbey shop) as a Great War memorial; but the city overall still had nothing.

Five thousand local people donated more than £3000 to pay for a cenotaph designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, but still the location was debated. People took to the local papers to complain and the matter became political. Cedric Chivers was re-elected Mayor of Bath in 1924 on the promise of a memorial, even if it was at his own expense.

Chivers commissioned four bronze plaques with names inscribed to be placed on the side of the Mineral Water Hospital that faces on to Union Street. Although a temporary measure it became an unofficial memorial site, with troops acknowledging the plaques on Remembrance Sunday Parades, and people laying wreaths at the site. It also became a tradition for local brides to place their bouquets here once they were wed.

Finally the entrance to Victoria Park was chosen and the Stall Street plaques joined others on the memorial. The official unveiling of Bath’s War Memorial happened on 11 November 1927.

THE AFTERMATH OF WAR

Despite peace, deaths from war injuries continued. Adding to these were the victims of the pandemic known as Spanish flu that swept the world. Between 1918 and 1920, 228,000 people died in Britain alone and in July 1918 it had reached Bath and Somerset. Very little is mentioned in local newspapers about the pandemic, perhaps to ensure calm; but in 1920 it is reported that local health authorities deemed areas of Bath clear of the disease.

The local and national government took a greater concern over the population’s health after the war. When national conscription came in January 1916 doctors inspecting recruits had noted the poor health of many. Housing schemes post-war were encouraged as well as the clearance of slum areas.

Although often associated with the Second World War, rationing was in fact introduced during the First, albeit near the end of the conflict. The loss of horses and manpower on farms impacted on agricultural production, and German submarines in the Channel began a concerted effort to starve Britain by destroying food ships heading to our shores.

In 1916 the Ministry of Food was created. Laws were passed making it illegal to consume more than two courses when dining in public at lunch-time and three courses in the evening. Voluntary rationing began in 1917 but by the summer of 1918 butter, sugar, meat, flour, milk and margarine had been rationed.

The records of Bath grocers Cater, Stofell and Fortt detail the struggles caused by rationing in sourcing goods and meeting orders during and after the war. There are letters to one customer detailing the fact that peel has been substituted in the place of sugar and fruit, and profuse apologies to another that whisky was not available for their hamper.

Local public houses, the staple of many working men’s lives, were also affected by the Great War. Concerns over alcohol consumption nationally saw a rise in the temperance movement and the government restricting opening hours. The Defence of the Realm Act (1914) made the act of buying someone else a drink illegal. The strength of beer produced by breweries was ordered to be reduced and alcohol duty rose.

Post-war, the restricted opening hours of eight hours a day remained up until the 1980s, and in Bath between 1918 and 1938 the number of pubs opening fell by 16 per cent.

Bridal bouquet being given to the Bath War Memorial at the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, 1923.
Image courtesy of Bath In Time

THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN

The interest in the drinking habits of women was of particular national and local concern in the wartime period. Local businesses such as Horstmann, Stothert and Pitt, and Bath Cabinet Makers, became involved in the production of munitions, tank and aircraft parts for the war effort. Lots of these positions were filled by women, who joined their male colleagues in a tipple after work, something of a rarity pre-1914.

War created opportunities for women who were needed to fill roles from farms to factories as men volunteered and later were conscripted to fight. In Bath, women became clerks, ambulance drivers, police officers, tram conductors and munition workers.

Many women took on nursing roles at the Front that led them to the battlefields of Europe. One Bathonian, Miss A. E. Herd, was mentioned in despatches in 1919 for her courageous services in France, and in Bath Abbey there hangs a memorial to Donnett Mary Parker. Between 1917 and 1919 Parker served as a First Aid Nursing Yeoman in France, and was twice feted for her “gallant and distinguished service in the field”.

Soldiers were billeted to the city, not just British but Australian and Canadian troops. Many women without their husbands and with families to feed resorted to prostitution to survive. Louie Stride, who lived in the notorious Avon Street area of Bath during the First World War, wrote in her memoirs about her mother’s frequent “visitors”. With the cessation of war, prostitution declined, though never disappeared.

The expectation of men after demobilisation was that women would quietly give up the jobs they had been doing and head back to their more traditional roles. Bath City Police used stealth tactics to force female police officers out, setting up a committee to accept their resignations. Bath didn’t see another woman police officer until 1939.

Some businesses were, however, reluctant to give up their female staff since it cost less to employ a woman. Post-war Cater, Stofell and Fortt had a greater female to male ratio of workers because it was cheaper.

Though the war brought mixed fortunes for women, it did bring about some female emancipation. In February 1918 the vote was given to property-owning women over 30 years old. This opened the door for the full vote for all women over 21 in 1928. Post-war youth began to enjoy the freedoms of peacetime and although still somewhat restrained by social convention, a small minority of women in Bath, as in London, began to embrace the new era ahead.

FINANCIAL HARDSHIP

Unemployment in Britain rose in the years following the war. Jobs created to support the war effort no longer existed. By 1921, two million men were unemployed, and as food prices rose there was general civil unrest throughout the country. In Bath a number of strikes and Labour protests took place, and there was a general fear of Communism. It was also not unusual to see limbless and wounded soldiers on the streets.

The universal welfare system didn’t exist in 1918. People relied on the charity of others or institutes such as the workhouse. Post-war a number of organisations were set up, with branches in Bath, for soldiers and their families. Bath Council set up a War Pensions Committee and by 1920 over 3,400 disabled men were drawing a pension, along with 254 widows, and 466 parents and dependents. In August 1919 the Bath Branch of the British Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers Society appealed in the local press for any widowed mother “who had lost a lad in this war and had to suffer with two or three shillings a week pension” to come forward for support.

Although for some the 1920s was a golden era, it was also an era of austerity. People didn’t have the disposable income they once had. Visitors coming to Bath to ‘take the waters’ dropped despite a number of concerted efforts by the local corporation to advertise the city.

The period of the long-stay resident in Bath for the ‘season’ was on the wane. Local hoteliers were reluctant to embrace the change. At the Empire Hotel, one or two-night visitors had to enter and leave the hotel via the back entrance in case the public got the wrong impression.

HOSPITAL CARE

A large change in Bath after the conflict was the eventual closure of the Bath War Hospital. In 1914 sanatoriums, church halls and other buildings were requisitioned in the city by the military for wounded British, Empire and Allied troops to convalesce. In May 1915 Bath War Hospital opened at Combe Park with 10 huts built to hold 500 men on what had once been a cricket pitch. By 1918 the capacity had almost tripled with tents erected to accommodate a further 800 men.

In November 1919 the hospital was taken over by the Ministry of Pensions, finally closing in 1929 when it was transformed into the Royal United Hospital. During its 14 years as a military hospital, more than 40,000 men were treated. Despite the best efforts of the nurses and doctors here some patients died and plots were made available at Locksbrook Cemetery for their burial.

Bath tried to resume some semblance of normality for the post-war population. On 22 February 1919 Bath City Football Club played their first regular fixture in more than four years, in May 1919 Lansdown Golf Course re-opened, and in the same month Bath Races took place for the first time since 1914.

There were times of upheaval and economic struggles following the 1918 Armistice. The emotional as well as economic impact on individuals, families and businesses in the city took longer to fade, but the sacrifices made by the men and women of Bath in the First World War should never be forgotten.

Main image: The Peace Day Thanksgiving service on 19 July 1919 at the Royal Crescent in Bath.
Image courtesy of Bath In Time