Ossett on the Eve of War
The West Riding town of Ossett was best known in 1914 for its reclaimed wool industry – the recycling of textiles to make the raw material for new woollens. Its second most important industry was coal mining. The biggest collieries in the town were Roundwood and Low Laithes, while nearby was the colliery at Shaw Cross. All three of these mines were linked to the Great Northern Railway’s branch line between Wakefield, Ossett and Dewsbury.
Ossett’s main railway station was on Station Road and there were also stations at Flushdyke and Chickenley Heath. Competition for the railway’s passenger traffic came from the electric trams running between Wakefield, Horbury, Ossett and Dewsbury. Most of the town’s population of over 14,000 lived in two or four roomed houses which were usually terraced and were sometimes back-to-backs. Richer inhabitants inhabited larger detached or semi-detached villas such as those lining Station Road. Apart from the Town Hall, which had been opened in 1908, the most imposing public buildings were churches and chapels. These included three Victorian Gothic churches - Christ Church, Holy Trinity and St Mary the Virgin - and the imposing classical style Methodist chapel in Wesley Street. The churches and chapels were centres of a rich social life as were the even more numerous public houses. Among the sporting activities in the town were cricket, soccer and golf, while the town’s musical life included brass bands in Ossett and Gawthorpe. A rival to traditional leisure activities had appeared in the town with the opening of its first purpose built cinema, the Palladium, in the Market Place at the end of 1913.
A municipal borough since 1890, Ossett’s mayor, aldermen and councillors were responsible for an increasing number of public services. Among them were the town’s gas works and most of the town’s schools including the Grammar School at Storrs Hill and the new elementary schools on Southdale Road and at Flushdyke.
Elections to the council were not usually fought on political lines, except by Labour candidates, but councillors’ political opinions were well known. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives had substantial club houses in the town centre, the Liberals in Station Road and the Conservatives in New Street. Ossett was in the Morley parliamentary constituency and in the last general election before the 1914 the Liberal candidate was victorious.
It was a Liberal government under H.H. Asquith that took the country to war on Tuesday August 4 1914. The following evening it fell to Ossett’s mayor, Councillor Harvey Robinson, to read the royal proclamations about the war from the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of several hundred. Robinson’s career summed up many of the town’s aspects. He worked in the reclaimed wool industry and he had held almost all the offices open to him in his Primitive Methodist chapel in Queen Street. He was also a leading member of the Ossett Band of Hope Union and he was prominent member of the local co-operative society.
The world Robinson had known was to be deeply changed by war over the next four years. These changes were recorded in the town’s newspaper, the ‘Ossett Observer’, and most of following information is drawn from its pages.
Ossett: August 1914
"Catastrophe" was the word used by the "Ossett Observer" to describe the outbreak of the First World War. The paper's editorial claimed that Britain had been dragged into the conflict 'unwillingly'. A crisis which had begun with the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914 had led to Germany's declaration of war against Britain's entente partners, Russia and France on the 1st of August and the 3rd of August respectively. There followed a German invasion of neutral Belgium; an attack that provoked a British ultimatum calling on Germany to withdraw her troops. When it expired at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4th without a reply from Germany, Britain declared war. On the following evening, the bells of Ossett Town Hall summoned people to the Market Place. Several hundred people assembled to hear the Mayor, Councillor Harvey Robinson read eleven Royal Proclamations from the Town Hall steps. It took him twenty minutes and at the end he called for the crowd to sing the National Anthem, which they did with 'much heartiness'.
Above: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Countess Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg who were assassinated on the 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia by 19 year-old Gavrilo Princip. The assassination of Ferdinand is considered the most immediate cause of WW1.
When Britain went to war against Germany on August 4 1914 Ossett’s Territorial soldiers, part of the 4th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, had already left their Bank Holiday camp at Whitby for home. After the arrival of their mobilisation papers on the morning of August 5, over 80 men of the Ossett company assembled at their Drill Hall on Station Road before marching to Wakefield where they were billeted in Town Hall. The ‘Ossett Observer’s reporter noted that although the men were in ‘good humour and high spirits’, their mothers and wives watched them go ‘tearfully’.
Meanwhile army and naval reservists in Ossett were also receiving their mobilisation orders, while local members of the National Reserve, men who had been in the forces but who were no longer regular reservists, were asked by their commanding officer, Major Louis J. Fox of Batley, to volunteer for service with the Territorial Army. The response to Fox’s appeal was very good, but his high handed behaviour, including a threat to arrest Ossett’s mayor, led to his replacement as the National Reserve’s local commander by Lieutenant Walter Preston of Highfield House, Earlsheaton.
Members of Ossett’s St John’s Ambulance Brigade also volunteered for service, among them Corporal J. W. Stansfield who had served twice in South Africa during the Boer War. Among those too young to fight in 1914 were the Boy Scouts and the Church Lads Brigade, but the Church Lads helped at the Town Hall with calling up of the National Reserve, while the Scouts offered to guard railway bridges against German saboteurs.
Many of Ossett’s women also wanted to play a part in the war effort. Over 100 of them attended a meeting at the Town Hall called by the mayoress, Mrs Robinson, to organise sewing and knitting for the forces, although one letter in the ‘Ossett Observer’ pointed out that this activity was depriving low paid garment workers of employment. Nursing classes for women were also started in the town, again attracting over 100 members.
At first the outbreak of war seemed to be a catastrophe for the local economy. Panic buying pushed up food prices in shops, but after a week prices had fallen back to their peace time levels. More seriously the disruption to trade threatened the local textile and coal industries with mass unemployment. In response businesses promised to share what work there was between their employees and the mayor opened a local relief fund to help those suffering hardship.
At Ossett’s cinema, the ‘Palladium’, the conflict was reflected in the programme of films. A newsreel showed mobilisation scenes in France, while ‘Raised from the Ranks’ a ‘stirring drama of British military life’ gave a more fanciful view of war. The war also made an impact on the town’s religious life. On the afternoon of Sunday August 16 a service of intercession was held at Holy Trinity. The mayor, aldermen and councillors went in procession from the Town Hall to the church. There the vicar, the Reverend R.E. Burlingham, told them that the country had entered the war with clean hands, that they should put their trust in God and that without God nothing could be achieved.
Ossett: September 1914
Lord Kitchener, the new War Minister, believed that the war would be long and that a new volunteer force, the New Army, would be needed to fight it. A national recruiting campaign for Kitchener’s New Army began and Ossett’s borough council responded by calling on all eligible men to enlist. The mayor underlined the urgency the appeal. Writing in the ‘Ossett Observer’, he said, ‘we must not merely fight – we must win or as a nation go under’. To encourage its employees to join up the borough council decided to give financial help to the families of all men who volunteered.
The Ossett and Horbury Trades and Labour Council also decided to back the recruiting campaign, but on condition that Parliament promised to support the families of the men killed or maimed. The condition was prompted by memories of past official neglect of veterans. William France spoke of seeing a man who had lost his legs in the Crimean War reduced to begging for a living.
Ossett’s company of Territorials had been transferred to Sandbeck Park near Rotherham. Originally the Territorials had been raised for home defence, but all of the Ossett men now volunteered for service abroad. In Ossett the National Reserve, now under Lieutenant Preston, engaged in a programme of route marches, shooting and drill. At least one woman from the town, Miss Louisa Hanson of the Gables in Station Road, was working as a Red Cross nurse in France.
During the month fears that that the local economy would collapse under the impact of the war were dispelled. As orders for khaki and blankets for the army were placed in the area the reclaimed wool and the woollen industries revived. One problem was a shortage of dyes – before the war most had been imported from Germany. The local collieries also benefited from the trade revival with Ossett’s mines working five days a week. As the threat of unemployment receded, the Ossett Relief Fund reported that most of the money it distributed went to the families of servicemen.
Anti-German feeling was encouraged by stories of German atrocities in Belgium. A. R. Briggs wrote to the ‘Ossett Observer’ to dispel rumours about the Andrassy family of Queen Street in Horbury who were, he said, naturalised British citizens. Sympathy for Belgium prompted a number of Ossett residents to offer accommodation for Belgian refugees, although most only wanted to house children.
As usual the churches and chapels held their harvest festivals during the month. At the South Ossett Baptist harvest festival, held in the Spa Street chapel, Mr. B. P. Wilson gave the address at the Young People’s Service. He spoke of different sorts of harvest. One was the terrible harvest of death being reaped on Continent. This he, said, was the result of materialistic seed sown there over the last 40 years. Great Britain, however, was reaping a glorious harvest. The country had been sowing freedom and free institutions all over the world and it was now reaping a glorious harvest in loyal support from daughter nations and dependencies.
Ossett: October 1914
The recruiting campaign for Kitchener’s New Army continued. There were meetings in the town, but not many men enlisted. The ‘Ossett Observer’ explained that a considerable number of men had already joined up and that unemployment was low because of good trade. Officers from the barracks at Pontefract visited Ossett looking for billets for troops and having inspected the Town Hall rejected it as ‘rather too good’ for the purpose.
At the beginning of the month the ‘Ossett Observer’ published Private Sidney Cecil Beaumont’s account of his part in the battle of the Marne with the 2nd battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. It quickly emerged that Beaumont, who lived in Ossett with his wife, was an impostor. He had tried to join the K.O.Y.L.I., but he had been discharged on medical grounds. It was also revealed that Beaumont was a bigamist. Before the month was out he appeared in Aberavon police court in South Wales charged with wife desertion and bigamy.
During his sermon at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Wesley Street Mr. B. P. Wilson said that the war was the result of the German military autocracy created 44 years earlier. The doctrine that might was right had to be defeated. England had its faults, but love of liberty, honouring treaties and supporting the rights of small nations were among its strengths. They should, he said, resist the temptation to get rich quickly from the war. He contrasted the soldier sacrificing his life to save a comrade with a war profiteer and argued that those who profited should help Belgian refugees.
The mayor offered 70 places in the town to refugees from Belgium. The first group arrived by train on October 17 and went in a procession led by the Ossett Brass Band to the Queen Street Primitive Methodist Sunday School. Most of the refugees were Flemish, but fortunately Father Ryan, a Catholic priest who had lived in Belgium, was able to act as a translator. By the end of the month there were 75 Belgians in the town, 13 of them lodging with Ossett residents, including the Reverend Burlingham, five in a cottage loaned by Mr. G. H. Briggs and 57 in the Primitive Methodist School. Ossett’s Refugee Committee wanted to encourage the able-bodied to find work, but said that it did not wish them to compete with local workers for jobs.
There was a widespread fear of German espionage during the opening months of the war. Mr. J. S. Sanderson of Clifton House, Ossett, wrote to the ‘Ossett Observer’ to report strange flashes he had seen in the sky over two nights. ‘Are they pre-arranged signals between members of the German Secret Service Corps?’ he asked. Such fears were one reason why in October there were mass arrests of enemy aliens of military age across the country including one person in Ossett. Among the internment camps opened was one at Lofthouse Park near Wakefield.
Ossett: November 1914
The gap left in home defence by the despatch of the Territorial Army overseas was partly filled by the formation of the Volunteer League, an organisation that only took men ineligible for military service. Ossett and Horbury formed a joint company under James Fitton and its first drill was attended by 100 to120 men. Meanwhile members of Ossett National Reserve, including Sergeants P. Nelson and H. Fallas, were on guard duty at Lofthouse Park, where 430 enemy aliens were interned.
At the end of the month the results of the examination taken by the Ossett Ladies’ Ambulance Class were announced. Of the 140 women who had joined the class, run by Dr. Wood, 80 sat the examination and all of them passed. Overtime working in the local mills had stopped some women from finishing the course.
The case of Sidney Cecil Beaumont continued to excite interest and at a special sitting of the Aberavon magistrates it was revealed that Beaumont, alias Thomas Prince, had three wives alive. As for the wounds he claimed to have suffered in the war, they had been sustained when he had been knocked down by a taxi cab.
George Adamson of the K.O.Y.L.I., who lived in Radley Street, was arrested as a deserter in Ossett. He appeared in the borough court and was remanded in custody to await an escort.
The boom in trade affected both employees and employers. At Ossett and Horbury Trades and Labour Council the large amount of overtime being worked locally, especially in the textile trade, was discussed. In some cases less than the standard rate of wages was being paid. As there had been no appeals from its members, the council took no action. At the Chamber of Commerce there was a complaint that some American rag merchants were using the great demand for rags as an opportunity to break their contracts and to demand higher prices than those agreed. The use of reclaimed wool came under attack in the House of Commons when Sir Joseph Walton, the M. P. for Barnsley, urged that contracts for winter clothing should not be placed in the ‘Home of Shoddy’ because of the poor quality of some khaki cloth.
Speaking at a concert in the Town Hall to raise funds for the Belgium refugees, Ossett’s Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend J. Gomer Williams, said that ‘Belgium was the supreme victim and the supreme hero’ and that Britain was her eternal debtor. Not all Ossettonians shared his sympathy for the Belgians. The former mayor, Harvey Robinson, had to write to the ‘Ossett Observer’ to defend the refugees against accusations that they were better fed than the rest of the people in the town. By the second half of the month over 10 refugees were at work, some of them at the corporation gas works and the station goods yard. Mrs. Willett was in charge at the Primitive Methodist Sunday School as matron.
At the Palladium cinema ‘War and the Woman’ was shown. It was described as a ‘thrilling romance’ of the Serbian War in which ‘a lady aviator … acting as a nurse discovers the theft of the plan of the military plan of campaign, which with great daring, on horseback and in aeroplane, she restores – all of which smooths out the wrinkles in the love story which the film tells.’ The film was highly recommended.
Ossett: December 1914
At the end the year the ‘Ossett Observer’ published a list of over 200 Ossett and Horbury men serving in the armed forces. It also printed the names of two local men killed in the fighting, Privates Sam Stephenson and Wallis Booth. Stephenson, a native of Ossett Common, had been serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, while Booth, who was from Chickenley, had been with the Durham Light Infantry. Appeals for volunteers for the army continued and an advertisement in the ‘Ossett Observer’ put pressure on employers to encourage eligible men to join up. It asked them four questions:
- As an employer have you seen that every fit man under your control has been given every opportunity for enlisting?
- Have you encouraged your men to enlist by offering to keep their positions open?
- Have you offered to help them in any other way if they will serve their country?
- Have you any men still in your employ who ought to enlist?
At an exhibition organised by the Leeds Arts Club to aid the Belgium Relief Fund the Ossett artist Mark Senior, who had visited Belgium several times, exhibited a picture of the noted sculptor Alfred Gilbert in his Bruges studio. The town’s Mayor, Councillor W. B. Stead, and the Mayoress celebrated Christmas Eve with the Belgian refugees. After a meat tea, Santa Claus distributed presents to the children and adults, while Mrs. Willett, the matron, was presented with a silver flower stand by the refugees to mark her silver wedding anniversary. On Christmas Day, the Belgians’ dinner included roast beef, plum pudding and fruit. Later the Ossett Brass Band called and played a selection of music and in the evening there was an impromptu concert and dance. New Year’s Eve was also celebrated with tea, games and dancing in which young people from the Primitive Methodist Chapel joined. At midnight the lights were dimmed and turned up, a Belgium custom which on this occasion brought tears to the eyes of some of the refugees.
At a meeting of the Brotherhood at the Congregational church at Ossett Green, Mr. F. Ridgway of Dewsbury, a member of the Society of Friends, spoke about the war. He said that his faith in peace principles had not been shaken by the conflict and that nations as well as individuals were bound by laws. War, he argued, was wrong and it settled nothing. He asked his listeners whether they could picture Christ fighting in Flanders.
A rather different view of the conflict was revealed in the words of an Ossett businessman. Commenting on the reclaimed wool industry he said ‘the war has pulled the chestnuts out of the fire.’