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1917: Ossett - The Tide Turns

Ossett: January 1917

As the country faced mounting food shortages, the Ossett Co-operative Society began to ration sugar according to family size. At the same time the Borough Council started to encourage people to grow more of their own food by creating allotments in several parts of the town. One site was in Wesley Street where 27 allotments of 300 square yards each were advertised to let at 5 shillings a year. As an incentive to gardeners the Council arranged to have the land set aside for allotments ploughed. By the end of the month about 90 applications for plots had been received. At Springstone Avenue the allotments were for poultry keeping, but elsewhere they were mainly for potato growing. A well timed advertisement placed by Lee and Briggs of Horbury in the "Ossett Observer" announced the arrival of a stock of spades, rakes, garden forks and hoes.

WW1 Allotment

The increasing numbers of wounded soldiers led to a rising demand for hospital beds in the U.K. Among the new military hospitals was one for 350 men at Staincliffe in Dewsbury where there was already a Poor Law infirmary. Funds for the hospital were raised by voluntary subscription as the estimated cost of £6,000 could not be legally met from the rates. Each township in the Dewsbury Poor Law Union was asked to raise a sum proportionate to its rateable value and Ossett’s quota was set at £429. Townspeople responded generously to the appeal. Before the month’s end they had exceeded their target by more than £100.

Wakefield and District Motor Volunteers, which had Ossett members, was also helping convalescing soldiers. Formed in 1916 to move troops in a national emergency, the Motor Volunteers ferried servicemen between hospitals and offered a taxi service to troops on leave who could not reach their homes by public transport. Absenteeism at the Corporation’s Healey gas works led to it being placed under the Munitions Act. This made it easier for the manager to discipline his labour force. He was also given permission by the Corporation to recruit women workers because of the shortage of suitable men.

As the woollen industry continued to boom, the demand for rags pushed up prices at the Dewsbury auctions to record levels with black worsteds fetching £183 a ton. At the monthly meeting of the Chamber of Commerce B. P. Wilson was re-elected President. Speaking about the post-war world, he said that Britain should never again allow herself to become dependent on Germany for key industrial goods.

Ossett: February 1917

Among those who left to do his military service was Harold Smith. A member of the Central Baptist Church in Church Street, where he was a deacon and a lay preacher, he was presented with a pocket Bible at a meeting of his church’s Christian Endeavour Society.

Alfred Simpson, a farm labourer of Wakefield Road, appeared in the Borough Court after failing to report for military service. Simpson told the magistrates he had returned to England from Australia at the start of the war to enlist, but instead of becoming a soldier he had spent 17 months in Wakefield Asylum. He had been discharged in November 1916, the month he was supposed to report for military service. The magistrates handed him over to the army, but before the end of the month he was released from Pontefract by the military authorities.

Young KOYLI Soldier WW1A serving soldier who appeared in the Borough Court was Private Arnold Helliwell of the K.O.Y.L.I., who was charged with being absent without leave. Helliwell, who had lied about age when he enlisted, was 15 years 7 months old. He was remanded to wait for a military escort.

Left: KOYLI soldier from WW1 with distinctive cap badge. (This is NOT Private Arnold Helliwell).

Ossett and Horbury’s Volunteers, numbering some 400 men, continued their training under three sergeant instructors. There had been a marked improvement in the smartness of their drilling.

A brief campaign to encourage war savings started with a public meeting in the Town Hall addressed by two local MPs who urged their audience to subscribe to the government’s Victory Loan. By the end of the campaign Ossett had subscribed £236, 580 to the loan, a figure which included an investment of £12,000 from the Borough Council. Among the smaller investors was a collier’s wife who handed over 30 sovereigns. She had been hoarding them because she believed that if the Germans invaded "John Bradbury’s", paper money, would be worthless.

At the magistrates’ annual Brewster Sessions, the Chairman, Henry Westwood, condemned the increase in drinking among women, particularly among the wives of soldiers. He claimed the "only decent way was for wives to stay at home so that when the soldiers returned, having served their King and country, they would find their wives and homes in as respectable condition as when they left them."

One solution to the drink problem proposed by temperance advocates was to take the liquor trade into state ownership. At its meeting the Trades and Labour Council rejected this proposal. Among the objections raised to the proposal were its cost, a lack of choice of beers and the reluctance of the state to stamp out the liquor trade. Teetotalism alone would not win the war was the discussion’s conclusion.

Prompted by an inquiry from their national association, the members of Ossett’s Chambers of Commerce discussed the teaching of foreign languages. Mr G. H. Gibson said that the town’s experience in this area was "deplorable." There were not enough students willing to learn and those were wiling lacked the basic knowledge needed to make any progress. Success would only come, he argued, with the raising of the school leaving age and the introduction of compulsory evening classes. In a letter of thanks for the Mayor’s Christmas box, Corporal Ivie Willett, a general staff draughtsman, claimed the Battle of the Somme had been the beginning of the end for the Germans.

Ossett: March 1917

At the Borough Court 17 year-old James Varley was charged with being absent from the K.O.Y.L.I. and was remanded to meet a military escort. He had been refused leave, but as he was about to be sent to Ireland, he had taken it anyway. Varley’s mother was at the hearing and told the magistrates that she was going to apply for her son’s discharge as she needed him at home to help her support his four siblings. The magistrates advised her to see the Town Clerk about having her son released from the army.

By the month’s end 104 allotments had been taken in the town, 94 for gardening and 10 for poultry keeping. Allotment holders received professional advice when Mr J. W. Eves, a University of Leeds instructor in horticulture, made a tour of inspection of the allotments before a giving a lecture on gardening at the Town Hall. Ossett’s farmers were expecting the arrival of one of the tractors they had been promised. A local firm, Milner and Elliott, was to maintain the machine and to train men in its use.

Ossett’s water supply, which was the responsibility of the Borough Council, was causing concern. Consumption by industry had risen because of the war time boom in the textile trade and the water level in the Gawthorpe reservoir was dangerously low. Although the Corporation had considered tapping the water in the flooded workings of the former Pildacre Colliery, it had rejected using this alternative source of supply. Another problem for the Council was teachers’ war bonuses. Teachers submitted a request for an annual bonus of £25. Rather than pay this, the Education Committee resolved to add another £5 to the existing £5 bonus. No doubt the Committee members had in mind the interests of the town’s ratepayers. During the month they saw their rates rise by 5d in the pound to 9s 9d, a figure the "Ossett Observer" called "rather formidable."

Among the local Anglican clergy the war was causing staffing problems as men left to serve as chaplains in the armed forces. Holy Trinity’s curate, the Reverend C. E. Salisbury was placed in charge of the parish of Gildersome in the absence of its vicar and his place at Holy Trinity was partly filled by the Reverend W.H. Keeler, curate of Christ Church in South Ossett.

When the Trades and Labour Council met it was after Russia’s March Revolution which had brought about the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, the head of a regime detested by many socialists and liberals in Britain. For William France the revolution was "one of the grandest things of the century." France’s colleague, Councillor Lake, was more cautious. He said he "was not sure that the revolution would set all the people of Russia free."

March 1917 Russuan Revolution

Ossett: April 1917

Spring was very late arriving in 1917. At the beginning of April there was a heavy fall of snow. The harsh weather made it difficult for allotment holders to plant the newly arrived seed potatoes the Corporation had ordered for them. The importance of increasing the potato crop was underlined by shortages at greengrocers and markets. One Ossett man motored 70 miles in a day in search of potatoes and returned with only 7lbs of them.

Some townspeople reacted to the food shortages by hoarding, behaviour which served to the situation worse. At the Trade and Labour Council’s meeting William France blamed the government for not organising food supplies properly. The Council urged the Food Controller, Lord Devonport, to take firmer action. Devonport, however, put his faith in voluntary rationing. His office asked Ossett War Savings Committee to organise a campaign in support of the idea.

Coal supplies were also causing concern in Ossett. Reporting to the Council, the manager of the gas works pointed out that over a year his stock of coal had fallen from 3,000 tons to 300 tons. Customers, he said, would have to restrict their consumption of gas.

Another shortage, this time of housing, was raised by Councillor Stead at the Town Council’s meeting. House building, he pointed out, had come to a halt in Ossett and there were not a dozen houses to let in the town. When the soldiers returned from the war they would need homes and if private individuals would not build them then the Council would have to.

Housing was also discussed by the Trades and Labour Council. It had intervened in two cases of rent increases, but although in one case there had been a breach of rent controls, in the other the landlord had been justified in raising the rent as he had improved the property by converting an earth privy to a water closet. At the end of the discussion the Council voted in favour of continuing rent and mortgage controls for two years after the war’s end.

Yet another shortage, this time the shortage of labour, was also mentioned at the Trade and Labour Council’s meeting. It was blamed for the infrequency of scavenging in Ossett. For want of workers the contractor responsible had four horses idle in his stables and had also received his own call up papers. Another sign of the scarcity of male workers was the Palladium’s advertisement in the "Ossett Observer" for a "young lady" to train as a projectionist.

When the Chamber of Commerce met it heard a talk by Mr Fred Rhodes of Dewsbury about plan for the University of Leeds and the large textile colleges to carry out scientific research for the wool textile industry. Rhodes stressed the importance of science in the future of the industry, pointing out how successful Germany had been in applying science in her industries. At least one member of the Chamber, Mr Fitton, promised to give financial support to the scheme.

At the beginning of the Chamber’s meeting Mr B. P. Wilson proposed a motion recording ‘with pride and profound gratitude our appreciation of the entry of America in the great world struggle between civilisation and brutality.’ Seconding the motion, Mr J.H. Gibson said it was "a piece of unselfishness such as history has no record of."

Ossett: May 1917

When Empire Day was celebrated in Ossett’s schools on the 24th May, Councillor Moys spoke to the pupils of Holy Trinity School reminding them that they were "children of the Empire", an empire which covered a quarter of the whole world and which had been "gained not by force, but by fair dealing." He urged them to have high ideals so that they could maintain the Empire.

On the same day, the Mayor, Alderman G. F. Wilson, read from the Town Hall steps King George V’s proclamation urging the voluntary rationing of food. Its words were taken to heart by the members of the Chamber of Commerce who at their meeting took the voluntary ration pledge. Reminding them that they met on Empire Day, their President, Mr B.P. Wilson, asked what the use of patriotism was if the wives and children of soldiers could not get enough to eat. Those who failed to eat less were displaying the "essence of selfishness."

Wireworm damageAs part of its campaign to increase food production, the West Riding War Agricultural Committee asked the Town Council to form an advisory committee representing the 60-70 farmers in the borough. Each farmer was to supply details of land use and the farmers were reminded of the county committee’s power to compel them to convert land from pasture to arable. The West Riding Committee also suggested that boys from Ossett Grammar School should do paid work on the land to ease the shortage of workers. Meanwhile the efforts of gardeners near Ossett railway station to increase food production by cultivating potatoes were frustrated by a plague of wire worms, with one gardener finding 30 worms in a single potato. See picture (right):

At the Trade and Labour Council, the prospects for a negotiated peace between the Allies and the Central Powers were raised. William France believed that Britain might settle for a peace without annexations, as long as Germany paid for the damage she had done to France and Belgium, but he noted that the Americans and Russians had rejected the imposition of indemnities. Councillor Sowden’s view was that they should not to give up after three years of fighting. It was necessary to put an end to "German culture" forever and Germany had to suffer for her inhumanity during the war. Councillor Lake reminded the meeting of the importance of distinguishing between the German ruling and working classes as they had no quarrel with the latter. In spite of the views the trade unionists expressed they decided to take no action on a proposal from the Peace Negotiation Committee that the Council organise a public meeting in favour of a negotiated peace.

Later in the meeting Councillor Lake raised the subject of improving the education of the working classes. A revolution, he claimed, needed an educated people to succeed and in Russia the peasantry were not educated. As for Britain, the workers had never fully realised the importance of education. He had decided to do something to remedy the situation in Ossett and Horbury by forming a branch of the Workers’ Educational Association.

At the Technical School a Russian class had been taught by Miss Rosewitch and at its end her students presented her with books on Dutch art.

Ossett: June 1917

Ossett’s week long War Economy Campaign, organised by the War Savings Committee, was launched by Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell. Its programme of lectures, competitions and musical entertainments attracted an average of over 400 people a day to the Town Hall. Among the subjects of the lectures were fruit bottling, gardening and feeding children, while the competitions focussed ways of making a little go a long way such as a school girl’s jumper out of material costing no more 2s 6d. At the Palladium the film ‘Mother’s Help’ was shown during the week in support of the campaign.

Farmers from Ossett and Ardsley met at the Technical School to form a local advisory committee. They were told the aim of the county War Agricultural Committee was to raise grain production in the West Riding to its 1872 level. To aid farmers, loans would be available and tractors to plough up pasture could be hired at 15 shillings an acre. The five members of the new committee quickly started work. They set a target of having at least half the area’s farmland under the plough and began to visit farms which fell short of it. Most of the farmers visited agreed more or less willingly to increase their arable, the less willing having to be reminded of the West Riding Committee’s compulsory powers. Meanwhile Ossett’s allotment holders faced a new threat in their struggle to increase food production, the cabbage fly, whose ravages caused great concern.

To save stocks of wool, the working hours of mills were reduced at the beginning of the month. Weaving time was cut to 45 hours a week and spinning to 47½ hours. An Ossett shoddy manufacturer suggested that the wool shortage could have been solved by increasing the proportion of good shoddy in khaki cloth from 20 to 50%. This would have made the cloth less durable, but army uniforms, he argued, did not need to long lasting as after a few weeks at the Front they were usually in too bad a condition to be cleaned and repaired.

Although the new oil and benzol plant at the gas works supplied valuable chemicals to war industries, it had the effect, or so some customers thought, of reducing the quality of the gas they used. To make matters worse, the Council increased the price of gas by 8%. In recognition of price inflation, the Council increased to 7s a week its employees’ war bonus.

At the Trades and Labour Council a request from the National Union of Sailors and Firemen to support its stand over the Stockholm international socialist peace conference was considered. The seamen were refusing to take to the conference any delegates who would not insist on Germany making full restitution for her the losses caused by her submarine warfare. The Council agreed to support the National Union’s position.