Stratford in 1914

There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
Rudyard Kipling

Bridge Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1914 (David Gregory Collection)

Bridge Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1914 (David Gregory Collection)

One hundred years ago, Stratford-upon-Avon was a very different place from the town today. The shape is more or less the same, but it is almost impossible to recognise those buildings that were captured in photographs in the years before 1914. The street names are the same, but the traders and family businesses have all long gone. Stratford was smaller then. The pace of life was slower, and it was predominantly an agricultural market town.

Street traders occupied the middle of Bridge Street ‘with a collection of ramshackle stalls, with fruit and fish as the principal offerings.’ (Gerald Jaggard. Stratford Mosaic). Boats floated idly down the Avon towards Lucy’s Mill past banks of pale primroses, and donkey carts made their weekly deliveries of carrots and potatoes from the stiff clay of the Vale of Evesham, down Waterside under a canopy of cream-coloured horse chestnut blossom and cherry trees on the Bancroft. Along Bridge Street there were tailors, milliners, butchers, wine merchants, and afternoon tea at The Shakespeare Gallery. T.H. Meadows – the grocer and tea dealer, and the Shakespearean Sausage and Pie Manufactory were amongst the long-established trades in Wood Street, whilst those in Chapel Street included Callaway the plumbers and the auctioneer Kibler Morgan.

Although sheep still grazed on the hillsides of south Warwickshire and cattle roamed the pasture land, farming was going through a period of great change. The hereditary skills of thatching and ditching were dying out. Wooden implements had given way to ones made from iron, and the barley and wheat was no longer cut by men and placed in stooks, but mechanised combines swept through the fields reducing the number of labourers the farmer needed to employ. ‘Drudgery and hardship lurked beneath the charm of rural beauty,’ wrote Juliet Nicholson in The Perfect Summer, in red tiled villages with ancient grey stone churches, where farm labourers received a weekly wage of about fourteen shillings. A clergyman observed that the only hope of escape ‘for a reckless and degraded peasantry’ was emigration. A Canadian government emigration agent based in Corporation Street in Birmingham regularly visited Stratford and advertised in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald offering a free 160 acres: ‘The soil is tilled – and a town springs up in Canada’ read the advertisements, ‘Help to make Canada great by helping to till the soil.’

This agricultural crisis plus the economic and social changes created an environment that lead to a rising interest in socialism, attention to the condition of the poor and the status of women – including the issue of women’s suffrage. The Stratford branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society had been formed and Mrs. Pankhurst came to address an open meeting. The lives of the old and those in the Workhouse at the top of Mansell Street were transformed by the introduction in 1909 of the old age pension, and excited queues formed at the post office in Sheep Street. So it was an era marked by significant shifts in politics as sections of society which had been excluded from having any power in the past became politicised, and so the General Election results in 1906 were watched by an enthusiastic crowd on a large screen outside the electrical shop in High Street.

There was also tension in the air with so much change, reform and innovation, and this was reflected in the enormous number of novels and short stories being published. It was often encouraged by the more excitable newspapers, which included The Daily Mail, The Sketch and The Daily Mirror.

These years before 1914 were regarded as a romantic Golden Age by those who remembered the Edwardian time with nostalgia when looking back to their childhood. Families walked to Alveston and Hampton Lucy, on to the Welcombe Hills and Clifford Chambers, passed gardens of lilac and laburnum, and through fields of primroses and pink hawthorn. Fine weather created a problem of dust on unmacadamised roads, and although water carts went round, the trouble started again after a few hours of sunshine. In wet weather, mud lay everywhere. Scores of children in smocks and print gowns processed through Stratford on May Day followed by a Maypole to the Bancroft, where Morris Men, fiddlers, clowns and hobby horses entertained. Sarah Bernhardt came to the Memorial Theatre to act her version of Hamlet in French prose, and the great contralto Clara Butt sang at the annual concert of the Choral Society. Stratfordians had their first sight of an aeroplane. There were the usual pig roasts and rides and family-run side shows at the annual Mop Fair, and crowds gathered on the banks of the Avon to watch the regatta. Continuing a tradition started by their Headmaster in 1893, the boys of King Edward VI School lead the Shakespeare birthday procession to Holy Trinity Church.

At the corner of Chapel Lane and Church Street and next to the 13th century Guild Chapel – where the great bell was still rung at 6:00am followed by the day of the month immediately afterwards – King Edward VI Grammar School, established by the Guild of the Holy Cross, had educated the sons of Stratford for over seven hundred years. William Shakespeare had been a pupil – learning his Latin, Greek and Rhetoric – in the 16th century, and the School had survived the Reformation, the Civil War, and an epidemic of smallpox in the 18th century that had ravaged the town and reduced the number of boys on roll to three. In 1914 it was still a small Grammar school, almost a little kingdom of its own, and also in a time of transition. The Headmaster, Rev. Cornwell Robertson, who had been appointed in 1902, believed that it was not the only object of the School to cram a boy, and stuff as much learning into him as it could. He wanted a little more. He ‘liked to see a boy work not with his head alone, but with his heart as well, whatever he was doing, whether on the playing field or in the school.’ There were eighty-one boys. Most came from the town, some from the surrounding Warwickshire villages and farms, and there were thirty boarders in the Old School House in Chapel Lane. Following a general entrance fee of £1.0.0., the inclusive annual tuition fee under the age of 12 was £8.10. 0, and for those above 12, £10.0.0. The cost of boarding, in addition to the tuition fee, was £50.0.0. As they had done so since the time of the Royal Charter of 1553, the sons of Burgesses of Stratford-upon-Avon remained exempt from both the entrance fee and one-third of the tuition fee.

In buildings dating from the early 15th century, the boys were taught English, Mathematics, Latin, French, Chemistry, History, Geography, Scripture, Art and Gymnastics by the Headmaster and his five members of staff. Music lessons were available but only by private tuition, and from the fourth form, Greek was included. There were open fireplaces, gas burners, but no electricity. The Boarders did their prep in the evening gloom of Big School, where just over three hundred years earlier William Shakespeare had studied. There was cricket, rugby, athletics, a Fives court, and a rifle range.

During what Vera Brittain called ‘the last summer of that now vanished world’, events unfolded outside the walls of the School and beyond the towns and villages of Warwickshire, as Europe, wrote Richard Holmes, ‘slid almost effortlessly’ into war. With a few exceptions, the people of Stratford had been rather insular. Certainly they were fiercely loyal to the Crown and each year celebrated Empire Day, but A.J.P. Taylor believed that before 1914, ‘a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and scarcely notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card.’ Unlike the countries of the European continent, wrote Brian McCarthur in For King and Country, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. ‘An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. Broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.’

When war was declared, the principle concern for many was that it would not last long enough for them to rush off to the front. The novelist Ernest Raymond wrote that at the outset the young were enthusiastic to fight for a cause they considered to be just, but like many he believed that it would all be over by Christmas, and echoed the belief that ‘there simply wasn’t enough money to keep the War going and that the City would not allow it to continue beyond a few days.’ In Warwickshire there was the added urgency to bring in the harvest.

I.M. Parsons in the introduction to Men Who March Away wrote of the mood of optimistic exhilaration with which young and old greeted the outbreak of war. ‘A period of euphoria, when it was still possible to believe that war was a tolerably chivalrous affair, offering welcome opportunity for heroism and self-sacrifice, and to hope that this particular war would be over in six months.’

One hundred and eighty-one King Edward VI School Old Boys served in the armed forces during the First World War. For a small school this was a considerable number. On enlistment, the youngest – directly from School – was 17, the oldest 39, and the youngest to die was 18. One gained a Victoria Cross, eleven were awarded the Military Cross, four the Distinguished Service Order, one the Military Medal, one the Distinguished Conduct Medal, one the Distinguished Service Medal, one was awarded the OBE, and two received both the Croix de Guerre and were made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. Thirty-one Old Boys and one Master were killed in action or died of wounds. Like so many thousands, they flocked to the colours with one superlative asset – comradeship. They were ‘the gay and golden boys’ of Katherine Tynan Hinkson’s poem Joining the Colours, ‘With tin whistles, mouth-organs, any noise’, they were ‘foolish and young’ who piped ‘the way to glory and the grave.’ Ernest Raymond wrote enthusiastically that ‘to be eighteen in 1914 is the best thing in England. Eighteen years ago you were born for this day. Through the last eighteen you’ve been educated for it.’ No other generation, it was believed at the time, had been called ‘to such grand things, and to such crowded, glorious living.’ In her book The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson called that time ‘one of the high sunlit meadows of English history,’ and that ‘a bright optimism persisted, a belief that England, with its history of peace and its pre-eminence in the world, was almost divinely protected.’ In retrospect, Siegfried Sassoon believed that ‘they seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future.’

As a patriotic fervour swept Stratford, the recruiting station in Sheep Street was swamped with volunteers. The threat to Britain seemed real enough, and a sense of national honour tugged their conscience. Old Boys of King Edward VI Grammar School, Arnold Grayson Bloomer (1896-1903), Bertie Ellis (1908-1912) and Alfred Bennett Smith (1887-1893) enlisted within days of the declaration of war on the August bank-holiday weekend. Others, including Alan Moray-Brown and Frederick Butcher, were already professional soldiers, and Henry Bernard Wilson – working for the Eastern Telegraph Company in Aden – enlisted ‘as soon as conveniently possible.’ A number of KES Old Boys about to join the colours had been members of the cast of a highly praised production of Henry V at the Memorial Theatre in 1913. Now in the words of the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, ‘they went to join the men of Agincourt.’