Swavesey and the Great War

The Memorial Hall

Middlewatch, Swavesey circa 1920

Given the present level of discussion regarding the proposed refurbishment of the hall I thought it might be of interest to examine the historical circumstances within which this prominent building was conceived and built.

The impact of the great war on Swavesey was stark. Out of a population of 904 in 1911 no fewer than 163 men served overseas. of these 26 were killed and an equivalent number were disabled by wounds. Many others returned traumatised by the horrors which they had experienced.

The awful final tally was not even. Mrs Beaumont lost two of her five sons whilst two more of her boys came back traumatised and initially unfit to work. On the other hand - Alfred,Harry & James Prime all of 11 Taylors Lane,Swavesey (coincidentally the house in which I live) all returned in one piece,Alfred and James having both been awarded Military Medals for bravery. A cruel lottery.

It is difficult to comprehend the feelings of local families in the face of such traumatic events but one can discern quite readily a change in local attitude during the war and indeed spot differences in local opinion from the outset.

Ten Swavesey men were called up at the start with a further 24 enlisting between August 1914 and Dec 1915. Twenty eight men answered Kitcheners call during 1916. Peer pressure was a significant factor, a typical example being the staff at Swavesey railway station. On 19/11/1995 Hayward (Signalman),Trundley (Porter) and Harris (Booking clerk) all tried to enlist although Harris was rejected on medical grounds. Less than one month later a further five railwaymen enlisted. Carter (Signalman),Warrington (Porter) and Carrier,Wright & Webster (All platelayers).

Other pressure to enlist came via the media:-

Cambridgeshire Weekly News 21/4/1916

"Why exempt ? An able bodied man,presumably of military age,went from house to house in Swavesey on Tuesday - hawking buttons & similar trifles. People are not unnaturally asking where is the recruiting officer ?”.

Cambridgeshire Weekly News 23/6/1916

The Right Spirit ? A Swavesey soldier who has been at the front for many weary months, when at home said to his mother “you would not like to see me knocking about the village in civilian clothes would you ?”. ”No my boy I certainly would not" replied his proud mother in a true spirit of self sacrificing patriotism. "I should be ashamed to walk about - I am glad I am doing my bit. " said the soldier.

The local press was full of such zealous material and journalists would often make pointed reference to those families who were not "doing their bit". Towards the end of 1916 and following the loss of two Swavesey boys on the first day of the battle of the Somme (Prior and Dodson) the tone of media reporting changed quite noticeably.

The introduction of the Derby scheme brought pressure of a different kind with men of a paticular age being able to register for servicewithout immediately enlisting. A contemporary newspaper report mentioned that Swavesey men were not registering because they could not afford the 1s 11d train fare into Cambridge. The local authority subsequently set up a system of registration within the village. How very helpful ! As early as spring 1916 recruitment drives were not always succesful :-

Cambridgeshire Weekly News

"A recruiting party consisting of 40 non commissioned officers and men visited Swavesey on Saturday morning. . . . created a great deal of excitement amongst the children. The party arrived by train from Histon at about 11. 30am and marched through Church End and along High Street headed by a band. A halt was called immediately the recreation ground was passed and the men lay down on the grass. Two residents distributed oranges and apples. At about 12. 30 the party returned along High St and dinner was provided at the White Horse Inn. No recruits were forthcoming in Swavesey. Eligible men of military age were conspicuous by their absence”.

Sometimes a reluctance to fight would consist of more than “hiding in The Rising Sun until the recruiting officer passed by”. As early as 7/4/1916 the pastor of the Particular Baptist Church was drawing criticism for “offering up prayers for those who do not wish to enlist and expressing a hope that they do not have to go”. This contrasts with The Revd Sharp from St Andrews who was already serving as a chaplain in France. Both of these individuals were demonstrating principled bravery,albeit in very different ways.

During 1917 & 1918 local men continued to enlist - some by way of conscription others simply because they had reached the requisite age. Arthur Beaumont enlisted on 17th May 1917 (his 18th birthday) even though his brother Henry had already been killed at Ypres.

As the war dragged on local enthusiasm waxed and waned. Charley Wood had started compiling a Roll of Honour as early as 1914 but there was continuous debate throughout the war with regard to its upkeep. It fell into disrepair more than once and in a newspaper report dated 30/8/1916 a journalist reported that “the apathy of Swavesey people is due to a lack of co-operation and initiative,and initiative ought to be supplied by persons in position of authority”. Later a wooden case was made by Mr E J Mitham and the Roll of Honour was placed on the wall of the National School. In the latter year of the war the Parish Council was having problems in preventing people sticking posters on the surrounding wall area.

The news of the armistice on the 11th Nov 1918 was posted in the post office window following a phone call from the Cambridge Daily News. Two hours later Messrs Walter Thorp. Key and R. Mitham had managed to erect a flag pole above the church tower and a union jack was fluttering in the breeze. On the following Wednesday an effigy of the Kaiser was burnt on Swavesey recreation ground.

The idea of a Memorial Hall was shaped in the letters page of the Cambridgeshire Weekly News and found a spokesman in Major Robert Ellis who presented a proposal to the Parish Council in the spring of 1919. The council had favoured the refurbishment of the wooden mission church in Boxworth End (now demolished). The council’s counter proposal was squashed by the weight of contrary local opinion.

Sometime previously the late George Long had bequethed the present Memorial Hall site to the Parish and it was said that George had always favoured some sort of communal facility on the site.

The hall was eventually opened on the 15th May 1924 (see attached programme) and the ceremony continued with a concert in the evening. Assembled villagers paid 1s & were treated to such acts as “Sydney Pratt and his magicalisms” and “Horace Watson singing a humorous song”.

Funds had been raised by public subscription although at the time of opening some 40% of the cost remained uncovered. It was several years before the hall was fully paid for. Subsequently the Roll of Honour was placed within the hall (where it hangs to this day).

Time moves on and now the idea that a new purpose built complex be erected on the village playing field is gaining support. Somehow I think that Swavesey people of the 1920’s would have approved given the village’s sporting heritage. Two members of the Swavesey cricket team lost their lives in the great war and a further player lost his ability to compete following exposure to poison gas at the Battle of Loos. What better tribute than a community centre of which the village could be proud ?

In my view any new building should retain the name “Memorial Hall” and furthermore the Roll of Honour (an important local artefact) should have a prominent place within the new facility. The existing Hall will need to be sold but if possible the external appearance should be preserved since it is an interesting building in its own right.

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