On this day in history….30th December 1887

On this day in history : 30th December 1887 – A petition, signed by more than a million women, is sent to Queen Victoria, calling for public houses to close on Sundays….

Women would have had a variety of valid reasons for putting their name to such a petition…. Many were fed up with their menfolk spending much of their free time in the pub – an establishment that generally did not welcome women – and since the 1830s alcohol consumption had been linked with many social issues….

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Public domain

Then there were those who supported the Temperance Movement…. A fierce movement against the consumption of alcohol which had begun in America during the late 1700s and in time was to spread to Britain and Ireland…. A great British global expansion had taken place during the 19th century and in the latter part of the 1800s there was a fear that this ‘greatness’ would drown in a sea of alcohol…. Of course, even with the signatures of over one million women, the petition was never going to get far…. In fact it got no further than Henry Mathews – the then Home Secretary….

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Henry Mathews – Public domain

The Beer House Act of 1840 required public houses to close at midnight….generally opening at 5 or 6am it was pretty much possible to get a drink at any time of the day…. It was the advent of World War 1 that eventually brought changes to the licensing laws – restrictions were put in place limiting the hours publicans could serve alcohol…. Ironically many of these restrictions were aimed at women….

The Government became concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers…. With their menfolk away fighting and combined with increased spending power – the girls were out to have a good time…. With unrestricted opening it meant more drinking hours in the day….and productivity in the munitions factories was not as high as the government desired…. David Lloyd George, the then Minister for Munitions (but also to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister during the war years) said at a speech in Bangor – “drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together”…. In another speech, given to the Shipbuilding Employers Federation he is known to have said Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest foe is Drink”….

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Women workers in the New Gun Factory, Woolwich – Photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

Lloyd George initiated a campaign for complete abstinence for the duration of the war…. He had support in the highest of places – having managed to persuade King George V to promise that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal Household until the war was over…. A statement was put out….“no wines, spirits or beer will be consumed in any of His Majesty’s houses after today; Tuesday April 6th 1915″….img_5176

Others who lent their support and followed the King’s example were Lord Kitchener – the Secretary of State and Richard Haldane – the Lord Chancellor…. However, Herbert H Asquith, Prime Minister at the time and a some what heavy drinker, refused…. Asquith was regularly under the influence when he addressed the House of Commons – his reaction to Lloyd George was that he had “completely lost his head on drink”….

Lloyd George was tempted to outlaw alcohol entirely – but knew there would be a backlash…. So a range of laws and restrictions was introduced instead….

In cities, towns and industrial areas a change in the law meant public houses could only serve between 12 noon and 2.30pm and in the evenings from 6.30pm to 9.30pm…. Most rural areas were unaffected and could still open throughout the day….

Laws were introduced reducing the strength of alcohol and taxes were increased, making it less affordable…. In 1918 a bottle of whisky typically cost £1 – five times more than it had before the outbreak of the war…. Other measures were put into place, such as to where alcohol could no longer be consumed – for example drinking on trains was banned….

One of the more unpopular laws was the ban on buying a round of drinks…. The ‘No Treating Order’, introduced in October 1915, meant it became illegal to buy an alcoholic drink for another person – the maximum penalty for breaking this law was six months imprisonment…. Licensing authorities had the power to close pubs who allowed treating….

A report in ‘The Morning Post’ on the 14th of March 1916:- “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board”….

Unsurprisingly, this combination of tough measures worked…. By the end of WW1 Britain’s alcohol consumption had dropped by nearly 60%…. Beer consumption in 1914 was 89 million gallons, whereas in 1918 it was just 37 million…. In 1914 London 67,103 people were charged with drunkenness – in 1917 that number had fallen to 16,567….img_5175

On this day in history….13th December 1914

On this day in history : 13th December 1914 – Lieutenant Otto Koehn – known as ‘the German jack-in-a-box’ – is discovered concealed in a packing crate at Tilbury Docks….attempting to escape to Hamburg….

Otto was a German prisoner of war…. He had been captured from a German freight ship travelling from the USA to Germany….and he had been taken to Poundbury Prisoner of War Camp in Dorchester…. Otto began to plan his escape soon after arriving….

His opportunity came when some of the older prisoners were due to be repatriated back to Germany…. When the day came for their departure, there was an extra packing crate amongst their luggage….a crate measuring just 3ft x 2ft x 2ft…. Inside was Otto – which must have been quite a squeeze, as he was over 6ft tall! He had along with him a dozen bananas, some malt extract and three Champagne bottles full of water….

On arrival at Tilbury Docks the SS Batavian was waiting to take the prisoners for repatriation to Hamburg…. Dockers decided the best way to load the crate Otto was secluded in was by rolling it down the ramp to the ship…. So shaken and jolted was Otto inside he could stand it no more…. He burst out of the crate head first….and surrendered….

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SS Batavier – unknown photographer – public domain

Otto was returned back to Dorchester….and earned the new name ….’Jack-in-a-box’….

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Thomas Nast – Public domain

On this day in history….22nd September 1914

On this day in history : 22nd September 1914 – Three Royal Navy cruisers are sunk after being torpedoed by one single German U-Boat….

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Illustration by Hans Bohrdt depicting the sinking of HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue – Public domain

The incident was a wake up call to both the British and Germans; it had not yet been realised the full potential of the new submarines…. Some in authority had been dismissive of their usefulness – but this heralded the dawning of a new era….

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U-9 – Public domain

The three Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Hogue, HMS Aboukir and HMS Cressy, were making their way across the North Sea and were a few miles off the coast of the Netherlands…. They had been sailing abreast at a distance of a couple of miles apart – no precautions against submarines, such as ‘zig-zagging’, were undertaken as the sea conditions were rough and considered as to be too unsuitable for the operation of submarines….

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HMS Cressy, lead ship of the squadron – UK Government, public domain

The three cruisers had been built in the late 1800s/early 1900s and the general view was that they were unreliable and verging on becoming obsolete…. The crews were inexperienced, mostly recruited reservists and many were young, even including naval college cadets younger than 15-years-old…. They were part of a squadron who’s job was to patrol the North Sea – such was their inadequacy they were known as the ‘Livebait Squadron’…. Some high ranking authorities – admirals, commodores and even the First Lord of the Admiralty himself, Winston Churchill – had raised concerns at such an inexperienced squadron performing this role…. However, those in direct charge insisted the squadron in its current capacity remain in service and continue their duties until the time came that they could be replaced by the new Arethusa Class cruisers – which were awaiting completion…. So the events of the 22nd of September would most likely have caused considerable embarrassment to the immediate senior officers – they had completely underestimated the capabilities of the German U-Boat….

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HMS Aboukir – UK Government, public domain

Kapitanleutnan Otto Weddigen was in charge of the Tyne U9 U-Boat that was to first strike at 6.30 am…. He had been patrolling these waters, on the hunt – and the three cruisers were sitting ducks…. The first torpedo struck HMS Aboukir – the captain, John Drummond, thought they had hit a mine and called the other two ships for assistance…. A massive explosion sent the Aboukir down at 6.55am – just as she was disappearing beneath the surface HMS Hogue arrived to pick up any survivors….only to be hit by a torpedo herself…. Next on the scene was HMS Cressy – to meet the same fate….

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HMS Hogue – Symonds & Co, public domain

In total 1,459 men lost their lives; Britain was horrified and outraged – but such was the propaganda that the news reported that the squadron had been hit by six German U-Boats – but in truth senior officers faced reprimands…. A valuable lesson was learned….albeit a very expensive one in the respect of the unnecessary loss of lives….

As for Kapitanleutnan Weddigen – he was hailed a national hero and awarded the Iron Cross First Class….and his crew received the Iron Cross Second Class….

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Otto Eduard Weddigen – Public domain

On this day in history….8th September 1914

On this day in history : 8th September 1914 – Nineteen-year-old Private Thomas Highgate is the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I….

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Private Thomas Highgate – image via Pinterest

Three days earlier, on the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas had been found hiding in a barn, dressed in civilian clothing – his nerves having got the better of him…. Thomas had fled from the battlefield and had hidden in a barn in the French village of Tournan; he was discovered by a gamekeeper – who happened to be an English ex-soldier….

Thomas was tried by court martial – a brief trial presided over by three officers…. The following morning at 6.20am he was informed that he was going to be executed; at 7.07am he faced the firing squad….

In total 306 executions of British and Commonwealth soldiers took place in World War I – for ‘crimes’ such as cowardice and desertion….

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The National Memorial Arboretum – ‘Shot at Dawn’ – Photo credit : Matthew Rogers CC BY SA 3.0