Sunday, 8 November 2020

Remembering those that fought and died in the Great War

To commemorate the Armistice and Remembrance Sunday, the Unlocking the Treasures team wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a really interesting volume held within the Local Studies collection. Home Fires: the magazine of the Park Street Unitarian Church [Ref: L.288 PAR] gives an insight to the Great War through the eyes of those men that fought in the conflict.

Front page of Home Fires, March 1917

Home Fires was the magazine of the Park Street Unitarian Church in Hull. The Local Studies Library has a single volume covering August 1916 to July 1919. The servicemen, many of whom were ex-pupils of its school, were sent copies of the magazine, much to their delight. Sergeant Gilbert Coles in his letter to the magazine expressed his thanks and looked forward to his copy in anticipation. The magazine not only provided the opportunity to turn their thoughts away from the war with news of home, Park Street Church also provided parcels for servicemen, particularly at Christmas. Private Frank Rusholme wrote to thank the ladies of Park Street [Unitarian Church] for the ‘splendid parcel’, in which contained basic commodities such as soap and towels which were difficult to obtain. He also received a photograph of the Park Street Church, which Private Rusholme recalled ‘carried him right out of this land of mud and water’.

The darker side of the War also comes out. Private Rusholme’s letter expresses the kind sympathy for the loss of his brothers and sister. Unfortunately we do not know how his siblings died. This may have been as a result of zeppelin raids on Hull, or for his brothers the added possibility of being killed on the front-line.

Letters from the servicemen give an insight into conditions and devastation the war inflicted. Gunner A.M. Hill describes a scene of a village as a confusion of bricks, planks and plaster. No roof or wall was left standing and every scene was one of awful desolation, all due to the all-devastating fire by artillery from both sides.

The all too familiar story, however, is one of death. Private W. J. Jackson wrote to the church magazine in 1916. In one letter he recalled how he crawled between his blankets wishing for something to read while his feet thawed. Private Jackson goes on to recall the dangers of shells falling from German Artillery and the constant threat of German snipers. In November that same year, Private Jackson was killed in action, by a sniper. Those that knew him remembered his spirit and devotion to defend the honour and safety of Britain. Before the war Private Jackson was a teacher at St. George’s Road School.

Servicemen described a mutual respect between those who fought on both sides. Private Jackson, before his death revealed that German prisoners were brought down into the trenches, and only pity was expressed. He added that as prisoners passed, they were greeted with a nod and a smile as though they were comrades. German heroism was not a theme for any sort of address, including in Hull, but in a published article from the Home Fires, some were reminded that even in this bitter war there was a common bond between England and Germany, and that is the desire to sacrifice for the cause, for which both sides think is right, that our men should fight.

An interesting issue that comes from the letters of servicemen is the ruinous effects drink was having on some. Private H. Machin recalls how he could almost write a book on the evils of drink in the army. The problems were such that the French abolished the sale of absinthe. However, this was just one of the many drinks for sale in France at the time. Private Machin goes on to add that many in the army are being ruined by body and soul through drink. He, like others felt if soldiers were prevented from drinking it would do more good than people at home realise. Private Frank Rusholme agreed that preventing drink was a good proposal, but he declared that retaining this privilege meant the men were more likely to commit under the worst conditions, than if drink were taken away.

A lot of focus during the First World War concentrates on the campaigns in Europe. We tend to overlook the campaigns fought elsewhere. Private Wilfred Dennis writes of his experiences in fighting in the defence of the Suez Canal. At the time of writing Private Dennis was recovering from dysentery, south of Cairo. He recalls his unit, the Imperial Camel Corps came under an inferno of fire. For the next three hours they were pinned down, only to be saved by sunset. Surprisingly there was not a single causality. The next morning German snipers were up early. A signaller was hit, but this was just a flesh wound Private Dennis recalled. Fighting was carried out in 135 degree heat. Thirst among the soldiers was a common theme. Several men from the East Yorkshire Regiment were hit in this particular conflict, one died while been carried back to safety. Those that were injured had to make the journey of 12 miles on camel back. Private Dennis and the Camel Corps had emerged from the battle a ragged crowd, some without boots, and some without shirts, soap or tobacco.

Roll of Honour taken from Home Fires, 1916

As the war drew to a close and ceased, the Home Fires magazine provides some interesting detail of what was happening locally. For example, over 100,000 Belgians and Dutch embarked for home from Hull’s King George Dock, as too did several thousand Germans who passed through the City. Rations were reported to be improving. More sugar became available, while tea, lard, bacon and margarine became unrestricted. Meat also become cheaper. We also find reference to Dull Hull? The answer to this was ‘it will not be dull when the suggested improvements are completed to the Boulevards and boating lakes’. It was even proposed that Hull was to have its own airport and had a promising future in aviation!

Overall the Homes Fires magazine helped morale among the servicemen from this area. It offered an opportunity to help pass time, but also tells the stories and issues that affected them, some of which is somewhat overlooked. Perhaps the importance of this magazine to those that fought in the Great War can be summed up by Private Wilfred Dennis:

‘Home Fires seems to bring things at home much near to one, and as I read the chatty little letters of old friends I forget the burning sun, the hot sand, and the terrible loneliness, and think of the green fields of Ferriby Sluice and the muddy old Humber, the happy times I’ve had crossing it and the laughter and romping there when we got to the other side’.

‘Lest we forget’

Neil Chadwick, Project Officer, Unlocking the Treasures


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The North Sea Incident or Russian Outrage

Just before midnight on 21st October 1904, Russian warships were sailing across the North Sea from their base at Libau in the Baltic Sea. These warships were on an 18,000-mile voyage to engage the Japanese. At the time, Russia and Japan were locked in a struggle to establish and exert their imperial power in the Far East. The incident that occurred late on the night of 21st October caused shock, horror and outrage, not only in Hull, but across the country, leading to escalating tension between Britain and Russia, and a real possibility of military conflict between the two. This blog recalls the North Sea Incident, known to some as the Russian Outrage. 

As the Russian fleet made its way across the North Sea, south of the Dogger Bank was the Gamecock fleet of steam-trawlers. The Gamecock fishing fleet, around forty in total, was one of the largest and sailed out of Hull. They operated as a fleet, often staying at sea for months at a time. Trawlers would catch the fish before transferring the catch to faster steam cutters, which would land the fish at places such as Billingsgate in London. 

The night of the incident was misty and drizzly. The trawlers were spread over some miles. The fleet itself was positioned south east of the Dogger Bank, around 200 miles off Spurn Point. To help with navigation the fleet used rockets and coloured lights to signal which direction they were to sail. Through the mist and rain several vessels appeared. Some of the crews were aware the Russian fleet had left the Baltic and would be heading towards the English Channel. At the time some fishermen believed these to be British warships on maneuvers. 

To identify themselves, the trawlers used flares and lights. Upon seeing the trawlers, the Russians used their powerful search lights, illuminating the trawlers. No sooner had the Russians illuminated the trawlers, they started firing. Initially, some believed it to be blank shot, but very quickly the trawlermen were all too aware they were under attack. Shells, the size of cucumbers embedded themselves within some of the trawlers. One fisherman is alleged to have held two fish aloft, indicating to the Russians that they were fishermen. One trawler skipper recalled how they could see the faces of the Russian sailors and that they must have realised those they were shooting were trawlers. 

Some trawlers were in the process of hauling up their nets, but in desperation to escape, cut their nets. Some extinguished their lights to avoid being seen. The firing continued and lasted for around half an hour. After the firing had ceased, several trawlers were damaged. One, the Crane, sank shortly afterwards, not before the crew and the bodies of its dead skipper and Third Mate were recovered from the deck. The Russian fleet then continued in its progress towards the English Channel. News of the incident was made public on the evening of 23rd October. Initial reports were sketchy, but as men and trawlers returned home, the picture of the attack became clearer. The Mino had taken significant damage, its crew struggled to keep the vessel afloat. However, it was the Crane that bore the brunt of the attack, sinking shortly afterwards. The two crew that lost their lives were George Smith and William Leggott. Smith's son was aboard the Crane. Aged fifteen, this was his first time at sea. Miraculously he was uninjured and survived along with the remaining crew. Altogether one trawler was lost and five more damaged. 

Hull's North Sea Gamecock fleet under attack from the Russian Navy in 1904
Depiction of the North Sea Incident from the Illustrated London News Supplement, 1904 [Ref: L.639.22]

In the aftermath there was huge public anger. None more so than in Hull were the Mayor of Hull condemned the act, referring to it as the ‘Russian Outrage’. Elsewhere there were noisy protests outside the Russian Embassy in London and the incident led to a serious diplomatic conflict between Russia and Britain. With tensions increasing, the British Government put its Mediterranean, Channel and Home fleets in a state of readiness. The British demanded an inquiry to ascertain the facts and to gain compensation for those that had suffered.

The funerals of George Smith and William Leggott took place on Thursday 27th October. From Park Street to the cemetery at Spring Bank, people lined the streets. Smith's coffin was brought out of his house on Ribble Street and put into a horse drawn hearse. The procession was led by the Chief Constable of Hull and the Salvation Army. The hearse followed, as too did the mourners and men of the Gamecock fleet, which included owners and directors. This was followed by the coffin of William Leggott, the Crane's Third Mate.

Funeral procession of George Smith and William Leggot, who were killed in the North Sea Incident, 21st October, 1904
Funeral of George Smith and William Leggott, 27 October 1904 [Ref: L RH/1/206]

A public relief fund was setup and donations reached the city from wealthy individuals. Queen Alexandra contributed £100, while the King gave 200 guineas. By the 5th November a total of nearly £1000 had been raised. 

The Russians, however, were reluctant to accept responsibility. The version of events given by the Russian Admiral was that the fleet was provoked by two torpedo-boats, which had advanced to attack the Russian fleet. The Russian Admiral went on to claim they endeavoured to spare the fishing boats as a result. He also accused the fishing vessels of conspiring with the Japanese torpedo-boats and went on to say no warship could have acted otherwise and expressed his sincere regret for the unfortunate victims. 

On 15th November the Board of Trade inquiry commenced at Hull. It took place in the Assembly Rooms. A series of eyewitness descriptions were provided by the fishermen involved. The testimonies all agreed the vessels had their regulation lights on. However, visibility prevented seeing any ships at a distance on that night. The fishermen reported seeing the lights of several vessels approaching from a north east direction. It was claimed the Russians observed the trawlers, but in groups the Russian ships began to fire. In an attempt to stop the Russians from continuing to fire, some of the vessels launched rockets into the air, which were used by the fleet to navigate. The Russians, however, continued to fire. It was reported the attack lasted between 10-30 minutes, but no less than 10 minutes. The inquest also established that no torpedo-boats were present among the trawlers and that no crew or members had being in the service of the Japanese Navy.

It was also determined that search lights from the Russian vessels must have seen the lettering and numbering on the vessels to indicate that they were in fact trawlers. The firing, however, continued and the only projectiles found aboard the trawlers were ones from the Russian Navy.

A case of mistaken identity was one thing but what happened in the aftermath was determined to have been an act of belligerent behaviour by the Russian Navy. At about 7am the next morning, another trawler, Kennet, was fired upon by a Russian warship. The warship stopped for three to four minutes before then steaming away. 

The inquest found the trawlers of the Gamecock Fleet were fired upon without warning or provocation, by several warships of the Russian Navy, and that the firing continued for at least 10 minutes. The Russian search lights should have established that these were in fact trawlers, not torpedo-boats belonging to the Japanese Navy as it was claimed. The firing continued deliberately, without reason or justification and the Russian vessels failed to render any assistance or ascertain the condition of the craft or crews. In the end, the Russians were found liable for compensation, which was distributed to the fishermen and the vessels owners to pay for damage and loss of income. 

The inquiry into the deaths of George Smith and Henry Leggott concluded that both died in the company of about forty to fifty vessels of the Hull fishing fleet. Although regulation lights were used to indicate they in fact were fishing vessels, both were killed by shots fired without warning or provocation, from Russian war vessels at about a distance of quarter of a mile. 

Tensions and anger eventually subsided. In Hull bitterness remained. Charles Henry Wilson was one of those who had a vested interest in the Wilson Line’s Baltic trade routes. Wilson knew too well the position of his of his vessels and crew when visiting Russian ports, and this could be jeopardised should there be any political fallout from the incident. Wilson stated it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Wilson, however, was heavily criticised for his comments. 

Today the Russian Incident is all but forgotten outside of Hull. A reminder of the incident stands on Hessle Road, erected in memory of the two fishermen who lost their lives on 21st October 1904. A third fishermen, Walter Whelpton, skipper of the Mino, died in May the following year, as a result of shock.

Commemoration plaque remembering George Smith and William Leggott killed during the North Sea Incident, 21st October 1904
Plaque commemorating George Smith and William Leggott [Ref: L RH/1/224]

If you wish to explore the event in more detail, the Local Studies Library at the Hull History Centre has several books available to read. These include Arthur Credland's ‘North Sea Incident: 21-22 October 1904’ [Ref: L.639.22]. Also available are a number of postcard images depicting the incident, which are held within the Local Studies Renton Heathcote collection at the Hull History Centre [Ref: L RH/1/203-224].

Neil Chadwick, Project Officer, Unlocking the Treasures

Friday, 16 October 2020

Thoughts by the Wayside, and Fancies by the Fireside

Thoughts by the Wayside, and Fancies by the Fireside [Fruit of the Hours of Idlesse during a Decade of Years, Act 15 to 25] [Ref: L.822]

This book is a prime example of “Unlocking a Treasure” - everything about the book is a feast for the eyes – from the embossed gold-leafed pages, to the amazing hand written pages [about 170 in total] and the incredible hand coloured illustrations.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the author’s name since the volume is not signed. The book includes original material by the author as well as pieces from other sources.
For instance, the section entitled “Gems Gathered from Classic Shores” [see photo] contains the works of Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Plato, Tibullus and others. Although the writer is not known to us, you can gain an insight into their life by reading through the poems, essays and musings. Given the nature of the book, it has a very intimate feel - there is a page entitled “In Memoriam – Topsoe – Obitt Nov X 1855” where the Author has a written a three page poem on the loss of the family cat. The illustrations are all works of art in themselves and some of the pages still have the original tissue paper over them to protect them. My favourites are “Mohammed”[see photo], “A Valentine” and “A Winter Walk”.
This volume acts as a time capsule into Victorian England. It is hard to imagine many people, myself included, having the time, the inclination, and in my case, the ability to devote to such a work of art.

Caoimhe West, Reader Assistant, Unlocking the Treasures Project

Friday, 25 September 2020

Recycling Archives

Every year all kinds of individuals and organisations offer us material for the archives. We accept many of these offers gratefully and happily accession the proffered material to the collections; but have you ever wondered what happens to the stuff we do not want? 

Now, this is a controversial topic in some quarters. As an archivist, the minute you say ‘can we dispose of this if we don’t want it, or would you like it returned’ to a depositor, we invite accusations to the effect that we are failing to preserve vital pieces of the nation’s history. What we are actually talking about in these instances are the multiple copies of a particular council report of which we only need one; draft and copy deeds where we have the official signed deed; or the editions of published works which are already on deposit in various libraries, and which do not constitute archival material. Once we explain this, fears are allayed and depositors go away reassured that we are not in fact throwing away unique medieval deeds!

So what do we do with the stuff we do not want? Quite mundanely, we recycle it using confidential waste bags and an external recycling company. How boring.

Me recycling things!

Now, before lockdown, I was working on a very large collection in which I found huge numbers of duplicate pamphlets and reports. Some of the pamphlets were bright and attractive looking. Of course, these all went the journey into recycling bags. But, with 20-27 September being designated ‘Recycle Week’ in the UK this year and September as a whole being dedicated to lifelong learning, it has got me thinking about whether or not there is something more interesting we could be doing; perhaps we could use the items we would usually recycle in the pursuit of learning a new hobby.

We have a fair number of creative types at Hull History Centre so I put this question to them, and I received the following suggestions:

  • Origami flowers, animals, envelopes, butterflies, baskets and boxes (for the fun of it)
  • Collage crafts with children (inspired by a lockdown entertaining young children)
  • Hanging decorations (for the new parent wanting to decorate a baby's room perhaps)
  • Paper snowflakes for Christmas (inspired by someone who loves Christmas too much)
  • Eco-friendly wrapping paper (through in some linen tape for the full archival theme)
  • Eco-friendly drainage lining for plant pots (inspired by Gardener’s World)
  • Parchment deed lampshades (bit gruesome when you think about what parchment is)
  • Looms and pompom makers made from old record boxes (just like grandma taught us)
  • Papier mache balloon masks (as Halloween isn't too far away)

As you can see, origami ideas were abundant!

The upshot of this is that I’m going to challenge my colleagues to make something creative out of the next item they are about to recycle. We will be posting our creations on Twitter @Hullhistorynews as and when they come into being; look out for #recycling!

So I now put the question to you: What interesting and creative things have you done with unwanted paper items? Let us know on Twitter @Hullhistorynews. 

Claire, Archivist (Hull University Archives)