Whitby on the eve of the Great War

Whitby in 1914: Exhibition curator Roger Dalladay
Picture by Gary Simpson

Whitby in 1914: Exhibition curator Roger Dalladay w142707e Picture by Gary Simpson

A hundred years ago holidaymakers on Whitby beach would be joined three times each day by Edwin Allnutt’s dancing troupe, known as the ‘Gay Cadets’.

Meanwhile, the recent conversion of the old temperance house into the Coliseum Theatre and opening of the Empire Cinema at Boyes meant the town was flush with entertainment venues.

With Charlie Chaplin starring in his first feature-length movie, entitled ‘The Tramp’, the motion picture theatres had opened just in time.

The Whitby-born author Storm Jameson was entertaining people with her novels, and although she was not a Suffragette, she claimed to have once bitten a policeman on the arm in Hyde Park.

The tourist trade was flourishing, despite fairly poor weather.

The start of the month had been marked with thunderstorms, although it would improve as the month wore on.

Whitby at least fared better than Teignmouth, where a small earthquake struck on the first of the month.

When the weather did take a turn for the worse, the Metropole was on hand to provide entertainment, having just received a large-scale renovation.

Its bedrooms had been improved and an extensive Art Deco lounge installed, where musicians would play live music while local couples danced alongside holidaymakers.

Then, on August 4, the lazy summer days were shattered.

That was the day Britain and the Empire declared war on Germany, and Whitby men were not shy in answering the call.

A Mrs Davidson, of Saltpan Well Steps sent six sons off to war, while the Whitby Women’s League of Help for the War contributed 100 shirts and 100 pairs of socks to the war effort by September 19.

Each week Major EJB Buckle, the Whitby recruiting officer, published lists of recruits enlisting and their civilian work.

Known as the ‘Patriot’s Roll’, the first four weeks’ lists showed that the majority of ‘patriots’ were miners. The employment of those signing up gives an indication of the economic climate of Whitby at the time.

The 37 miners would have worked in the ironstone and alum mines along the coast, including Loftus and Port Mulgrave, while the single jet worker who joined up highlights the decline of that industry in the town.

In the first month only two fishermen signed up, while 15 farmers enlisted.

Despite the Gazette being in its 60th year, not one journalist joined the war effort. However, the paper provided regular updates on how Whitby men were faring on the front.

“Whitby was frankly at a low ebb in terms of employment,” explained Roger Dalladay, who has compiled a Whitby Museum exhibition detailing the town’s contribution to the war in 1914.

He added: “Shipbuilding had moved up to Hartlepool and Sunderland and the jet trade had collapsed.”

For many the prospect of enlisting promised steady employment, while for others there was the chance for glory.

“Of course they were scared,” Roger said. “If you have got whizz bangs firing at you, you would be scared, so they were amazingly brave.

“When they wrote home, censorship meant they couldn’t say everything they wanted, but on the whole they manage to say cheerful things and they don’t seem downhearted.”

The realities of war were brought home on September 22, when three ships carrying Navy Reservists from Whitby were sunk by a German submarine, with seven local men losing their lives.

James Hall was a survivor of the attack and he recalled: “I saw a lot of Whitby lads when I was in the water and they were all right.

“We were floating for about six hours, but I am no worse off and thank god for it.

“We will be ready for the Germans again shortly and they will get paid back.”

The morning of December 16 changed Whitby forever.

The town was hit by two German battlecruisers, with the ten-minute bombardment claiming three lives.

The attack galvanised support for the war effort throughout the country, but no more so than in Whitby, with the men of the town hungry for revenge.

John Crowe was the son of a riveter at Messrs T Turnbull and Sons, of Whitehall Shipyard.

He was a Royal Navy Reservist and wrote back from the Caribbean, describing the sinking of the Santa Catarina.

He said: “We blew everyone aboard of her to pieces, and I’m very glad we did. We will do the same with the rest if we catch them.

“I shall never forget Whitby being bombarded. It made my blood boil.

“I shall never forget how my poor mother and child were running for safety when the Germans were at Whitby.

“They daren’t stand a fair fight.”

By Christmas 1914, Whitby had lost its innocence.

Throughout the war, many Whitby servicemen wrote back home about their experiences, with many letters being published in the pages of the Whitby Gazette

‘I did not think, at the outbreak of war, when I was erecting the Empire Theatre in the Station Square, that I should spend Christmas Day 1916 looking after a machine. We are flying all day, even at this time of year. Sometimes we have to work all night. One trip I did enjoy. I was close upon 3,000 feet up in the air (summer time) when I suddenly discovered we were above the clouds, with a lovely sun shining overhead, and the shadows of the clouds showing on the earth. When we looked between the clouds, the farms looked as if they were painted on a picture. The whole scene was like a huge picture ... I might say there is not a man in the Army or Navy who risks more with such small protection as our pilots do.”

First Class Air Mechanic G.T. Lawson, Sleights

‘If they could only have seen the poor Belgian children this morning on the road who have no homes because the Germans have knocked all the houses down, I think every able man would join the army at once.’

Letter by an unknown author in the Whitby Gazette

First year of Whitby’s war featured at museum

After 18 years at Whitby Museum, ‘1914 and Whitby’ will be Roger Dalladay’s penultimate exhibition. The display runs until Christmas and will be followed by a second exhibition which discusses the role Whitby played throughout the rest of the Great War.

Eighteen separate contributors have donated relics and stories towards the piece, which has taken three years to compile.

Whitby Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday and entry is free for Whitby residents.




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