Tag Archives: Kent

Secret ports and ‘lumber Jills’

In this guest blog post, Professor Mark Connelly reveals how the South East of England was transformed by the First World War and the impact this had on local industries, the influx of new inhabitants and women’s contribution to work previously dominated by men such as felling trees and collecting timber. 

‘Being so close to the continent, the South East saw enormous transformation during the First World War,’ says Mark Connelly, who is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Kent. ‘But often that transformation was temporary – that’s what makes it so fascinating to revisit the area, and those times.’

All change

As the World War One at Home project shows, the First World War was a time when the local could be very closely connected to the global. ‘You might have a soldier from your village sending back a postcard from Baghdad,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘or you might know someone who’d gone to serve with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and ended up in Malta. And even when you’d got used to the strange circumstances that the war brought about, there might be a sudden change – you might have government agents turn up in your sleepy backwater, and the place could be transformed overnight.’

Take for example the town of Richborough in Kent: ‘it was a fairly minor inland place, and then all of a sudden the Royal Engineers take it over, building from scratch a secret port on the river Stour, to load barges with ammunition and troops. Before long there were millions of tons of armaments being dumped there in crates.’ The hidden port was built right under Richborough’s Roman fortress and Saxon walls: from 1916 it was the embarkation point for almost all of the hardware that was shipped to France, as well as being the place where the salvage of war – the spent shell casings and damaged vehicles – was brought back to. And here as elsewhere, the demands of the war were a stimulus to innovation: it was at Richborough that roll-on, roll-off ferries were first developed, to speed up the process of loading and unloading.

Like other parts of the UK, the South East saw an influx of people from overseas. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘the World War One at Home project shows that the kind of enforced cosmopolitanism brought about by the First World War wasn’t just due to people coming to the UK from abroad. There was also a great deal of internal migration, with displaced people having to move around the country. The First World War marked the death knell of the Kent fishing fleet, for example, as the Channel was too dangerous for it to put to sea. Much of it was moved to Cornwall, and stayed there.’

Being the part of the UK closest to France and Flanders, Kent was naturally the site of a great deal of activity centred around the treatment of wounded soldiers, with many hospitals in the area overwhelmed with the numbers of troops returning from the Western Front. Mark Connelly points out the irony in the fact that Tunbridge Wells was chosen as the location for one huge hospital encampment – ‘this was originally a spa town, built on much older ideas of health.’

On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, the focus was more on aviation, with Eastchurch being used for pilot training, and Leysdown airfield being turned into a base for Short Brothers, for manufacturing and testing aircraft. Security was so tight that civilians needed a special passport to get on to or off the island.

In Sussex, meanwhile, there were female ‘lumber Jills,’ who were working as part of the Women’s Timber Service, which did for forestry what the Women’s Land Army did for farms, filling in for the men who were away fighting. Women came from as far away as Canada, to work in the local forests. It was unusual, certainly, to see women in these roles, but as Mark Connelly points out, ‘what’s really different about a lot of the war work that women were doing is the number of middle class women who were doing it – many working class women were already working in factories and in the fields before the war.’

Traces of the past

Many of these changes didn’t last much beyond the end of hostilities, and we’ve lost the last of the direct eyewitnesses to the First World War. But as Mark Connelly says, ‘we’re still left with that final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.’ For example, from the air you can still see the trench lines that stretch across Kent, built in case the Germans invaded. The Isle of Sheppey in particular was turned into a heavily fortified position during the First World War, given its strategic location at the mouth of the Thames and on the approaches to Chatham, and given that it was a possible landing area for invading forces. So robust were its defences that Sheppey became known as Barbed Wire Island, while surviving relics of the First World War include a series of gun emplacements that were designed so that the guns could swing round to fire inland, in case the Germans got in behind them.

That final and most enigmatic witness, the landscape.

‘The South East is now so closely associated with the Second World War,’ says Mark Connelly, ‘that the footprint of the Great War has tended to be overlooked. People tend to think of the Battle of Britain, and of Dad’s Army units defending the beaches – parts of Kent are even called the Spitfire Coast in publicity material for tourists. People tend to think, too, that it was in the Second World War that the line between soldiers and civilians was obliterated: they forget that there was a massive precursor for this in the First World War.’

The centenary of the Great War provides an opportunity, then, to remember what happened in the South East in this other global conflict. And for Mark Connelly, ‘here more than anywhere, it’s appropriate to use the First World War commemorations to think about how we stand in relation to our modern European partners, and how we are all to get along, in a Europe that has so often caused misery to itself.’

The Arrival of the Belgians at Folkestone

In this guest blog post, Dr Will Butler (University of Kent) reflects on how Belgians crossed the English Channel in the first month of WW1. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

The outbreak of the First World War only had a very limited impact on the town of Folkestone during its opening weeks. Despite the fact that many of its summer visitors had left in a flurry of panic in its opening days, many did not, and the town had also begun to fill with British soldiers ready to embark for the front. However, by the middle of August allied forces had suffered a series of setbacks and its armies were on the retreat along with many thousands of refugees. Many fled westwards, but others attempted to reach the ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Antwerp in an attempt to cross the channel.

Belgians on boats
Belgians on boats

Initially, penny packets of Belgian soldiers began to arrive at Folkestone. The first boat from Calais brought 72 men from 12 different regiments. These men had fought at Namur and Liege, and the fact that they had come from so many different regiments shows just how much the Belgian army were in disarray. Within a few days, a conveyor belt of civilians began to arrive from the Continent, many of them in commandeered fishing boats. An extract from an article written by the Folkestone correspondent of The Times perhaps best illustrates the scene:

‘Gradually at first and very rapidly during the last week or ten days there has been a great change. The town is full, hotels and boarding-houses are crowded, and there is a constant stream of people walking along the Leas. A huge crowd gathers daily outside the closed gates of the Harbour Station and stands there for hours to watch the thousands of people landed every afternoon who pass out to take up their temporary abode here. But it is not the usual holiday crowd which Folkestone knows so well. These sad-faced people, who walk soberly about or gather in little groups and discuss solemnly topics which are evidently of intense interest to them, are not happy rollicking, holiday-makers, nor is their language ours. There is far more French than English heard on the Leas in these days, for Folkestone is becoming a town of refugees’.

It was estimated that by 5 September, as many as 18,000 refugees had arrived in Britain through Folkestone Harbour and there was no sign that the numbers would fall. A Folkestone War Refugees Committee was quickly formed in the town and a Belgian Relief Fund was instigated by various newspapers around the country. Each refugee was given a medical examination by a doctor before they left the Harbour, some were then sent on to London, and others were found jobs locally, such as hop-picking. Above all, free meals were provided to all who required feeding: as many as 6,000 meals each day.

All classes of people had made the journey across the Channel. Many ‘smartly-dressed’ people of the middle classes stayed in the larger hotels and boarding houses surrounding the Leas. The poorer visitors, described as ‘terribly poor’, with little or no luggage were put up around the town in rooms volunteered by many of the townspeople. The Refugee Committee was praised very highly for its endeavours. Described as displaying ‘untiring zeal, cheering drooping spirits, feeding the hungry, helping the helpless, and directing and advising all who stand in need’.

The stream of refugees continued almost every day until the middle of October. By this time the town was as full as it would be at the height of the tourist season and few unoccupied rooms could be found anywhere in the town. Over 100,000 Belgians had passed through Folkestone in only a few months and as many as 15,000 had taken up residence. As a result, more funds were required to ensure that they could be cared for over the winter months. Many of the shops had put up signs in their shops advertising in French and a specific paper was printed, Le Franco-Belge, which could keep those who wish to be informed of news from the front. All effort was made to make the refugees feel welcome and comfortable. For many it would be at least another four years until they could return home.

Belgian-refugees
Belgian refugees

The citizens of Folkestone clearly embraced the presence of the new residents. In July 1915, the town celebrated ‘Belgian Day’, to coincide with the Belgian national holiday. The Town Hall and other businesses flew the black, yellow, and red flag, and many Belgian children were seen selling them in the streets. A ceremony was held at the Roman Catholic Church and the Mayor of Folkestone spoke of England’s admiration for ‘gallant Belgium’.

Other events regularly took place throughout the war, and the town was visited by many dignitaries as a result of its hospitality to the Belgian people, including the King and Queen of the Belgians who were warmly received. Famously, Signor Franzoni painted a portrait which depicted the arrival of the first Belgian refugees at the Harbour, which can still be viewed in the town. A tablet was erected outside the Town Hall in testimony of the work carried out by the townspeople. Finally, a message was received by King Albert at the end of the war, when a Mausoleum was erected at nearby Shorncliffe Military Ceremony, who stated that ‘Folkestone had earned the admiration not only of the Belgians, but also of the whole world: yes, the whole civilised world knew how the town of Folkestone had received them with such cordiality which would never be forgotten’.

Belgian recognition of service
Belgian recognition of service

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.

Find out more about Belgians in WW1 on Beyond the Trenches: “Remembering Elizabethville: The Belgian Refugee ‘Colony’ of Durham”