The Rochester Great War Report - March to May 1916.

The Rochester Great War Report - March to May 1916. 

War is becoming far from Appealing; Tribunals Busy - Hardship Intensifying.

There are many reports in the papers on appeals against compulsory military service. These news reports form an important historical record as after the war the Government instructed the Local Government Boards to destroy all tribunal material. The appeals reported below were selected to illustrate the anguish that call-up brought to many Rochester people, and the rather harsh decisions and words delivered by the Rochester Tribunal – chaired by the Mayor, Colonel Breton, a retired military man.

Time to Honour the Pledge!

Men who attested are now being asked to honour their pledges but many married men are aggrieved about being called-up whilst there are still eligible single men available to be enlisted. The Medway Branch of the ‘National Union of Attested Men’ held a meeting, in Chatham Town Hall, for married men to discuss their concerns and options. All the men present affirmed their willingness to serve but felt the Government had reneged on its pledge not to call them up until all available single men had been enlisted. 

At one sitting of the Rochester Tribunal the Mayor read out an anonymous letter that he believed had been written by the wife of a married man who had taken exception to the exemption that had been given by the Tribunal to several single men who “had told fairy tales”. The Mayor stated that he felt the Tribunal had been chary in all such cases and had only allowed exemptions of six months.

A number of employers applied to the Tribunal for exemption for men they regarded as being essential to their businesses. In most cases an exemption of six months was allowed in order to give them time to find someone who was exempt from military service to fill the role; sole-traders were generally allowed a similar time to sell or make other arrangements to manage their business whilst they served. Mr. F. L. Woolfe, grocer and provisions merchant of North Street, Strood, applied for exemption as he had been running his business singlehandedly since the outbreak of war. Despite claiming that the business provided the sole income for his wife and two young children, and his called-up would result in the break up of his home, closure of his business and financial ruin, he was still only allowed six months to put alternative arrangements in place - or to sell his business.  

Conditional exemption was however given to Harry V. Beale and Fred Archer Webb at the request of Mr. William Hillier, dairyman of Eastgate. The Tribunal accepted Mr. Hillier’s evidence that it took three men to lift a churn onto the cart ready for delivery and therefore it was not a job that could done by children or women. 

Mr. F. L. Naylor’s was also granted Conditional Exemption on the basis that he was the only undertaker in Rochester. Despite a dentist producing models of jawbones etc., to demonstrate the work he was doing with wounded soldiers, the Tribunal only granted him exemption of six months.  The Tribunal, though, was not so sympathetic to the appeal by Mark Miller, an RSPCA inspector, who was not given any deferment as the Mayor did not think an inspector was necessary for Rochester. 

Particularly harsh words were delivered by the Mayor to James Charles Henry Little of 141 Cecil Road, a member of the Rochester Baptist Church and assistant master at St Peter’s School. Mr. Little had attested but when called-up he lodged an appeal as a Conscientious Objector stating that he would not even undertake non-combative service. The Mayor, Col. Breton, said, “I have had a pretty well enough of you Conscientious Objectors. It is extraordinary to me how unscrupulous the conscientious objectors can be. He takes a solemn oath to defend the King and abide by orders, and he takes the oath with the distinct intention of breaking it - I have no sympathy with you whatsoever. You will be fined £5 and handed over to the authorities.” 

In addition to granting or refusing exemptions, the Tribunal could also remove exemptions and reverse decisions.  Frederick Ashby, a postman, was summoned to appear before the Tribunal to show cause why his Exemption Certificate should not be cancelled. He had been exempted for special domestic circumstances but it had now come to the attention of the Mayor that if he joined the Army the Post Office would make his army pay up to his ordinary pay so his mother would be no worse off. The Mayor informed Mr. Ashby that the Tribunal did not think housework was a thing to keep a man out of the Army at this crisis and his certificate was therefore cancelled.

Hardship & Austerity 

Prices are escalating and shortages increasing. The poor, particularly, are finding it extremely difficult to keep warm because of the high cost of the little coal that is available. It is reported that some hawkers are selling coal for 2s 6d [12.5p] per hundredweight [50.8kg] and people are eking out what coal they have by means of logs. In March the Guardians of the Medway Union were extremely concerned for the wellbeing of 600 aged and infirm patients accommodated in the Union, as all the coal had been used and there was none available for them to purchase. [Industries supporting the war effort had priority for the coal that was available.]

Those with the means to purchase coal are experiencing great inconvenience in obtaining it. One merchant in Rochester reported a situation where a woman came from a village some two miles away, and begged for a hundredweight of coal that she then took away in a pram. 

Fortuitously the Rochester Education Committee has been able to request a reduced budget of £9,147 for 1916/17, against £9,384 last year, as “there had been no deaf, dumb or blind, and no mental deficiency cases”. To deliver more savings the committee placed an embargo on the purchase of desks, pianos and library books for the year ending 31 March 1917 but decided against reintroducing slates, as they can pose a threat to hygiene, and to try harder to make more economical use of the paper that’s still available. [Slates were shared and wiped clean with fingers and spit.]

Public Heath Concerns

The appearance of Spotted Fever [meningitis] in the City and the surrounding area, is causing considerable concern. A number of steps have been taken to try and prevent the spread of the disease through the troops and into the civil population. These include moving soldiers from their billets and accommodating them under canvas, cancelling all weekend leave, banning soldiers from places of entertainment, and stopping troops from using public transport. 

In order to try to control another nuisance and the spread of disease, the Town Council has declared war of the plague of flies that infest the City in the summer. A scheme has been instituted which requires the regular inspection of the manure pits of the City between 1 May and 30 September. To enable the Sanitary Inspector to undertake all the inspections required of him the Council has granted him an allowance of £10 / annum towards the upkeep of a motorcycle, and one gallon of petrol / week; Five hundred posters are also to be displayed around the City warning people of the danger of flies.

More encouragingly, on the health front, the Trustees of St. Bartholomew’s have reported that £2,028 has been wiped off its deficit. The hospital has managed to increase its income from its ordinary sources, and other fund-raising activities have been particularly successful - including £855 being raised through a house-to-house collection.

Church Services

The Cathedral and local churches continue to respond well to meeting the spiritual needs of the young soldiers who are billeted in the area, and the increased number of people wishing to attend a service. The high attendance experienced at Christmas was repeated this Easter. It is estimated that the service held in the Nave of the cathedral on the evening of Easter Sunday, was attended by over 2,000 worshipers. Fifteen minutes before the service started the cathedral was packed and hundreds were unable to gain admission. 

The Bishop of Rochester continues to make special visits to Rochester Cathedral and recently confirmed a number of wounded soldiers and sailors; “it was a touching sight to see men in their blue uniforms and red neckerchiefs (hospital garb) attending a solemn service of the laying on of hands.”

A most unusual Rogation Service was also held in Rochester Corn Market by the vicar of St Nicholas (Rev. W. J. Gray) for the blessing on the crops. It was the first time for centuries that a such a service had been held in Rochester and perhaps recognises the challenges associated with producing the food we need.

Roll of Honour

Sadly it appears that Second Lieutenant Bernard Pitt, a former master at Rochester Mathematical School, who had been officially reported as missing, may have been killed in a mine explosion; he was 34 and leaves a widow and four children.

Sergeant A. E. Whattler who was the assistant master at Troy Town Council School before the war, was wounded in the chest on the Tigris. In a letter home to his wife he wrote, “They are only boys but they die like Englishmen and heroes”.

The steamer City of Rochester, owned by the Rochester City Steamship Company, was sunk off Southwold, along with its cargo of around 1,700 tons of much needed coal. It is not known whether it was torpedoed or hit a mine, but fortunately the captain and all but one of the crew survived. 


•    The Women’s War Agricultural Committee is to hold demonstration of women’s work at Coombe Farm, Tovil in order to demonstrate that women can take on the tasks previously undertaken by men. The demonstration will include milking, hedge-cutting harnessing & driving horses, use of cultivators, ploughing, preparing seed beds and planting cabbages, any women wishing to be involved should contact the organisers. 

•    The Dean & Chapter have announced that they will not allow anymore brasses to be placed in the Cathedral as there is already a great number and there will probably be many more before the war is over.

•    The Nore Command has advised that from 1 May 1916 the cruising of yachts and pleasure boats will be permitted (amongst other places) in the Medway east of Rochester Bridge. 

•    The Rochester fire brigade require firemen who must be capable of driving a Petrol Motor Fire Engine. Wages 35s / week plus uniform.

Happy Times!

In amongst the doom, gloom and austerity of war, it is pleasing to see that the people of Rochester find time to enjoy themselves. Our spirits received a real patriotic lift on Empire Day [24 May] when for the first time since the day was inaugurated, the Union Jack was flown - by order of the Government - from all public buildings. The day made for many bright celebrations in the schools around Rochester. The event, held at Rochester Parish Church and attended by 300 children, aimed to ensure the “children realised the vastness of our world empire and the responsibilities which will devolve to them inviolate.” The infants received a rousing cheer for their song ‘Our Flag’, whilst the girls very devoutly sang a war hymn and the boys gave a very hearty rendering of “Rule Britannia”. In the addresses old St. Nicholas boys were remembered who were serving in the trenches and special reference was made to William Lawrence, bomb-thrower, who had been awarded the DCM.

And there have been weddings. The Rochester firemen attended the marriage of Thomas Alfred Fowle, one of their comrades, to Faith Louisa Hayes, at the Rochester Baptist Church. As the couple left the church they passed under an archway of crossed axes. It was apparently the first wedding of a fireman for 20 years in Rochester. 

A military wedding took place at St. Peter’s between Capt. W. E. Bingham Gadd of Rosherville and Miss E. V. Hadden, eldest daughter of Mr. & Mrs. T. Haddon of 41 Roebuck Road. The bride wore a dress of white stain with a court train, and carried a bouquet of lilies and heather. The couple passed under an archway of crossed swords as they left church, and were then towed in a car, by a team of NCO’s, back to the bride’s parents house for the reception.

Geoff Ettridge
War Correspondent


Geoff Rambler