Heritage: When Wimbledon crowds clamoured to fight for King and country
The centenary of Britain’s involvement in World War One will be marked exactly a month from today. On 4 August 1914, war was declared following the German invasion of Belgium, and throughout the country vast numbers of young men immediately clamoured to join battle against an oppressive enemy.
Wimbledon became a major recruiting centre for the Army. At that stage there was no compulsory call-up - simply a seemingly endless line of volunteers eager to do their bit. A well known local resident in retirement, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton Churchill, became the official Recruiting Officer on behalf of the Regimental District of Kingston-on-Thames.
Supported by Wimbledon’s Mayor, Alderman W Barry, a meeting was called and a large committee formed which met weekly at first and later monthly until voluntary recruiting came to an end.
At the time, Wimbledon had no large town hall or other municipal building big enough to accommodate the crowds involved. But the Town Clerk, Mr Steele Sheldon, persuaded J B Mulholland, founder of the four-year-old Wimbledon Theatre, to come forward and offer a hall there for the purpose, free of any lighting or heating charges.
It became Wimbledon’s formal recruiting centre. Patriotic citizens flooded in from Merton, Mitcham, New Malden, Southfields and Tooting as well as Wimbledon itself to volunteer their services and many distributed literature to every house in the borough inviting young men to sign up for “Lord Kitchener’s Army”.
Crowded public meetings were held at every hall of any size in Wimbledon, mass gatherings were arranged in the town centre and processions organised on various routes.
Public speakers from many different backgrounds were invited to address the crowds, irrespective of their political, religious or party allegiances.
Lieutenant-Colonel Seton Churchill contacted the London Parliamentary Recruiting Committee and persuaded both Conservative and Labour leaders to come to Wimbledon where their arousing speeches were reinforced by those of many leading local lights, among them Sir Thomas Jackson of Eagle House in the Village, Sir Arthur Holland, founder of the Wimbledon Guild, and the leading barrister Mr Raffles Hughes who lived at Chester House beside the Common.
The letter above, written just a few months into the war, showed the importance given to stirring publicity throughout Wimbledon as the Army Recruiting Committee flooded the borough with posters and other literature
Lance-Corporal Dwyer, at 19 the Army’s youngest holder of the Victoria Cross, drew a crowd of more than 10,000 to Wimbledon Broadway when he made a speech from atop a wagon. Sadly he was killed shortly after returning to the trenches.
Bands played stirring music everywhere, among them the Territorial Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, the Church Lads’ Brigade, Salvation Army, and the Boys’ Naval Brigade linked to St Winefride Catholic Church. Mr J Selby, headmaster of the Central School, led a choir of ladies in patriotic songs and choruses at many indoor gatherings.
A single speech by Lieutenant-Colonel Seton Churchill at Mitcham Gas Works persuaded a hefty chunk of the workforce to sign up for the Army en masse.
Ironically, the military depots were unable to cope with the numbers of volunteers involved at first which led to widespread disillusionment among many recruits. Nationally a record number of 5.4 million men volunteered for service in the early days of the war.
The fact that conscription was later needed to replace those killed in action showed the unprecedented scale of death wrought by the conflict in the four years that followed that initial outburst of fervour.
This article is the first in a five-part series as The Wimbledon Society and the Wimbledon Guardian mark the centenary of the First World War, published each Friday throughout July and the beginning of August.
Next week: Wimbledon led Britain in welcoming Belgian refugees
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.