As the outbreak of the first world war brought carnage to
Europe the West Midlands prepared itself in August for lean times
ahead with an air of gloom spreading through local industry. Factories
closed and unemployment was expected to follow if the war lasted
for any length of time.
hit in the early days of the crisis was the North Midlands and commerce
and industry was said to have been "shaken to its foundations."
locally and nationally.
In Wolverhampton the recruitment office was flooded with inquiries
and applications from men wanting to fight for their country in
the Great War - and the demand on the recruiting officers were such
that it was suggested a second office should be opened.
Local news reports said that the most of the men queueing at the
Broad Street office were largely roughly-clad workmen. A Midlands
Counties Express reporter said the demand to get to the action was
so great that the recruiting sergeant was "evidently up to his neck
The War Office placed orders with several Walsall companies for
100,000 Government horse spurs. Local firms had also sent in tenders
for 20,000 bits said to be needed by the Government for the war
effort. Walsall Chamber of Commerce asked the War Office to share
the orders with various local firms so as to provide as much work
as possible for people.
Meanwhile the town's Stafford Street drill hall was a hive of
activity with Territorial Army units organising route marches -
and at the New Hampton Road barracks, gun drill and flag practice
was in full swing. Horses which had been requisitioned for the war
effort from local dealer and contractors were being inspected and
Evening services were conducted at St Peter's School by the clergy
for the soldiers based there. In Walsall marches were organised
and in Cannock and Hednesfield, those wanting to enlist had to travel
to Walsall or Lichfield because the local recruiting sergeant had
gone off with the Territorials. The situation resulted in a host
In Dudley one employer announced that the wives of his workers
who had been called-up would get ten shillings a week until their
men returned. At Brierley Hill seven of the eight men in the Ambulance
Corps offered their services for the war, and one reservist got
married on a Sunday and joined his regiment two days later.
The mayor of Wednesbury appealed for loyalty and vowed to co-operate
with all sections of the community to help the unemployed, assist
in the supply and distribution of food and the care of the families
of those who had been called-up.
The effects of the war on the home front began to bite early in
the West Midlands with appeals for people to stop the panic-buying
of food and the local export trade being hit as shipments practically
ground to a halt. in Wolverhampton, petrol at two to three shillings
a gallon, was being reserved for regular customers only. The advertising
slogan of the time, "The pleasures of motoring", was parodied as
"The expense of motoring."
And new wartime paper money was throwing Wolverhampton's pensioners
into a state of confusion. Owing to a shortage of silver in the
town, the aged were being paid out in postal orders. The old folk
were not happy with this system and post office counter staff spent
time trying to explain matters to them. But the elderly just looked
nonplussed when they were paid out in paper instead of coins.
One old dear went off with her five shilling postal order only
to return half-an-hour later to tell the clerk her local shop wouldn't
accept it. "They won't look at it sir," she complained. "they say
they want money." The confused old lady was told to go back and
present the postal order again. If it was refused this time she
must call in the police. She was told firmly that a postal order
was "as good as money."
Apparently in a bid to make the situation clear, all post offices
in Britain carried a notice to the effect that the postal orders
were legal tender. But in Bilston officials were having great difficulty
in trying to make the pensioners understand the postal orders were
as good as real money.
The Government's fixing of maximum prices on food had a marked
effect on panic buying in Wolverhampton. People were no longer rushing
into shops and coming out loaded with food - and in some cases,
the cost of food actually dropped as a result of the Government
order. Wolverhampton's banks reported that there was no shortage
of money and the public was treating the wartime emergency with
"philosophical calm." But the banks added that they had to be on
their guard against the "illegal hoarding of gold."
Wolverhampton girl Annie Gwinnett, alone in Paris during the outbreak
of war, said French soldiers were singing "Marseillaises" and women
For three days there was scarcely a dry eye among the women in
the city, the local girl reported. "As I sat in church on this memorable
Sunday the minister looked at the weeping women and said 'Bon Courage,'
" said Miss Gwinnett, of Milton Road, Heath Town.
She added that a sudden scarcity of gold and silver caused panic
among tourists - mainly Americans. "Tradesman would not look at
even an English sovereign, and we all wondered where the end would
be," she went on.
The girl added that on August 2, when news reached Paris that
the Kaiser was on his way, visitors of all nations "fled like the
Israelites out of Egypt" . She went to the railway station which
was "besieged with screaming people of all nationalities many of
them trying to get to England." Miss Gwinnett said that when the
French heard that Britain had declared war with Germany, she was
overwhelmed with kindness from them.
She said that at Le Havre, the Union Jack was flying on all the
As she waited for her boat home French soldiers offered her food
when they found out she was English. On August 8 she arrived back
in England and an Admiralty pilot boat conducted her ship into Southampton.