chertsey museum

Life at Home

Help at Home

The Mead Lane Army

The "Mead Lane Army"

Supplies were scarce and war expensive so citizens across the country fundraised to help with the costs. Flags or badges were sold to show solidarity with the troops and to raise funds to make their lives easier. Cigarettes were a common commodity sent to the front as a result of collections at home, but other more unusual items were also supplied. The National Egg Collection Scheme saw families across the land sending spare eggs to the troops. Many of them wrote their names and addresses on the shells so that the soldiers could write back in thanks. Astonishingly, it only took two days for a letter, or an egg, from Britain to reach the front in France. In November 1914 the residents of Chertsey collected 1,600 lbs. of fruit which was made into conserves and chutneys to be sent to the town’s men serving in the fleet or in France.

It wasn’t just the adults that were doing their bit for King and Country, children too fundraised for luxuries to be sent to the front and wrote letters to local soldiers to boost morale. In late May 1915 the Surrey Herald reported that a group of ten or twelve boys from Mead Lane, Chertsey, were seen processing through the town collecting coppers with which to buy tobacco and other luxury items for the men at The Grange hospital. Despite losing their fathers a few months before they were keen to demonstrate their patriotic spirit. In later editions the grateful soldiers wrote to thank the children for their gifts.

However, fundraising wasn’t limited to small, luxury or perishable items. Towns across the Borough fundraised to sponsor battleships or aeroplanes which cost £2,500 per plane. 

The Home Front

The National Registration Act of 1915 required that all men and women, between the ages of 15 and 65 years of age to carry ID cards.

The Borough’s men were amongst the first to enlist, leaving behind them quiet towns. In October 1914 the non-nationals or ‘aliens’ in Chertsey and elsewhere in the Borough were rounded up and taken to a detention camp in Frimley under DORA, the Defence of the Realm Act. Later in the war these aliens, together with German prisoners of war, would be transported daily from the camps to farms across the Borough to help with the sowing and harvesting of crops. It became a regular sight to see POWs being marched through the towns when there was not enough petrol for the lorries.

Insurance Advert, 1915

Insurance Advert, 1915

DORA also brought in other restrictions which affected everyday life for those at home including food and petrol rationing and orders to put out street lights so as to not attract the attention of the German air force’s enormous airships, or Zeppelins. Whilst these behemoth aircrafts were seen overhead in Chertsey in October 1915, no damage was sustained by them which is more than can be said of London and nearby Kingston and Guildford. Over the course of the war there were to be more than 50 Zeppelin raids on Britain killing nearly 600 individuals. This was the first war fought at home for many centuries, and the raids brought with them a pervading fear.

With the threat of invasion and air raids there was a need to establish defences at home and as a result Volunteer Training Corps (VTCs) were established in every town. With able-bodied men fighting abroad, men aged 31 to 60 years old had to prove they had genuine reasons for not enlisting before they were given training in civil defence. Military kit was in short supply and so VTCs had to provide much for themselves, including their uniforms. Wooden dummy rifles were handed out for practice, and rifle ranges opened up in Addlestone and Ottershaw for recruits to practice for a minimum of 2 hours per week. In January 1915, that the Chertsey Emergency Guard became one of the first, if not THE first such organisation in the country, and it was co-ordinated by Lt. Colonel Lawson of The Cedars, now Chertsey Museum.

The VADs

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was first established in 1909 but really came into its own during the Great War. These organisations, mainly made up of women and girls, provided nursing care for the military and were found at home as well as in the field. As soon as war was declared the Surrey Herald published a call for donations. The women of the Borough set about collecting money, bedding, mattresses and material that could be made into bandages. Each VAD division was expected to find premises for a hospital of 30 beds, to fundraise to purchase supplies and to fund the one pound per week it cost to maintain each bed.

In Runnymede there were several VAD run hospitals including The Grange, Chertsey, Ottershaw Park and the Princess Christian Red Cross Hospital in Englefield Green. Wounded soldiers were sent home to these convalescence hospitals to be patched up and sent back to the front.

Made in Runnymede

Lang’s Propeller Factory, Addlestone

Lang’s Propeller Factory, Addlestone

The Borough towns were not totally deserted as there was an influx of people taking up jobs in local munitions factories. By early 1917 one percent of the Borough residents worked in munitions with many travelling to the large Vickers factory in Weybridge or to the Lagonda car factory at Egham which turned production towards helping the war effort, manufacturing shells and other munitions. The Lagonda site was so busy that it temporarily expanded to take over private homes and shops.

In 1914 Louis Blériot, the first man to fly the English Channel, bought land in Station Road, Addlestone on which was built the Blériot & SPAD Ltd. Factory which manufactured SPAD7 single-seat fighter planes and the Avro 504A planes.

From Addlestone, the completed planes were taken by road to Brooklands, Weybridge, ready to be flown to their final destination. Handily for Blériot, not far away was the Lang’s Propeller Company which became the centre for the production of aeroplane propellers. Their orders increased by 5,900% during the war, so that by 1918 approximately 80% of British military planes were using Lang propellers. Demand was such that even new premises in Hamm Moor Lane could not provide enough space, and so the company hired the Chertsey Drill Hall throughout the War.

Home from Home

The war displaced many hundreds of thousands of people, not only soldiers at the Western Front or in the Middle East, but people from Belgium who fled the advancing German army. By early October 1914, Belgian refugees were being housed across the Borough. Residents were encouraged to give up their spare rooms to those requiring housing, whether that be those who fled from the war or soldiers and munitions workers. Some were reluctant at first to let strangers into their homes but many opened their homes and their hearts. Egham, for example had a thousand soldiers billeted there in October 1914, whereas the little village of Englefield Green had 500.

There were no troops billeted in Chertsey at this time, and so the Tradesman Association of Chertsey wrote to Lord Kitchener saying how disappointed they were. This was not just because of the patriotic duty felt by the townspeople, but because of the economic benefits. There were 600 soldiers from the town fighting, which meant that the shops and businesses were facing hard times. Having soldiers billeted in the town over the winter months would result in an additional 17s. and 6d. per week for the household which could be spent in the town. However, the financial incentive wasn’t enough to keep up with demand, and by February 1918 there were calls in the newspaper for the Civilian Billeting Act to be enforced as there was a shortage of accommodation for munitions workers. As the war had progressed, and hardship became more keenly felt, people were reluctant to take in lodgers when food was in such short supply. They argued that it was more economical for companies and factories to house their workers on site in groups of 40 or 60, rather than in ones or twos in the town.

Feeding the Country

advert for meatless days, 1918


As early as 7th August 1914 the Surrey Herald noted that the stockpiling of food had already started. Within days of the declaration, eggs had shot up in price to 4d, and rice was unavailable altogether, and things were only going to get worse. Due to the ruthless efficiency of the German U-boats supply ships were being torpedoed and their precious cargo destroyed. Everything was in short supply and the government and the Urban District Councils issued details on how to prevent waste and help the war effort. People began to worry that the reduction of supply would cause inflation and they would no longer be able to afford what little food there was.

The Government strove to make the country as self-sufficient as possible, and published a series of adverts encouraging housewives to bake their own bread, grow their own vegetables and not to throw food away. As the war progressed the shortages increased. It was reported that the good women of Grove Road, Chertsey, dug up their flower beds and instead grew potatoes, runner beans and turnips in their front gardens. Local councils encouraged residents to take over allotments which were available at a rent of 4d per rod (16ft). The demand was such that every spare piece of land was cultivated, including some more unusual ones. Some residents felt that allotments on St. Stephen’s Burial Ground, Eastworth Road, Chertsey was a step too far. School playing fields were ploughed and the council offered free seeds to those who wanted them.

A bad worldwide harvest in 1916 forced the Government to increase pressure on people to produce as much of their own food as possible. Furthermore, an influx of people escaping the air raids in London also increased fears over shortages. It has been estimated that over one million tons of vegetables were produced on the allotments of England and Wales in 1917. This not only took some of the pressure off those in the farming industry to produce enough food, but being grown locally cut down transportation costs at a time when petrol was in short supply.The Chertsey War Agricultural Committee was responsible for ensuring the proper cultivation of land, and they had the authority to commandeer land if it was not put to proper use. Their motto was ‘cultivate or clear out’. The bad harvest was compounded by a prolonged campaign by German U-boats to sink enemy ships, and soon more creative ways of ensuring adequate food were required. In 1917 the National Kitchen Scheme was set up and premises opened in Chertsey and later in Station Road, Addlestone. Not only did the kitchens help ensure food was available to the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, but economies of scale made it more financially viable to cook for the masses rather than each family cooking for themselves.

Despite all these measures food was scarce and people began to complain. Letters in the Herald tell of the disparities in food prices from one town to another. Milk cost 8d per quart in Chertsey whereas it only cost 7d in Addlestone and Egham. With the failure of the 1916 wheat harvest, bread and flour prices increased over night. A 4lb loaf of bread cost 1s in Addlestone whereas other Borough towns were selling it for a mere 9d. Government fixed prices were introduced to reduce the chances of profiteering, and the following year, in 1918 rationing was introduced. On 1st February the Surrey Herald called for volunteers to help write the names on, and distribute the new ration cards, and in total 30,000 food and meat cards were delivered to 4,000 households across the area.

Supplementary rations were available to those who did heavy manual work if they could prove that their work was physically demanding or entailed exposure to the weather. However, increasing shortages resulted in meat being further rationed and people were encouraged to have meatless days. In Chertsey residents queued for four hours for their meat rations, and the crush was such that three women fainted. With women now working there were many complaints that there wasn’t time to queue all day.

Breweries were particularly badly hit by the war. Not only were the majority of their clients fighting at the front, but the poor grain harvest of 1916 caused the Government to introduce stringent controls on the amount of beer that could be produced. The cereals were needed more urgently for bread, and as a result of this drop in production breweries had to increase their prices in order to cover their overheads. Minimum prices were introduced in April 1917 and glass of bitter rose overnight from 2d to a minimum of 3d, whilst a pint of mild rose from 2d to 6d, an increase of 200%. Whilst munitions workers enjoyed higher wages due to the dangerous nature of their work, the majority of workers could not afford this.

Women's War Work

Women’s War Workers, Windsor Street, Chertsey

Women’s War Workers, Windsor Street, Chertsey

By 1918 there were somewhere in the region of four million men serving in the British Army, with the vast majority of those being ordinary men off the street who had left behind wives, families and jobs. Whilst production on all but essential items was severely curtailed during the conflict, there were still factories, businesses and organisations up and down the land who found their entire workforce was gone. As soon as war broke out the women of the Borough rallied to the cause and met to discuss what they could do to assist. Many women came forward to help make uniforms for the new recruits. Not only did they knit mittens, socks and gloves for the front, but they made shirts, pyjamas and trousers, all to standard issue patterns.

A depot was opened at 1 Windsor Street, Chertsey so that women who were not able to sew at home had somewhere they could go. The rooms were open twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Women’s War Work Society was a great success, and in one year they made 603 shirts, 527 pairs of socks, 295 vests, 130 pairs of slippers, 95 scarves, 12 belts, 25 pillows, 80 nightshirts, 699 treasury bags, 5 clothes bags, 30 bolster cases, 10 pairs of pyjamas, 25 red ties, 29 white shirts, 3 pairs of stockings, 19 pairs of mittens, 1 dressing gown, 2 bed coverlets, 3 pairs of pants as well as 37 shirts repaired for The Grange Hospital. Their motto, ‘Keeping the Line in Chertsey’ shows how their efforts were vital to the war effort. As well as the Chertsey War Work Society there was an Egham War Workers’ Society where a further 60 women ‘nobly have responded to the call’.

Women war workers at the Bleriot Factory, Addlestone

The ladies of the Aircraft Ply Department at the Bleriot factory, Addlestone, shortly after the opening of the works in 1917

The vital role women played in the war went well beyond sewing and knitting and making food parcels for the troops, it extended to taking over the jobs vacated by those who had enlisted. A famous example of this was Mrs Mary Ann Blaker who, on her husband’s departure from Chertsey for France, took over his role and in so doing became the first female town crier in the country. Others took to driving ambulances for convalescing servicemen or even delivery trucks and taxis. Many women chose to take up more dangerous occupations and went to work in the local munitions factories in Addlestone and Egham. In 1917 the new Blériot factory in Addlestone was built with women workers in mind. It was designed to be appealing to female employees with light and airy rooms and modern heating. It also had a separate dining room and a women’s social club.

Women munitions workers were particularly encouraged as their smaller fingers made it easier for them to undertake the tasks necessary to build the components of the weaponry. However, this work exposed them to harmful chemicals and life-threatening explosives.

For many women the war gave them the opportunity to experience employment outside of domestic service, and whilst many proved that they were just as capable as men in doing these jobs, when peace came their employment opportunities were once again limited. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most to relinquish their wartime jobs in favour of the returning men.

Chertsey Museum
The Cedars
33 Windsor Street
Surrey KT16 8AT
Tel: +44 (0) 1932 565764