‘Mad Dog is off his chain’

Floral Hall
Floral Hall

by Dr Jack Binns

The sun rose early in the morning at Scarborough on Tuesday August 4, 1914. No one there would have forecast that for the next 52 months it would be the last day of peace.

The Evening News, as usual, tried to keep up the spirits of its readers and advertisers. On its front page, Hopper & 
Mason of 100-101 Westborough announced the last two days of its annual summer sale, offering bargains in blouses, gowns, millinery and sun shades.

True, the absence of between ten and fifteen thousand excursionists hit Scarborough’s “tradesmen” hard, especially its owners of cafes, restaurants and fancy goods shops, but there had been no curtailment of the town’s abundant entertainments. The Spa (not yet a “complex”) had done well. During the last three days there had been a mass of people thronging its promenades, enjoying its fireworks, the orchestra and Mr Charles Windermere featuring as the lead in his own production of “The Headmaster”. “No visitor should miss the Spa for its revelation to the newcomer.” Clearly, these visitors were not excursionists. When the Spa orchestra had played “Rule Britannia” as the opening piece of the day’s programme, it was greeted with enthusiastic cheers and “great gusto”.

All the major providers of Scarborough’s indoor entertainments had reported large attendances during the Monday Bank Holiday. Aquarium, Theatre Royal, the Londesborough, Grand Opera House, Mr Gibson’s Pictures, the Palladium, Arcadia, Olympia, Floral Hall and the Grand Picture House had full houses. Particularly well supported were Mr Royle’s Fol-de-Rols on Monday night at the Floral Hall and “The Heart of Midlothian”, a film based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel and shown at the Grand 
Picture House.

At North Marine Road cricket ground, Scarborough had beaten Bradford in the Yorkshire Council League by a clear margin of five wickets. And at Old Trafford, Yorkshire were trouncing Lancashire who had been skittled out for 83 in their second innings, leaving the visitors with only 55 to win by 10 wickets. So it wasn’t all bad news.

Not until the reader persisted to the back page where it was revealed that Prime Minister Asquith, with full Cabinet approval, had sent an ultimatum by telegram to Berlin. If the Germans did not agree to leave Belgium, the ultimatum and peace would expire at midnight London time. With the Royal Navy on war footing and the North Sea “alive” with fighting ships, not even the Evening News could entertain a glimmer of hope for the future.

Even before the Evening News next appeared on the streets on Wednesday, August 5, posters displayed in its Aberdeen Walk windows had already broken the worst news. The “awful calamity” had happened: the nation was threatened with “wholesale slaughter”, despite the cheers and the singing of patriotic songs that welcomed it in Scarborough.

There was no joy now on the pages of the Whittaker press. At its height, Scarborough’s season had suffered a collapse. And it was entirely the fault of the “apparently mad man” (Kaiser William) who must be taught a sharp lesson. Or to put the matter subtly, in capital headlines: “THE MAD DOG OF EUROPE IS OFF HIS CHAIN”.

It must have been small reassurance to readers to be told that “the mad dog” was also suffering from his “old ear trouble” and his “drawn appearance” was the result of chronic insomnia. His annual Baltic cruise had not restored his health. As a bonus, readers were reminded that the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, was very old and suffered from acute anxiety. Both emperors had been shattered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The source of these remarkable scoop revelations was not disclosed, but sceptics might have thought that such speculation was no better than whistling in the dark.

Yet it certainly was true that the country had four months supply of wheat, more was already on the way by sea, and the home harvest was being gathered. Meat might be more of a problem: if supplies then in cold storage ran out, more domestic stocks would have to be butchered. As yet there were no guesses about the duration of the war; but all the railways had been taken over by the government and priority given to the movement of essential goods and troops.

For further reassurance, the Scarborough Evening News printed a most impressive list of the Royal Navy’s fighting ships in the Home Fleet along with those in the German High Seas Fleet. Here in remarkable, accurate detail were the numbers of crews, tonnages, armour, armaments and speed. The conclusion was clear: the North Sea was safe in our keeping.

There was one small news item of particular interest published on this first day of the war with Germany. A man behaving suspiciously had been taken to Scarborough police station that afternoon. He had been arrested by the Territorial soldiers guarding the wireless station. About 40-years-old, alone and clean-shaven, he had been living in a small tent “near Oliver’s Mount”. And he was a German! He spoke only “broken English”, said he was a teacher of languages, but carried no binoculars or glasses, only a box full of books and papers in German.

Was he a spy? Had he been sent to locate, identify and confirm the secret Admiralty station on Sandybed Lane which at this very time was intercepting and relaying German naval morse traffic?

Whatever the truth in this newspaper story and its significance, it would remain a secret from the public: the last to discover that they were living next to Britain’s most vital war weapon would be the people of Scarborough.