Written by Dr Jack Binns
The Scarborough Evening News special edition, published at 11.40 on the morning of August 6, 1914, was still only half a penny and still its pre-war number of pages, but it included warnings that neither price nor size would endure. If it was necessary to print special Sunday editions of the paper for important breaking news it would cost the reader a whole penny! And, since wood pulp for newsprint came mostly from Norway across the North Sea, in future it would have to be rationed. War always raises costs and creates shortages and this war would soon do both.
Wars also always thicken the air with rumour. Within hours of Britain’s declaration of hostilities, both the Evening News and the following day its weekly sister, the Mercury, were printing denials. It seems that one fantasy in early circulation was of a great naval clash that had occurred in the North Sea between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and Germany’s High Seas Fleet.
Scarborough’s readers were cautioned not to buy “catch halfpenny editions” which contained “exaggerated stories” and “imaginative descriptions”. The Evening News did not publish such notorious fabrications. On the contrary, it promised its readers that they would be kept reliably and accurately informed of events by accredited, experienced correspondents “from every centre in Europe”! Without pinpointing culprits, it then continued: “It is necessary to beware of news from the East coast – the danger coast, says a Yorkshire Evening contemporary. There are people there with long imaginations and circumstantial stories of naval engagements reach us hourly...
Surely this cannot refer to anyone at Scarborough?” Soon afterwards it was reported that Mr Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had found it necessary to deny unfounded rumours of a great naval battle in the North Sea.
Such were the silly stories circulating in Scarborough that the Mayor, CC Graham, felt the need to issue a letter on August 6 from the parlour of the Town Hall. It had come to his notice that there was a rumour that “the authorities” had ordered all visitors to evacuate the town and return home at once. Scarborough, he countered, was certainly not in imminent danger of attack from the sea and visitors should therefore stay put and enjoy their holidays!
Similarly, some of Scarborough’s principal traders, such as J Rowntree, JL Hopwood and Wallis & Blakeley, also assured their customers through the Mercury that there was no cause for alarm. There would be no rise in food and clothing prices, no need for hoarding, and buyers should pay their bills promptly! Business as usual was their motto.
Despite the loss of railway excursionists, Scarborough was still providing a full range of entertainment and recreations; all theatres and cinemas remained open; Boyes announced that its Great Summer Sale would start on August 8; county cricket and horse-racing were as yet unaffected. After all, as readers were told repeatedly, after the best harvests for many years, there was plenty of potatoes and the granaries were full of wheat.
Yet for some all was far from well. Forthcoming annual fairs and festivals were being cancelled.
Pickering was not going to have its gala and Scarborough’s Amateur Swimming Club had called off theirs. The herring fleet was not going to reach Scarborough even if the herring did: the advanced party of “Scotch lassies” was returning home. Grimsby harbour had been entirely closed; Hull’s trawlers were not venturing out; and there were now no pleasure boats running up and down the coast. Scarborough was already losing some of its men to the war. Dr Tatham, the town’s school medical officer, had returned to the army and two teachers, J Percy and W Colin Colcough, had also volunteered for active service with the military. Their posts would be reserved for them until they came back. The same promise was made to council workers who chose to volunteer.
The closure of half of Lancashire’s cotton mills starved of American and Egyptian raw material and of some coalmines in Durham and Northumberland which relied on imports of Scandinavian pitprops and North Sea colliers emphasised how the British economy was crucially dependent on seaborne transport.
In fact, the United Kingdom was the only great power that was not self-supporting.
One unexpected benefit of the arrival of war to Scarborians was educational. (The school-leaving age was then 12.) Thousands of locals had been scanning “the large map of Europe” which was displayed in the window of the Aberdeen Walk Evening News office. Now they could learn the exact location of Serbia and understand how the Kaiser’s army had violated the neutrality of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg to deliver a right hook into France. “Evidently the war is going to give some geography lessons”. Unfortunately, during the next five years, locals were going to learn more, unwelcome lessons.
As yet there were no references to government press censorship, but during these first days of war there was no evidence that it would be much needed at Scarborough. Every event in the war reported registered German defeats and heavy losses, French advances into German territory, Austrian disarray, Serbian courage and Russian successes. No wonder that innocent readers were easily convinced that the war would be over by Christmas if not earlier.
And there was no doubt about who was to blame: “The Mad Dog of Europe is off his chain” soon became a familiar mantra. This “awful calamity” which would cause “wholesale slaughter” and “enormous” losses was all the fault of the Kaiser and we were “fighting for national exis-tence”.