Austerity and sacrifices

Even on Scarborough's South Cliff, middle class households had to make do with only a daily maid.
Even on Scarborough's South Cliff, middle class households had to make do with only a daily maid.

Living in a time of cut-backs and belt tightenings, it is interesting for us to read of how exactly a century ago, in wartime, our predecessors faced up to similar demands to save and reduce spending. After a war that had been at first expected to last only weeks, then months, but by July 1915 several more years, it was beginning to dawn on both sides that in future they would have to make even greater sacrifices, civilians as well as combatants.

On July 30, 1915, The Mercury published a list of economies recommended to the nation by the Parliamentary War Savings Committee. It makes bizarre reading because it seems to have been aimed not at the 40 millions of ordinary British subjects but only at the wealthy and privileged elite. And it showed just how naive and complacent some MPs were even 12 months into the war.

In 1914, there were nearly 200 different models of private motor vehicles

The Committee had made eight major suggestions to cut expenses:

First, no one should be permitted to build a home for their own residence(!); Second, any present or gift ought to be made in the form of War Loan Bonds or vouchers; Third, private motor cars should be used only for necessary official or charity purposes; Fourth, entertaining in restaurants should cease altogether; Fifth, civilians should ignore all changes in clothes fashions; Sixth, spending on funerals, mourning, weddings and anniversaries should be kept to a minimum; Seventh, all domestic servants, except those who were necessary for personal requirements, should be dispensed with; Finally, “treating” ought to be postponed until it was then possible to toast a final and complete victory. “No drinks till we’ve won” must be a universal motto. (It was already a legal offence for a civilian to buy drink for anyone in the armed forces).

Virtually every one of the eight were well beyond the means of millions and only the last could have applied to ordinary people. Motor Cars, restaurants, fashionable clothing and household servants were privileges of the rich. Even costly funerals and weddings were luxuries of the upper class.

In 1914, there were nearly 200 different models of private motor vehicles, all manufactured by hand one by one. Four years later, there were still only 200,000 cars registered as privately owned.

During the war the number of domestic servants fell by a half, mostly because men and especially women could find better pay and conditions outside the homes of others. Even on Scarborough’s South Cliff, middle class households had to make do with only a daily maid. The 400,000 women who had left domestic service by the end of the war never returned to it.

As for dress, the war was both cause and consequence of much greater uniformity. Top hats and tails almost disappeared; the lounge suit became almost ubiquitous; and upper-class ladies began to “dress-down”, blurring social distinctions. Yet outdoors everyone still wore something on their heads: caps for boys, flat-caps for working men, bowlers for the professionals and business men. But it wasn’t parsimony that shortened women skirts.

One critic who found this list of suggested economies out of all proportion and too trivial to be taken seriously was “our old friend, Jottings”. He wrote that going to bed earlier than usual to save fuel and light would have little effect whereas a full, frontal attack on “the drink trade” would save the country £160 million a year. (In 1915 central government revenue was £337 million). As a life-long abstainer and son of a famous tee-total advocate, “Jottings” saw the war as a unique opportunity to kill the demon drink once and for ever.

So far the restrictions imposed under the Defence of the Realm Acts (DORA) though radical were still well short of those demanded by the powerful temperance lobby, but scarcely tolerable to the brewers and publicans. Even the Central Control Board, established in May 1915 to “improve national efficiency” by a reduction of “drunkenness, alcoholism and excess”, only very slowly and gradually extended its authority, first in the seaports and garrison towns then to the main munitions and industrial centres.

Prohibitioners such as “Jottings” were never going to be satisfied, particularly in Scarborough with its focus on entertainment. Here the most that could be expected from the brewster magistrates, police or sanitary inspectors was the closure of some of the enormous number of beer and public houses, particularly in the old town. For instance, in June 1915, at a meeting of the North Riding Licensing Authority at Northallerton, two of Scarborough’s old drinking dens were found wanting. Of the Market Hotel in St Sepulchre Street, the local brewster magistrate said it was “superfluous for the needs of the vicinity” and the Chief Constable said that “undesirable persons” used it. And in the case of the Volunteer Arms in Cross Street, the town’s sanitary inspector testified that it was an “unsuitable building” only “eleven yards away” from another of the same kind.

Indeed, during the Great War the prohibitionists finally lost the long-running argument. The drinking public tolerated the more expensive, diluted beer and the shorter licensing hours because they were accepted as necessary to win the war. But after 1918 there was no return to pre-war consumption and alcoholic lawlessness. In 1923, Lady Astor’s Bill made it illegal 
to serve any kind of intoxi-cating liquor to anyone under 18.

When Sir Meredith Thompson Whittaker, alias “Jottings”, finally died in 1931 aged 90, his gravestone in Manor Road cemetery might appropriately have carried the same motto as that on his father’s, dated 1899:

Tell me not what strong drink has been, nor what it is intended to be.

I know that it is now. It is Britain’s curse; it is the God of this nation.

More recently, the metal plaque on which these words were inscribed was forcibly and criminally removed.