Economic distress of war

The Great Eastern hotel in London where delegates representing major East coast port and seaside resorts met for a conference.
The Great Eastern hotel in London where delegates representing major East coast port and seaside resorts met for a conference.

At the beginning of October, 1915, a conference was held in London, appropriately at the Great Eastern hotel. Present there were delegates representing all, or nearly all, the major east coast ports and seaside resorts from the Hartlepools down to Lowestoft. Scarborough’s own representatives were Mayor Graham, Aldermen Whittaker and Rowntree, the town clerk, S Jones, and the borough’s Liberal MP, WR Wrea.

The purpose of the gathering was to express the urgent need for “relief for those towns which are faced with difficult problems owing to the complete failure of the holiday season and the distress and suffering occasioned thereby to lodging-house keepers and others.”

Conference held to express the urgent need for “relief” for which the towns faced

Speaker after speaker described how his community had experienced great financial losses since August 1914. The war had started during August bank-holiday, at the peak of the summer season, so that many day-trippers were deterred from leaving home, particularly since the government had commandeered the railways and diverted excursion trains to carry troops.

The 1915 season had been even worse. The mayor of Bridlington said that his town had 250,000 fewer visitors than during the previous year. A representative of the Great Eastern Railway Company claimed that passenger numbers had fallen by 41 per cent. Not to be outbid, Lowestoft’s town clerk alleged that “some lodging-house keepers had been obliged to sell their furniture for bread”! No speeches were forthcoming from Scarborough’s delegates, but everyone there must have been aware of the extraordinary destruction done to the town by the German naval bombardment the previous December.

At the end of the day, the meeting resolved unanimously that “the government be applied (sic) to assist towns on the east coast which have suffered through the war, by making a grant-in-aid and that a committee be formed to give effect to the resolution”. A committee of nine members from nine of the towns, including Scarborough and Bridlington, was asked to make early contact with a government minister.

In the next weekly issue of The Mercury, October 8, “Jottings” could not restrain himself from expressing doubt about some of the excessive claims made by conference representatives from other seaside towns. Bridlington had presented an itemised list of losses which he found “very unconvincing”, both to sources and scale. During a season lasting 92 days, lodging-house losses there had amounted to £130,000, whereas the fall in “chair-letting” was only £169. Was Bridlington saying, he asked, that the daily deficit on deck chairs was less than £2? What was the source of these figures? It was only natural that property and business owners should exaggerate their losses when claiming compensation from insurers or anyone else. His implication was that, unlike the others, Scarborough was too scrupulous and honest to countenance such bloated, unsubstantiated claims.

In Scarborough’s case, a petition for relief had already been sent to Queen Mary. It had been signed by more than a thousand residents who said that they were hotel and boarding-house keepers who had suffered loss of trade because of the war. No figures were quoted in the petition which in the circumstances was probably a wise omission. “Jottings” was right, as usual. Grossly inflated, unproved sums would not be taken seriously and, even worse, they might well throw doubt on more modest, realistic amounts. Scarborough was not about to enter a race to the bottom with the likes of Bridlington!

Also, there was another, unexpected, indirect impact of the war that did pose a particular threat to Scarborough’s welfare. In September 1915, the new Coalition Liberal Chancellor, Reginald McKenna, presented his so-called War Budget. To pay for the relentlessly increasing costs of the war he introduced a wide-range of new and extra taxes. The standard rate of income tax, previously 1s 8d (8p) on earnings above £160 a year, went up to 3s (15p) in the pound after £130. New import duties on “luxury goods” such as clocks, toys, watches and motor vehicles, were to be levied. And there was to be a 50 per cent increased duty on tea, tobacco, coffee and dried fruits, which prompted in Scarborough a public outcry against a rise in the cost of Christmas puddings!

However, one prominent and highly respected business leader, Mr ETW Dennis, proprietor of the printing and publishing works in Melrose Street, took strong exception to the abolition of the halfpenny post. In future, the minimum charge on all mail was to be one whole penny. “I think it is a short-sighted policy”, he said. “I am afraid it will affect our industry very much.” Dennis was the largest and most enlightened employer in the town and no one doubted his integrity when he pointed out that a slump in letter and postcard mail would cancel out the rise in charges.

Mr Dennis’ principal industry was the seaside postcard which he then made and sold in millions. Since August 1914 his business had boomed, mainly because imports of cards made in Germany had ceased, but also because the plain and picture postcard had become the most popular medium of contact between servicemen and their families at home. In September 1915 he had printing orders for up to three million new cards.

A fortnight later, “Jottings” joined the protest. The withdrawal of the halfpenny post would end the highly profitable traffic of postcard views of Scarborough which was a most valuable advertising asset for the town. It would also hit the postage of newspapers, just as increased charges on press telegrams would be an added burden on the industry.

Speaking later in the House of Commons during the protracted debate on McKenna’s controversial budget, Sir Thomas Palmer Whittaker, MP for Spen Valley and the younger brother of “Jottings”, described the rise in charges on press telegrams as “unreasonable, unjust and impolitic”. Even the Whittakers were partial to hyperbole when their own interests were at stake.