Nostalgia: Jottings and his thoughts on current affairs

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Every Friday, on the back page of The Mercury, Jottings, otherwise Alderman Meredith Whittaker, proprietor and editor, gave readers the benefit of his opinionated, controversial, sarcastic and well-informed views. His two columns on November 19, 1915, were typical of his wide-ranging, strongly-held thoughts on current affairs.

He began by expressing gratitude to Miss Kemp-Welch for the gift to Scarborough of her painting of the Bombardment. Not only did the painting have “great artistic merit”, but it had become the template for one of the country’s most successful recruiting posters. In his words, it “faithfully put on record the indignant (sic) of a nation roused by a ruthless and murderous deed by the Huns that would constitute a chapter in the history of the town to the crack of doom”. Always mindful of Scarborough’s long, eventful and rich history, Jottings then suggested that a permanent memorial should eventually be raised in the town to remind people of such “a heinous crime”. He would be disappointed to learn that, unless the Oliver’s Mount war memorial is counted, a hundred years later no such monument has been erected in Scarborough.

Secondly, Jottings recommended to his readers a new government insurance scheme to compensate small property owners against losses caused by enemy naval or aerial bombardment. Household goods, including furniture, clothing and utensils, would be covered, but not buildings. For a premium of sixpence a year a claim for up to £25 could be made and for eighteen pence one of up to £75. Policy applications were available at the post office. Though the risk was “exceedingly small”, it was certainly worth paying such minimal annual premiums. Not even Jottings could have foreseen that the next shells to fall on Scarborough would be fired from a German submarine. Passing from the Bombardment, which was less than 12 months old and still painfully fresh in the Scarborough memory, Jottings moved on to a very recent event. The previous Sunday, November 14, known traditionally as Mayoral Sunday, the newly-re-elected mayor and the Town Council were expected to attend a special thanksgiving and dedication service at the parish church. On this occasion, the sermon was delivered by Dr Lang, archbishop of York, who was fulfilling his visitation duties in the locality. Mayor Graham and his deputy, Alderman Fowler, were present, but only a minority of 12 of the 25 councillors thought it necessary, in Jottings’ terms, to “confess their manifold sins and wickedness”.

On a fine, bright, chilly morning, they had “robed” in the Court House on Castle Road and then, led by the sergeant-at-mace, processed up to St Mary’s. As a Liberal and a Nonconformist, Jottings could not resist making political and religious capital out of his report: “It is satisfactory to note that the majority of members of the Council are above such confession. It is also curious to note that the majority of the “sinners” belong to one particular party”, by which he meant Tory Anglicans!

Next, Jottings recorded that ministers of the East Ward (the poorest part of the Old Town), had issued a circular advising all householders there to save their money for post-war times. They should not assume that peace would be more prosperous than war. On the contrary, “in no place would the hard times be more felt than in Scarborough”. Jottings agreed that the improvident poor would be the most difficult to persuade: “such a class”, he wrote, “would be hard to work amongst”. For men like Alderman Whittaker, born as long ago as 1841 and always Victorian in outlook, thrift was the greatest of virtues.

Jottings then exercised much influence in Scarborough, but in national politics, as a Nonconformist Liberal, he saw his party being slowly destroyed by the war and its conduct. One by one sacred Liberal causes such as free trade, Irish Home Rule and voluntary enlistment had been abandoned and now Winston Churchill, one of Asquith’s most gifted cabinet colleagues, had been demoted from First Lord of the Admiralty to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Unionists, who were now in Asquith’s coalition, and the Unionist press had targeted Churchill for the Dardanelles disaster and the defeat on Gallipoli. Jottings wrote that it was unfair and far too easy to “scapegoat one and excuse all the others” involved. In particular, he deplored the “violent reaction of the [Tory] press for singling out ministers and placing all the blame on their shoulders”. Worse was soon to follow: on November 25 Churchill left the government altogether and spent the next 18 months as colonel of a Guards battalion on the Western Front. Even when he became prime minster in 1940, at a desperate moment in the Second War, he was still distrusted as the architect of Gallipoli.

Another “scapegoat” of the press, whom Jottings could not save, was Sir John French, commander of the British army in Flanders. After the failure of the Loos offensive in September/October, it was being rumoured that Sir John and his staff officers had been misspending their time during the battles entertaining ladies and playing bridge. Jottings called this “a serious charge, and one that cannot be allowed to go unanswered”. However, a few weeks later, French was relieved of his post and replaced by General Douglas Haig. It was not then widely known that French had opposed the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns and had complained of the shortage of shells and artillery which severely handicapped the attacks at Loos.

Finally, Jottings showed off his wide-ranging knowledge by quoting from a recent German socialist newspaper which had questioned the purpose of the war. This gave him the opportunity to compare German with British war aims. “Fancy an English paper, after sixteen months of war, asking what are we fighting for? The answer at once comes to mind: Belgium, Serbia, Lusitania, the freedom to be won, the law to be upheld, the peace, honour and safety to be secured against the frightfulness of a relentless enemy. Whatever the doubts in Germany, we at any rate know what we are fighting for.”

Jottings was a Nonconformist Liberal, yet as far removed from pacifism as his Anglican Tory opponents in the Council chamber.