The First World War

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, parish life seems to have continued much as it always had at St. George the Martyr. There seems to have been no special service commemorating the outbreak of war, but a study of the service records of the time shows the effect of the war on the church. In 1915, collections were being made for an ‘Aircraft Insurance Fund’ and this had been renamed by 1917 to ‘Air Raid Insurance Fund’. This was insurance money against damage done by German air raids using Zeppelins and bombers. For example, from 1917-1918 the church paid £4 19 shillings for this. There are no records of the church being hit, but German air raids did take place in Southwark during the First World War. The first German airship raid in the area was on September 7th-8th 1915. Later on in the war, German Gotha bomber planes were used in air raids, often during daylight, for example, when 22 Gothas bombed Bermondsey on 7th June 1917. Raids on Southwark carried well on into the late spring of 1918. It seems the church’s crypt was used as shelter during raids, as ‘raid nights’ are mentioned in the service documents. An example of casualties sustained in air raids is Driver Gebbett who lived on Marcia Road, Old Kent Road. Gebbett was a soldier home on leave from France when he was killed in an air raid on the 25th September 1917.

During the First World War, many men of the parish and members of the congregation saw action. Patriotic recruitment meetings and events were used to get men to sign up. These often took place in theatres or entertainment venues, and often included bands and other social activities, such as a meeting held on March 11th 1915 in Lancaster Street at which a band played from 7.30pm. A week long recruitment drive was held out of the Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road from 30th April 1915.  Public speakers were hired for the event, as well as popular singers. Recruiting officers were stationed around different parts of the building. Men who were too old for active service were targeted to join volunteer regiments held in reserve. The 1/11th (Southwark) Battalion County of London Volunteer Regiment was the main volunteer regiment in the area, and targeted older men in their 40s and 50s. Christopher Henry Hughes, who was a bell ringer at the church, joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and was killed in action on 9th September 1916. He is buried at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval in France. A Role of Service also survives for all pupils from St. George’s School who served during the war. Women were also targeted to help with the war effort, especially to work in munitions factories. A letter to a local newspaper in Bermondsey entitled ‘Bermondsey girls help the lads in the trenches’, describes how female munition workers gave up their Whit Monday holiday in order to volunteer to augment supplies of hand grenades!

The war had an effect on services and sermons at the church. In 1916, St. George the Martyr took part in the National Mission of Repentance and Hope, a call by the Church of England to repent but also install a sense of hope during the difficult times if the war. The sermon at the evening services on March 28th 1916 was on the National Mission. Other sermons were influenced by the war, as seen on March 11th and 18th 1917, when the 6.30pm sermon was on ‘Christianity and War’. However, sermons and lectures also dealt with other themes such as on April 9th 1915 when ‘commencing next Sunday a series of addresses will be given after Evening prayer on English religious writers.’

Collections were made to fund relief organisations, particularly hospitals. In 1918, £9 1 shilling 9 pence was collected for blind soldiers at St. Dunstan’s Hospital. The rector, W.J Somerville, left after twenty years of service in April 1918. At his final service, a collection was made for Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospitals, providing medical care for injured military personnel, and Hymn 595 was sung kneeling as a prayer for all soldiers and sailors. 

There is no armistice service recorded in November 1918 marking the end of the war, but a one off Organ Recital did take place on Thursday 21st November 1918 at 1.15pm. Perhaps this was a way for the parish to celebrate the ending of four years of war.  A memorial service was held in the church in remembrance of the 883 members of the Sons of Temperance who died during the war on Friday April 25th 1919. In September 1919, the church was raising £3000 for a proposed war memorial and alterations ‘a tablet to be affixed to the west wall…carved oak stalls in the chancel and the enlarging of the organ.’ These plans do not appear to have taken place and it seems likely the funds were pooled into the building of the memorial on Borough High Street. The first Armistice Day service was recorded in 1919 and during the Armistice Service in 1920, a collection was made for the Earl Haig fund, which went towards helping veterans of the war.

Returning veterans often faced economic and social difficulties in the initial aftermath of the war. Newspaper articles from 1918-1919 show the difficulties faced by veterans and also the public outrage at their treatment. Men found it hard to get work due to their injuries. Robert Mackey, living in Becket House, Tabard Street, was unable to find employment after returning from the war due to disfigurement ‘this man has a wife and six children and was so badly wounded in the war that his face was partially blown away.’ Veteran Walter Cleveland Foster ended up in the Newington Institute Workhouse after the war, destitute and unable to gain an army pension even though he was suffering from shell shock. A description of Walter Foster from 1919 serves as an example of the effects of the war on human lives, ‘Forster is a married man with six children…he disappeared from his home (and) his wife an friends were unable to trace him…the medical officer at the institution (Newington Workhouse) is of the opinion…that he will have to be nurses all his life.’  Charity groups such as the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors were set up to fight for the interests of veterans.

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