On 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent and peace reigned across Europe. Yet 100 years on, the impact of the First World War is still felt throughout our society, whether that is through family connections, our local heritage or its long-term impact on the world we live in today.
In autumn 2018, we installed an exhibition detailing a few stories to recognise Kingston residents’ involvement in The Great War. From the thousands of men from across the borough fighting on the front line, the remarkable number of fighter aircraft designed and built in the town, through to the community spirit kept alive by the men and women of Kingston.
Here's a glimpse of some of the stories featured.
The East Surrey Regiment was a line infantry regiment of the British Army, in existence from 1881 to 1959. Their headquarters was on Kings Road in Kingston and the entrance to The Barracks, ‘The Keep’, still survives today.
The depot was a training centre for recruits and during the years 1914-1917 and some 84,000 men passed through these famous gates.
Having lost around 6,000 men during the conflict, The East Surrey Regiment looked for a fitting memorial to honour their dead and decided upon the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in All Saints Church. In 1920, work started to refurbish the chapel by friends, family and comrades of the Regiment and in 1921 it was reopened by the Bishop of Southwark and renamed The East Surrey Regiment Memorial Chapel - how it is still known today.
Alongside the dedication of the Chapel, the Regiment later installed the Memorial Gates at the entrance to the church off Ancient Market Place, which were dedicated by the Bishop of Kingston on Armistice Day 1924.
Inside the Chapel, a book of remembrance was placed listing the names of the Regiment’s fallen heroes of the First World War. ‘The Book of Life’, named after those who now enjoyed eternal life, was made and bound by the Hon. Norah Hewitt in memory of her brother, Captain the Hon. A R Hewitt DSCO, who lost his life at Ypres on 25 April 1915. It was later enlarged to add the names of the members of the Regiment that lost their lives during the Second World War.
On the 1st July, 1916, under heavy enemy fire, the 8th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment were waiting in their trenches ready to go over the top in the first Battle of the Somme. Their objective was to take Montauban Ridge.
Concerned for how his men would behave when finally called to go over the top, the commander of ‘B’ Company, Captain Wilfred Nevill conceived a novel way to inspire his troops, all keen football players.
It is reported that the Captain procured four footballs, one for each platoon. It was to be a competition he informed them, a dribbling contest over the mile and a quarter to the German lines. Captain Nevill promised a reward to the first platoon to score a ‘goal’ in the enemy trenches. And they were up for it.
When the whistle went, the platoon commanders kicked off. Captain Nevill fell early in the charge, fatally wounded and men were mown down all around under a hail of machine gun fire. ‘But still the footballs were booted onwards, with hoarse cries of encouragement or defiance until they disappeared in the dense smother behind which the Germans were shooting’. The job was done, the enemy routed.
Soon after the start of the First World War, it was realised that it was going to be much lengthier and costlier than first anticipated. In an effort to raise funding for the war effort, the National War Savings Committee was formed in 1916. The Committee’s aim was to promote the merits of being thrifty and to encourage the public to purchase War Savings Certificates and War Bonds.
To help drive interest in the savings scheme, the Tank Tour was initiated. Following their successful participation in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, these new ‘wonder weapons’ had captured the public's imagination and provided the perfect spectacle to bring out the crowds and encourage sale of war bonds.
Six tanks “Julian”, “Old Bill”, “Nelson”, “Drake”, “Egbert” and “Iron Ration” embarked on their tour with each tank spending up to a week in towns and cities up and down the country with women selling war bonds from inside the tank.
It was “Iron Ration” that came to Kingston on Friday 15 March 1918.
The day created a huge spectacle in the town centre as the tank was rolled into the town at 9.30am with a tremendous welcome. Local residents, businesses and schools were all drawn to see the show and pledge their support through the purchase of bonds. At 1.00pm, Harry Hawker took to the skies in a Sopwith Dolphin to perform a series of flying stunts, loops and spirals to entertain the crowds and promote further interest. In a daredevil move, the airman swept down, darting over Market Place and skimming the house tops to drop an application on behalf of Sopwiths for War Bonds to the value of £30,000.
Kingston Tank Day raised £187,767
As the war progressed, fresh fruit, vegetables and meat became increasingly harder to come by. Naval blockades had reduced food imports, the war had taken men and horses away from farm work and people began hoarding supplies. Food queues became a regular sight during the war but the queue outside Bentalls on 4 May 1917 caused quite a spectacle.
Though there was no direct rationing of the root vegetable, potatoes became in short supply during the war so when Bentalls announced that they had come by a large stock, the queues inevitably began to form.
The store placed an advert in the local paper on 28 April 1917 for 12,000 lbs of potatoes “which we shall offer at the Food Controller’s fixed price (without profit whatsoever to ourselves) on Friday next commencing at 9am, in 6lb bags. Bags cannot be supplied. Post or telephone orders cannot in any circumstances be executed.”
Queues stretching for over a quarter of a mile formed down Clarence Street, as people lined up from as early as 5.15am to get their hands on a portion of potatoes.
A few weeks later, an even larger queue formed, this time stretching nearly three quarters of a mile as Bentalls held a sale of 17,000 lbs of potatoes.
Mrs Theodore Cory came up with the idea of holding a war market to raise money. She was an author who wrote under the pen name ‘Winifred Graham’. Stalls selling goods were set up in Kingston Market Place and prizes, such as a pig or gold watch, could be won. Dr Finney, twice Mayor of Kingston, organised a procession to Fairfield with participants dressed up as figures from Elizabethan times.
The war market raised over £4000 for the East Surrey Regiment’s Comforts and Prisoners of War Fund, the local Red Cross Hospital and the local War Hospital supply depots.
This extract from The Surrey Advertiser on Wednesday 20 June 1917 described the magnificent day.
Picturesque Old-Time Pageantry.
Witnessed by Thousands of People.
All roads led to Kingston on Tuesday. It had been so many a time in the history of the royal and ancient borough right down from the time when Saxon Kings were crowned here. But seldom, if ever, could there have been larger streams of people pouring into the old town. All the world and his wife - certainly his wife - were there, and they had come to buy at a market such as had been without precedent in the annals of the borough, as well as to witness the pageant which revived some of its ancient glories.
The Sopwith Aviation Company was one of the most recognisable aviation names of World War I and it all began here, in Kingston upon Thames.
Already a well-known sportsman with interests in aviation, yachting and motor racing, Thomas Octave Murdoch (Tommy, later Sir Thomas) Sopwith created the Sopwith Aviation Company in October 1912, initially based in his Flying School sheds at Brooklands Airfield. As the business expanded and larger premises were required, the first Sopwith factory was opened in December 1912 in a leased roller skating rink in Canbury Park Road, near Kingston railway station.
Kingston was chosen as an ideal location with numbers of carpenters and other skilled workers in the area from the boat building and coach building companies. Equally important was the proximity to Brooklands where aircraft could be easily taken by lorry for testing.
When looking for a factory space, Sopwith Aviation Company had two key requirements; an uninterrupted open space and a level wooden floor. So the roller skating rink was a perfect solution.
The Skating Rink was soon not large enough to meet demand for their aircraft and a new large factory was built further along Canbury park Road.
Towards the end of the conflict and with orders for more aircraft increasing, Sopwith took out a lease on the new National Aircraft Factory No 2, at Ham to the north of Kingston and just a mile from the Canbury Park Works. However, with the end of hostilities came a financial crisis for Sopwith as military orders ceased. Despite trying to diversify into building motorcycles and civil aircraft, the company entered voluntary liquidation in 1920 and was able to pay all its creditors in full.
During the war, more than 3,000 Sopwith-designed aircraft were built in Kingston and a further 15,000 across Britain and France by many sub-contractors
Soon after the liquidation of the Sopwith company, Tommy Sopwith with test pilot Harry Hawker, factory manager Fred Sigrist and others, formed the H.G. Hawker Engineering Co. It would become the hugely successful Hawker Aircraft Company and eventually Hawker Siddeley Aviation owning half of Britain’s aircraft industry.
By 1918 Sopwith employed 3,500 people in 14 acres of factory buildings in Kingston and Ham. Their contribution was a just as vital to the war effort as the courageous men on the front line.
With most men at war, to rapidly expand output, nearly a third of those employed at Sopwiths were women with similar numbers of wounded servicemen. Women initially worked preparing and sewing linen fabric onto the wings and fuselages but as war developed it was no surprise to see women increasingly taking on traditional men’s roles including soldering, press operating, welding, making metal parts, assembling and inspecting.
In Kingston History Centre’s oral history collection there is a record of a woman employed at Sopwiths as a varnisher and painter. It was her duty to varnish the wires, paint them grey and varnish the fuselage and wood. She had to wear gloves to protect her hands as the paint would cause blisters. She explained that if you worked in the dope shop, it was required that you should drink milk every day to stop the dope fumes affecting the lungs. The dope was a cellulose dope used to shrink the linen covering onto the wings and fuselage of all Sopwith aircraft and seal it against the weather.
When war was declared in the summer of 1914, all manner of aircraft were sought for the initiative including Sopwith Aviation’s Tabloid and it’s floatplane derivatives, the Sopwith Baby and Sopwith Schneider. These aircraft proved perfectly adequate for their reconnaissance roles but were hardy military-grade, and soon Sopwiths took to developing high performance fighters to help fulfil the military requirements of a rapidly evolving war in Europe.
Some of the most revered were the Sopwith Baby, 1½ Strutter, the Pup, the Camel and the Snipe.
The Sopwith Baby
Made of a wooden structure with fabric covering like most of Sopwith’s aircraft, the Baby was their most famous seaplane.
With their ability to take off and land on water, they were used as shipbourne reconnaissance and bomber aircraft operating from carriers and cruisers as well as naval trawlers and minelayers. A major role of the baby was to spot German Zeppelin raids as far from Britain as possible, along with tracking German naval movements.
The Sopwith 1½ Strutter
The 1½ Strutter was a single or two-seat multi-role biplane designed in response to the Royal Naval Air Service’s need for a single seat light bomber and a two seater fighter with a gun for the observer to defend against attack from the rear.
The 1½ Strutter was also the first British aircraft to enter service with a synchronised machine gun, allowing the pilot to fire through the path of a two-bladed spinning propeller. It was built in large numbers, including over 4,000 built in France for the French Air Force.
The Sopwith Pup
Officially named the Sopwith Scout, this single seat fighter became known as the Pup when Royal Naval Air Service pilots considered it to be the pup of its larger two-seater predecessor, the 1½ Strutter. Despite official discouragement, the name Pup remained.
It is said to be the most pleasant to fly of all British aeroplanes during the First World War with docile flying characteristics and good manoeuvrability. These also made it ideal for flying from ramps on ships and eventually, on 2 August 1917, a Pup flown by Sqn Cdr Edwin Dunning became the first aircraft to land aboard a moving ship, HMS Furious.
The Sopwith Camel
Regarded as the most successful British fighter plane of World War I, the Camel was somewhat of a handful to fly, so much so that it earned a nasty reputation of causing accidents amongst novice pilots who couldn’t handle its quick manoeuvrability. However in the hands of experienced pilots, the Camel proved highly successful. It is said to have achieved more victories in combat than any other aircraft during the First World War and was also used extensively for bombing, ground strafing and operations from Royal Navy Ships.
The Sopwith Snipe
An evolution of the immortal Camel, the Snipe took all the components that had made its predecessor a legend and introduced several new features that made this new design the most formidable allied fighter.
The Snipe looked very similar to the Camel but with a new much more powerful engine allowing it to climb faster and fly higher, plus it was much easier to fly, even for less-experienced pilots.
With the war near to conclusion when the Snipe came into service at the newly-renamed Royal Air Force, it can lay claim to the accolade of being the ‘RAF’s first fighter aircraft’ remaining in front line service until 1925.
Though November 1918 had marked the end of the fighting on the Western Front, it wasn’t until the signing of the Treaty of Versaille in June 1919 when true peace could be confirmed.
By way of celebration, and to mark the official end of the war, a Bank Holiday was declared in Britain on Saturday 19 July 1919. Britain celebrated with one of the most impressive spectacles ever witnessed as thousands of people gathered in London and lined the streets to see nearly 15,000 troops taking part in the Peace Parade.
That morning, King George V issued a message:
“To these, the sick and wounded who cannot take part in the festival of victory, I send out greetings and bid them good cheer, assuring them that the wounds and scars so honourable in themselves, inspire in the hearts of their fellow countrymen the warmest feelings of gratitude and respect.”
Towns and cities up and down the country followed suit with celebrations and parades as people gave themselves up to hearty, unrestrained jubilation. Kingston was no exception as the town witnessed a spectacle of its own.
Flags and bunting lined the streets and signage was installed to the balcony of the Town Hall (now known as Market House) with “Peace the Crown of Victory” written in red and blue letters.
Led by the band of the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment, approximately 60 soldiers of the East Surrey Regiment Kingston Barracks accompanied by around 100 demobilised men, marched from the Barracks, through the town centre to Fairfield where the celebrations continued.
There is so much more to discover about Kingston's contribution to the First World War, to find out more:
This exhibition has been compiled by Kingston First with grateful thanks to many local organisations and individuals for contributing their time and research.
Our thanks go to: Kingston History Centre and Kingston Museum for access to the previous research undertaken for their 2014 WWI exhibition and access to material, images and support from the team, Ken Cowdery and Graeme Hodge of The Royal Borough of Kingston War Memorials Association, David Hassard of Kingston Aviation Centenary Project, All Saints Church and Brian Parsons of FW Paine Funeral Directors for their insightful knowledge in helping reproduce these stories.