Ellesmere Port is a remarkable place. It lies on the banks of the River Mersey, at the southern end of the Wirral Peninsula. It grew as a result of its links with the Midlands via the Ellesmere Canal (later called the Shropshire Union Canal) and access to Liverpool, Manchester and the wider world via the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey. Two ironworks arrived early in the 20th century – Burnell’s in 1903 and The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company in 1905. By 1911 the two works were employing over 3,000 people between them and the town’s population had risen by 142.5 percent since 1901.
Prior to the Great War, the ironworks experienced poor fortunes due to strikes; following the declaration of war on 4th August 1914, they came to a virtual standstill due to the cessation of iron ore supplies from Germany and Belgium. Thousands of employees were either laid off or given half pay. Hundreds of families were now threatened with starvation and destitution. Fortunately, the management of the Wolverhampton Company, under the leadership of the Liberal E. Peter Jones, was sympathetic to their workers and took measures to support them, including suspending rents on their cottages and organising relief funds to which a wide variety of individuals, firms and institutions made generous donations.
Just like elsewhere in Wirral and in Britain as a whole, a local relief committee was quickly formed, containing many officials and dignitaries who had been active in local affairs before the war. It co-ordinated payments to impoverished families and provision of meals to children. On Tuesday 1st September 1914, the Committee met at the Cambridge Road Council School under the Chairmanship of a Mr Fogg. It dealt with the case of the children of John Lodge, a Roller at the ironworks from Oldfield Road. His children were told ‘get fed at home’ as their father had been paid £2 6d on the previous Friday. It transpired that the committee had obtained this information from the company’s payrolls. The children went home and told their parents what had happened.
The next day, Wednesday 2nd September, John Lodge arrived at the school at 2.15 pm and caused havoc. According to the Chester Chronicle of 5th September 1914, he:
… used shocking language, became very abusive, and said that all he had had the previous week was 3s 3d, and this relief was from Mr Pierce. The man (Lodge) tried to enter the classrooms with the idea of bringing his boy from school, and finished up with insulting Mr Munro (the Headteacher and Secretary of the Relief Committee) and two other teachers who came to his assistance. The schoolroom was a perfect bedlam and large crowds of people assembled outside. The man also stated that the money was being spent on the wrong people, and that it was intended for the ironworkers. The man’s wife came afterwards and admitted that her husband had given her 27s for housekeeping purposes.
Due to the foul language and violence which had taken place in front of school children, Lodge was summoned to the Petty Sessions on the same day, in front of Mr Timperley, a local solicitor. He was accused of assaulting three teachers – James Duncan Munro (the head), Sidney Harold Williams and George Vincent Pinches. Mr Munro described how the committee had told the Lodge children to go home and not to come back unless their father became unemployed and how John Lodge had stormed into the school the next day, looking for his son (either John or William, who would have been 12 and 10 respectively).
Mr Munro described how he tried to stop Lodge from entering the classrooms and how Lodge had hit him in the chest. Mr Pinches arrived to help his colleague and he too was attacked. Munro then wrapped his arms around Lodge to stop him fighting and Lodge kicked Pinches in the knee and almost choked Munro by pulling his tie. Mr Williams arrived and he was attacked; he left in search of the police and whilst he was away, Lodge punched Munro on the jaw and Pinches in the face.
His language was so violent and so unfit for children to hear that defendant (Lodge) was moved to the playground, and he was got away before the police arrived. Defendant appeared to be partly under the influence of drink and the school children were terrified. The Local War Relief Committee looked uponn this as an important case. They had a difficult duty to perform in administering the fund and Mr Munro, as secretary had to see that defendant’s children were not having free meals as long as their father was earning good money. Defendant resented this.
The wages sheet showed that Lodge had been earning three guineas a week since May. In addition, three schoolboys – George Hollander, D. William Hickman and Albert Clayton – gave their accounts of the event and:
Defendant, who expressed his regret, said the trouble arose through the children in the streets shouting after him what wages he earned. It was scandalous that children should be told what a man was earning. He had thrashed his children for attending the feeding centre as he knew they were not in need. He himself had relieved people on his street.
The panel sentenced Lodge to one month’s imprisonment. They felt that a mere fine would not make the point strongly enough that his appalling behaviour in front of children had been totally unacceptable. They regretted sending him down, but agreed that they had no other option. Mr Timperley finished the proceedings by advising local people not to request aid from the committee unless they were in real need.
The story illustrates some of the tensions and anxieties prevalent at the commencement of the Great War. Not everybody was focused on Belgium and German militarism and not all young men were queuing up outside recruiting offices, hoping to go away and fight. Many were simply trying to maintain their dignity as working people, to earn their wages, feed their families and pay their rents. John Lodge is a very good example of this.
John was born in 1878 in Bilston in Staffordshire – one of the greatest iron manufacturing districts in the world. By 1891, the Lodge family had moved to Aspull in Lancashire and John (aged only 13) was already working as a ‘Roller in an Ironworks’. His brother William (aged 20) was working as a ‘Puddler’:
By 1901, John Lodge had married Lucy Capewell and was living with her and her family in Coseley near Wolverhampton; now he was a steam engine stoker in the ironworks:
By 1911, John had his own family and was living in Bilston. The birth places of his children show that, between about 1905 and 1909, the family had lived in another important iron manufacturing district – Newport, South Wales:
We do not know when the family moved to Ellesmere Port, but clearly they were there by 1914. They are an interesting case because there has been much speculation about the means by which the Staffordshire people (often called ‘Wolves’) moved to Ellesmere Port: did they walk or were they transported by the firm in canal barges? In this instance, the family did not come directly to Ellesmere Port from Wolverhampton, but had moved at least three times before settling in Wirral.
It is unfortunate that, during the period in question, working class people were rarely mentioned in the newspapers (or in any other contemporary records) in any depth, unless they were in trouble with the law or were victims of tragedies. In this instance, as a possibly drunk, irate, foul-mouthed and violent attacker of respectable public servants who were only trying to do their job, John comes across as an egregious villain. However, when we look at the times in which he was living and his family’s circumstances in September 1914, we begin to understand his behaviour and sympathise with him and others like him.
We have seen that John had been working in a heavy industry since he was a teenager. The work was extremely arduous and not well paid. Job titles like puddler, roller and dipper speak for themselves – the men carried out mindless and repetitive labouring tasks for hours on end in tremendous heat and noise. In fact, it is believed that the ironworks finally went bankrupt because it relied on cheap human labour, rather than investing in more efficient machinery and more advanced processes. John will have experienced very little leisure time and been very conscious that the wellbeing of his family depended upon his labours. He had moved his family several times for better employment and ended up in Ellesmere Port at a time when the ironworks were facing their own problems and as the Great War was beginning.
John and his family will have been surrounded by people in a very similar position. He appears to have kept his job but his neighbours were less fortunate. By his own admission, in court on 2nd September, he did his best to help them. People like to preserve their dignity and do not like to rely on charity. By applying for free meals, John’s children, exposed his family finances to the inspection of the administrators of the relief fund and somehow other children became aware of his wages; possibly out of envy, they taunted him on the streets about this, which must have been extremely distressing for him. That experience, added to general anxiety about what to do about the war might have tipped him over the edge and lead to his unfortunate outburst, which he later regretted.
From the authorities’ point of view, he had behaved outrageously and needed to be made an example of. They themselves were under a lot of pressure and were only trying to administer the relief fund as honest and judicious stewards of a finite resource. It probably never crossed their minds that the means testing of applicants by viewing the company pay sheets could be seen as a breach of workers’ privacy and an attack on their dignity. As John did not get into trouble again, he was never again mentioned in the newspapers. We do not know how his family got on while he was in prison for a month or whether he got his job back when he returned. But we do know that in 1915 he joined the army and that, fortunately, his service papers are amongst the 20 per cent or so to have survived the 1940 London Blitz. All four pages appear below:
The attention of the reader is drawn to his physical description and family details which supplement the earlier census returns, but his military record itself is particularly interesting: he signed on in Chester on 16th February 1915, but did not join his battalion until 24th November. It was the 14th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, which had been formed in Birkenhead in October 1914 as part of K4 (the fourth phase of mass recruitment organised by Secretary of State for War, H.H. Kitchener). It was a reserve battalion, made up of older and less physically fit men and never intended for overseas service. During the time John Lodge was in it, it was based at Prees Heath near Shrewsbury.
John’s papers give scant details about his life in the army, but we are told that he worked as a cook and that he had been ‘sober, steady and reliable.’ We can imagine that he might well have enjoyed his time at Prees Heath – a pleasant rural location, where he was surrounded by men of a similar age and background. He might have been content to know that his wife and children back in Ellesmere Port were receiving a regular separation allowance and been able to enjoy the outdoor exercise associated with military training. Perhaps he appreciated being able to do a different job and taken a pride in cooking hearty meals for his mates in the camp. It must have been a blow to him when the medical board declared him as unfit for military service and dismissed him from the army on 25th August 1916. He was suffering from chronic bronchitis, which he claimed to have had since childhood and which the medical board was keen to emphasise so that he did not qualify for a disability pension. One wonders how he was able to pass his initial medical examination in February 1915.
We do not know how John Lodge and his family managed to survive for the rest of the war. The £45 army gratuity for him and his children will have helped, but we know nothing about his later working life. The Lodge family remained in Ellesmere Port. John died there in 1947 and his wife in 1964. His sons William and David also died there in 1961 and 1970 respectively. It is not known what happened to the other children.
The above story is important because it sheds light on the experiences of working class people whose stories do not conform to the imagined stereotype of immediate enlistment in a Pals Battalion, followed by service overseas and either death or injury in battle. It shows us that working class people endured a wide range of circumstances, often involving complex navigation through the economic vicissitudes of their places of work, the charity and support systems which had been created for their benefit and service with the armed forces. Perhaps people like John Lodge, who never fought and who never received any medals, deserve as much commemoration as the people who served and/or who died or were wounded, simply because they looked after their families and friends, endured the strains of wartime life and lived on afterwards, enabling the next generation to flourish.
Concerning the three teachers whom John Lodge assaulted on 1st September 1914, we know nothing, other than that James Duncan Munro (who had been born in Flint in 1875 and had been living at 14 Stanlow Villas in Ellesmere Port) eventually died in hospital in Liverpool on 25th September 1944, leaving £1857 17s 10d to his widow, Emily. He had continued to work as a teacher and later became a leading light on the Ellesmere Port Education Committee.