Mention Christmas and the First World War to most people and they’ll imagine some variation of Christmas truces, football between the warring sides and the seemingly general notion that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’. Certainly Cedric Gordon of the North Staffordshire Regiment wrote this to his mother from France in September 1914. But there would be a further three Christmas Days before the Armistice was signed and I want to look at what that entailed for the people of Sevenoaks, those at war and at home.
In 1914, the popular firm of S.Young and Co. used its regular advertisement in the Kent Messenger to promote its Grand Bazaar, setting the tone by asking the question: Christmas as usual? Why not?
There are thousands of soldiers and sailors to whom Christmas will mean more this year than ever before. There are thousands of children for whom Christmas would be as indeed if the old customs were not kept up.
With so many local men away and large numbers of Belgian refugees in the town, as well as wounded servicemen at the newly established hospitals, fundraising was the order of the day.
Patriotic Christmas cards like this were sent in 1914
Lord and Lady Sackville hosted a concert at Knole in aid of the St John’s hospital where their daughter, Vita, was Commandant. Held on the afternoon of 15th December, the concert featured some well known artistes, including Miss Phyllis Dare and Miss Constance Collier. Children of the estate workers were also invited to a Christmas tea on a Wednesday afternoon.
The troops billeted in the town were not forgotten and the Territorials Christmas fund raised £167 17s 5. which was distributed between 4th and 5th Loyal North Lancashires, 4th and 5th King’s Own, the Army Service Corps, and the Army Medical Corps and Divisonal Headquarters division. The remainder being given to the Soldiers’ and Sailors Families Association.
Letters sent home were regularly forwarded to the Sevenoaks Chronicle to be reproduced for popular consumption. In 1914 Private F G Saxby of G Company 4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment wrote to local recruiting officer Captain H W Knocker
I am pleased to say that I am quite enjoying myself in my new life. The fellows here are a very sociable lot. The food we have is very good indeed and I have no doubt Major Laurie looks after G Company as well as any.
Our 1st Lieutenant is the Reverend Percy Thompson’s son, and our Second Lieutenant is Archdeacon Dunkerley’s son of St John’s.
I expect to get home for Christmas and I hope I shall as I have always spent it at home up till now. We have some very nice route marches of sixteen to eighteen miles and come home very tired, but full of fun. We have a football XI and are going to play for a cup and shield among the Companies. After all, army life is not all bad.
In January 1915, the Sevenoaks Chronicle printed an article by Thornton Shaw on How Our Troops Fared at Christmas. The article was in fact more of a guide to the men of the north and what was perceived as their strange habits.
“You have got to know the average Northerner before you can hope to understand him. He is, by nature, hardy and brusque, he often omits to lift his cap (which he wears in great preference to a bowler hat) to his lady friends and when he is not on military duty he has an inherent objection in saying “sir” to anybody on earth. But he possesses a heart as big as the wide world itself…”
“And if some of them seem just a little bit uncouth you must forgive them. And they have done Sevenoaks heaps of good in the matter of trade. Ask any tradesman you like…” Shaw noted that the residents of Sevenoaks had raised £710 to ensure that the soldiers present in the town during Christmas enjoyed the festivities, with lavish amounts of food and entertainment; one contingent of 25 men “polished off an entire pig between them…as my informant (an officer) laughingly remarked ‘only a collier could have done it’”.
All of the men, wrote Shaw, were grateful but also wistful for the lives they had left at home, one corporal remarking, as he posted home a box of chocolates to his wife “Ah’d reyther ‘uv bin up at whoam, if ah’d had nowt but kippers”.
News sometimes arrived home from Sevenoaks men being held as prisoner of war. One such man was twenty year old Albert Hayward, the son of William, an old soldier and his wife Jane, who resided at 13, Buckhurst Avenue, Sevenoaks. Albert was working as an apprentice printer before the war and enlisted in London in November 1914. He fought at Ypres With 2nd Battalion The Buffs, where he was taken prisoner in April 1915.
The Chronicle carried a report in January 1916 under the title A Sevenoaks Soldier in Germany, Xmas in an Internment Camp, which featured a postcard that Albert had written to his parents:
“Just a hurried line to thank you for the two parcels which I received in quite good condition. I think I told you that the pudding was quite good, and that the cigars were quite nice and mild. I enjoyed my ‘Xmas quite well under the circumstances. My chum and I had a tin of mutton chops, ‘Xmas pudding, beef and vegetables, for dinner. Of course we managed to forget nuts, oranges, apples etc. the ‘boss’ gave us a bag containing 50 cigarettes, buns and lbs of apples; we also had a ‘Xmas tree decorated up, and we were allowed one bottle of lager beer, which was half the dinner. I hope you all had a very enjoyable ‘Xmas and New Year, and good weather, for we have had some heavy falls of snow lately, but it has changed to rain now. Please tender my thanks to the Rev J Rooker for the card he sent me of the Parish Church. I hope you are all as well at home as this letter leaves me – in the best of health.”
Albert saw one more Christmas before he died as a result of his diabetes in Otcober 1917. He is buried in the Niederzwehren Cemetery in Hessen, Germany and both brothers are remembered on the family grave at St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks.
Throughout the war years, the Chronicle reported how Christmas was spent in the local VAD hospitals, where staff and patients celebrated the festive season together. In 1916, the large ward at Cornwall Hall was decorated with holly and laurel. Another ward featuring ‘a model of a gigantic Zeppelin, with excellent models of aeroplanes in close proximity to it’.
The paper printed a letter from A PATIENT, who outlined what he and his fellow patients had enjoyed
On Christmas Day, after many of the nurses and patients had attended Divine Service at the Parish Church, there was an incessant round of festivities, commencing with a splendid dinner, served in the large ward (cooked at the Royal Crown Hotel, through the kind thoughtfulness of Mr Marshall). Crackers and flowers made the tables look inviting, but when the board was covered with turkeys, mince pies, plum puddings and dessert, the effect was greatly increased.
At St John’s Hall hospital,
The festivities began in the early morning with the good old custom of Santa Claus, each man waking up to find bulging sock in his bed; a surprise provided by the staff and much appreciated by the patients.
In the afternoon, after a typical Christmas tea, there was the stripping of a fine Christmas tree laden with gifts of all kinds, both or the staff and patients. A first-rate football from the nurses to the patients caused much applause as being a happy omen of future victories.
In its 1918 Christmas editorial, the Chronicle noted that despite the still somewhat dimly lighted streets, Sevenoaks has been wearing during the past week or so, a cheerier aspect. The Christmas of 1918 promises to carry with it some of the old-time gaiety. Peace on earth has a greater meaning than, perhaps, it ever had before.
Knole, the imposing Sevenoaks seat of the Sackville family, has long played a role in the life of the town and did so during the First World War. Lord Sackville served with the Army, seeing action in Gallipoli, Palestine, Egypt and France, while his wife was an ardent fundraiser for wartime charities, and daughter Vita worked with the local VAD. The estate also played a role as a military camp and training ground from 1914-1918. The house has always been an employer of local people and I wanted to investigate what impact the war had on the staff and the running of a great estate.
In 1916, the Kent Messenger reported that before the war there had been 71 employees on the estate, now reduced to 52. The paper noted that when the Derby Scheme had been introduced, Lady Sackville ‘did her best to get all the employees to attest, and all within age did so’. However, this reported attitude contrasts with Lady Sackville’s later letter to Lord Kitchener, which bemoaned the loss of so many staff from the estate. She wrote
“I think perhaps you do not realise Lord K, that we employ five carpenters and four painters and two blacksmiths and two footmen and you are taking them all from us.”
Bombardier William Robert Copper
Three of the men on the Sevenoaks War Memorial were employed at Knole before they enlisted. According to his obituary, William Robert Copper (1883-1917), a bombardier with 24th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, had worked at Knole for six years before joining the army. He was a keen cricketer and played regularly for nearby Godden Green, where many of the workers from the estate lived and where he is also remembered on the village war memorial.
Thomas Edmund Pattenden (1877-1918), a sergeant with 1/5th Battalion Royal West Kents, worked as a wicket porter at Knole, living on site with his wife, Florence, and their two children Doris and John.
Thomas spent most of the war in India, where he died and was buried in Jubbulpore Cantonment Cemetery in 1918. His widow continued in his role as wicket porter at Knole until the 1930s. Thomas’s grandson, Ian, has spoken about his grandfather for the Knole Stories project.
Oliver Older (1878-1916) was born in Sevenoaks and, after working in London for some years, had returned home and was working as a groom at Knole before serving with the 6th Battalion, Royal West Kents. Oliver died of his wounds in October 1916 and is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L´Abbe, France.
A fourth man on the memorial, William Goss Hicks (1882-1917), was headmaster at the Lady Boswell School, and son of the butler at Knole, William Hicks senior.
On 1 July 1916, in an article entitled The National Importance of Knole, the Kent Messenger reported the case of Adin Clifton Jeffery (1878-1940), works foreman at Knole, before the West Kent Appeal Tribunal, which heard the cases of men who were appealing against the decisions of their local tribunal. George Saer represented the Knole Estate for Lord Sackville with Mr Knocker, of well-known Sevenoaks solicitors, Knocker & Foskett.
How the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported the story
According to the report, Jeffery had been in post for five years and his father had held it for thirty years before him. The Tribunal heard that he had tried to attest under the Derby Scheme but had been rejected because of an enlarged heart. Jeffery’s solicitor stated that he had attempted to go before a Medical Board but had been unable to get an appointment.
The tribunal heard that Knole contained 365 rooms and its roof covered approximately 7 acres, with, as Jeffery testified, 17 baths and 40 lavatories, as well as several sets of heating apparatus, all of which had to be kept in working order. Further evidence was given of the scale of Knole and the work required to maintain the estate
…some part of the roof of Knole had to receive attention every day, and the antiquated drainage system required constant attention. In addition to the house, there were nine farms on the estate, two being in hand. Fifty tons of firewood per week were being cut for the troops, and about 7000 fir trees had been cut for the Government during the past eighteen months.
The case was made that no replacement would know the workings of the estate like the defendant
It would not be possible for anyone to pick up in a few months the ramifications of the dainage system, of which the only plan was 150 to 200 years old, and that was useless, as there had been additions from time to time.
Mr Knocker emphasised the national importance of Knole and said that the appeal was not in Lady Sackville’s interest, but for the nation.
Colonel Atkinson, military representative at the tribunal, suggested that the medical board were overworked and although he noted that it was only by a small majority that Jeffery had been allowed to appeal his case to this hearing, he was prepared to agree that Jeffery was doing essential work and, in view of his age, would not press for him to serve. Atkinson expressed his opinion that all the employees at Knole had done splendidly.
The court ordered that the case should stand over under regulations until Jeffery was called up when he would have seven days to appeal again.
Adin Jeffery continued to work at Knole until his death, aged 62 in 1940, when he was working as steward. The Sevenoaks Chronicle noted in his obituary that he had been a keen member of the town Choral Society and sang in the choir of the Vine Baptist Church for nearly 40 years. He had died suddenly, collapsing in his chair, while going about his normal duties. According to the paper,
It was fitting to say that he loved the great house of Knole. It was a joy to him that he dwelt under its roof, and he found continual happiness in serving it, and the members of the family residing there, whom he honoured. Often he said that he hoped to end his days at Knole, and it was given unto him to continue his service to the last moment of his life within its walls.
In a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Lord and Lady Sackville, Eddy and Bertram Sackville West all attended his funeral and sent flowers, as did Vita Sackville West.
The case of another Knole employee, Edwin Thomas Harding, aged 45, of Upper Park Lodge, Knole, who had been employed for two years, came before the Sevenoaks Tribunal in 1918. Again appealed for by Lady Sackville, on behalf of her husband, he appealed on the grounds of the risk to the house from fire breaking out. It was pointed out that
with the exception of the butler, who was 68 years of age, he was the only man about the house during the day who understood the fire appliances.
This case divided the tribunal panel. The Chairman and one other felt that they had taken other men from Knole and that considering the treasures that were in the house they ought to give consideration to the appeal. However, another panel member, Mr White, took the view that it would be a public scandal if they exempted him, because there were plenty of men engaged outside the house if they were wanted in case of fire and the local fire brigade could attend within five minutes.
Harding himself testified that he did everything that was necessary in the house when a man’s work was required and spent his whole time in the house, being the only one who understood the fire appliances and able to attend to them if he should be required.
A query as to whether there had been any attempt to replace him was met with the reply that there were now no men in the garden excepting very old men and boys. The gardeners now, in common with other head gardeners, had to dig instead of supervising.
It was proposed that two months exemption be given but an amendment was moved by Mr White and a fellow panel member that no exemption be given but that he should not be called for 56 days. This was carried by three votes to two, leaving Mr White to remark that
…he recognised that Knole was a sort of national treasure-house, but it was the larger national interests they had to study and that was the Army.
The risk of fire in the house was a real one, as demonstrated in December 1918 when Lord Sackville’s son-in-law, Harold Nicholson, was awakened by smoke and managed to raise the alarm and put out the blaze with the help of the night watchmen and tradesmen. The paper reported that the fire was thought to have been caused by an overheated hearth and
There is no doubt that Lord Sackville as well as his son-in-law had narrow escapes, the beam (that had caught fire) being the main support of his Lordship’s bedroom floor.
Private Leonard Edwin Harding
Harding’s son, Leonard Edwin (1899-1991), had served with the Royal Fusiliers from March 1917. The Chronicle reported in May 1918 that he had been missing since 24 April. However, Leonard Harding survived the war and long after, living to be ninety-one.
The Kent Messenger carried news in March 1917 of how one former Knole gardener had been injured on service at home. Driver William Smith of the Royal West Kents, son of Mrs Smith of Godden Green, had been badly injured by a kick in the face from a mule at Kennington, near Ashford. According to the paper, his teeth were knocked out and his face so badly cut that it had to be sewn up.
Later that year, in September 1917, it was reported in the ‘Our Boys’ column of the Sevenoaks Chronicle that Private John W Potter had made a surprise visit to his parents. Potter had worked with his father for five years in the Blacksmiths Forge at Knole and had joined the army in November 1916 aged 19. Putting his training to good use, he had been selected for ‘flying machines repair work’ and was employed in the Royal Naval Flying Corps workshops.
Charles Tye of Godden Green was another member of the Knole staff, who had been employed as a tradesman before joining the Royal West Kents. According to the Kent Messenger in August 1918, Private Tye had been in France for about fifteen months and his wife had just received word that he had sustained serious injuries to his shoulders, thigh and one of his legs, and was being treated in hospital.
Men from all parts of the Knole estate served during the war, some paying the ultimate price. The tribunal records also offer a fascinating glimpse of how Knole, its owners and their remaining staff were perceived. They, like others in the town and across the country, were required to make sacrifices.
Though the War Office had taken many of the men from Knole, it was overreaching itself when William Reynolds of Back Lane, Godden Green, received his enlistment papers. Reynolds had been in the army in his younger days and had seen service in India. However, aged 67, the Chronicle reported that ‘He treats the matter quite as a joke’.