Few lives were left unchanged by the First World War. We remember those who served but, as my last blog suggested, history has neglected those whose wartime roles were rather less defined than those of the soldiers and key workers whose labour so obviously helped the nation in its hour of need. This piece looks at the situation facing a mother of seven young children left to cope with the family business when her husband signed up for the Army in September 1914. In this family’s life, there was undoubtedly great change but the study shines light on the continuous work of a wife and mother – in this case, my great grandmother, Amy, who had little choice but to try to keep all the plates spinning, even when tragedy struck at the heart of her family’s life.

Amy’s story

In 1914, Amy and John were the tenants of a fish shop in an area to the west of Putney High Street and a few minutes’ walk away from the Thames.  Putney, in the London borough of Wandsworth, was an attractive district for the expanding middle classes, able to reach their businesses in the city with ease, due to good railway links. Yet, as Charles Booth had confirmed a few years earlier, it was also an area in which both the very rich and the very poor lived in close proximity. The street in which Amy and John lived – Quill Lane – was one of several comprising working class housing which was surrounded by larger, more affluent households. The small workmen’s cottages that made up their street were largely flats or subdivided houses where families depended upon the wages of, for example,  labourers, painters and decorators, coach drivers, horse dealers, billposters, charwomen, domestic servants and sick nurses. The fishmongers’ was not the only shop or commercial business on their street; its neighbours included a grocer, greengrocer, an umbrella maker, a boot maker, a confectioner and a rag merchant.

sheet10Amy and John’s shop was in Quill Lane, north of the railway line  and Chelverton Road and west of Putney High Street. Charles Booth Online Archive @London School of Economics and Political Science. https://booth.lse.ac.uk/learn-more/download-maps/sheet10

A year after John’s return in 1901 from a 14 year stint in the British Army, he married Amy and, by 1914, they had seven children, aged between 11 and two. Amy was born in Brighton but had, as a very young woman, come to London to work as a servant. John was born in Putney and it was here that they settled. Both John’s father and older brother were – variously – local fishmongers, general dealers and greengrocers and, possibly, it was to them that John turned for business advice when he resumed civilian life.

The earliest record of the shop appears in 1909 trade directories where it is listed as a fishmonger’s. At some point – perhaps from the outset – as well as selling wet fish, the shop provided home smoked fish as well as fish and chips. John Walton’s excellent study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, shows that by the early 20th century there were perhaps as many as 1200 fish and chip shops in London and the trade became increasingly more important as the fishing industry developed and expanded.[1] Panikos Panayi, in the equally impressive Fish and Chips: A History, reckons that on the eve of the War, perhaps up to 20 per cent of all fish caught by British trawlers and ten per cent of British potatoes went to the fish and chip trade.[2]

One of the advantages of running a wet and cooked fish shop was that anything that remained unsold during the day could be fried in the evening, thus reducing waste but also allowing the fishmonger to spend less at the market by buying some cheaper fish for fried suppers. John and Amy’s shop came with stabling for the horse needed to collect fish daily from Billingsgate Market and, as well as the cart, they had a barrow used to hawk fish around the streets of Putney. In this way, all bases were covered; fish and chips provided nutritious and affordable suppers for the working class families living nearby and the barrow facilitated the selling of fresh fish to the better off.

Billingsgate_Fish_Market._ILN_1876Billingsgate Fish Market, Illustrated London News, 1876. Public domain image http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:Billingsgate_Fish_Market.ILN_1876.jpg

Although it was generally a man’s name over the door of the shop, there is no doubt that women were heavily relied upon to ensure the success of local retail businesses. As Elizabeth Roberts notes, the work (paid or otherwise) of millions of married women went largely unrecorded by census enumerators. Sure enough, no occupation is listed for Amy, then a mother of six, in the 1911 census, yet that small shop in Putney could not have survived without her labour, or that of the general servant who is also listed as sharing the family’s accommodation above the shop (the story of the servant, Georgina, whose life appears to have been spent in and out of London workhouses is one that I will endeavour to tell at a later date). John travelled daily for fish, potatoes and supplies such as frying oil and fuel and hawked fish around the streets. In the shop, the frying of fish was generally regarded as man’s work but Amy and Georgina – although there is no evidence beyond the 1911 census of how long the servant was employed for – would clean the shop, prepare the fish for smoking and frying, wash and peel the potatoes, open up to start trading and serve customers. Hours were long, from the four am trek to Billingsgate to closing up after the pubs were shut, around midnight. In addition, the daily needs of the family were – of course – Amy’s responsibilities.

John signed up for Army service on September 8th 1914. The first two weeks of that month saw record numbers of men enlisting across the country, more in total than had registered during the whole of the preceding month. By the end of August, almost 35,000 men had enlisted in London alone, followed by 21, 870 in the first week of September. The peak day for London recruitment was September 9th when 4,833 men joined up.[3] Recruits had to be between 18 and 38 but the upper age limit was extended to 45 for those who had previously served in the Army; John was 45 and although 13 years had lapsed since his discharge, he was accepted into the Queens Regiment.

Several reasons for the September spike in recruitment have been considered by historians. It came after news of the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force and heavy casualties at the Battle of Mons and it is thought that this may have prompted men to offer their services to the country, including many who had previously been torn between public and family duty.[4] The authorities were also becoming more organised by September; the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee allowed the War Office easier access to local networks through which leaflets and posters could be distributed.[5] In addition, considerable social pressures were brought to bear on men to persuade them to enlist; aged 45, John might have resisted these but perhaps felt bound to offer the experience gained in his former years of service to his country in its hour of need. Not that he had a particularly distinguished military record; in his first four years, from 1887, he was twice convicted of desertion and petty misdemeanours before finally being sent on tours abroad until his discharge, remaining a private for his entire service. Yet he was just 18 when he had joined up and 14 years is a long time in a young man’s life; perhaps he settled down and made the best of what the Army could offer and believed, at the start of the War, that it was now his duty to return. His wartime service appears to have been much steadier; his conduct was noted as good and he was a sergeant by the time he left.

There were also many, less patriotic reasons why men decided to join up. Interruptions in trade caused unemployment levels to rise steeply at the start of the war, which in turn adversely affected local trade and, with a large family to feed, perhaps John considered that the Army would at least provide a regular wage as well as the separation allowance payable to Amy and the children.

Until he came home over two years later, declared unfit for further duty (he had not been posted abroad and was likely to have been involved in training younger men), Amy, it would appear, had little choice but to keep the home fires burning and the fish shop pans hot. Aside from the shock of sudden separation (whether this caused sadness or otherwise), the wives of those who enlisted were left to continue with lives in which they were expected to carry on as normal and do so with an uncomplaining sense of patriotic duty and pride in those who had gone to war. Running the household with skill and a firm hand was nothing new for millions of women; Elizabeth Roberts writes of women’s heroic efforts to balance the family budget, avoid debt and stretch income as far as it could possibly go by acquiring expertise in where to shop and how to get the best deals.[6] In wartime, as we see in Annie’s story, this still had to be done during times of acute food shortages, rationing, price rises and all in the knowledge that even after the Army separation allowance had come through, there was, for many families, still a reduction in the money coming into the house and a shortfall to try to make good.

Before the War, Amy’s unpaid labour in the shop undoubtedly helped keep the business afloat.  Now, everything depended on her. There is no hard evidence that she did keep the shop open while her husband was away but simply closing up when you were paying rent and rates made no sense at all and this shop remained the family business until the eve of the Second World War. Many of those who did give up their businesses to go away to war were never again able to afford to buy them back in the post war years when landlords demanded much higher prices.[7] Those who had worked to establish their trade before the War thus relied on those left behind to keep things going. This was no mean feat if you also had seven young children. I don’t know whether Amy employed someone to go to market in the early morning but I do hope so: I don’t like to think of her having to manage to run both family and shop in addition to undertaking the daily trek for fish and potatoes. Whoever it was who did go, however, had to be astute and sharp elbowed; all foodstuffs essential to the trade were at times in very short supply and fishmongers and fryers could not afford to be choosy. As the war went on, previously unpopular fish such as catfish (Walton writes that it was sold as the rather more appetising sounding ‘Scottish hake’) and dark-coloured coalfish were used more and more in the frying trade. The price of fish, like most foodstuffs rose steeply, yet customers somehow expected that their local shop should show them loyalty and keep prices at pre-war levels (typically this was a penny for fish and either a penny or sixpence for the chips). It was a difficult balancing act for shopkeepers who relied on their neighbours for trade but needed to run at a profit or at least break even.[8]

Towards the end of the war came some much needed state support as the government recognised the vital place of fish and chips in the diets of the nation’s workers. Not only did they make a cheap, nutritious meal but they saved households from using more fuel than they needed (or could afford) and were of great help to those working long shifts in the munitions factories, unable to queue for scarce food stuffs and often too exhausted to contemplate going home to cook for the family. In January 1918 the press reported that the government had stepped in to ensure the continuance of the trade by taking control of all the country’s oils and fats. It secured a supply of Egyptian cotton seed and a blended mixture of oils was available to fryers, who were nevertheless warned to exercise the greatest economy in its use.[9]

John Walton refers to suggestions that as a result of the wartime importance of the trade, the overall status of the industry was raised and that, in the post war world, it gained a wider respectability, becoming more than just a back street trade. For the wartime shopkeeper, one of the few benefits came with the imposition of shortened opening hours; 10.30 in the evening became standard and as pub licencing hours were also restricted, passing trade was not being missed and Amy could, in theory, get more sleep.

By 1918, Amy’s eldest three children were 15, 13 and 11. Although the school leaving age was 14 (13 in some instances), President of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher, calculated in 1917 that up to that point, around 600,000 children had left school prematurely in order to ease the strain in families where earnings had been reduced because of the War.[10] Local authorities wanted the Board of Education to temporarily suspend the by-laws governing school attendance in order to be able to support families trying to make ends meet. There is a good chance that Amy’s children helped in the shop even if they were able to remain at school, for example, peeling and chipping potatoes, serving or even selling from the barrow (legally children had to be 12 in order to do this, so only the two eldest could – in theory – do this).

The eldest child in the family was a girl. In common with many girls in working class families, her school attendance record was quite possibly worse than that of her brothers. Girls were expected to take on domestic duties and child care within families whenever needed and in Amy’s family, whether or not the servant remained throughout the war, a crisis occurred that would have been even harder to endure without the help of a daughter.

Since the turn of the century, public health in Britain had shown signs of improvement. The pre-war Liberal welfare reforms empowered local authorities to provide free school meals and medicals. On the eve of war, infant mortality rates were, on average, lower than they had been a decade earlier and the death rate from the commonest childhood diseases was also reduced. Of course, whilst anyone was at risk from scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis, the chances of contracting these remained stubbornly higher in densely populated areas where overcrowding was common. Poor housing added to the risk of so-called ‘filth’ diseases (such as diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid); where children played in yards with privies shared by many families and where waste lingered, dangers, particularly in warm weather, lurked everywhere. Every family dreaded the appearance of illnesses that, thanks to vaccination programmes, are now, in Britain, either eradicated or less likely to result in epidemics. In the spring of 1915, three year old Nelly, Amy and John’s youngest child, died in a fever hospital in Tooting from measles and diphtheria.

According to the Wandsworth Medical Officer of Health Report for 1915, both diseases were more prevalent than they had been in the preceding years. Because the compulsory notification of measles did not begin until 1916, Medical Officers had to rely on schools to report suspected cases, which then allowed visits to affected households. In Putney in 1915, all of the 165 cases notified in this way came from Hotham Road Elementary School. Opened in 1909, this Council school was the closest to the fish shop and was certainly attended by my grandfather, James, Amy and John’s fourth child. From 1911, a pamphlet was left at every house in the borough after a school notification, advising of symptoms. Measles was most infectious in its early stages but this was before the rash appeared and so parents needed to be on the alert if coughing, sneezing and redness of the eyes occurred. All infected children were required to stay off school for four weeks after the rash came out and their houses were disinfected.

Measles was (and remains) a dangerous disease with risks of complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia and – in Nelly’s case – diphtheria. Such complications were more likely to occur in those under five or over 20. In Wandsworth in 1915, there were 152 deaths from measles (compared with 26 in 1914) and of these, 88 per cent of the deaths occurred in children under the age of five. Measles’ complications often came on very quickly and Nelly’s removal to the fever hospital is likely to have occurred when diphtheria struck. Treatment for the so-called ‘strangling angel’ bacterial infection which attacked the throat, making swallowing and breathing very difficult, needed to be swift in order to save the patient’s life. As with measles, Wandsworth saw an increase in the number of diphtheria cases during 1915, with 89 per cent of these removed from the home to isolation or fever wards.

Accounts of morbidity and mortality rates, of notices from schools and reports of home visits to educate parents about symptoms all serve to remind us of the dangers posed by diseases now controlled or eradicated in Britain by mass vaccination programmes (from the late 1940s for diphtheria and the mid – 1960s for measles) but they tell us nothing about the agony of loss. Amy had to care for her family alone, keep the business going amidst the strains of war, all the while grieving for her daughter. I hope that John was granted compassionate leave to return home to be with his family and I hope also that the local community was tightly knit enough to support them and offer what practical help it could. I don’t write this in a gush of sentimentality but as a historian, conscious of just how much of the past is sanitised by statistics. They are, of course, of vital importance but wherever possible they need the addition of details and stories to give them deeper meaning.

The experience of motherhood, whatever else is going on in the world, however great the dislocation and upheaval, is always unique and personal and this one account of a working class British woman shows that not only did war have an immense impact on her life, she also had to deal with hardships that were all too common in family life and which the histories of war have obscured.


Amy and her son James next to the shop in the late 1920s. Her husband died soon after this photo was taken and the business continued with the help of her children until the late 30s. Amy spent her final years in a Putney almshouse.
[1] Great War London: London and Londoners in the First World War https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/
[2] As above, https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/the-1914-recruiting-boom/
[3] For more details see British Library  https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/daddy-what-did-you-do-in-great-war
[4] Elizabeth Roberts, Women’s Work 1840-1940,CUP, 1988, pp42-3
[5] See Walton, pp30-2
[6] Much of this information comes from Walton’s book. It is a valuable social and economic history study – do read if you can.
[7] Gloucester Journal, 19 January 1918; see also Walton
[8] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, 2nd edition, 1991, Macmillan Press, p 156
[9] John K Walton, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class 1870-1940, LUP, 1992
[10] Panikos Panayi, Fish and Chips: A History, Reaktion Books, 2014

see also Medical Officer Of Health Reports, Wandsworth, https://wellcomelibrary.org/moh/browse-normalised/Wandsworth

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