Stop 2. Recruitment and the Requisition of Public Buildings

The first location for this stop is in front of the Art Gallery. Once there, stand near the statue of William Etty so that you are facing the Art Gallery and listen to the ways in which this building was used during the war. If you are visiting this stop during gallery opening times, you should make your way to the Burton Gallery on the first floor and stand in front of the painting by Richard Jack, titled ‘Return to the Front – Victoria Station’.

During the war, York Art Gallery was requisitioned by the military authorities. The Central Hall and South Galleries were put to use as a headquarters for recruitment and postal services, as well as a YMCA for the troops.  It was even used to host tea parties for military wives and their families, so you can imagine that it was a real hub of wartime activity in the city. 

And so it was that men made their ways here, to the city’s art gallery, to enlist. 

Today we remember the outbreak of war as a great rush of jingoism: men hurrying to the recruitment stations and jumping on trains to the front, convinced that they’d be back for Christmas. At first, recruitment in general in the industrial north of England was lower than for the rest of the country. To many average working men, European politics must have seemed quite distant. Nevertheless, just days after Britain declared war on Germany, an article in the Yorkshire Gazette tells of an average of 200 men a day being signed up here in the city.

Although many men volunteered, there was also an air of trepidation and reluctance to leave families behind without support.  At that time, men were the breadwinners.  It was a hard decision to join the army and take a pay cut, at the same time as leaving a family behind with mouths to feed.

In order to encourage enlistment, the factories and employers of York agreed that they would continue to pay an enlisted man’s wage to his wife to ensure the upkeep of the families left behind. The York Corporation, The Rowntree’s Factory and Leetham’s Flour Mill on Walmgate were among the first to adopt this policy. Opinions were voiced at a citizens’ meeting in early August that this approach was not sustainable, that the money could not be found. But the overriding feeling was that if the men of the city had a duty to fight, then those figures of authority remaining in England had a duty to guarantee the welfare of their families. One councillor was recorded to have said that ‘the least they should do as citizens was to do the best possible service to the men who had responded to the call of the nation.’

As well as these wage measures, local newspapers played a significant role in encouraging enlistment.  Headlines in the Yorkshire Gazette, like ‘YORK’S ROLL OF HONOUR’, and ‘YORK HAS SENT HER THOUSANDS TO WAR’ were printed weekly, with lists of names and photographs of serving York men.  Often, pages were dedicated specifically to those men from the York Gas Company, or the Rowntree’s Factory. By showing employees the faces of their colleagues already in the fight the industries of York also encouraged support for the war, and in some cases, further enlistment. A local newspaper published a photograph of the building when it was being used for recruitment and as a post office of the staff assembled outside on these steps.  A mixture of men and women, servicemen and civilians, and even a little dog nestled between the ankles of one man. 

While all this was going on the gallery was still open to the public.  Needless to say its day to day running was put under a great deal of stress by the new occupants but, despite the urgency of the war, the Museums and Art Gallery Committee complained that their work was being compromised.  In 1916 The Yorkshire Herald reported that attendances were half that of the previous year, and the committee were unable to curate any new exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the Military had acquired access to the buildings through the support of the Head Curator at the time, a Mr George Kirby, later promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant for his endeavour. Kirby was both an active supporter of the military and a passionate patron of the arts, and it was under his guidance that the Exhibition Buildings would not only contribute directly to the war effort, but also continue to host public lectures almost as normal.

As early as October 1915, when the war had been underway for little over a year, Kirby himself had proposed that the matter of commemorating the men killed in battle should already be under consideration. Rather than stone monuments, he proposed majestic buildings for the advancement of the arts and sciences in York. This progressive vision is testament to a man who was well aware of the sacrifices made by young soldiers at the front, and sought to honour them by protecting and advancing the culture and society for which they had died.

War Correspondence

The Central Hall of the Exhibition Buildings was then requisitioned by the military for use as a post office and subsequently became the city’s point of access to the world, with thousands of letters and parcels sent to the front in France and Belgium, and further afield to every corner of the Empire.  One young man, George ‘Tot’ Simpson, from Bishopthorpe, who fought and was later killed in France, writes home in receipt of one of these parcels: ‘My Dear Sister, Sorry I have been so long in writing to you. I got the nice pork pie and did enjoy it. It took only three days to come!’

Another York man, a stretcher bearer in the campaigns in the Middle East, sends thanks for a parcel which has arrived in ‘good condition’ at Port Said on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The Christmas cake contained within it, he adds, ‘was more than acceptable.’

However, correspondence was not always a quick and easy matter, as there were heavy restrictions on the volume and content of letters from the front. More often than not, little could be revealed of an individual’s whereabouts to families and friends back home, for fear of the enemy intercepting details of troop movements. If such details were included, the letter would be heavily censored with thick black ink. At times the number of letters a soldier could send was restricted to just a couple per week; one York soldier complains that this not only limits contact with loved ones, but also hampers the important business correspondence in which many were engaging, a reminder that many of the soldiers fighting abroad were still negotiating their working lives back home in Britain.

The War would be an eye-opening encounter with the world for the young men and women of York, many of whom may not have left Yorkshire in their lives. As well as the many thousands stationed in France and Belgium, soldiers, engineers, medics and nurses from York are commemorated around the globe for their services in the War.

A number are buried in modern day Turkey and Iraq having lost their lives in the Gallipoli or Mesopotamian campaigns. Several are buried in sub-Saharan Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya, and as far West as Canada, and as far east as Singapore. The names of two men from York are engraved on India Gate, the prominent War memorial in the heart of the Indian Capital New Delhi, built by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the 90,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives fighting for the British Raj.

Of course, Sir Edwin Lutyens also designed the cenotaph and York’s own city war memorial on Leeman Road, and the North Eastern Railway War Memorial on Station Road.

One soldier, Captain C.E.W. Brayley writing from the Mesopotamian front in 1916, is at a loss for how to fit the rich diversity of the Allied Forces into a short letter: “I might tell you of hobnobbing with New Zealanders and Australians, of hanging round Indian camp fires for “chapattis”, of bartering with Greeks, of amusing conversations with French soldiers, of roving with Arabs [...] I might hold forth on sturdy Gurkhas and stately Sikhs, timid Maltese and majestic Maoris.”

This reminds us that the war was a global event, and buildings such as this Art Gallery where letters arrived and young men signed up became gateways to the world.

York and the Railway in the First World War

The painting that you see before you has been voted one of Yorkshire’s best loved, and it’s easy to see why.  Entitled Return to the Front, it was painted by Canadian war artist Richard Jack in 1917 and depicts the commotion of soldiers waiting to board a train at Victoria Station.  The busy scene is given a sense of realism by the dynamic interaction between the figures and is a poignant reminder of the humanity of the situation. In depicting this scene the artist also highlights the integral role of the railway during the war as well as reminding us of the distances travelled by soldiers.

Immediately after war was declared, the role of the railway in society changed. In York, the impact of this change was felt very strongly indeed considering that prior to the First World War the rail industry was York’s largest employer.

Within 24 hours of war being declared in Britain, control over the railway was seized by the Government’s Railways Executive Committee under the Regulation of the Forces Act 1871 and priorities shifted towards the transportation of troops, munitions, food and other resources, including horses.

Adjustments were speedily made to workshops, stations and trains to help the war effort, and York also did its bit: within just a few months, 25- ton goods vans had been converted into ambulance carriages and were stationed ready for action. Whilst the reallocation of resources resulted in some station closures elsewhere, York carried on, despite some disruption to passenger services.

The sheer volume of military traffic that passed through York demanded the opening of a new canteen in November 1915. Positioned on platform three, the soldier’s refreshment facility was staffed around the clock by volunteers from the local Women’s Temperance Association, so that even soldiers travelling by night could be given a cup of tea when they arrived.

Many of the workers in the railway industry in York also felt the call of duty and by the end of August 1914, nearly 5,000 employees of the North Eastern Railway had enlisted: one tenth of the company’s entire staff. It became apparent that many men preferred to enlist among those they knew so an application was made to Lord Kitchener for permission to enrol a battalion of North Eastern Railway soldiers.

Recruitment commenced the following September at both the York and Newcastle Railway Institutes. Once formed, the battalion was attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers.  One of the soldiers recorded his experience in an article published in the North Eastern Railway magazine, likening the sensation to that of leaving school, or the first day of work.

 With such a large section of the workforce having been deployed the responsibility fell upon those that remained in York to fill the unoccupied posts.  Due to the shortage of men, York women were now encouraged to work within this formerly male-dominated industry.

The new female recruits were usually assigned to less physically-demanding tasks, working, for instance, as clerks and ticket-inspectors.  However, the increasing necessity brought on by the war was beginning to break down former social barriers and new opportunities opened up for women in the rail industry. On the 20th December 1917, North Eastern Railway inaugurated its very first team of policewomen, based in York.

The devastating effects of the war for the railway community is epitomised by the North Eastern Railway memorial on Station Road and the roll of honour kept in the National Railway Museum. Originally intended to honour those who had gone to war, the list ultimately recorded the names of those who did not return.

The pressures of the First World War inevitably placed new demands on York’s railway, and the strain of adhering to the demands of the war office caused the railway operators to place increasingly harsh travel restrictions on passenger services.  Yet despite this, civilians were undeterred, and passenger traffic even reached record numbers during the holiday seasons of 1915. It is worth remembering that, beyond being a facilitator for military logistics, the railway in York also functioned to provide continuity and relief to regular citizens at a time of great unrest.

Stop 2. Recruitment and the Requisition of Public Buildings


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