Stop 3. Conkers and Couriers: York Children in the First World War.

Stop in front of St Helen’s Church, and look at the next-door building, right on the corner of Stonegate.

During the First World War the narrow building next to St Helen’s Church now occupied by Crabtree and Evelyn was a toyshop known as Holgate and Sons.

In many areas of life, the outbreak of war called for austerity and money saving, however fortunately for children buying toys was considered to be a patriotic activity and was greatly encouraged across the country. Before 1914, the majority of toys sold in England had been manufactured in Germany. However once trading with Germany was banned, Britain began to produce its own toys on a larger scale, creating a boom in the domestic industry. Some of the most popular toys made in England and sold in shops like Holgate and Sons included a doll with three interchangeable porcelain heads and also a tiny lawn mower with real blades capable of cutting grass.

The importance of the toy industry at this time highlights how children in York and across the country, although seemingly a long way from violent conflict, were highly involved in the support and development of the First World War.

Collecting and playing with conkers is an activity that most people remember doing as a child. During the First World War however, collecting conkers was not thought of as a game but a serious task, vital to the war effort. In 1917 War Office notices appeared in classrooms and scout huts offering a seven shillings and six pence reward for every hundred weight collected by children, that’s about 38 pence. The conkers were then transported by train to chemical factories in the south of England and then used to make acetone, a vital component of the smokeless propellant used for shells and bullets known as cordite and in short supply as a result of the German U-Boat blockade in the Atlantic.

Children in York were reminded on a daily basis of the ongoing war. Seven schools were temporarily taken over by the armed forces for use as billeting posts, and others were continually requisitioned for other purposes. Scarcroft Road School, for example, was closed and used as a post office for some time whilst Haxby Road School was taken over by the military every evening after classes had finished. School life was thrown into upheaval as groups of children were transferred across the city whilst teachers were encouraged to enlist and school nurses moved to field hospitals. In December 1914, a number of teachers who had fled from Belgium joined the staff in local schools, bringing the European turbulence close to home. All over the city attendance rates slipped and many children were called away to help with the war effort outside of the classroom.

York Boy Scouts delivered messages for the War Office across the city and in July 1915,  in the absence of agricultural labourers, helped local farmers collect their harvest. Throughout the war, Yorkshire Scouts also guarded Eccup Reservoir and Headingly Water Supplies whilst others harvested flax at Bramham for use in making aircraft wings. Girl Guides delivered milk, tended allotments and packaged uniforms throughout the country whilst in Leeds children raised £33,000 of war funds through street collecting alone.

Military Sunday was one opportunity for children to show support for their parents in a public setting. Scouts marched through St Helen’s Square and up Stonegate towards the Minster. They were dressed in full uniform with flags raised and trumpets playing. After 28 days of helping with the war effort each boy was awarded a War Service badge and by December 1914, only 5 months after war had started, 50,000 badges had been handed out across Great Britain. Other children were presented with certificates for sending gifts to the soldiers and sailors on the front line. The number of badges and certificates given to children at this early stage of the First World War is a clear sign that young people undertook their new responsibilities with great enthusiasm and pride.

Stop 3. Conkers and Couriers: York Children in the First World War.


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