A look back on Hackney during the First World War
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
Hackney has always been a frequently transforming face of London’s East End but it was unrecognisable as the place it is today before the First World War.
Historians describe a bourgeois paradise in the 18th century, with coffeehouses and bowling greens – a playground for the East India Company elite.
The rapid industrialisation of the Victorian period saw a population surge of an estimated 200,000 as well as factories, canals and railways created.
By 1845 Hackney had a thriving German immigrant population as well as Jewish migrants who sought sanctuary from social tensions in Eastern Europe.
But when the First World War broke out in August 1914, it set off a series of events that were to change Hackney for ever and see many of its lives lost.
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Indeed, the first bomb of World War One to fall from a zeppelin in London landed in the garden of The Nevill Arms Pub in Nevill Road, Stoke Newington, in May 1915 – a plaque marks the spot today.
In an outward display of local patriotism, a street shrine appeared in Palace Road, South Hackney, with a roll of honour of its soldiers framed by flags and ribbons alongside portraits of royalty and military leaders – a tale so poignant it even drew a visit from Queen Mary in August 1916. By then, 111 men from 77 houses in the road – which no longer exists today after being ravaged by bombs in the Second World War – are thought to have joined up and a number had inevitably fallen in the line of duty.
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Similar tributes, the idea of the rector at St John of Jerusalem, were also established in nine nearby roads including Balcorne Street, Havelock Road, Frampton Park Road and Eaton Place.
The Queen bought posies to lay beside each roll of honour and spoke words of sympathy to those who had lost loved ones including a widow in Balcorne Street to whom she handed a bunch of roses.
Aside from grief and the tough living conditions, concerns elsewhere included a German Hospital, in Dalston – opened in 1864 to treat immigrants – which inspired two visits by Florence Nightingale for its quality of care.
But, as reported by the Hackney Gazette at the time, the hospital remained open throughout the war, despite increasing anti-German sentiment.
On August 14, 1914 the Gazette also reported that Hackney Infirmary, in Homerton High Street, would donate 100 beds to soldiers until the end of November, then reduce the beds to 20. This reinforces the idea the war was expected to be over by Christmas.
Readers also avidly followed Reverend MJ Austin’s story. An article from August 19 states the vicar, of St Michael and All Angels church, Stoke Newington Common, had been visiting mud baths in Karlsbad, Germany before war broke out and he was trapped there.
The newspaper told on August 28 how the vicar had entrusted an American lady who was allowed to travel to England with a letter to inform those at home of his plight.
By early September the Hackney Gazette gave space to more and more stories about deaths and anti German sentiment. A German cabinet maker called Wilhelm Greyer, 48, of Farleigh Road was charged with being an alien despite having lived in England for 26 years.
He was criticised for keeping 15 homing pigeons but let off after “there had been no sign they had been flown.”
And archives show a German bakery was raided in 1917 after more bombs were dropped.
The Gazette reports on September 7 that a minister’s wife, Ann Welsh, threw herself in front of a train at Finsbury Park station, though the driver stopped in time.
Her husband, Reverend William Samuel Welsh, said his wife’s actions were astonishing: “He could only think that she had been affected by the fact that several of the young men connected with the church had gone to the front.”
Copies of the newspapers are available to look at in the Hackney Archives in the Dalston CLR Library, Dalston Lane.