A fascinating new exhibition in Settle captures the mood of people in North Craven in the early part of the Great War and highlights some of the stories. Chris Bond reports.
SOME are in uniform, while others are still dressed in their civvies. But most of them are clutching a mug of tea, or perhaps it’s something stronger.
The men are from the Settle district pictured at a training camp near Grimsby in October 1914. As with all photographs like this it’s the expressions on the faces that catch your eye.
But behind the grins is an interesting story, as Janette Talbot explains. “They were all Territorials and would have known each other from the drill hall and we know that two of them were teachers at Settle National School,” she says.
The picture refers to the “Lucky 13” although it isn’t known where this comes from. “In October 1914 they’re all still alive but we know that five of them didn’t come back.”
However, it is believed they may well have been part of Settle Cricket Club. “We think that some of these men were in the cricket team,” says Talbot.
Intriguingly there was scheduled to be a cricket match between Settle and Skipton in June 1915, and it appears that instead of being held in Yorkshire as usual, an impromptu game took place at the front.
“We hear about the Christmas Truce and the football match between the British and the Germans but we don’t hear about this cricket match on the Western Front surrounded by shell holes and dead animals, but there is an account of it in the West Yorkshire Pioneer.”
It’s a fascinating tale and one of many that is featured in War Beckons, an exhibition at The Folly in Settle, which is part of a wider Heritage Lottery-funded project entitled Craven and the First World War.
Talbot is one the volunteers at the museum who have helped do the research for the exhibition. “People in Craven responded very quickly following the announcement that we were at war,” she says.
Local men who joined the Territorials were given a rousing send- off and there are some wonderful old photographs that bring the story to life. “Station Road was absolutely crammed full of people who wanted to give the boys a great send-off. There were meetings and fund-raising events and as early as Christmas the women were knitting socks and scarves to send out to the troops.”
One man, in particular, helped rally the locals. Gilbert Tunstill was a councillor for the Settle electoral district and he set about galvanising people from the scattered rural communities.
“When he heard Kitchener’s call to arms he wanted to do something and sprang into action,” says Talbot. “He made an appeal to recruit 99 local men to volunteer for Kitchener’s Army and arranged lots of meetings across the district in Long Preston. Hellifield and Settle. He made rousing speeches and by the final meeting on September 19 he had gathered 87 men.”
Two days later a large crowd cheered them off from Settle Station. “There were was a dinner and a concert that weekend and they were given pies and cigars. They wrote a letter a few days later to the Craven Herald thanking people for all the gifts.”
Of those 87 who were cheered off to war it’s believed that 25, more than a quarter, were killed and this summer there has been a series of performances of a play called Tunstill’s Men, written and performed by staff and students at Aireville School, in Skipton.
The generosity of local people extended to foreigners, too, with support given to traumatised Belgian families forced to flee their country. “Lots of people were displaced and as early as October there were Belgians living in Settle and the surrounding area. They were very well supported by people, they were given rent free houses, the children were enrolled in local schools and they were welcomed into the community,” says Talbot.
“The first family arrived on October 8 and a family of 18, including children and grandparents, came here at the end of the month. We actually have a tape recording from 1987 of an old lady from Rathmell who remembers seeing the refugees. They were a family of ‘fisher people’ and she watched them mending their nets as a little girl. She also remembers them speaking in their own language which she thought was very funny.”
Britain’s war effort relied heavily on horses and it was a man from Settle – Major-General Sir W H Birkbeck – who masterminded the whole remount service across Britain and the colonies so that within two weeks of the outbreak of war, 116,000 horses were ready to be shipped to France.
“A census had been done as early as 1912 so that when war broke out it was known exactly how many horses there were in the country and where they all were.”
Among the photographs featured in the exhibition are several of horses being rounded up in Settle market place and offered for sale by local farmers. Horses, of course, suffered dreadfully during the war and very few of those that were sent abroad made it back home, although one that did was ‘Old Loplugs’ from Horton-in-Ribblesdale.
The story of Britain during the First World War tends to focus on the big towns and cities, but our rural communities had a crucial role to play, too, and the stories they have to tell are no less important.
• The ‘War Beckons’ exhibition at the Museum of North Craven Life, in Settle, runs until November 2. For more information call (015242) 51388.