Even in the first months of the Great War, it had become apparent that the distribution of aid to wounded soldiers or prisoners-of-war, both by voluntary organisations and through official channels, was disorganised and inconsistent, with too much of certain items and too little of others being dispatched irregularly to too few soldiers or to too many. In response, in October 1915 the Government appointed Colonel Sir Edward Ward, a retired soldier and civil servant with considerable experience in military supplies, as Director-General of Voluntary Organisations, his brief being to coordinate and regulate the voluntary work already being undertaken.
One of the pre-extant organisations that now fell under Sir Edward’s oversight was the Canterbury and District War Work Depot. On 31 July 1915, Mrs. Margaret Mason published a notice in The Kentish Gazette to announce the establishment of a provisional committee to found a depot to centralise the hospital and other war work that others, including herself, had already undertaken personally. The Archbishop’s wife and the Mayoress had agreed to become patronesses and the depot would be supported by occasional donations, monthly subscriptions and house-to-house collections. A General Committee was set up, consisting at first of 65 ladies, along with several smaller sub-committees and an Executive Committee.
The Depot’s aims, as outlined in Mrs, Mason’s notice, were threefold: “1. To develop the work which has been carried on since the war began on behalf of the Hospitals, not only in Canterbury, but abroad … 2. To provide warm clothing for the Troops.” This amounted to supplying clothing, bedding and amusements to British soldiers in hospital or prisoners-of-war. The work was done mainly by the pupils of Canterbury schools, who made shirts, socks, mufflers, breeches, shirts, blankets and other supplies. Finally: “3. To make sandbags” for the defence of the Kentish coast.
The material and produce that the Depot would use or distribute should be obtained, as far as possible, from Canterbury and the surrounding area. No 26 St Margaret’s Street, was put at the Committee’s disposal by the Capital and Countries Bank, for use as a central depot and work room. A Surgical Department (which made bandages) was established in the School of Art and a Sandbag Department in the cathedral’s Chapter House.
Sir Edward did not interfere directly in the work of the organisations that fell under his supervision but rather encouraged them with the prestige conferred by his blessing. He issued certificates to those whose work met his standards and official War Office badges to their workers. (A file of applications for such badges is among the collections at the Archives.) He was kept abreast of what was needed by reports from the field and forwarded this information to voluntary bodies, so obviating the earlier imbalance in supplies. The bodies in turn reported on their own capacity, so that contributions could reflect ability. He also coordinated transport, so reducing costs and increasing efficiency all round.
The Archive contains documents that passed between the Director-General and the Depot (CCA-CC/U236). Some are formal documents, such as the hundreds of receipts from Sir Edward, informing the Depot that their bales have been received but there are also personal letters, in which Sir Edward conveyed news or requests. The Archives also has the minute books kept by the General Committee and sub-committees (CC/AJ21) but most affecting is the collection of personal letters (CC/W/16/5) from nurses, commandants and even soldiers in the field or in hospitals, thanking the Depot for the socks, bedding, books, games and other comforts that they have sent.
The Depot’s work did not end with the war. Anticipating Sir Edward Ward’s instructions, the Executive Committee met on 10 December 1918 and agreed to send surgical necessaries to France and Belgium for civilian use and to make garments for civilians “in the desolated countries”. Even after the closure of the Depot, the Executive Committee remained in existence until November 1919, disposing of its remaining assets towards charitable causes.
Written by James Lloyd
Published 23rd May 2014