The Peterborough Women’s United Total Abstinence Council existed to promote abstinence from alcohol at a time when drink-fuelled domestic violence was a major problem in Britain. The country was at war, and the cathedral city of Peterborough, seventy-five miles north of London was then, and is now, an important rail hub for trains travelling between the capital and the North of England and Scotland.
Peterborough East station is no more, it was closed in 1966 but in 1916, it was bustling, and was frequented by soldiers – either on their way to war or returning home after being wounded. The men often had to wait in the station to change trains and in an attempt to stop them drinking alcohol the Women’s United Total Abstinence Council operated a small refreshment room serving tea and food, staffed by female volunteers.
The women placed visitor’s books in the room so that passengers could record their visit, and many of the soldiers did so. These were young men, leaving home – often for the first time in their lives – to go and fight in a foreign land, and no doubt most of them were experiencing a mixture of emotions.
From the outbreak of war, in August 1914, to December 1915 all army recruits were volunteers. By 1915, almost one million men had joined the army, but casualty figures were enormous and by the end of that year, there was a serious shortage. Conscription was introduced in March 1916, and the men visiting the Peterborough station were the result of that unpopular policy.
The books in which they left messages have survived, and recently a team of researchers from the Peterborough city archive department has worked through the books, looking into the backgrounds of some of the men who recorded their names.
The result is a fascinating glimpse into a time that is long gone but not forgotten. Many of the soldiers never returned home, and for their living relatives the brief – sometimes humorous – jottings, written while men waited for trains, are a poignant reminder of young men who died fighting for their country.
At that time, soldiers in combat were dying at the rate of 6000 a day, and the thoughts that must have been in the minds of many of his comrades as they waited for their train is this message, left by one of the young conscripts: –
“Oldham is My Dwelling Place, and Christ is my Salvation. When I am Dead and in my Grave and all my Bones are Rotten You will find upon my Stone That I am not Forgotten.”
The guestbook has now been transcribed by a team of staff and volunteers at Vivacity and is available to view at PeterboroughWW1.co.uk
Image courtesy of PeterboroughWW1.co.uk