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The Hemingfords in World War 1

4. The Children

Life for most children 100 years ago was hard. For many in the Hemingfords living conditions were poor. Houses were cold and damp and often poorly maintained. Overcrowding was common; one cottage in The Thorpe had parents and five children in one bedroom with only a wooden partition for privacy.

All children were entitled to free school education up to the age of 12 and some stayed later. During the war the Board of Education’s President, Mr. H A Fisher, visited many schools around the country and was determined to improve education. After the war the leaving age was raised to 14 with part time schooling for working 14 to 18 year olds.

The present Hemingford Grey School was opened in 1903 and, by 1914, was educating around 80 children. The Public Elementary School in Hemingford Abbots was very much smaller, bringing the total number of pupils in the two villages to about 100.

In Hemingford Grey the 1914 school year started well. Attendance was at 90% - very good considering the incidence of sickness amongst the children.

During 1914 a gas pipe was laid to the school improving the lighting though heating was still from solid fuel burning stoves. With the outbreak of war a drop in attendance was noted. Also, children of 11 years of age, shown to be employed on the land, were excused school to carry on the work of the men who had gone to the war. This relaxation was reversed in 1916 when it was discovered that Huntingdonshire was the only county taking 11 year olds out of school to work.

The children were very aware of the “far away” war, with relatives and other villagers away on the continent and refugees from Belgium in the village.

They would also have been aware of troop movements through local towns, the establishment of hospitals for the wounded and the saddening effect on village folk following bad news from the front.

Occasionally there was good war news - in June 1916 a half day school holiday was given to celebrate the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal to Sgt Fordham, an old boy of the Hemingford Grey School.

Children were encouraged to do their bit to help the war effort in any way they could. In March 1918 the children of Hemingford Grey “gave an entertainment in the school. Some 21 items were rendered by the tiny actors to a very large appreciative audience. Proceeds of £5.10s were handed over to the Red Cross Society”.

Later that year the school children themselves raised £1.11.8d (about £1.58) for the Blinded Soldiers Fund. This was a large sum of money for young children to raise in those days.

There was a shortage of food caused by the war. In 1915 Village War Food Societies were formed. The aim was to use vacant land to help with the shortage. Land was identified in the Hemingfords and a group formed to arrange working of the land by women and children. As well as growing vegetables some areas of land were suitable for keeping pigs, rabbits and poultry. Food produced was for home consumption and shared according to effort put in.

The absence of adult male influence in the villages may have led to an increase in petty crime amongst the young. In December 1914 three Hemingford Grey boys appeared before the Children’s Court accused of stealing a tin of biscuits worth one shilling (5p) and a box of chocolates worth sixpence (2½p) from shops in St Ives. All pleaded guilty, the eldest also pleading guilty to numerous previous thefts. He was sentenced to three weeks in the workhouse.

Pilfering continued throughout the war and boys caught were sent to the workhouse for a month. The master could flog them if they absconded.

The opportunity for youngsters to make some money, and help the war effort, came about in 1917 when the Board of Agriculture estimated that farmers were losing 10% of cereal crops to sparrows and rats. Bounty was offered to the tune of three pence (1p) per dozen old sparrows caught or killed; a penny per score of eggs or young sparrows. Children were permitted to get involved if supervised by a teacher. !!

Aiding the troops directly, however, was always voluntary work, readily undertaken. In 1917 the Women’s Section of the National Service Department asked children to collect wool caught in hedges and fencing to make blankets and clothing for soldiers and sailors. Lavender was also collected and sent in bags to the wounded abroad as a “scent of home”.

Some relief from the worries of the war arrived in October 1915 when a huge tent was seen being erected on the meadow.

The show sported a two-ring circus and speciality acts of the American west. Seat prices were from 3/- (15p) down to sixpence (2½p) with children at half price for the matinee.

While the village children were aware of the effect of war - the lack of men folk, shortage of food, the need to support the war effort - there was no invasion of their homeland, there were no enemy troops on the ground, no Zeppelins in the sky dropping bombs. Their lives were not in danger from the conflict. But they would know of the Belgian refugees living in the villages and know why those people had fled their own country. Most of all they would have experienced the sadness of knowing that many of the villages’ men would never come home.