Shropshire Archives has a unique collection of newsletters that offer an insight into one small community’s response to the First World War. It was compiled by the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Dawley Baptist Chapel as a means of sharing news from home with local men who were serving overseas. Today it would probably have been a Facebook page.
At their Tuesday evening meetings it became the practice to read out letters which had been sent home by members of the chapel who were serving abroad. The Wellington Journal reported on one of these meetings in April 1915.
Wellington Journal 17 Apr 1915 [p10]
A large audience gathered in the Baptist Schoolroom on Tuesday, when the Rev. A. Lester presided. A short address on her visit to Jerusalem was given by Miss.Alice Smith, but the feature of the meeting was the reading of a series of letters from local soldiers now in France, most of whom in former days had some connection with the Chapel. Each letter had of course been censored, but many interesting details were allowed to come through.
At the close of the meeting it was resolved to extend the organisation so that every soldier from Dawley district as soon as he crossed the Channel would receive each week some small reminder that he not forgotten by the folks at home.
First known as the Weekly Report, this newsletter began in the autumn of 1915. It was sold for a penny at the weekly meetings on the understanding that it would be forwarded on to serving soldiers. Copies were also posted directly to soldiers and postage was a considerable expense. A postage fund was established and appeals for donations were often made.
We used 105 Penny Stamps last Tuesday in sending copies of this little paper to soldiers to whom no one else would be sending, and we have only received 6 stamps during the week. Please do not allow us to become bankrupt! The amount of money placed in the box at the door on a Tuesday had been too small of late. Next Tuesday therefore we shall take a collection from seat to seat for the Postage Fund at the special Musical Evening. 4 April 1916
The contact with home was greatly appreciated by the soldiers and many wrote back with their thanks. This letter from Private Jack Williams of Old Park, on October 9th 1915, is typical
”We are pleased to get your letters, as while in the trenches it is the only thing that keeps us going .We are at present on an old farm about 2 miles behind the firing line. The Germans blew us out of the first line, but only for a few hours, for as soon as it got dark we were ordered to get over the top and take the trench that we lost, the best side had it and it was the 1st Shropshire`s. When the shells are coming we are like a lot of rabbits. One man will shout “Get under the Gamekeeper is coming”. I have had about 10 months of it now, and am getting very tired of it now”.
The newsletter also let soldiers know of news of old friends on active service. Bombardier R. Harley wrote: –
“Thank you for the “W.R”, which I keep receiving – I can assure you your idea is a very good one as it keeps Dawley boys in touch with each other. I should like to meet one or two of the men whose letters you publish from time to time. I am glad to see Pte. W. Ewings is following in his father`s footsteps, he could not do better. I hope Dawley will keep up its good record, which I think is excellent for a town of its size!”
Its circulation quickly grew and eventually about 250 copies were produced each week. Copies were passed around trenches, ships and hospital wards and its reach extended far beyond the original congregation. Pte. J. W. Price of the Cameron Highlanders wrote from Sherwardine Hall, Market Drayton, “Before I left the Hospital I was showing the Night Sister the “Report” and she asked me if I would mind sending them to her to read. I said “with pleasure” and when she brought them back she said she had a good laugh over them. They went all round the Hospital – I think they have been through about a hundred hands….. 25 July 1916
Each issue was illustrated with lively sketches and soldiers were encouraged to make their own contributions.
Pte. H Pugh writes from France. I wrote home and told them all about the “Weekly Report” and now get it every week. I think it’s a jolly decent paper, and very interesting. The sketches are great. You ask for some sketches from us but I`m no hand at that class of work. If I were I could send you some fine ruins. 4 April 1916
We often hear about the wonderful rats in and out of the trenches in France and Belgium. One or two men have written saying they are as big as cats or bigger!. In a local barbers shop the other day a returned soldier was showing a catapult with which he said he had killed scores. In last week`s “W.R.” a soldier said though the trenches were a rat-warren yet he couldn`t draw” one- because he hadn`t got any cheese!. We suggest you should capture one of these immense creatures and ride home on him bringing, of course, your letter for the “W.R.”!
The artists and editorial team behind the Weekly Report are never named. However, when in the summer of 1916, the volunteers took some weeks off, an editorial did mention many of the helpers and summarised the work of the group.
1 Aug 1916
When this wheeled pen is put down this week “the powers that be” insist that it is not to be taken up again for at least a month or longer. In this issue, therefore, we are appealing to all our friends to take up our work for themselves by writing to the men whose names and addresses are given in this number of our little paper. Is there anyone who will refuse to do this during the month of August?
We have nearly 250 names on our list now and other names ought to be added. We have not been able to give the addresses of all these men – we have no room – but we have made a selection. We beg soldiers on active service to write to their old pals. We ask men and women at home who have allowed us to write their letters to soldiers, to take up the pen and drop a line to at least half-a-dozen fellows.
Here are the names and addresses of Dawley men who are prisoners of war in Germany and Holland. As “W.R`s” cannot be sent to Germany, and only censored copies to Holland, please write to them. (No stamp is required. Write only two pages and leave envelope unsealed).
At the outbreak of war now nearly two years ago, our Men`s and Women`s Meeting was merged into one, and practically all the energies of the meeting devoted to work for Dawley soldiers out of this country. The second year which is now closing, has been fairly successful and we appreciate the help which has been rendered by many friends. First and foremost comes the name of Mr. F. T. Wooding, who has had charge of the Register of Soldiers, has seen to the despatch of all the parcels and for the preparation of (lately) nearly 200 envelopes for the letters, etc, each week. Miss. May Rowe has given valuable clerical help to Mr. Wooding. Mrs. Lavender, Miss. Breeze and Miss. Walker have acted as treasurers to various funds.
The meetings have been well attended and we express our thanks to scores of people who have assisted us in them. Messrs. C. H. Taylor, E. Brookes, H. Chilton, J. Tranter, and C. Tranter and several lady friends have done good service.
The “Weekly Report” during the year has become an important branch of our service. The first number was issued on Sept: 28th – just a reproduction of soldiers letters, the demand for it has grown steadily until we are now producing 200 copies a week. Many people buy them at the meeting and after reading them, post them in our envelopes to soldiers. Where soldiers are not likely to get a copy we send them direct- sometimes we have to send 100 and more. In the sales and posting we are indebted to Mrs. H. Chilton, Mrs. Roberts, Miss. Bill, Miss. Roberts, and others.
The work of preparing the “W.R.” is considerable – no matter how quickly the reader worked, he or she could not do it with less than 20-24 hours each week! We have used up about 10,000 sheets of paper – which means that 40,000 pages have had to be printed with a hand- roller. We wish some good friends would give or lend us a machine until the close of war so that we could produce up to say 500 copies a week. We shall need them.
When you write you need not use pen with a wheel on the tip as we have to in producing the W.R. Do you notice all our lines and curves are little dots? The teeth of the wheel cut little holes in a stencil sheet from which 200 copies are made.
The remarkable effort of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood was appreciated at the time but this collection of papers will continue to be of interest to researchers of local and social history, and family historians. The archive volunteers who have worked on this collection have been fascinated and moved by the stories contained. Not all the editions have survived but there is a good run for 1916 and 1917, a full list and transcripts will soon be available on the Shropshire Archives online catalogue under the collection ref. NO6965, https://www.shropshirearchives.org.uk/