Social historian Helen Kennett has undertaken exhaustive research into how the Diss area was affected by the First World War. The first in a series of articles tracking the conflict’s progression, looks at its build-up. Pictures are supplied by Diss historian Dennis Cross.
Diss in 1914 was a busy market town and there were few hints of the war that would follow before the year’s end.
There was a thriving market, Corn Hall and livestock market, as well as shops, hotels and factories which were serving the needs of the area.
As with today, market day was on a Friday. Situated on the busy main railway line between London and Norwich, Diss was already a commuter town.
Since the opening of the railway line there had been a great deal of new buildings along Victoria Road which led to the station, while St Marie’s Terrace was giving the town a taste of London style. Popular postcards of the time show Mere Street and the Market Place.
Looking at copies of the ‘Diss Express’ in the weeks and months leading up to the beginning of what was to be called ‘The War to End All Wars’, you had to read beyond the front page to pick up on any of its hints.
Local politics were beginning to affect the area in what would become a long-running matter and cause feelings to run very high and attract national and international attention.
New teachers, Tom and Annie Higdon, had been appointed as teachers at Burston School, with Mrs ‘Kitty’ Higdon as headteacher and her husband as assistant.
All went well at first, though there were murmurings about their efforts and attitude. Their approach to education and demands for improvement to the school for the benefit of the pupils did not sit well with the new Rector and some local farmers, and school managers who thought the Higdons were going beyond the terms of their appointment.
Some suggested that they be removed from the school and sent somewhere more genial.
Eventually the Higdons were given three month’s notice to quit the school following a meeting of the Education Committee in Norwich, on February 28, 1914, though no major fault had been found with them, except alleged discourtesy to the school managers.
On April 1 1914 the pupils of the school went on strike, led by Violet Potter, in protest at what was happening to the Higdons.
A new school was established for the pupils who had been withdrawn from the Council School. Set up by the Higdons, it was attended by most of the former Council School children.
The May 15 Diss Express reported that another group of parents whose children were now at the ‘Strike School’ were to be prosecuted for not sending their children to the Council School. It would eventually turn out to be the longest-running strike in English history.
By June everyone was enjoying a particularly good summer, though the unfortunate matter of ‘The Burston School Strike’ was still not resolved and was causing great distress.
Harvest time was approaching, the busiest time in the farming year, especially in what was a prime agricultural area.
The front pages of the Express in July 1914 were devoted to advertising, which was common with newspapers of the era. The adverts were encouraging local people to visit the garden fêtes and flower shows in Redgrave Park and the grounds of Scole House. The Band of the East Anglian Field Artillery were due to entertain visitors to Redgrave and further entertainment could be had in the evening courtesy of Diss Cinema Company.
The Eye Show was due to take place on August 3.
If you were planning a fête, garden party or picnic you could buy all manner of dish papers, Japanese serviettes and ham collars from Mr Abbott in Mere Street.
For those intending to take a holiday, holidaymakers could purchase their travelling bags, portmanteaux (luggage) and other travelling requisites at Henry Bobby’s shop in Diss’ Market Place. Perhaps some would holiday nearer home and take advantage of the ‘The People’s Holiday’ the 61st Annual Cheap trip from Diss to Yarmouth in July, by rail from Diss station.
Group bookings were encouraged: “Carriages can be reserved for Special Parties upon application to Messrs. Lusher Bros., of Mere Street”, for example. “N.B. In addition to its other numerous attractions, an Aviation Station has now been established at Yarmouth, and flying frequently takes place.” How apt in view of what was soon to come.
A short piece appeared in the June 19 issue, albeit on page 8, relating to the proposed air station at Pulham.
Admiralty had been secretly negotiating with local landowners and purchased a large acreage of land in Pulham.
This did not go down too well with the local people and questions were asked by the Parish Council. They were not sure if they approved of this move. Little did they know of the eventual importance of what became Pulham Royal Naval Air Service Station, later taken over by the newly formed Royal Air Force in 1918, and its role during two World Wars.
On July 3 the paper reported the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, on page six, well away from the lighter matters of garden fêtes on page one.
This is sometimes viewed as the cause of the war, but it was just the trigger. Britain had relied on its fleet and the power of the Navy in previous conflicts and still saw this as paramount in its defence. A piece appeared on July 24 relating to the ‘King and His Fleet’. ‘Nine miles of Warships at Spithead’, it said, and, ‘Super Dreadnoughts and Seaplanes’.
It said the fleet off Spithead (in the Solent, off the Hampshire coast) totalled nearly 500 vessels.
Diss, along with other Norfolk and Suffolk market towns, had well-established battalions of volunteer soldiers - the territorials.
The men from the Diss area served in ‘D’ Company of the 4th Volunteer Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Many men were also serving as regular soldiers, in India and in the Royal Navy, as well as military reservists.
The Norfolk and Suffolk Army Brigade, which included the Diss Territorials were encamped at Holkham Park, at Holkham in North Norfolk, in the week of the Naval Review.
The Government and the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey were becoming ever more concerned by the situation in Europe.
Two weeks later, on Friday August 4, 1914 the paper announced that the fleet and army had been mobilized on Monday that week. By 11pm on August 4, we were at war.
n NEXT TIME: The beginning of the war years.
n Got a story from the First World War? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Diss Express, Mere Street, Diss, Norfolk, IP22 4AE.
n This article is based on a forthcoming publication, ‘A Norfolk Market Town at War
– Diss 1914 – 1918, by Helen Kennett.