War in the North East: Student as Researcher

Teesside University runs a Student as Researcher scheme which provides funding for students to undertake research alongside members of staff. In 2014 History at Teesside was given the opportunity to employ two third-year students to undertake archival research into the home front in the Tees Valley during the First World War. This work will form a significant part of the University’s community outreach activities during the centenary period.
Robert May reflects on the project.

I was thrilled when I received the call to inform me that I had been selected to undertake a research project for the university on Tees Valley and the Great War. My areas of study were, Food, Crime and Work, and my aim was to investigate how the War affected them in the local area.

After spending many hours researching the primary sources at Teesside Archives and local newspapers at Middlesbrough’s Reference Library, I discovered many changes that occurred as the war progressed and gained a far greater amount of knowledge not only on the local area, but on the homefront in general.

As the War progressed, the food supply rapidly decreased across Tees Valley (as was the case nationally) due to enemy attacks on the merchant ships that were heading for the Isles. The situation became so dire that the region introduced rationing in 1917. The Archives hold personal letters from local residents of the time, who described the struggle they and their families faced. The Archives also house Redcar and Thornaby allotment committee books, which identified the significant rise in allotments during the war and the urgency to find new land so residents could grow their own food (and keep pigs).

ration card

A rationing card for Middlesbrough courtesy of Teesside Archives.

The area saw a reduction in reported crime throughout the War. But interestingly, statistics show (from the Chief Constables yearly reports, which can also be found in the Archives) that crime was declining in the years prior to the conflict. However, despite the fall in the overall figure, which the Chief claimed was because many unsavoury men had left the area to fight, the level of Juvenile crime rose by more than 300%. He pointed to lack of discipline in the home and suggests that this was because of the absence (or in many cases the deaths) of the children’s fathers and neglect from their mothers. In addition, the allotment books highlight the rise in trespassing onto tenants’ land, which resulted in requests for higher, sturdier, and even barbed wire fencing. This indicates either that people were so hungry that they were prepared to steal or that the juveniles were causing mischief, or possibly both.

women workers
Image courtesy of Teesside Archives

Much of the work in the area was driven towards the war effort. Most noticeably was the influx of women into the local munitions factories and shipbuilders yards. Although the war saw women enter into the war industry, it would be incorrect to presume (as has been in the past) that this was the first time women had been mobilised into working, or more specifically ‘hard work’. Many working class women had been employed in heavy industry since the industrial revolution or worked in the domestic sphere. The local Gazette reported on the visit of the King and Queen to the various shipyards in the area in 1917, included are pictures of the Royals meeting women at their workplace.

I thoroughly enjoyed the project and am looking forward to participating in the dissemination of the research.

Robert May is currently undertaking an MA in History at Teesside University.

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