Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 many local men volunteered for the armed services. They were sent to France and other areas.
Reservists were called up and men from Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire joined the Bedfordshire Regiment, later renamed the Beds. And Herts. Regiment.
The rush to enlist was slower than expected so newspaper editors in 1914 and 1915 carried advertisements stating that the 5th Beds. needed recruits urgently.
There were also requests for ‘well educated men’ to join the East Anglian Cyclists Battalion. Several men from St Neots and Eynesbury joined this oddly named body and were stationed for most of the war at Skegness on the Yorkshire coast. Their duties included patrolling the coast between Scarborough and Hornsea to keep a look out for possible invaders.
Although the Hunts. Cyclists were issued with ten cars in 1915, the rank and file continued to patrol on their 615 bicycles. They were never much in the public eye and were reputedly known in the Scarborough area as ‘John Bull’s Lost Regiment’.
As time progressed there was increasing pressure on men to enlist. Women whose fathers, brothers or uncles were fighting in the war used to give white feathers, to represent cowardice, to the men who stayed behind.
Those men seeking exemption from military service had to appear before a tribunal. In the St Neots Advertiser of 1915 was a paragraph stating that ‘William Nicholson asks us to say that the only reason he has not joined the Army is because he has varicose veins.’
Agricultural labourers were usually given exemption but many joined up, creating a shortage of labour for local farmers. In the late summer of 1915 a number of soldiers were released from duties to help farmers get the harvest in. Schools delayed re-opening after the summer holidays so that schoolchildren could help in the fields.
Soldiers from other parts of the country were stationed in St Neots during the war. An artillery unit made the town its base and stored its large guns in a field to the north of the town near the grounds of Priory Hill House. For many years this was known as ‘The Gun Park’ or ‘Artillery Field’. Bad weather threatened to bog the gun wheels down in the mud so they were transferred to the Market Square. What happened during market days on Thursdays is not recorded.
The war years reduced the number of traffic offences, perhaps due to the number of vehicles that were requisitioned, taken by the government for the ‘war effort’. The number of thefts increased. Most of these involved thefts of food or livestock which suggested that local people were suffering from shortage of provisions.
Minor crimes such as assault and poaching remained at the usual level but a slight increase in juvenile crime was reported, perhaps due to the absence of a father’s restraining hand. Most of the youngsters’ crimes would be considered minor by today’s standards – playing football in the street or scrumping apples. – although there were also a few cases of more serious theft.
Local residents supported the armed forces in many ways. Ladies knitted items for soldiers in the trenches such as scarves, gloves and socks. Events were organised to raise money for other comforts. At Eaton Socon Mrs Butler’s house became a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Many local women took over jobs which had previously been done by the men.
The Pavilion Cinema opened during the war in the Corn Exchange at the corner of South Street. A large screen was erected on the stage and a projector set up. A few short films were shown as well as live entertainment.
The end of the war in 1918 was celebrated with street parties and a procession.
War memorials were erected later to commemorate the local men who had given their lives fighting for their country. St Neots’ is in a small garden in the churchyard. Eynesbury’s is on the wall of the church and Eaton Socon’s is on a column on the Green.
Life was never to return to the pre-war style. The social climate had changed forever.
The large numbers of men killed or injured during the 1914 – 1918 war left many widows, orphans and disabled.
Those who had previously worked in domestic service (‘below stairs’) had enjoyed much more interesting occupations during the war and were reluctant to return to the restricted work of service.
Those men who served in the war and had taken up roles of leadership and responsibility did not want employment in low-paid, labouring jobs. They felt they deserved better, well-paid jobs.
Farmers had to offer higher wages to get agricultural labourers. Their wages rose from 23s.6d. (£1.18) a week in 1913 to 40s. (£2.00) in 1920.
Overtime was paid with special rates (double) for Sunday working.
Although agricultural labourers welcomed the increases, they encouraged farmers to purchase more labour-saving machinery like the threshing machine, conveyor belts. etc. .
The wealthier landowners still wanted domestic servants and were prepared to increase wages from the pre-war average of £17 a year to £30.
Middle-class householders could not afford these wages so had to do without servants.
A traffic survey carried out for seven days in August 1922 on the Great North Road recorded 1,846 motor cars and over a thousand motor cycles and bikes. Together with other forms of transport like vans and lorries it amounted to 2,289 compared to 273 horse-drawn vehicles.
It was mostly long-distance traffic however and within St Neots it was mostly cars, bicycles and horse-drawn carts.
(Young, R. (1996) St Neots Past, Phillimore, pp.110-112)