The Liverpool Civic Service League was established three years prior to the First World War in response to the 1911 General Transport Strike. Headed by a Managing Committee comprised of leading members of the business and civic community, the League was described by the inaugural Chairman, Frank J. Leslie, as an “organisation of Citizens willing to assist the Authorities in preserving the health, safety and well-being of the City in time of need”. Minute Books and local news sources detail how the organisation worked tirelessly to offer drill training, engineering and street cleaning services during the workers’ action and later to organise ambulance and medical services, messengers and the distribution of goods as the “Labour troubles” gave way to the reality of life at war in the summer of 1914.
Here at the Athenaeum we have been fortunate enough to discover the complete collection of League Minute Books and associated paraphernalia including correspondence, application forms, index cards detailing the “special qualifications” of prospective members (i.e. the training necessary to operate heavy machinery, existing medical experience and so on), a Financial Sub-Committee Minute Book and cash books (including one belonging to the King’s Liverpool Regiment Visiting Committee).
The Minute Books, of which there are six, were found amongst a collection originally belonging to Robert Gladstone Jr and span from August 1911 right through to the conclusion of the war in 1918. The books contain minutes from both the main body of the League and also from the Women’s Branch, and detail the efforts of its members to uphold the spirits of both locals and external parties during a time of great social and political upheaval.
The History of the League
The decision to formulate the League was an ambitious and not entirely uncontroversial one. Initial plans to enrol “voluntary helpers” who might act in the capacity of special constables attracted the displeasure of the Head Constable who suggested that the League lacked the authority to advertise for assistance of the sort ordinarily organised by the Justices proper. The Head Constable also expressed a concern that the League might struggle to remain impartial in light of the sort of tasks that their volunteers were undertaking, “namely the performance of work abandoned by strikers”, and warned that the completion of neglected labour must surely be perceived “as taking one side as against the other”.
Although F. J. Leslie emphatically denied ‘taking sides’ the League were to encounter other teething difficulties in a similar vein. In a report dated December 18th Mr Leslie speaks of an administrative division within the ranks of the League itself:
There are those who believe that] the main purpose of forming such a League as this is to create a body opposed to strikes and strikers […] a “strike breaking organisation” [aimed at] repressing strikes by aggressive measures.
Divergent voices in the League were eventually silenced by Mr Leslie’s insistence that the organisation was to remain an entirely neutral one; the repercussions of the debate, however, almost led to the resignation of the Lord Mayor, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, and placed a significant strain on the relations between the League and the local constabulary.
The League met infrequently at the Town Hall from 1911 up until the war but its supporters were nevertheless extremely active in their outreach activities and, by May of 1913, had recruited in excess of 2,500 members. Amongst them were horse drivers, electricians, medics, and steam and marine engineers.
Upon the eve of the war the League immediately called a meeting and set about obtaining additional premises in order to expand their operations. Based within the G3 Exchange Buildings and later also placed at Gambier Terrace and 30 Bold Street, the League began to organise the distribution of supplies to those in need, including Belgian refugees, soldiers and sailors and the economically disadvantaged.
Meanwhile Robert Gladstone Jr submitted for the consideration of the Committee a scheme “by which he would bear the cost of drilling five hundred men, over the army limit, to be ready for such services as they might be required for”. The proposal met with unanimous approval and Gladstone was appointed Honorary Secretary for the Drill section of the League. The League, in collaboration with the Liverpool Meat Importers’ Association, constructed a miniature rifle range in the basement of the Meat Market (Great Newton Street). On the 10th of August 400 men reported for drilling and by the 12th of August 100 more had enrolled. The unprecedented popularity of the instruction led to the establishment of the Volunteer Rifle Corps and secured the League’s reputation as a “pioneer in the matter of civilian drill”.
With some negotiation the League was granted permission to forward goods for the Front, via Southampton, “free of carriage”, and shortly thereafter set to work supplying men with pipes, cigarettes, chocolate, candles, playing cards and toothbrushes along with socks, mufflers and mittens, many knitted by volunteers from the community including local children who were taught to knit and sew through the interventions of the Women’s Branch.
Ambulance training was also on-going, alongside Nursing classes and instruction in First Aid. The League, with the assistance of local doctors, ran courses culminating in medical certification. Many of the newly qualified were enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and many more became employed in tending to the sick and wounded who were arriving into Lime Street Station and elsewhere in the city.
The Committee wrote to employers and requested that they reserve the positions of those absent overseas. They received around 500 replies agreeing to the upkeep of wages and also to the holding of the temporarily vacant positions. The League also campaigned to raise the numbers of enlisted; posters were produced and ladies would regularly distribute flyers on a house to house basis.
A great deal of charitable work was conducted by the League and its affiliates. Large numbers of foreign soldiers were arriving into Liverpool along with their wives, the latter of which were left to fend for themselves once their husbands were transferred. The League communicated with the Cunard S. S. Company and secured lodgings for the families in Great George Square, with Miss Eleanor Rathbone agreeing to cover any surplus costs incurred.
Significantly, the League’s Committee was comprised of many local dignitaries and was assisted in various ways by many more; Sir Sydney Jones is reported to have donated several vehicles for use as ambulances, and Mrs Herbert Reynolds Rathbone, Ex-Lady Mayoress, granted the League permission to use the Depot at Gambier Terrace for distribution purposes.
Whilst this report has thus far dealt mainly with the work undertaken by the male-led branch of the League the efforts of the Women’s Branch should not be understated; the women’s division remained active throughout the war and was involved with the dispensing of clothing and other materials, the arrangement of Nursing classes, the provision of entertainment and of “Christmas Cheer for the Troops” and the housing of Belgian refugees, amongst many other things.
That the League’s work was both far-reaching and of the utmost significance to many thousands of individuals is made clear not only through the regularity with which they met and the meticulous documentation of work carried out but also through the endless expressions of thanks they receive from wives, workers and soldiers. On the 27th of April 1916 Mr Leslie tells the board of a meeting he has had with the Prisoners of War Committee:
The Chairman reported that he had attended a meeting […] at which Vincent Howard, who had escaped from a German Internment Camp, had been present. Howard had informed the Meeting that he had received parcels from the Civic Service League quite regularly, and that he considered that they had kept him alive, as he had been unable to eat the food provided in the camp.
The Minute Books provide a wonderful glimpse into the solidarity of a city which has pulled together despite enormous external pressure, and the charitable efforts of the League’s members are reflected in the thoughtful responses they provoke from those they help.
This collection represents the culmination of many years of dedicated work over a crucially significant timespan and would, we hope, be of assistance to researchers of the period or indeed to other interested parties who would like to study the links between the Civic Service League and affiliated individuals and organisations such as the Red Cross, St Johns Ambulance Association, local universities and hospitals etc. As we learn more about the collection we will update the available information accordingly. In the interim those who might like to learn more about the collection are encouraged to contact the Athenaeum archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org.