The Athenaeum in WW1 , P.S

In the days when you could visit the Athenaeum and look at the various memorial tablets on the walls it may have struck you that there is not an Athenaeum war memorial It is a remarkable thing, given the spirit of the times and the enthusiasm with which memorials to the fallen and those who served were being built in every city, town and village that within the Athenaeum no such memorial exists for either of the two World Wars.  In the Committee meeting of April 1916 the provision of a roll of honour in the Athenaeum was raised.  Any decision on this was deferred and although it was raised again shortly afterwards no such memorial was ever set up.  This seems a curious omission and it is disappointing that only decisions are recorded in the Minutes and no discussion or debate is given.  Given the spirit of the times, the popular support that existed in the earlier phases of the war, though this had largely evaporated by 1918, it is strange that no such memorial was ever created either at this time or later.  Perhaps it was felt that the civic memorials of the cenotaph on the plateau of St George’s Hall and the extraordinary memorials in the Town Hall made any further commemoration unnecessary. 

When one considers the usual portrayal of the First World War as this seminal moment in modern history, of its social, political and demographic importance it seems surprising that although it is mentioned in the Minutes of the Main Committee it is not of overarching importance.  One of the subjects that occupies the most space is the call-up of the three junior staff members.  There is no jingoistic calls for them to serve King and Country, no attempt to urge them to “Do their Duty” but rather certain resentment that it will be of inconvenience to the members, though it must be admitted that their posts were to be held open for them after their return from service.  This leads one to think that for the Proprietors of the Athenaeum it was almost a secondary issue – even its termination with the armistice of 1918 does not rate a mention, nor is there any record of victory celebrations and, as we have remarked, no memorial to those who served was ever installed.  Does this all indicate a degree of indifference amongst the Proprietors?

Probably not, and other explanations can be invoked.  First, that the Committee were concerned and their purpose was the day to day management of the Athenaeum and not the wider affairs of the world struggle.  Secondly, the nature of the source material ensures that it is only when the smooth running of the Institution is affected that it comes to the Committee for resolution.  The Minute Book was not the place where feelings, emotional reaction to events or matters outside their remit would be recorder – this does not mean that these were absent from conversation, concern or people’s minds and more personal papers of members of the Committee might tell a very different tale.  After all, one hundred years later relations with the European Union are in everyone’s minds, they are a source of consternation and concern but there will be scant mention of them in the Minutes of the Main Committee for 2019.

It is also possible that the fact that most of the Proprietors were of an age that did not involve them directly in military service may have made them less mindful of the war as they were mainly spared direct involvement.

So the servicemen returned to  Britain, filled with the hope that it would indeed became a “land fit for heroes”, men from the trenches returned to their jobs, the women who had filled many of their roles during the war were placated with limited political rights.  The jazz age with its flappers and films, Charleston and cars, bobbed heads and oxford bags heralded a new world.  True, there was unemployment, Bolsheviks and Fascists, strikes and lock out but everyone could hope for better things and an economic boom for the first few years papered over the cracks in society.  The Athenaeum resumed its even tenor though they found themselves locking horns with the Corporation who wanted to demolish the building in order to widen Church Street but this was soon resolved and the new building arose on the redundant site of St. Peter’s Church, confident In the hope of a brave new world, free from war and slaughter

Post War Church Street
The entrance to Church Alley is just visible in the foreground on the left