Putting on a show for the troops
Life in St Albans during the First World War
The thousands of soldiers billeted in St Albans during the First World War posed a number of challenges for the townspeople. When the first wave arrived in August 1914 the residents were concerned to help the troops settle in, as revealed in a new book about the city: St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918.
However, it was immediately obvious that keeping them occupied and off the streets was going to be a prime concern. This was not an easy task. For one thing there were limited entertainment venues as so many buildings had been requisitioned by the military. Soldiers were admitted free to the city’s two cinemas, the Alpha (later the Poly) and the St Albans Cinema. There were also film shows and other entertainments put on for the troops at the County Hall Theatre in St Peter’s Street, where Marks & Spencer stands today.
Several churches and the YMCA set up marquees to provide recreation rooms for the men where they could read newspapers and books, write letters home, play chess and other games and enjoy concerts and other small entertainments. In that period people were accustomed to providing their own entertainment. Almost everyone had some talent to display and many readily stepped forward to put on revues, programmes of singing, instrumental music, dancing, recitations. The Herts Advertiser printed programmes and show reviews, with certain performers’ names appearing regularly, including Mabel Gibson, Olga Dickson and Mrs Clark’s Orchestra.
Mabel Gibson was a local dance teacher whose pupils frequently took part in her shows. Olga Dickson, daughter of James Dickson a notable local builder, was a singing teacher. A week without a performance somewhere by her was almost unthinkable and Mrs Clark’s Orchestra seems to have provided accompaniment for almost every concert.
Many soldiers also had musical or dramatic talents and were happy to put them to use, not only to entertain their fellows but also the townspeople. This was occasionally a problem when troops were mobilised without warning or, as in one case in March 1917, when ‘the promoters were handicapped by having to delete from the programme several soldier artistes now well known in the district their having been ordered not to appear due to an outbreak of measles’.
After the first year of the war song-and-dance energies may have flagged a little. The superintendent of the YMCA Revd A T Reissmann appealed in the Herts Advertiser for volunteer entertainers. In the meantime other ways of keeping the men amused had to be found. In the same article Revd Reissmann described that week’s entertainment: ‘On Thursday evening last an onion-eating contest took place. There were twelve competitors. The contest was very popular with the crowded audience of the competitors’ unsympathetic comrades who one and all hoped that each of the large Spanish onions the contestants had to consume was hot and strong.’
The next day another competition was a variation on a popular parlour game: ‘Two prizes were offered for the best impromptu speech. There were seven competitors and when the turn of each came he was handed an envelope inside which was a piece of paper containing the subject of the discourse, such as “Jam puffs; thoughts on the seaside; corks; early rising, and my favourite dish”…’
Most of these events also raised money for war charities, including the Red Cross Working Party and Herts Prisoners of War Fund. A fete held at Marlborough House in 1916 raised funds for both these good causes. Another popular cause supported by the people of St Albans was the County of Middlesex War Hospital at Napsbury, which treated many hundreds of wounded men.
This article was originally published in December 2016 in the Herts Advertiser newspaper in a series of articles contributed by members of the SAHAAS Home Front research group. We are grateful to the newspaper’s editor for his permission to republish it here.