They uncovered the vital roles played by women in the war effort, how families coped in the face of food shortages, hardship and the threat of aerial bombardment, and how Barnwell rolled its sleeves up and did its bit.
Accounts of the World War I experiences of Cambridge University undergraduates and dons are not difficult to unearth but narratives of the Barnwell working class, many of whom served their Varsity masters before signing up, have been all but ignored.
Barnwell at War reinstates the cultural memory of an area of Cambridge beyond the touristic gaze, and indicates a pattern of life for the majority of the UK population through an era of unparalleled trauma.
Researchers also sought to find out what became of the young men who played for the newly formed Abbey United Football Club in 1913/14, shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. They came very close to identifying those players; work in this area continues, with a possible breakthrough imminent.
Published by Lovely Bunch, Coconuts’ publishing operation, at £4.99 (£1 discount for CFU members), Barnwell at War is available through the CFU online store. It will soon also be available through the CFU caravan on match days, Cambridge booksellers and other outlets in the city.
The attractively designed booklet is illustrated by many seldom-seen photographs and features an introduction by Michael Hrebeniak, Coconuts committee member and Director of Studies in English at Wolfson.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge match day programme for the game against Macclesfield Town on 27 October 2018.
It won’t have escaped your notice that the UK is marking two 100th anniversaries of great historic significance this year: the end of World War I and the first acknowledgment of women’s right to vote.
Only some women, mind: following the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, it would take another ten years for Parliament to decree that they should be able to vote on the same terms as men.
I’ll examine how women have always been crucial to the success of our club in a future programme. For now, with November 11 approaching, it’s an appropriate time to focus on the Great War and what it meant for Abbey United.
The easy answer is ‘not a lot’. As far as we know, the young club, formed in 1912, stopped playing at the end of the 1913/14 season and didn’t resume until September 1919 – ten months after the cessation of hostilities – with a 6-3 friendly spanking of Ditton Rovers.
If you think the Abbey were unlucky to have their fledgling career halted by the outbreak of war, though, spare a thought for Harrogate AFC who, newly founded and enrolled in the Northern League, were scheduled to play their first ever match in September 1914. The outbreak of war put the kibosh on that plan.
Deprived of their football, the young men of Abbey United turned their attentions to other matters. Did they sign up and march off to the front? If so, did they ever come home? Or did they do their bit for the war effort by keeping the wheels of industry, commerce and education turning?
We wish we knew. A recent Coconuts research project, carried out with Wolfson College and the University of Hertfordshire’s First World War Engagement Centre, and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, aimed to find out. Sadly, it failed.
We came very, very close to identifying the Abbey United players who represented the club in 1913/14, but we weren’t close enough. Hampered by the absence of players’ first names in the records, we just couldn’t pin them down with sufficient certainty.
A lot of good has come out of the effort, though: we haven’t given up trying to track these blokes down and, as recently as this week, Coconuts skivvies started to follow a new line of research on a particular player. We may be on the verge of a breakthrough.
What’s more, you will shortly be able to buy and read the fruits of the original research: a lovingly created 40-page booklet called Barnwell at War.
Priced at £4.99 and published by Coconuts offshoot Lovely Bunch (which also brings you Andrew Bennett’s Celery & Coconuts history series and has other titles in the works), it illuminates the everyday lives of the working-class people of east Cambridge during the Great War.
This is a facet of Cambridge history that, unlike WWI as experienced by the officer class supplied to the battlefields by the University’s students and dons, has received scant attention.
Lovely Bunch has gone some way towards putting that injustice right with this fascinating little read. It will be available soon from the CFU online store or caravan and several purchase points in town.
This article appeared in the Cambridge United official programme for the game against Yeovil Town on Tuesday, 27 September 2016.
This may be one of those stories that will have you wondering what on earth it’s got to do with Cambridge United. Stick with it and you’ll see.
Got a few spare minutes? Cross Newmarket Road from the Abbey and wander a little way up Ditton Walk, on the opposite side of the road to The Globe – sorry, Pipasha. Cast your eyes to your right – pretty unremarkable, you’re thinking. Retrace your steps to Newmarket Road, turn left and proceed, eyes left, in an easterly direction. You’ll see the fronts of the same houses whose rears you saw in Ditton Walk – nothing much to get excited about.
But if you’d followed the same path before the builders got started on the Ditton Fields estate in the 1930s, you would have been looking at a field. Its name – Hospital Field – reveals its history.
During World War I, the First Great Eastern Hospital operated in various sites in Cambridge, finally settling in the spot now occupied by the University Library. It gained fame for its treatment of wounded, mangled and otherwise damaged combatants – tens of thousands of them – in wards that were open to the elements. There was one category of patient, however, that was not treated for long at the First Great Eastern.
In 1915, two auxiliary hospitals were set up just outside the Cambridge borough boundary: one in Cherry Hinton and another, the 850-bed Barnwell Military Hospital, in Newmarket Road. In September 1915, Colonel Joseph Griffiths, officer commanding the First Great Eastern, addressed patients at the Barnwell establishment thus: ‘Soldiers of the British Empire: those of you to whom this is addressed have caught a venereal disease, usually, because you have been with strange women.’
Griffiths went on to urge his patients to co-operate, so that they might get themselves ‘into a condition worthy of manly men’. These folk were treated with suspicion within the hospital and fear outside. They were in fact more detainees than patients, and they were treated inside barbed wire fences.
Townspeople expressed outraged opposition to the siting of the hospitals on their doorsteps. Perhaps it was justified: escaped patients plundered orchards in Fen Ditton, the town council was told; there had been attempted indecent assaults on Cambridge women; promises about tight discipline and unclimbable fences had not been kept. There were other incidents, including the burglary of the nearby Globe by members of a hospital-based gang, who left with a rich haul of alcohol and tobacco.
One councillor suggested the men should be given distinctive uniforms so townsfolk could spot them easily and ‘shun them as they would a leper’. Such harsh measures were not introduced, but the hospital’s security was tightened with a doubling of the guard, formed by military police officers.
One of the Redcaps charged with keeping the inmates in was a young Irishman who, after the war, settled in Cambridge. In 1934 he formed the company that would become Progressive Coaches and transport U’s players and supporters all over the country and beyond. He also owned the Camtax taxi firm.
His name was Albert Edward Harris (although everyone called him Paddy) and he served as a director of Cambridge United for 33 years before stepping down in 1983. Fitting that his unusual introduction to Cambridge should take place mere yards from the place that would become his second home.
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