The Surrey County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress

Poster advertising a meeting to establish Godstone's Distress Commitee

Title: Poster advertising a meeting to establish Godstone's Distress Commitee
Description: Women would play a vital role in Distress Committees across Surrey. by-nc

On 20 August 1914, under the authority of the Cabinet Committee and Local Government Board, Surrey established the County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress. The government, fearing a rise in unemployment triggered by the war, took steps to prevent and alleviate the suffering it may cause. They feared industry could fail from the lack of new capital, raw materials or simply a lack of manpower, which would have a knock-on effect for employment. The County Committee would coordinate Surrey’s response to this anticipated problem. Files held at the Surrey History Centre (SHC) document this response, and in doing so, provide an interesting insight into the role of civilians, especially women, on the home front.

The files show that the Local Government Board (LGB), which oversaw the public health and local government responsibilities of the Home Office, issued very detailed instructions on the role and responsibilities of the County Committees, right down to providing templates and documentation to support their establishment. At the county level, the County Committee was to ‘act as a distributing agency for the transmission of funds (derived from the Prince of Wales’ National Fund and the Lord Lieutenant’s County Fund)’ to areas within the county to supplement local efforts to address ‘distress arising in consequence of the War for which funds derived from other sources may be found to be insufficient’. Edward, Prince of Wales, had established a fund to relieve ‘industrial distress’, and within a week his appeals had raised £1 million. The Lord Lieutenant’s Fund was subsequently established to raise funds for Edward’s National Fund. Beneath the main County Committee were several sub-committees dealing with employment, distress relief, and female employment. This structure was frequently mirrored at the local level.

The LGB directed that committees were to be formed in all areas except the ‘autonomous areas’ of the boroughs of Guildford, Kingston, Reigate, Richmond and Wimbledon, and the Urban Districts of Barnes, Sutton and Woking. By 19 February 1915, some ‘100 Local Committees have been constituted in the County area’. These local committees were to be highly regulated.

For example, SHC file CC7/1/1 holds form C.W.D. 3: Appointment of Local Committees which contains documentation for the appointment of local committees: constitution, duties, resources and methods of work of the County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress. Furthermore, the Board was very clear about the role of the local committees in that ‘…the distribution of Relief arising from unemployment directly due to the War in their own areas… by endeavouring to induce employers to abstain from dismissing their employees, and by seeking to obtain employment for those who have lost employment solely through the War’.

The Local Government Board also called for cooperation across various agencies and sought to represent other organisations and committees in the county including: Board of Trade Labour Exchanges, representatives of Poor Law Guardians, the Clergy, other charitable and philanthropic agencies, representatives of the Trades Unions and Friendly Societies’. Many committees reflected local parish council or urban district council structures, and often were one and the same. In addition to these organisations and the predictable sprinkling of ‘gentry’, there were representatives from the business community. For example, Lingfield’s committee listed grocers, bakers, fishmongers, innkeepers, drapers, plumbers, and the local blacksmith amongst its members.

Interestingly, the Local Government Board also actively called for women ‘who have the time and possess the knowledge to deal with cases of distress’. While women were yet to get the vote, for some considerable time before the war they had been playing a key role in local public services and education, such as holding senior posts on local poor law and school boards. Now their involvement in the new distress committees was actively sought. Farnham and District Committee notes how women were well represented and that ‘…a sub-committee of ladies has been appointed to deal with the unemployment of women’. A flyer by the Godstone South Ward for a Public Meeting on Wednesday, September 2, 1914, announced that ‘Ladies are Cordially Invited to Attend’. On 26 August 1914, a letter to the County Council from Miss J.M. Ross of Redhill, Surrey, contains her thoughts on using women to gather the harvest ‘as they did before the invention of machines… [they] …could bind the sheaves where necessary… and do other light work’. In late 1914, the committees were asked to send the name and details of members (see SHC file CC7/1/1: Form C.W.D. 3: Appointment of Local Committees), and of the 90 committees from across the county that responded, of the 2,069 names provided, some 548 were women.

SHC file CC7/1/4 (Administrative file for the County Committee) includes memos from the Central Committee on Women’s Employment, which was established to rising female unemployment in late 1914. The committee invited women ‘whose experience and advice would be of special value in this connection’. Subsequently, a ‘Memorandum on Training and Instruction in connection with Schemes of Work for Women and Girls’ recommended, somewhat predictably for the age, ‘Specimen Schemes’ such as cooking and domestic economy, skilled trades (e.g. typists), and sick-room helps.

By 1915 the Committees were in their stride. Minutes of a County Committee meeting dated 19 February 1915 (SHC CC7/1/4) provides an excellent update on some of the trials and tribulations of the county and its local branches. It lists discussions around the lack of support to local professional classes, misallocation of funds, the difficulties of distributing gifts from the U.S. to children in the county, monitoring women’s employment, dealing with Belgian refugees. The plight of the professional classes was a recurrent problem. For example, one memo discusses a ‘…family of a race-horse trainer at Epsom arising from the stoppage of racing there…’.

In March 1915, it was becoming apparent that war was having a positive effect on unemployment; dropping for both males and females. The expected rise in unemployment in some industries caused by the war was offset by demand for workers in others.  Despite this the committee system continued to operate throughout the war, and by 1919, they were dealing with the distress caused by soldiers leaving the services and failing to find work or recover the businesses they had owned pre-enlistment.

By August 1920, the County Committee was responding to local committees informing them that they had disbanded ‘some months past’, but felt it not necessary to inform the local committees of this!

After the initial rush of 1914/1915, the files provide interesting insight into the types of issues the committee dealt with:

  • 19 October 1914: Belgian war refugees were approaching the local branches across the county. Guidance was given that ‘offers of hospitality’ should be made.
  • 21 November 1914: the Local Government Board asked the Committees to help distribute Christmas gifts sent by the children of the United States to children of soldiers killed-in-action, missing or serving abroad, and the children of Belgian refugees. After consultation within the county it was found that some 4,000 gifts would be required. However, a few days before Christmas, the Local Government Board informed Surrey that it could only provide 450 to 500 gifts, which would only cover those children of men from the county that had been killed in action. Some measure of the sacrifice Surrey had already made.
  • 22 June 1915: A series of memos describes a case of two brothers who left Canada, along with their families, to join the army in the UK. They were on the Lusitania when it was sunk.  One of the brothers, Basil Wickings-Smith, was killed causing the family hardship when they finally arrived in England. The wife of the dead man appealed for help. A representative of the Committee visited her and supported her application as her ‘nerve… is entirely broken’. She was awarded £5 (CC28/267(A))
  • 31 January 1916: High Clandon branch dealt with a case of a woman whose husband was killed in France. As he was killed in an accident she did not receive a war widow’s pension (CC28/267(A))
  • 3 December 1917: a claim was made for ‘Air-raid Injury’, including medical care and damage to clothing. George G. Straham from Egham died as a result of an air-raid in London. A Mr E.M. Newman from the county claimed for shock caused by an air-raid on London on 17 July 1917.


CC7/1/1: Form C.W.D. 3: Appointment of Local Committee: list of local committees, constitution, duties, resources and methods of work of the County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress. Primarily contains documentation for the appointment of local committees.

CC7/1/2: ‘Correspondence File as to Appointment of Local Committees’, August 1914 to October 1914: deals with notifying Ramsey Nares, Honourable Secretary General Purposes Committee of the of the Surrey County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress.

CC7/1/3: administrative file for the County Committee, e.g. minutes, official paperwork. Very detailed guidance on roles and responsibilities across those supporting both servicemen’s families, and those affected by the war, including provision of children’s meals, unemployment.

For the military historian there are interesting breakdowns of the administrative support for regiments and corps, breakdown by unit of county reserve, territorial and yeomanry regiments. Furthermore, it contains further interesting information such as lists of the leadership of Surrey’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association,

CC7/1/4: Administrative file for the County Committee. Dated August 1914 to February 1915, but appears to go beyond that, well into 1915.

Includes: Central Committee on Women’s Employment: Memorandum on Training and Instruction in connection with Schemes of Work for Women and Girls temporarily unemployed owing to the War.  Specimen Schemes: Cooking and Domestic Economy; Skilled Trades; Sick-Room Helps.

CC7/1/5: ‘Surrey County Council Letter Book’: register for letters coming into the council and copies of correspondence sent out from 15 August 1914-21 February 1921. Administrative, concerning the establishment of committees, invites to attend, minutes, movements of cash etc. From June 1915, individuals appealing for relief and support takes up much of the correspondence.

CC28/267(A) – A series of four files relating to administration, guidance and minutes of County Committee meetings.  (C) file of the series deals with claims for relief and the responses from across the county.

For further information see: The Home Front in Surrey in the First World War, a Guide to Sources at Surrey History Centre, Part 7. Financing the War, relieving Hardship

A list of those who served on this and associated committees, and more information about them, can be found by clicking on Surrey County Committee for the Prevention and Relief of War Distress (the same information about these people can be found by searching for their name via the search box at the top of this webpage).

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