From body shields to blankets: The correspondence of a great war mayor

William Anderton Brigg
William Anderton Brigg, wartime mayor of Keighley, with his sister, Mrs Sharpe of Darley Dale

“Dear Sir,” wrote a Mrs Clayton to the Mayor of Keighley on July 13, 1916. “Excuse me taking the liberty of writing to your Worship but could you be so kind as to help a poor Mother to send her lad a body sheild.”

Once she had put pen to paper her unpunctuated troubles came pouring out of her: “He has seen much service for his country he was wounded in france early last year after being in hospital 3 months 7 days leave and a month later he was sent to Suvla bay he went through a lot there now i have had a letter to say he is back in france and i am upset and as i think his life might be spared if he had a sheild he is only 20 and i have also another Son 19 reported killed at battle of hill 60 April 18 1915 but turned up badly wounded unfit for foreign Service…”

“I haven’t a single decent blanket in the house,” Mrs Turner had written familiarly

The Mayor replied sympathetically, but didn’t “think it would be any kindness to send your son a body shield”, enclosing a cutting from The Times, pointing out that if a body shield were“ to be of any use it would be too heavy to carry.”

William Anderton Brigg served as Mayor of Keighley from 1912 to 1916. A bachelor living with a bachelor twin brother at Kildwick Hall, he preserved the voluminous paperwork and correspondence to which this particularly conscientious Mayor was subjected during the Great War.

He was involved in relief funds galore, for Belgium, France, Russia, Poland, Armenia and Serbia. There were funds for hospitals, the Allies, Soldiers and Sailors, Prisoners of War, the Red Cross and Ambulances, Distressed Persons… Major concerns involved recruitment and conscription, war savings, munitions manufacture, working women and the possibility of air raids. A Great War Mayor was at the very centre of activity.

Yet William Anderton Brigg also listened to individual townspeople, replying to every appeal he received and doing whatever he could to help, even on occasion dipping into his own pocket.

A lengthy correspondence with Private Arthur Turner resulted in the Mayor paying for work on the soldier’s teeth (“although I thought you get this done for you in Camp”), and providing boots and blankets for his schoolboy son who was helping farmers in the East Riding. “I haven’t a single decent blanket in the house,” Mrs Turner had written familiarly. “I could almost see to read through them.”

It seems to have been something of a custom in Keighley for servicemen wanting leave to ask the Mayor to write to their commanding officers.

Mr Brigg pleaded on behalf of a sapper for just one day’s leave, “so that he may get married to a girl whom he has got into trouble. She is of a respectable family and her people are naturally most anxious about it as the time within which it ought to take place is very short.”

This would have been granted if the sapper hadn’t meanwhile “committed a serious disciplinary offence”! The wife of Private Davis of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wanted leave for her husband “as he has not been allowed any since he enlisted fourteen months ago and she and the children – there are four – are fretting to see him (the eldest aged eleven says she wants him for her birthday present)”.

The Army, however, was deaf to such very human requests.

“Leave is only granted very sparingly,” the Adjutant replied, “and I am afraid Pte Davis will have to take his turn.”

Such appeals illustrate what enforced absence meant to families. One soldier’s mother was “dying and is fretting very much to see her son.”

Another’s father infirmities were “very troublesome,’’ especially at nights, and such as strangers cannot be called in to deal with.”

Occasionally Mr Brigg’s efforts tended in the opposite direction. When two brothers wrote for advice on what unit to enlist in, he suggested different battalions, “for,” he added diplomatically, “if anything serious happened, there might be two of you involved instead of one.” This, at a time when Pals‘ battalions were recruiting men from the same districts, was prescient indeed.

Tracking down the whereabouts of local prisoners of war involved complicated enquiries. One of Mr Brigg’s friends begged him to use his “influence” – underlined – “with any of the heads of the YMCA on behalf of my niece Rita, whom you know, and who is most anxious to go out to Holland to her husband who is a Prisoner of War there. The YMCA are having Canteens at Scheveningen for officers and men, and the wives of the prisoner officers are going out to work there so they may have an opportunity of meeting their husbands.”

Poor Captain Humphrey had gone out to France at the outbreak of war, a week after his marriage, and had been captured a month later.

Arrangements were eventually made for his wife to go to Holland. Rita was “most awfully grateful” for the Mayor’s influence.

For prisoners from the other ranks, the Mayor paid for bread supplied under the auspices of the British Legation in Berne. By early 1916 his cheque for £6.12s. covered three months’ bread for 11 men. This, Mr Brigg explained, represented “the former cost to me of giving the Town Council a monthly tea which I have now dropped.”

In 1917, sending a thank-you card, Lance-Corporal White recalled how he “used to work as a boy at your place in West Lane” – the Brigg family’s worsted mill. “I have been a prisoner since September 1914,” the lance-corporal added poignantly, “rather a long time to be deprived of one’s liberty, but I hope we shall be back home again soon.”

Even when signing himself Ex-Mayor, William Anderton Brigg continued to support a Prisoners of War Fund initiated by the Halifax Guardian in the home of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was as practical as ever, advising the newspaper to extend its appeal “to the whole of the Regimental Area.” As he bluntly explained: “No one in Keighley, for example, sees the Halifax Guardian and I am sure no one knows of your Fund.”

As both Mayor and member of an Executive Committee tasked with forming a Keighley War Hospital of 400 beds in 1916, Mr Brigg appealed for a necessary £7,000, “but,” he warned the local public; “this will probably be exceeded.”

“We have the assurance of the highest military authorities,” he spelt out the sombre reality, “that however many beds we provide there is unfortunately every probability of them all being needed before the end of the war.”

In the event, by 1918 the Keighley War Hospital needed 746 beds, and its Auxiliaries more than another 500.

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