Semaphore Signalling with the Scouts

Some of the Birmingham Children of War volunteers have just spent a couple of evenings working with the Cole Valley South 220th Scout Troop based in Moseley.  In the first session we shared our knowledge of the types of activities that Birmingham Scouts were engaged with during the First World War. Today’s scouts were impressed with the range of tasks and how much responsibility young people were given.  As a practical activity, we then made semaphore flags and made an attempt at starting to learn the semaphore alphabet. On the second evening, the activities gave the scouts the opportunity to re-visit the semaphore alphabet, to practise a couple of message sends/receives and perform a final relay of messages.  The evening ended with a true/false quiz based on the information about scouting in Birmingham from the first week. Those young, receptive minds did well!


Uniformed organisations on the Home Front

Alongside women, children in Birmingham made an important contribution to war work on the home front.  Much of this activity was channelled through schools but older children, in particular, participated as members of uniformed organisations providing practical assistance to the British war effort.  

Following the publication of ‘Scouting for Boys’ in 1907, the Birmingham Association of Scouts was formed in 1908 with a membership of 1000, and by the end of 1916 there were more than 7000 Scouts in the Birmingham District.

Boy Scouts carried messages for local government offices and guarded important places, such as railway bridges, and telephone and telegraph lines.

Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)
Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer © IWM (Q 19969)

They learnt to send semaphore messages using small flags and by 1917 Scouts were also watching the skies for Zeppelin attacks and sounding their bugles to signal when an air raid was over.  Birmingham Boy Scouts undertook ‘valuable work as Sea Scouts on coast-watching duties’; they were sent to vulnerable coastal locations on the East and South coasts with Whitby being the largest station manned by a Birmingham contingent.  A Sea Scout writes to his old scout master and this is printed in the monthly newsletter of St Paul’s Birmingham describing his experiences:

‘serving my country by guarding telegraph wires … also stop anyone sketching or taking photographs around the coast. We haven’t seen any Zeppelins yet, but we heard them a few nights back.  We are in a house (20 are Birmingham chaps) it is our own and we do our own cooking, and we scrub it from top to bottom twice a week: we also named it ourselves’.

Sea Scout Arthur Walters, Birmingham House, Windsor Terrace, Whitby, Yorks.  

Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop
Scouts of 1st Edwardian (Aston) Troop

Many scouts went on to join the armed forces and a list of scouts compiled in 1910 by the 1st Edwardian (Aston) troop is annotated in a final column headed ‘killed or decorated’; a poignant record indeed.

1910 saw the establishment of the Girl Guide Association in the UK under the leadership of Agnes Baden-Powell, sister of Robert, the Scouting founder. Girl Guides took on many roles:  they packaged up clothing and foodstuffs to send to British soldiers at the front and provided assistance at hospitals, canteens and in munition factories. ‘An ounce of help is worth a pound of pity’; a philosophy expressed in a newspaper when describing the practical help provided by Girl Guides at a local hospital.

The Boys Brigade was founded in 1883 in Glasgow by William Alexander Smith as an interdenominational youth organisation conceived to combine drill and physical activities

10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915
10th Birmingham Company Boys Brigade 1915

with Christian values.  Just six years later, in 1889, the brigade had its first company in Birmingham at Camp Hill Presbyterian church.  The Birmingham Daily Post of January 1915 records a Boys Brigade bazaar displaying a patriotic exhibition of the work of the league with 50% of the profits going to the Prince of Wales’s Relief Fund.  In September 1918 the annual conference reports that several members have qualified for the National Service Badge, awarded for not less than 100 hours service to the community.

Newspapers of the period provide tantalising glimpses of the activities of these young people but relatively little detail emerges.  As many troops were associated with churches and chapels in the city then the records of individual religious institutions are likely to provide more specific information. The uniformed organisations themselves hold their own archives.

Alison Smith

Zeppelin Lessons

There was a new lesson on the school curriculum in February 1916 – what to do in the event of a Zeppelin raid. The official advice was to go home, turn out the lights and hide under the stairs or “take to your cellars” in the words of the Chief Constable.

Zeppelins could fly at up to 85 miles an hour and carried incendiary and high explosive bombs but navigation was difficult and the crews were badly affected by cold and lack of armoured-pram-picture-world-5th-feb-1916oxygen at height. Although the raids had no significant military impact the psychological impact on civilians was huge as shown by this image that appeared in Picture World in the same month.


Unlike many other cities Birmingham, realising that the munitions factories made it a prime target, had brought in air-raid precautions before they were attacked. As early in the war as November 1914 the use of external lights for advertising purposes was banned, street lamps were shaded, skylights were covered at night and lighting in trams and buses was dimmed. By February 1915 anti-aircraft guns were in place and the Birmingham Watch Committee banned all public lighting except at street corners and in the event of a raid this would be extinguished too. If Zeppelins were spotted approaching the city the police would tell factories to sound a 5 note “Cock-a-doodle-do” on their sirens or steam whistles, all workplaces and places of entertainments would close and public transport would stop. There were no public air raid shelters and people were urged to return home as the darkness and shrapnel from the shells made the streets a very dangerous place to be.

These precautions were proved effective on the night of January 31st 1916 when one of the heaviest raids of the war left 35 people dead in Tipton, Bradley, Wednesbury and Walsall including at least 8 children. The L21 Zeppelin responsible had got lost in the fog looking zeppelin-raid-over-black-countryfor Liverpool and saw the lights of the Black Country towns through a gap in the clouds. Meanwhile the L19 Zeppelin spent the night searching in vain for Birmingham before finally dropping its bombs in the same area but without any fatalities.

The Library of Birmingham archives contain the memoirs of Norman Hickin who was growing up in Handsworth at the time of the raids and saw a Zeppelin pass overhead. He wrote

“The amazing thing was to watch it cross over the sky lit up by twenty or so searchlights, but it was not possible to do a thing about it……As it passed over Handsworth everyone came out of their houses to see it, watch and comment in awed whispers. Up until that time I had never seen so many people in the road. The fact that it carried a load of bombs and was ready to drop them did not appear to worry anyone. Then it disappeared and we all went indoors and I went back to bed.”

Moseley Road School logbook on February 4 1916 (S273/2/1/3) recorded children absent from school because of the Zeppelin raid and this may have been the case in other schools across the city.  There would have been fears of return visits and children would have seen earlier images of raids on London and coastal towns of the North East.

War reporting was subject to Government issued D-notices and reports of the January 31st raid didn’t appear in Picture World until February 10th and referred only to “devastation in a Midland town”. However the delay gave the advertising team time to drum up some new custom!

Birmingham escaped again on October 19th 1917 when a Zeppelin was unable to find the city centre and a bomb it dropped on the brightly lit Austin works at Longbridge did little damage. On April 12th 1918 two 500-pound bombs were dropped over Hall Green but again little damage was done and there was no loss of life.

Marian Hall

Snowtime fun in 1917

As snow makes a brief appearance in Birmingham today its a good time to look back at kids in the snow 100 years ago.  Picture World showed images of children having ‘fun and frolic’ tobogganing in Sutton Park in February 1917. There appears to have been a lot of snow that winter as there were several letters in thdangers-of-toboganning-birmingham-mail-friday-29-december-1916e press such as this one from the Birmingham Mail on 29 December 1916 warning of the dangers of the activity. There had obviously been several accidents already – although the
article doesn’t state whether its adults or children that are the victims.


The Evening Despatch of Monday 15 January 1917 gave details of the wintry weather that had lasted all weekend in Birmingham. Unlike today the temperatures stayed low and the snow did not melt leaving the suburban roads in ‘excellent  condition for toboganning’. At the end of the month the Despwintry-weather-evening-despatch-monday-15-january-1917atch reported that many of the pools and ponds in Birmingham were frozen enough to allow skating: they included Cannon Hill Park, Ward End Park, Small Heath Park, Sutton Park and Edgbaston Hall. At the latter 6d was charged for admission and the proceeds given to the Lady Mayoress’s War Fund. At Small Heath it was reported that 8000 men and boys were skating and sliding. At Cannon Hill the ice covering wasn’t complete and several boys got a soaking for venturing too close to the ice holes.

It wasn’t now-doing-daddys-work-picture-world-feb-1916 all just about having fun though. There were several reports, and the inevitable letters to the paper, about the state of the pavements and streets due to ice and snow. A shortage of council labourers meant that householders were now expected to clear the fronts of their houses themselves. Picture World illustrated the solution with this image of a ‘bonny little girl’ now doing the work of her absent daddy.

Juvenile Delinquency: the growing problem

Robert continues his series of blogs on the theme of juvenile delinquency during the First World War.

Searching the Birmingham Archive for information on a child’s experience before, during and post the Great War has been and is a fascinating and rewarding experience. In terms of Juvenile Delinquency and Crime this has uncovered a wealth of material concerning the latter and also in other connected areas such as education, employment, family life, housing and policing for example.

An initial find in the archive was a report by the Howard Association (Today known as the Howard league) by the then secretary Mr Cecil Leeson, dated in the preface – November 1916 and Published in 1917 as The Child and The War Report (Birmingham Library Reference Political A320.8 D44. Acc No. 301163)

There was nationally and locally a serious concern about the rise in juvenile delinquency during the early part of the war compared to the years prior to war. The fact finding and analysis in the Howard Association report was based on an in-depth study of The Birmingham Children’s Court for the three years, (Aug to July for the years:- 1913-14; 1914-15; 1915-16)

 Extract from report (Page 16)The Howard Association has been privileged to analyse the records of the Birmingham Children’s Court for the past three years and the subjoined table gives the result of this analysis …… for punishable offences”

The Child and the War (p.16) 


The most disquieting features of all these juvenile-court returns are not merely that the increase exists, but that it is so much larger in the second year of war than the first and that a far greater proportion of increase consists of larcenies and felonies i.e. the increase represents an actual increase of wrong doing and not an increase of prosecutions only.

By comparison a Table showing the total number of Birmingham cases for each calender year is illustrated below.

Prison Visting Reports 1906-1957 L43.46

The report suggest that these official figures (all above) are the “tip of an iceberg” as many cases went undetected and many first offenders were let off with a police warning (not officially recorded). Also being war time there may be some errors in data collection however the overall results show significant increases between the peace and war years and were taken seriously.

On a personal view/judgement level, having read a large number of documents and reports relating to Juvenile Delinquency and the war years I feel that an important strategic point is being made. Although not specifically detailed, the worry and concern of politicians, judiciary and interested public figures was that as the actual and predicted death toll rose dramatically on the War front the importance of children and their upbringing became acute. The future of the country post war and beyond would be looking to these children as the fathers and mothers of the next generation and the labour supply for economic and social recovery. The welfare of children by way of the Factory Acts of 1830’s to the 1908 Children’s act demonstrate this was being addressed, albeit slowly, however the consequences of war and a decimated (mainly male) population focused the attention on looking after children (Juvenile Delinquency) and the future of the country.

Robert Gould



Children’s Xmas Thoughts & Dreams


This cartoon in Picture World, December 1915, shows the thoughts of a little boy thinking back over the previous twelve months wondering if his behaviour will have been good enough to warrant a visit from Father Christmas. Ringing doorbells and running away; tying cans to a dogs tail; overflowing the bath and scaring the maid are just a few of his misdemeanours. But despite this catalogue of naughtiness in December he is pictured with angel wings and a halo looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth and with the conclusion “What a Good Boy Am I?”

Anticipation and Realisation – the Christmas edition of Birmingham’s Picture World led with a full page spread about a ‘bonnie little Birmingham boy’ who dreamed of the good things he hoped Father Christmas would bring. He wanted an engine and a football and other toys and hung up his stocking by the fireplace in anticipation. (I’m trying not to be too judgemental about the complete lack of a fireguard as the wee lad peers into the fireplace!) And sure enough his dreams are ‘gratified’ and he’s pictured on his bed with his new gifts from Santa. They could be images from any early 20th Century newspaper were it not for the strapline above the title: ‘Kaiser’s Christmas Greeting: German Airman’s Bomb on Dover.’childs-xmas-dream-picture-world-dec-1914

Liz Palmer with thanks to Marian Hall for finding the images on microfilms of Picture World.



Christmas for the children of German internees

Our research so far into Children’s lives in Birmingham during the First World War has revealed very little about those who were the children of German internees. But this small article in Picture World in December 1914 may provide some starting points for further research in the records of the Board of Guardians, the Society of Friends and Church League for Women’s Suffrage.

Brief though the article is it tells us that most of the children are the progeny of German fathers and English mothers and the internment of the men had left the families in very poor financial circumstances. They were thus dependent on poor law and charitable support. The Church League for Women’s Suffrage determined to ensure that the children would receive at least a new garment, a present and a Christmas card.

Words: Liz Palmer. Image found by Marian Hall.