The Great War Brings Challenges to the Chairmakers
by Tony Sargeant
What was life like once conscription began in 1916, and many local furniture factories suffered extreme labour shortages? Read this fascinating account, researched by our Woodlanders Lives volunteers!
In 1916, as the Great War progressed, the shortage of volunteers was becoming a problem. This was in contrast to the patriotic fervour in August 1914 when the Bucks Herald was reporting on the Buckinghamshire regiments leaving for military service by train at Aylesbury. At the same time the Slough Observer dedicated a column to list all the volunteers who signed up at the Territorial Army drill hall.
To increase numbers of fighting men, conscription was introduced by the Military Service Act of 27 January 1916. A month later the first tribunals were hearing cases in Buckinghamshire. By 1916 shortages in labour were becoming more difficult to fill; women were already taking over some roles, although some farmers were dubious about employing women due to the physical strength required. Factories took on boys, and apprentices took on some roles. Large companies like Horlicks had lost 64 men to the military, out of 110 employed in the factory.
In March 1916 the Beaconsfield tribunal heard the case of Ralph Stevens, a chair-back maker employed by Dancer and Hearne of Holmer Green. The company employed about 22 workers to produce chairs from their works in Factory Street (now Orchard Way).  Both Frank Hearne and Ralph Stevens appeared, to quote from the report in the Slough Observer at the time:
Mr Hearne handed in correspondence and observed that the letter showed that he was making chairs for public departments, and that he was behind in delivering owing to the fact that men had left him. The man Stevens was indispensable; it was impossible to find a substitute, and it would take some time to teach another man and other employees were also dependent on Stevens – if he could not work, they could not work on that pattern.
The Chairman: The man may be indispensable to you in your business, but we want to win this war, and if we are going to do so somebody must suffer temporary hardship. You realise that, don’t you?
Mr Hearne: Yes, I do, but I thought if this man was put back to a later group we might manage later on.
How many men have gone from your firm?
About ten, and there are more grouped up.
These chairs may be for the British Museum or National Gallery, or such places where the orders are not urgent?
They are chiefly for the Post Office, I think.
The man was put back a month.
This encounter gave some relief for the company to complete orders and organise for the release of Ralph Stevens. It is not known how this news was received in the wider community. Any military service would have been difficult for the Stevens family, as Ralph had been married to Daisy Langston for less than six months
The following week Dancer and Hearne were back at the next tribunal with an appeal for William Tilbury, a band-sawyer who lived at Spurlands. The tribunal report in the Slough Observer of 18 March 1916 provides the detail:
The representative of the firm stated that they wished Tilbury put back. A band-sawyer was a skilled man, and he cut the wood up for the whole of the other employees. If the man was put back six months, preparations might be made.
The Chairman: Will you appeal for any more?
Applicant: Of four benchmen in one shop we have let three go, and we shall appeal for one. We have boys in that shop in place of men gone. This man (Tilbury) cuts the wood up for the two shops and if we lose him a lot of men over military age will be out of work. We are on War Office work, and an inspector last week was pressing for the work.
Captain Green: Could you train a man in a month?
Applicant: It would be very difficult. A band-sawyer is a man whom it is difficult to get. No doubt you know the difficulty there is at Wycombe.
Captain Green: I know there have been a terrible lot exempted there. Everybody is a band-sawyer at Wycombe (laughter).
The tribunal gave the man three months.
This shows the difficulty with the early military tribunals, where some precedents must have been set in Wycombe. The employers were claiming the shortage of men was affecting work, and the tribunals could be seen as harsh in their judgments. Later in 1916 the criteria for who qualified for military service changed, making married men eligible. Under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 regulations, employers were required to complete monthly returns about their employees. In September 1917, Dancer and Hearne claimed to employ 60 men before the war. This was at the military tribunal of Walter James, aged 39 and married. He was a circular sawyer. He was given a six-month exemption.
Labour was not the only problem facing the people of Holmer Green. Local newspapers reported on the shortage of cheese and butter. There were also restrictions on the processing of flour. More land in the county was taken into gardens and flowers gave way to vegetables. The reports of the tribunals become terse in some newspapers, sometimes only giving the applicant and the result.
Ralph Stevens survived the war and appears on the 1918 Absent Voters list. In the 1930s he attended Little Kingshill Baptist Church, playing his violin for the services. In 1939 he worked as a best chair maker, living in Holmer Green.
William Tilbury joined the Royal Field Artillery on 11 September 1916 and was posted overseas to France; he joined 281st Brigade RFA on 18 May 1917. At this time the brigade took part in the Battles of Arras and the Third Battle of Ypres. He was discharged from the army on 19 January 1919. His only health problem noted on his army record was tonsillitis. Later, William married Mabel Saunders and settled in Holmer Green, working as a band-sawyer.
1 Company details and history of Dancer & Hearne can be found at https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Dancer_and_Hearne
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