Caring for the troops

During the Great War, Seaford became a garrison town and thousands of men trained there before experiencing the horrors of the Front.  A tented camp in 1914, soon expanded into two huge hutted camps filled with soldiers from across the country and indeed the world. 

At 25,000, the population of the camps was many times larger than the town itself. Local men had been called up and the women of the town, and those not able to join-up, wanted to do something for the troops.   One of these men was John Francis Plaister. When the war broke out he was 55 and the managing director of the Sussex Portland Cement Works in South Heighton near Newhaven.  He lived at Crouch House, a large building in the centre of Seaford, with his wife and daughter and a governess, two housemaids, a parlour-maid,  a kitchen-maid and a cook.   He was obviously quite well off!

Plaister was a magistrate and local councillor, who for many years was the chairman of the ‘General Purposes Committee’ of Seaford Council. In November 1914 he set about raising funds to build a recreation hut in Seaford for the soldiers. Other organisations, such as the Church Army and Y.M.C.A. provided canteens but this was to be a non-denominational recreational hut to provide the soldiers, not only with refreshments, but a place to play games and write home.  

A large wooden hut was provided by ‘Bainbridge’. This was probably the Bainbridge Trust founded by philanthropist Emerson Bainbridge (1845-1911), which had been responsible for providing a convalescent home for working women in Seaford a few years earlier. A letter in the Eastbourne Chronical of 5thDecember 1914 requested donations including a piano, easy chairs, flags and a gramophone.  The cost of the hut was partially covered by the War Office.  It was located in Bramber Road, a few yards from Mr Plaister’s home, and was 120 feet long by 25 feet wide and could seat over 300 men. 

The hut was named ‘The Rally’ and opened on 15thFebruary 1915. It was equipped with bagatelle and billiard tables and other games. It sold non-alcoholic drinks (Horlicks seems to have been popular) and there was a stall selling postcards.  Writing materials were provided free to the soldiers and stamps were sold.  There was so much demand that a small post-office was later opened in the hut. There was clearly a good relationship with the G.P.O. in Seaford High Street who made regular collections. In May 1915 over 700 letters and postcards were sent from the camp-post office in just one day!

Postmark from the nearby Chyngton (South Camp) Post Office

With all this work Plaister recruited 30 volunteers to assist – all were women.  One of them was Agnes H. Carter. Agnes wrote about her experiences in the Sussex County Magazine in 1929. Her memories of the Rally make interesting reading. 

When In October 1917, I first went to Seaford it was very different from the lively place it has become. The development of the seafront had been nipped in the bud in 1914 and many acres of rough, untidy ground were left lying in neglected ugliness. The chief features of the place were the two great camps on the outskirts of the town; the ‘South Camp’ for the Canadians and the ‘North Camp’ for the ‘Imperials’ as they were called locally. 

A few days after my arrival, however the rivalry and jealousy between the two sets of men came to a crisis when a hot-headed Canadian ‘Tommy’ resenting a reprimand from an ‘Imperial’ N.C.O. assaulted and injure him so badly that he died the following day.  I believe it was never allowed to get into the newspapers but it was this unfortunate affair which finally decided the authorities to remove the ‘Imperials’ to Shorncliffe and reserve both Seaford Camps for Canadians only. 

I had secured myself a couple of rooms in the house of the curate and his wife. I did my own housework and cooking in the mornings and devoted the afternoons and evenings to working in the camp canteen.  In October it opened at 5.15pm – but earlier and earlier as the dark evenings came on.  It closed at 9 o’clock though of course, those who helped in it were hard at work for an hour before and an hour after these hours.

There were quite a number of canteens scattered about the two camps. I was attached to the ‘Rally’ which had been started first of all by local voluntary efforts and was run entirely by ladies – some of them young wives of officers at the Front. Several of them had promised their husbands never to walk home alone in the dark so I often had to escort them to their dwellings before returning to my own rooms which was not always a welcome duty at the end of a long evening’s work!

The ‘Head of the Hut’ was a hearty, capable girl whose height and strength were occasionally useful in dealing with the young Tommies.  For instance, one evening two of them (a little worse for drink) quarrelled over a game of billiards and began fighting with their cues; so she quietly but firmly separated them, guided them to the door and admonished them saying “Go straight to your hut and get to bed!”

Occasionally entertainments were given by amateurs but as a rule the men were quite happy talking, reading, writing and playing billiards, chess, draughts or card-games.

My own duty as a rule was to preside at the till, to supply the men with tickets of different values, according to the amount which they wished to spend and offer them solemn advice regarding the rival attractions of the refreshments provided on the counter. Sausage-rolls versus ham-pies; penny cakes versus three half-penny slices of superior cake and other problems of such importance.

Every night, directly the doors were opened, the rush of men was so great that it was no easy matter to work the till quickly enough to keep pace with demands. I found the variety of ways these demands were made amusing and interesting.  There was the dapper, well-groomed ‘gentleman-ranker’ who politely removed the cigarette  from his mouth while he asked for “A ticket for a shilling, if you please”; there was also the rough boor who puffed smoke in my face as he grunted “Give us sixpence” or perhaps without superfluous speech just threw down a few coppers, mumbling “Three d”.

Though many of them were British born they all belonged to the Canadian Army. Some came from the mines and wilds of the Klondike and Alaska, some from the backwoods of Vancouver and British Columbia, some from the ranches of the Praries, some from the Lakes of the south and the great cities of the east. Among them were a few Italians and Americans who enlisted in our army before their own ’came in’.  Quite a large number were Scottish ‘kilties’, some of them really magnificent men – huge fine fellows well over six feet high, with their bonnets jauntily on one side and their curled cock’s feathers looking quite aggressive – others were so delicate and underdeveloped it was a wonder they had passed their medical tests. 

Almost all who came to the recreation hut had a few characteristics in common such as their hatred for our clumsy, heavy English coppers, their preference for Player’s cigarettes, their craving for gums and ‘candies’ although they would sometimes want ‘torfy’ or ‘choclat’ also their constant use of the expressions ‘sure and ‘that’s fine’.

I found that I was often looked upon as a kind of ‘Universal Information Bureau’ and received a great many enquiries.  For instance, one fine young fellow with a pleasant smile and quiet voice, the son of a vicar of a church in Montreal asked if I could find him someone who could teach him music in the evenings. Another, a violinist from Ottawa, wanted lessons in harmony and the theory of music.  Yet another wanted me to recommend some superior people who could give his young wife a pleasant room in their house. “I don’t want her to rough it – she’s a college girl you know and I want her to be with kind and friendly people”

I could generally satisfy their requirements but I was once asked what the population of Australia was and on another occasion asked if coffee grew on a tree or a bush. These questions were asked in order to settle arguments or wagers. 

On the very rare occasions that there was any rudeness or rowdyism among the men, it was at once suppressed by the elder and better classes, nevertheless I was pleased to discover that the authorities were ready to help us keep order if necessary.  One evening, shortly before closing time, a big brisk fellow marched quickly up to the till and, after glancing around, asked if everything was alright. For a moment I was puzzled but caught a sight of his armlet with the red letters CMP (Canadian Military Police) I then realised who he was and what he meant and I said “Yes thank-you, quite all right and it generally is”.

A few months later, just before I left Seaford a most unpleasant episode took place which even now I cannot recall without distress.  One evening I was serving at the little Post Office where not only stamps were sold but letters were taken care of until applied for by their intended recipients.  It was a bitterly cold night and many of the men came in with their coat-collars turned up and their caps pulled down over their faces, so that they were quite unrecognisable when they hurried up to my counter just for a moment to give their names and ask for their letters before rushing out of the hut again. 

The next morning I was told that a CMP was asking for me at the front door of the house. I found a frightened looking young Tommy firmly held by another on one side and a CMP on the other. The latter asked me “Did this man come to the Rally last night to ask for a letter?” I replied that I could not see their faces clearly. “His face is not absolutely strange to me” I replied “I must have seen him somewhere but I simply could not say where even if it was a matter of life or death”

The CMP replied “It is not as bad as that but we must make an example of him to stop all the thieving that has been going on. He’s the one that has been asking for other men’s letters at the Rally Post Office so thank you ma’am for helping us and good day”. I never heard the end of the matter but fear that my unwilling admission helped to bring a severe punishment on the poor lad. 

The Rally was the scene of evening concerts which often filled the Rally with men. In July 1915 the soldiers were entertained by the ‘Yellow Dominoes’ who were a group of Lewes ladies who dressed in black and yellow and entertained the troops with songs such as ‘Laddie in Khaki’, ‘Kitty the Telephone Girl’, ‘The Wounded Soldiers’and ‘What Percy’s Picked Up in the Park!’.  A few weeks later it was the turn of the ‘Lewes Joculars’ who were another concert party established specifically to entertain the troops. 

Some soldiers found the prices at the Rally expensive. Writing home in June 1917, Private Garnet Dobbs of the 6thBattalion Canadian Expeditionary Force complained that “It costs a shilling (24 cents) for as much candy as you can buy at home for a nickel. A little box of matches is 10 cents. Little biscuits like ginger snaps and arrowroots are three biscuits for 3 cents and almost all eatables are correspondingly high.”

Despite the prices, the Rally remained popular. To commemorate the 3rdAnniversary of the Rally a special postcard was produced. The hut was probably in operation for another year until early 1919. After the war many Canadians remained in Seaford but the flu-pandemic caused a speeding up of the repatriation of the men. 

By the time it closed tens of thousands of soldiers had used the Seaford hut and maybe hundreds of thousands of letters and postcards home were written there. 

The Rally and all its contents (billiard table, bagatelle tables, 25 trestle tables, 320 wooden chairs and the gramophone with 400 records) was put up for auction on 31stOctober 1919.  The Rally is no more but I bet that thousands of postcards still exist that were sent from there. 

This last photograph is interesting. I am pretty sure that the man standing at the back on the left is John Plaister, the manager of the hut and, who knows? the young lady at the till on the right could be Agnes Carter!

Sources: 

Eastbourne Chronicle & Eastbourne Gazette

The postcard collections of Rosemary Holland and Jim Marsh

Sussex Agricultural Express

Sussex County Magazine

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