Great War conscription and Edwardian Preston’s ‘class ceiling’

But if you’re working class and from Preston, I don’t want you as an officer

Some years ago I had a neighbour who told me that when called up for National Service in the Army he had been given a commission on the strength of his attendance at a minor public school (presumably he had been a member of some cadet corps). As a teenaged officer, serving in Germany, he was automatically allocated a batman to attend to his personal needs. This batman, also a National Serviceman, who presumably had not attended a public school, objected strongly to being expected to act as servant to a fellow conscript. I found it hard to believe that such class privilege could have survived two world wars and a landslide Labour election victory.

And yet it continues, as a recent Guardian article reveals:

Figures for 2017 show that the Ministry of Defence spent £80m a year so that the children of senior military officers could attend elite public schools. The costs are not small. For example, Tony Blair’s old school, Fettes, was paid £441,027 and Eton almost £270,000. While the overall annual figure of £80m remains almost unchanged from previous years, Eton, Harrow (£183,000), Marlborough College (£346,000) and Shrewsbury School (£231,000) have all enjoyed bumper years, seeing increased MoD payments.
The purpose … is to ensure that children of … the military top brass do not suffer from a disrupted education when their parents are serving abroad. But closer scrutiny of government figures reveals that almost half of the personnel who benefit have UK-based jobs. And because participant families must pay part of the fees themselves, most ordinary soldiers can’t afford to join the scheme. This means that it is almost exclusively the senior officer … whose children get to go to the elite expensive schools like Eton, Harrow and Marlborough College. [1]

A wonderful World War 1 source for testing the impact of such fostering and preserving of the privileges of the officer caste is the ‘Absent Voters Lists’ of all servicemen still on active service collected at the end of the war.

The 1918 general election called after the armistice and held on 14 December was the first to be held following the passing of Representation of the People Act at the beginning of the year. The act extended the franchise to all men over 21, to men under 21 who turned 19 during war service and to women aged 30 or over.  One immediate difficulty presented itself: many thousands of eligible voters had still not been demobilised. These men, and a very few women, were termed ‘absent voters’ and local registration officers had been tasked with identifying those eligible to vote and their home addresses in order to compile absent voters lists for each constituency.

The work of compilation had begun earlier in the year, and by October 1918 the House of Commons was being assured that the lists for all but three constituencies had been printed. [2] Following the election the lists were updated periodically up until shortly before World War 2. Not many of these lists survive and Preston is especially fortunate in having a complete list for Spring 1919. [3]

The town is even more fortunate in that Glen Swarbrick has transcribed the Preston list, arranged it alphabetically by surname and has generously made it available on line:
(He has done a similar job on the names of the more than 5,000 people buried in the former St Wilfrid’s Cemetery:, and says he hopes, if he is spared, to complete a similar project on the St Ignatius cemetery). In addition, David Huggonson has photographed the list, which is arranged by ward, polling district and street, and made those images available on line:

The list is arranged in five columns: the voter’s number; their name; the address which qualifies them to vote; a column providing a ‘Description of Service, Ship, Regiment, Number, Rank, Rating, &c., or recorded address’; and the voter’s number repeated.  The Spring 1919 list would seem to be based firstly on the original 1918 list, updated to remove those demobilised, record any change of home address, and, naturally and sadly, to mark by omission those who had died since the original compilation. To this was added (from voter registration number 12468) some additions that seem to have been made in 1918, followed (from voter registration number 12969) by a longer list of additions, headed ‘Addition – Spring, 1919’.

The first entry in the list is Voter No. 1 William Ogden, whose home address was 2 Albert Street and who was serving as a private with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The final entry on the list is Voter No. 14042 Joseph Saul, whose home address was 14 Norris Street, Fulwood, and who was serving as a private in the RAF. Although the list extends to 14,042 voter numbers, the deletions mentioned above mean that there are, in fact, 11,312 names on the list. Also, 14 voters are listed twice: by their 1918 address and by their updated 1919 address. For example, Driver William Allen is listed at 15, Gilbert Street in 1918 and at 24 Caton Street in 1919. There are hardly any women on the list. Only five can be identified by female first name: two nurses, two members of the Women’s Royal Air Force, and one whose service was not given. One failing of the list is that the rank and service details are sometimes missing. However, 8,616 of the records do give details of rank, of which 264 are for officers and 8,352 for other ranks.

Setting the context

A lengthy treatment of the class structure of the British Army shortly before and during the Great War and of the relations between officers and other ranks is provided by a PhD thesis by Gary Sheffield, which can be found on-line, and so is easily available to independent researchers. [4] I have used his study to get a picture of what life must have been like for the officers and, overwhelmingly, rankers who were recruited and conscripted from Preston for active service during the war. Sheffield is Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University. Early in his academic career he spent a number of years at Sandhurst.

Sheffield reports the claim that,  ‘… recruitment for the pre-1914 army had been aided by “the compulsion of hunger”.’ A view with which he concurs:.

 ‘… although unpalatable to the official mind, [this] was not far from the truth. Various estimates of the proportion of unemployed men enlisting in the army ranged from 70 per cent in one area to in excess of 90 per cent for the country as a whole … the intake of recruits in a not untypical year were drawn almost entirely from the working classes, with labourers, rather than artisans, predominating..’ [5]

By contrast, he found that:

 ‘The officer class was largely recruited, as it had been in the nineteenth century, from what has been described as ‘traditional sources of supply’: families with military connections; the gentry and peerage; and to some degree, the professions and clergy.
The British officer class was educationally homogenous. An education at a public school, especially a Clarendon school, was an almost essential rite of passage for the aspirant officer. By 1913, the majority of officers also passed through Sandhurst or Woolwich. The common educational background of the majority of the officer class also helped to ensure that ‘country house’ values permeated the officers’ mess. [6]

(The Clarendon school education of Preston’s privileged youth has been discussed here)

Sheffield argues that, ‘Officer-man relations followed the pattern of the ideal ‘country house’ relationship between the landlord and tenant, with loyalty and deference being given in exchange for paternalism and leadership.’ [7]

From soon after the outbreak of World War 1 the demand for officer recruits increased rapidly, as the conflict took its toll:

The casualty rate among junior officers was extraordinarily heavy. To give but one example, in September 1915 normal wastage rates for officers on Gallipoli were calculated at 20 per cent per month. By September 1917 the casualty rate among officers resulted in most battalions being commanded by officers of ‘not more than’ 28 years old, and most companies by men no older than 20. [8]

The short life of a Great War subaltern may have reconciled the other rankers to the perks and privileges enjoyed by officers. According to Sheffield:

The rationale behind the disparity in the army’s treatment of officers and men was that, having greater responsibilities, officers were entitled to more comfort. However, very occasionally, one detects in officers’ writings a twinge of guilt that they had privileges denied to their men. Officers who had previously served in the ranks in particular knew only too well what ordinary soldiers had to endure. ‘When I think of the men who have none of my 1,000 comforts’, a subaltern wrote in February 1916, ‘I am glad that I didn’t stay in the [ranks of the] 16th Middlesex’. [9]

That Middlesex regiment subaltern was probably one of those who would not have been socially acceptable in the pre-war Regular Army:

The broadening of the social base of the officer class did not meet with universal approval. In the early years of the war there was some fairly predictable criticism in the press on the grounds of social snobbery, which can be summed up in the pejorative phrase ‘temporary gentlemen’. [10]

Sheffield found that:

The average temporary regimental officer of 1918, unlike his public school educated predecessor of 1914, was a ‘professional’ in the sense that he had earned his commission on the battlefield, rather than attaining it through the possession of social and educational advantages. [11]

However, he then later reports:

In 1968, R.C. Sherriff, who served as an officer in 9/E. Surreys from 1916-18, wrote that his play Journey’s End had been criticised because ‘there was too much of the English public schools about it’. Sherriff retorted that ‘Almost every young officer was a public school boy’ and if he had omitted them from Journey’s End, ‘there wouldn’t have been a play at all.’

Sheffield adds, ‘The arguments advanced in this present work, supported by much evidence drawn from unpublished sources, offers a broad measure of support for Sherriff’s claims.’ And he concludes that, ‘Sherriff was absolutely correct to insist on the importance of public school values in the maintenance of morale, since these were inculcated during officer training.’ [12]

Sheffield warns against ‘generalising from the writings of a tiny number of officer poets, as too many literary specialists and cultural historians have done.’ [13] (This domination of the Great War narrative by a literary elite is discussed below).

Preston’s Great War Absent Voters List and the town’s great class divide

The details supplied in the list of 264 officers and 8,352 other ranks are especially valuable to the local historian since they can be broken down by polling district and plotted on a map of Preston. The ratios of officers to men in the different districts provide a way to map the social geography of the town at the end of the Great War. The class disparity is quite striking: the average ratio of officers to men for all polling districts is 1:31.64; in one of the two middle-class Avenham districts the ratio is 1:6.44; in one of the St Peter’s working-class districts it is 1:235.5, and two working-class districts are home to no officers. (Fulwood Central, a middle-class district with a ratio of 1:2.53, is a special case, which is discussed below).

Table 1: Records from the Preston Spring 1919 Absent Voters List
Fig. 1. The wards and polling districts of Preston at the time of the production of the Spring 1919 Absent Voters List, superimposed on the modern OpenStreet map.
Fig. 2. The numbers of home addresses for all voters in the Spring 1919 Absent Voters List, superimposed on the modern OpenStreet map. The values are represented using the Jenks natural breaks cartographical classification method.
Fig. 3. The numbers of home addresses for officers in the Spring 1919 Absent Voters List, superimposed on the modern OpenStreet map. The values are represented using the Jenks natural breaks cartographical classification method.
Fig. 4. The numbers of home addresses for other ranks in the Spring 1919 Absent Voters List, superimposed on the modern OpenStreet map. The values are represented using the Jenks natural breaks cartographical classification method.
Fig. 5. The ratios of officers to other ranks as given by the home addresses in the Spring 1919 Absent Voters List, superimposed on the modern OpenStreet map. Thus in the polling district with the highest proportion of officers (Fulwood Central) there was one officer to 2.53 other ranks. The values are represented using the Jenks natural breaks cartographical classification method.

The absence or incompleteness of the service records for 2,696 of the 11,312 voters mean that it is impossible to know whether these were officers or other ranks. This means that the numbers and ratios in the above figures could be skewed. However, the marked pattern shown in the Fig. 5 ratios does strongly suggest that officers were recruited from the middle-class suburbs of Fulwood and Ashton, and from that other middle-class enclave, Avenham.  Conversely, no officers were to be found in two of the poorest central districts, and few in the working-class districts spreading east through Deepdale and Ribbleton, and north through Plungington.

This absence of officers in the Absent Voters List for the working-class districts chimes with the portrayal of Great War officers as invariably middle-class in books, films and television. Thus, the writing of the likes of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon after the war supply the main published accounts of officer life in the trenches. This has continued up to the present day: Graves and Sassoon make their fictional reappearance in Pat Barker’s Resurgence trilogy.  And not to forget, the caricatured staff officers in Blackadder Goes Forth. Sebastian Faulks, the author of Birdsong, brings out one of the reasons for this distorted portrayal in his A Broken World, a collection of the recollections of ordinary people whose lives were transformed by the Great War. In it he notes that ‘… there was still in the 1920s a presumption in book publishing that only officer memoirs would have a claim on the reading public: lousy Tommy Atkins was not pursued by the gentlemen of Bloomsbury.’ [14] And by officer is generally meant the product of a public school.

Given the sickening attrition of trench warfare in the Great War, it would be expected that able and experienced other ranks of whatever class would have been commissioned as the war progressed. The figures in the Absent Voters List at the end of the war would seem to suggest that this had not happened for Preston recruits. The eight polling districts with three or fewer officers, shown in white in Fig. 3 above, had 2,775 voters serving in the forces at the end of the war, of whom just 15 were officers. This correlates with the point made by John Garlington in his introduction to his Preston Then & Now, where he writes, ‘The majority of Prestonians were working class, a fact supported by the rough statistic that only 0.7 per cent of the men killed from the town in the First World War were officers. Official British Army sources show that 4 per cent of the whole force killed were officers.’ [15] Mr Garlington’s words brought back a childhood memory of playing ‘spot the officer’ among the carved names of the town’s war dead on the staircases at the Harris Museum.

The eight central polling districts

Deepdale: The three officers in Deepdale’s polling district U all had home addresses in Stephenson Terrace: two were listed as doctors and one as an army chaplain. So no working-class officers in that district.

Ribbleton: There were five officers in the two Ribbleton districts. One was listed as a doctor with a home address in New Hall Lane, another was Second Lieutenant  John Sanders of 104 Miller Road. If he is the J. Saunders recorded at that address in the 1917 Barrett commercial directory of the town then his occupation was clerk [16]. So white-collar working class. The occupations of two others cannot be ascertained. Finally, there was Second Lieutenant George Graves Charnley, whose home address was 40, Illingworth Road. This was then a newly-built, modest terraced house (it is not recorded in the 1911 census) in a pleasant, open position overlooking Waverley Park. If he is the George Charnley recorded at that address in the 1917 directory then his occupation was moulder and he was clearly a genuine blue-collar member of the working class. [17]

St Peter’s: Of the five officers in the two St Peter’s districts James Billington was listed as a Second Engineer in the Navy and his home address was given as 20 Moor Lane. If he was the J. Billington, mechanic, listed at that address in the 1917 directory then he was another blue-collar worker. [18] The occupations of the other four officers could not be ascertained.

Trinity: Of the two officers in polling district R in Trinity ward, John Harrop, a second lieutenant whose home address was listed as 176 Friargate, could possibly have been the furniture dealer listed as John Harrop Ltd, of 18 Lune Street, in the directory. [19] If so, he would count as middle class. Another second lieutenant was John Tipping, whose address was given as the street known as Old Vicarage. There was a T. Tipping, clerk, listed at that address in the directory, suggesting a white-collar background. [20]

Of the 15 officers from the eight central working-class districts in the town four were definitely middle class, two blue-collar working class, two probably white-collar working class, one possibly middle-class and another six whose occupation could not be ascertained. Did none of the 2,760 other rankers listed in those districts have the experience and ability to warrant a commission?

The middle-class districts

Of the 264 voters on the absent voters list who can be identified as officers 121 came from just four of the 28 Preston polling districts: Ashton G, Avenham C and D, and Fulwood Central. Details from the list for these 121 officers are set out in the tables below together with the information contained in the 1917 Barret’s directory where the addresses and surnames in the two lists correspond. Persons who styled themselves ‘esquire’ clearly did not see themselves as working class. The same may go, but with much less certainty, for those who asked for the prefix ‘Mr’ in their directory entry.

A clearer indication of status is the type of housing they inhabited: their addresses have been plotted on the circa 1912 25 inch OS maps below. Nigel Morgan showed how accurately class can be deduced from a person’s house in his detailed study of the social history and architecture of middle-class housing in Preston, chiefly focussing on Winckley Square and its surroundings. A useful tool that was not available to Nigel is the street view facility on Google Maps, which allows a virtual inspection of the front elevation of most of the properties identified below.

Ashton Ward Polling District G

Table 2: Details of officers in Ashton Ward Polling District G

All of the Ashton addresses in the table above and and in the map below, with one exception, are of houses in the middle-class suburb developed in the late 19th century. The exception is the Tulketh Brow property, which is on the other side of the tracks on the edge of the new working class district emerging between the railway and the canal. If you walk the Ashton district from south to north you will notice the properties gradually rising in the status scale.  At the head of the above table is Lieutenant Frederick Fazackerley whose address was the home of R. Fazackerley esq. JP in the Barrett directory. The house is a large detached property in the north west of the district, sitting on a generous plot. This was clearly a middle-class family. By contrast, Second Lieutenant T. Postlethwaite lived at the home address for a foreman, and the house is terraced and sits on a cramped plot. The house is at the south east of the district and was probably the home of a family on the working-class/middle-class cusp. More difficult to ascertain is the class of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Ainley, who is quite probably the R. Ainley at his home address in the Barrett directory. That R. Ainley, according to the directory, was a foreman, living in a large semi-detached house with a long garden behind. His elevated rank despite his working class background could be because he possessed specialist technical abilities. He was serving in an Inland Waterways & Docks company of the Royal Engineers, of which he was presumably the colonel. This role would explain a rapid promotion, as a posting on the Great War Forum suggests:

The I.W. & D companies were formed in 1915 originally operating barges in the Middle East and France, later they operated cross channel barges from Richborough in Kent carrying arms and ammunition as well as construction materials and the heavy stuff the BEF needed. They tended to be recruited from civilian watermen, or barge operators … Skilled men were not only paid at an enhanced rate but often received fairly rapid promotion.

Fig. 6. Addresses of officers in Ashton Ward Polling District G superimposed on the 1912 OS map

Avenham Ward Polling Districts C and D

Table 3: Details of officers in Avenham Ward

These two districts in the Avenham ward were home to Preston’s most prominent citizens, the best properties being found in Winckley Square and on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Ribble. The class structure of this area has been dissected in minute detail by Nigel Morgan. His findings are reflected in the above table, which contains far more individuals of the rank of captain and above than does Ashton. There is no mistaking the class of the three second lieutenant sons of the vicar of Preston, the Rev Hercules Scott Butler. His Christian names for his sons included Villiers and Desramaux, not names often found in the working class districts of the town, just as now a politician with a family member named Piers would find it hard to claim working class antecedents. Neither would a Colonel Wemyss Gawne Cunningham Fielden be likely to choose to live in one of the town’s working-class districts.

Four of the officers were medical men who had left their Preston practices to serve in the army. One of them was Major Arthur Rayner, the father of Phoebe Hesketh and brother of her aunt, Edith Rigby. Phoebe Hesketh’s lyrically evocative account of her Edwardian childhood in the Winckley Square district shows just how liberating the absence of men during the war could be for women. Major Rayner, to read between the lines of his daughter’s account, was a controlling tyrant in the home and, when he was posted abroad, his wife, who had been a violinist with the Halle Orchestra before the marriage, seems to have blossomed. [21]

Another officer, Lieutenant Francis Bassett Dixon, was a member of the family that owned the Frenchwood Tannery, next door to his home, Oak House, at the end of Bank Parade.

Fig. 7. Addresses of officers in Avenham Ward superimposed on the 1912 OS map

Fulwood Ward Polling District FC

Table 4: Details of officers in the central Fulwood polling district

The social geography of this middle-class suburb has been described in detail by Carole Knight and Margaret Burscough, and it is no surprise that it should contain the homes of so many officers. [22] However, the startling ratio of one officer to 2.53 other ranks in this district could be accounted for partly by the presence of Fulwood Barracks nearby.  The Taylor Street in the above table and on the map below is now named Fairfield Road.

Fig. 8. Addresses of officers in the central Fulwood polling district superimposed on the 1912 OS map


The Preston Absent Voters List of Spring 1919 would seem to show that:

  • Class discrimination barred members of the Preston working class recruited or conscripted into the armed forces during the Great War from obtaining a commission as an officer, and favoured selection from among the middle class.
  • The plotting of the Preston addresses of officers and other ranks onto the map of the town brings out the marked geographical boundaries between the middle-class districts (Ashton, Avenham and Fulwood) and the homes of the working class.

The two classes were thus divided both socially and geographically.

These two divisions developed independently. As late as the 18th century the geographical division between the classes did not exist: the Preston Poor Tax Book of 1732 and the early plans of the town (such as Lang’s of 1774) show that all classes shared a common space. Housing standards varied considerably but all the townsfolk lived within a couple of streets of each other, along Fishergate, Friargate and Church Street.

The classes began to divide spatially in the 19th century as the cotton workers were housed a short walk from their mills in dormitory terraces where they slept in the brief interval between shifts. The middle classes colonised Avenham and the suburbs to the north, excluding the working classes, unless they were employed as servants. This development has been traced in great detail by Nigel Morgan in his three books: Vanished Dwellings, [23] Dangerous Dwellings [24] and Desirable Dwellings.

In chapter three of that last book, echoing the feelings of Joseph Livesey, he singles out the ‘breath-taking hypocrisy’ and sense of entitlement of the Winckley Square set as the geographical separation of the classes was reinforced socially:

… the Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (or Mechanics’ Institute) was hijacked from its premises in Cannon Street … It had been established in 1828 to encourage self-help adult education for all classes, but especially working men, with the ideal of ‘perfect equality’, and by 1835 its 300 members included 44 mechanics, 40 labourers and porters. 20 shoemakers, 24 tailors, and so on. For quarterly subscriptions of one shilling and seven pence (roughly equivalent to half a week’s rent) they could use the library, learn English grammar or French, take classes in vocational skills such as architectural drawing and book-keeping … Unfortunately ‘perfect equality’ did not last very long, and by the early 1840s working men were a minority among bankers, professional men and ‘gentlemen’. The new membership, encouraged by the Corporation, then acquired a new site at the top of Ribblesdale Place. As one of the founder members, Joseph Livesey pointed out in the newspaper which he had just started:

If the building be intended as an ornament to a part of the town that needs it the least . . . nobody ought to complain except perhaps, those members who are attached to Cannon Street . . . (But) a more unlikely site could scarcely have been chosen. It is quite at an outside comer of the town, and convenient only to the comparatively wealthy. And not only so, but it will become less and less central as the town extends. (Preston Guardian 31 Jan. 1846)

He might have said the same about the Corporation’s plans for a public park, on lands which it had just acquired on the bank of the river below Ribblesdale Place. This purchase, of what is now Avenham Park, had been recommended by the Mayor (John Addison) with such breath-taking hypocrisy that it must have been unconscious:

With respect . . . to the particular classes whose advantage was chiefly contemplated . . . they must recollect that they are those who have little leisure, except during certain hours of the day . . . this made it the more necessary to provide for them near their homes. (Preston Chronicle 31 Aug. 1844)

The Cross Street buildings having been demolished and replaced with modern offices, only the Avenham Institute and the Park are left as architectural evidence of the way the new middle classes of early Victorian Preston feathered their own nests in this area. They had provided for the formal education of boys, the informal education of adults, the indoor recreation of men, and the outdoor recreation of all, on their own doorsteps. All except the park had been removed from locations where they had been more convenient for the rest of the population, but which had perhaps had the uncomfortable disadvantage of exposing fashionable folk to the mockery of their inferiors as they passed among them. The one thing lacking was an estate church, but sectarian rivalries in a town with so many Catholics and Nonconformists would have caused disagreements. The residents might hold different beliefs on a Sunday, but when it came to social values in the rest of the week, they were as one.

(This chapter of Nigel’s book provides a useful correction to some accounts of the great and the not-so-good of Winckley Square that can veer towards hagiography rather than history.)

By 1914 such social divisions would have been so entrenched nationally that it would have seemed perfectly natural that middle-class schoolboys should command, and working-class adults simply serve. For, as Gary Sheffield pointed out, it was felt that a public school education (aped by the grammar schools) trained young men for leadership, whereas the working classes had been schooled in deference and for them: ‘Deference was … a way of life, which was in part brought about by the inculcation of deferential attitudes through education and religion.’ [25]

The division between the classes was especially marked in Preston as shown in the above analysis of the Preston Absent Voters List, and by John Garlington’s finding that while 4 per cent of all the British forces killed in the Great War were officers ‘only 0.7 per cent of the men killed from the town in the First World War were officers’. It is too simplistic to suggest that the working-class conscripts were seen simply as ‘cannon fodder’ by the commanders of the British forces. But something must account for the gross disparity in the numbers of men from Preston serving in the ranks and those commissioned as officers.  Class seems to have been the deciding factor, as it remains today.

The basis for such marked inequalities in Edwardian Preston can be found in a recently published book, The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged, that dissects the present-day myth of social mobility. I have only read the (fairly extensive) preview on Amazon so far, but I like the way the authors ground their work on that of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu:

At root a Bourdieusian lens insists that our class background is defined by our parents’ stocks of three primary forms of capital: economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (educational credentials and the possession of legitimate knowledge, skills and tastes) and social capital (valuable social connections and friendships). [26]

Winckley Square’s Edwardian residents clearly ticked all three boxes.

Future Research

By 1919 the great demobilisation that followed the armistice was under way, a difficult transition:

… the first stage of demobilization at the end of 1918 – devised by the Secretary for War, Lord Alfred Milner – had to be rapidly revised such was the public frustration with it. By putting industry’s needs first, Milner’s scheme prioritized some of the men who, by economic necessity, had been amongst the last to be called up. Disturbances within the British army camps at Calais and Folkestone, as well as a major demonstration drawing a crowd of 3,000 in London, ensued … [This was replaced by] a more acceptable demobilization scheme which factored in, most of all, length of service and number of wounds sustained. British forces shrank from about 3.8 million at the Armistice to around 900,000 in late 1919 and down to 230,000 by 1922. Britain enjoyed a brief period of economic buoyancy after the Armistice. Decanting so many men into the labour market increased unemployment markedly, from just 1 percent of the labour force in May 1920 to 23 percent by May 1921. Part of the social dividend of demobilization, therefore, had to be a considerable expansion of benefits for the unemployed such as “out of work donations” for soldiers and civilians. Women workers, so prized in wartime, fared less well: by May 1919, they made up around three-quarters of the unemployed. [27]

In Preston, according to the 1919 Absent Voters List, the number of demobilised servicemen arriving back in town would have numbered between 13,000 and 14,000. This approximation is based on the fact that the list went up to Number 14,042 and allowing for the hasty compilation of the list, the occasional duplicate entry and the absence of those who died in the last months of the war. I do not think the impact of the demobilisation on the town’s social and economic life has been studied.

[1] Robert Verkaik, ‘Critics Take Aim at Subsidies given to Private Schools’, The Guardian, 5 February 2019, sec. Education,
[2] ‘ABSENT VOTERS. (Hansard, 17 October 1918)’, accessed 5 February 2019,
[3] ‘Absent Voters’ List: Parliamentary Borough of Preston. Spring 1919’ (Preston Borough Council, 1919), LP04/PRE, Harris Library.
[4] Gary David Sheffield, ‘Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army, 1902-22’ (PhD thesis, King’s College, 1994),
[5] Sheffield, 1–2.
[6] Sheffield, 3–4.
[7] Sheffield, 8.
[8] Sheffield, 200.
[9] Sheffield, 202.
[10] Sheffield, 212.
[11] Sheffield, 218.
[12] Sheffield, 268–69.
[13] Sheffield, 273.
[14] Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf, A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War (London: Vintage, 2015), 11 of the ebook (Lancashire Library has it).
[15] John Garlington, Preston Then & Now (Stroud: History, 2012).
[16] General and Commercial Directory of Preston (Preston: Barrett, 1917), 197,
[17] General and Commercial Directory of Preston, 390.
[18] General and Commercial Directory of Preston, 199.
[19] General and Commercial Directory of Preston, 305.
[20] General and Commercial Directory of Preston, 210.
[21] Phoebe Hesketh, What Can the Matter Be? (United Writers, 1985).
[22] Carole Knight and Margaret Burscough, Historic Fulwood and Cadley (Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 1998).
[23] Nigel Morgan, Vanished Dwellings (Preston: Mullion Books, 1990).
[24] Nigel Morgan, Deadly Dwellings: Housing & Health in a Lancashire Cotton Town, Preston from 1840 to 1914 (Preston: Mullion, 1993).
[25] Sheffield, ‘Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army, 1902-22’, 167.
[26] Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, (Policy Press, 2019), 14,
[27] ‘Demobilization | International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1)’, accessed 17 February 2019,

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