World War One: Altrincham street praised by King for sacrifice
- 5 June 2014
- From the section Manchester
At the outbreak of World War One men flocked to the recruiting offices to sign up for a war that most thought would be over by Christmas. After four years of fighting that saw many of those eager recruits lose their lives, the King praised the "patriotism and fighting spirit" of one small street in Greater Manchester where more than 150 men joined up.
The men of Chapel Street in Altrincham were not backward in coming forward when war was declared in August 1914.
"There were 61 houses and 161 men enlisted, but 81 had joined up within two weeks - and that included 13 sets of brothers," said historian George Cogswell.
The Oxley brothers, Albert and Alfred, were two of the 29 men from the street who never came back.
After the war, memorials to the dead were unveiled right across the county - Chapel Street's was dedicated in April 1919.
The day before its unveiling King George V, sent a telegram praising the street for raising so many men for the war effort and saying he was "sympathetic to their loss".
"The King congratulates them, and especially those living in Chapel Street that out of its 60 houses 160 served in the war, 30 of whom made the supreme sacrifice," it read.
"His Majesty is proud to think that a roll of honour has been subscribed for and will be unveiled today as a memorial to the patriotism and fighting spirit so prominently displayed by the people of Altrincham."
The figures were slightly wrong but the sentiment was sincere. The telegram has been preserved as part of the memorial.
Chapel Street is an example of the rush to join up that swept the country in the first months of the war, according to Prof Peter Simkins, president of the Western Front Association.
"It was unprecedented in terms of numbers, because the annual intake before the war was around 30,000 a year and on the 3rd September 1914 they had that figure in one day.
"[They] went out of a sense of patriotism or duty, or to get away from a dull or dangerous job - some who lived in slums with a poorly paid job saw it as a chance to get three square meals a day."
The run-down, overcrowded housing they lived in and the daily grind of their work could have been a factor in the men from Chapel Street rushing to join up en-masse.
The 1911 census shows the men living there worked as labourers, hawkers and peddlers, bricklayers and their apprentices and agricultural labourers, according to the research done by Mr Cogswell.
"It was a very narrow street a couple of hundred yards long - the cobbled carriageway was on 11ft (3.3m) wide - everyone lived cheek-by-jowl really," he said.
"On the left were five lodging houses, each housing between eight and up to 16 people.
"A little further up on the left was the Rose and Shamrock public house - a very good name given the Anglo Irish nature of the street."
The early years of the war took its toll on the Chapel Street men: Thirteen of them were killed in 1915, Mr Cogswell's researches have shown, nine in 1916, two in 1917, and four in 1918 - the other man died from his wounds after the war.
Prof Simkins said the huge losses suffered by the Pals Battalions in the Battle of the Somme, and the introduction in March 1916 of conscription changed regiment's links to particular communities.
"There is a trend of what I call dilution of local identity from about the middle of the Battle of the Somme onwards so that you don't get such concentrated losses impacting on local communities as the war progresses," he said.
Chapel Street was demolished in the 1960s to make way for flats.
In 2009, a blue plaque was unveiled on the wall of an Italian restaurant, which now stands on part of the location.
Peter Hennerley, whose grandfather Hugh, was born in the street in 1879 and served in the war with the Cheshire Regiment, helped to organise the ceremony.
He said at the time: "So many people from one street volunteering to go to war would not happen today."