Wivenhoe in 1914 was very different to the Wivenhoe of today. Whilst The Quay, from the Captain’s cottages with their pretty bow-fronted windows to the Rose and Crown, and further along the Folly, would have been fairly similar to today, although perhaps not quite as smart, the population of Wivenhoe would have had little more than 2,500 people housed in probably not much more than 500 houses, instead of the 3,500 houses that we have today.
Most of the people would have lived below the Co-op with only around 50 houses at The Cross, up Colchester Road and Elmstead Road since Heath Road, the houses down Rosabelle Avenue and the estates at Lower Lodge Farm, Vine Farm and Broadfields were not built until more than 50 years later. Indeed the road we call The Avenue was then only a track between The Cross and old Wivenhoe known as Rope Walk. It was only a few years earlier in 1901 that the land once known as Spion Kop, which had been used by the Army to train soldiers for the Boer War, had been laid out as roads called Manor Road, Ernest Road and Stanley Road. By 1914, only a few houses had been built on these new roads.
It was against this background of a village community where many of the men of Wivenhoe were employed in boat-building activities at the three principal yards, the two downstream ones of Cox and Kings, and Husks, and then Rennie Forrest, which was the upstream yard. Other main employment was that of fishing, and for some in the summer months crewing on the yachts of the wealthy owners who lived in London. There were quite a few shops and a few other trades, and the 21 pubs of course, the railway which had reached Wivenhoe in 1863 which led to the building of the two big hotels, The Park and the Grosvenor, but the big employers were the shipyards.
Small boats and barges were built here, some in wood but increasingly in iron and steel. The sound of the rivet gun rang around the village as men strove to build bigger vessels of all sorts. They would all have known each other, or at least knew of each other as well as other men in Wivenhoe and their families. Wivenhoe was a relatively small community.
Thus when war broke out in August 1914, Wivenhoe was a small, friendly but lively place. The Nottage Maritime Institute had been founded for the improvement of nautical skills in 1896 followed by the creation of the Wivenhoe Urban District Council in 1898. Whilst people had become used to the train, the motor car had not long been invented and beyond the reach of most ordinary folk. The telephone had become available in larger houses but not amongst smaller, poorer houses that were common-place in Wivenhoe. News took a bit longer to get around the place – no Facebook or Twitter in those days!
On 4th August, 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium, with which Britain had a treaty, Britain felt forced to retaliate and declared war on Germany. Early thoughts that war would all be over by Christmas looked increasingly too optimistic as casualties mounted and a harsh wind of reality settled in. Neither side ever looked like winning during the ensuing four years. More and more troops were required for war deployment, not just in France but all over the world.
Fighting took place in more than 30 countries, across the European continent, including Russia and Turkey plus those countries in other parts of the world which had been annexed by expansionist Germany in previous wars.
By January 1916, when conscription was introduced, 2.6 million men had volunteered for service, and a further 2.3 million were conscripted before the end of the war. At least 300 Wivenhoe men went to fight of whom 46 did not return and their names are inscribed on the memorial in St Mary’s Churchyard.
Peter Hill, Chairman, Wivenhoe History Group