To mark the centenary of World War One, archivist Vincent McKernan, shares a compelling slice of social history from the ICA archives.
“Archives are forever capable of surprises. Just when you think you know what to expect, they throw you a curve ball. And the archive of the International Cotton Association is no exception.
When I started to catalogue the archive back in 2011, I expected to find minute books, financial records, correspondence, trade records, and, for the most part, this is what I got; a comprehensive set of records documenting the major activities of the organisation. What I did not expect was a compelling slice of social history from the First World War.
In many ways, the attitude of the Cotton Association to the people who fought in the war was admirable. The Minute Books of the Board of Directors records the following resolution in 1916: “that every member of the staff should be allowed to join the army if they wished to do so…and that while they were away in the army, those who went from the Office, Clearing House & Exchange Staffs would receive 2/3rds their present salary, and the Estate Staffs 1/2 their present salary.”
As the casualties mounted and it became clear that the war would be a long one, the Association established a special committee appointed by the Directors to form a scheme to raise a fund for the benefit of the dependants of those men from the Cotton Market who fall in the war. The object of the scheme, as stated in the minutes of 1916, was: “to augment the pensions allowed by H.M. Government to those disabled or to the dependants of those killed during the War, and also to give help in cases that may not come under the Government pension scheme should the Committee think it advisable.”
The scheme raised money by putting a tax on transactions made by firms who were members of the then Liverpool Cotton Association. All firms were required to make a weekly return on cotton imported, and it was estimated that £10,000 per annum could be raised in this way – the equivalent today would be just over £500,000. Perhaps predictably, the brokers were astute enough to ensure that they got the best deal for the people who would benefit from the scheme. Right from the start, they agreed that: “if any grant was made from the War Relief Fund to these applicants they would have to return the amount when applying for their State Pension, and the grant made to them would probably be deducted by the Government in making the pension. It was therefore decided that it would be better for the Committee to make no grants until after any applicant had received the Supplementary Pension from the State.”
The actions of the War Relief Committee are recorded in two ways within the archive: the official minutes of the Committee, and the application forms of the people who applied for relief. These give details of name, firm, date of application, details of application, decision, and subsequent developments. Together they form a fascinating social record of the terrible effect of the War on individuals and families. In particular, the application forms are gripping because they record any changes over time to the applicants, and you almost feel that you can follow a person’s life story through them.
For example, in 1917 the Committee considered an application on behalf of Thomas Milner, who had been wounded and totally lost the sight of one eye, with the other being badly damaged. He was unmarried and before the War he gave his wages amounting to 15 shillings per week to his mother. At present he was receiving an allowance of 25 shillings per week and was being kept without expense at St Dunstan’s Hospital. He had a father working as a dock labourer, a brother and eight sisters, the eldest of whom was 23 years of age and working. The Committee decided that for the present it was unnecessary to make any grant, but that a letter should be written to Milner asking him to let the Committee know if any alteration was made in his pension. By 1920, when Thomas Milner applied once more to the Committee, he said that he was effectively now blind in both eyes, in receipt of a pension of £2, and employed as a typist for the National Institute for the Blind. The Committee gave him a further grant of £100.
Mrs Cullen applied for relief in 1918, after her husband, Joseph, had been reported as missing since 9 April 1918 and was now presumed killed. She had two boys (aged 2 and-a-half years and 4 months old respectively). The Committee gave her a grant of 15 shillings per week, which ceased when she remarried in December 1920.
The Committee was generous in its application of funds, preferring to give where it could, even in cases which might not, strictly speaking, have fallen under its remit. It gave a single grant of £50 to a Mrs L’Hermitte, whose son Max had been killed while fighting in the French Army. Mrs L’Hermitte and her daughter were absolutely dependent on her two sons, who had been killed in the War. At the time of the application, the French Government had made no pension for the dependents of unmarried Officers killed in the War. The Committee also looked favourably on the application of the dependents (a widow and five children) of the late Philip Lever, who had died suddenly during manoeuvres while in the Liverpool Civic Guard. The Committee considered that as Mr Lever had been doing work in connection with the War, the application came within their scope, and gave a grant of £75 per annum. The late Lieutenant Herbert C Beck had been killed, leaving a widow and three children. Mr Beck had been the local representative of Messrs Bush & Witherspoon of America and had joined the army. Mrs Beck had not been left well off and was going back to America, and the Chairman of the Association thought that it would be a very suitable thing if the Committee could see their way to make a grant. The Committee gave her £250.
In 1917, determined to ensure that no-one eligible for relief should miss out, the Chairman stated: “that he understood that about 150 men had been killed from the Market, and he thought that in all probability there were many persons who must require some help, but that no application had been made on their behalf.” He, therefore, suggested that: “he should interview a Member of each of the Firms which had had an employee killed during the War, in order that he might find out if the dependents of such employees were in a position to require any help.” The Committee fully approved of this suggestion.
The scheme eventually closed in 1934, with the remaining balance of £30,000 transferred to the Association’s new Benevolent Fund. It was a scheme the Association was justifiably proud of. As the minutes record: “the scheme had now been existence for practically eighteen years and there was no doubt that a great deal of hardship had been obviated on the dependents of those who had lost their lives. Since its inception in 1916, £67,673 had actually been distributed to the dependents of those who had lost their lives in the War, or to those who had been seriously injured.”
The Committee had granted the equivalent of over £3.5 million by today’s standards. And, in the archive which they created, they left a legacy of real richness for future social and family historians.”