Seven days that changed a city: How the sudden outbreak of European war was felt in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Monday 3rd August, 1914, was far from a usual day in Newcastle upon Tyne.

It was a sunny bank holiday, yet the topic of conversation in the streets was of anything but plans for a leisurely trip out of town. Stories of a crisis brewing in Europe had gradually been taking over larger columns of the news for the past few months, and the special editions of the daily papers now carried the news that Russia had invaded Germany and that a 100,000 strong German army was marching toward Luxembourg. The prospect that Britain would soon become involved was more real than ever and likewise it was dawning on ordinary people that their lives would soon be irrevocably changed by events out of their control.

The streets of central Newcastle presented a busy hive of activity on the Monday and Tuesday. With business temporarily paralysed on the Quayside, redundant commercial workers and other onlookers congregated in large numbers in the town centre. They bought up the special editions as rapidly as they were published and eagerly discussed the latest war intelligence. The bank holiday was extended to Tuesday and although the shops and factories were shut there were still people to be found enjoying the offerings of the city. The annual sports of the Newcastle Police at St. James’ Park attracted a larger than normal crowd and the shows at the popular Empire Cinema, Queen’s Hall and Hippodrome continued to draw audiences throughout the week. Those who attended Rev. Ison’s service at St. Thomas church in the evening heard prayers that England might not be drawn into the conflict and in the gathering spirit of patriotism, sang the national anthem.

Newcastle awoke on Wednesday 5th August to the news that Germany had invaded Belgium, triggering an ultimatum from Great Britain and thereby the declaration of war. News of the declaration was accompanied by frantic scenes in the morning, as customers of the local supply stores rushed to buy up more than ample shares of food in response to the prospect of wartime scarcities. Nerves and suspicion were already becoming a fact of city life. Police arrested two men of ‘foreign appearance’ for apparently making sketch drawings of the High Level Bridge and the accused were followed to the station by a crowd of jeering youngsters. There were, however, some public expressions of good will. The German consul in Newcastle, Max Holzapfel, in an open letter to the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Mr Johnstone Wallace, spoke of his regret that the crisis meant he would have to leave the city and country. He also expressed his thanks to the people of Newcastle for the sympathy, support and spirit of friendship always shown to him.

Following the initial food panic, the Mayor warned publicly that this would only drive prices up, calling for order and calm.  The situation had eased by the end of the week and the sense of anxiety that had surrounded the morning of the declaration was replaced by a renewed sense of optimism, and duty to the national cause. Already groups such as the Newcastle Guardians were discussing provisions for the poor and the Citizen’s Training League was established to give those unable to enlist the chance to receive military training. By Friday and heading into the weekend, military activity and mobilisation were well under way across the country and dominated dealings in the city. Reservists who had already been called up received hearty farewells from crowds at Central Station and at the same time locations like Tilley’s dance hall on Market Street were used for billeting new recruits. C. W Dixon’s on Northumberland Street began to advertise the sale of marching boots and other equipment for soldiers and cinemas brought the latest war intelligence to screens.

A week on from the bank holiday August 3rd and Newcastle had been transformed from a place teetering on the brink of the unknown, to once more a bustling city, fully immersed in the national war effort…

Robbie Taylor

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This entry was posted in 1914, Lit and Phil, Newcastle, Northumbria University, World War 1 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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