Walsall 1943: the Mayor, a Baron and the Merchant Navy.

Walsall 1943: the Mayor, a Baron and the Merchant Navy
Here is a snippet of a story. A few days ago the Walsall Local History Centre was approached by the Mayor’s Office in relation to an item gifted to the Mayor from a citizen of the town. The Mayor was curious to find out a little more about, so I had a look. Having done so, I thought it would make an interesting enough little bonus article for the blog and for the Walsall Local History Centre’s Facebook page. Remember to click on the photos to enlarge.

A Seaman's Suit (Walsall Local History Centre)

A Seaman’s Suit: a poem by Baron Powell to aid the Mayor of Walsall’s appeal for the Merchant Navy Comforts Service
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The item (see photograph of an original in the History Centre) is an appeal card – that is a printed appeal by the Mayor of Walsall on behalf of the Merchant Navy Comforts Service. The Merchant Navy Comforts Service was inaugurated on 1 February 1940. It was based in London before moving to Great Dunmow in Essex. The service looked to supplying comforts to those sailors on merchant shipping as opposed to the Royal Navy. This wasn’t about supplying the men with dart boards or fragrant shower gel, but rather supplying them with basic needs after they had been plucked from the sea, or from life rafts, after their ship had been torpedoed or mined. Saying that, they also sent parcels to prisoners of war that included books, cigarettes and so forth.

The ‘comforts’ referred to would generally be clothing bundles: these bundles in the main consisted of a woollen helmet (balaclava), two pairs of socks, a woollen scarf, a sweater and a pair of gloves.

The appeal card has the crests of Walsall and the Comforts Service and takes the form of a poem, written by a B.I. Power, called ‘A Seaman’s Suit’. The poem highlights the plight of a rescued mariner and his gratitude on receiving a free set of clean clothes after 30 days marooned on a life raft. It is clearly local, as its vernacular shows – ‘it wor’nt no ruddy picnic’ – before it goes on to talk of the ‘folks from Walsall’ and how the author has ‘asked the Mayor to tell yer’.

Walsall became involved with the Comforts Service in 1943. The Mayor at the time was Annie McShane and although David Jones would replace her the following year she fittingly she presided over the cheque presentation in 1944, receiving a well-earned vote of thanks in the process. The author of the poem turned out to be Baron Power (that is his name, not a title). Baron was an integral part of the Mayor’s War Fund Committee, heading the Entertainments Sub-Committee. Power would become Mayor himself, in 1953.

The appeal lasted from the end of September until the 23 October 1943. The fund-raising started straight away. An anonymous donor gave a gold stop-watch (no, it isn’t a wind-up) for the benefit of the appeal. A competition was started for people to guess on how long the watch would keep ticking for – which transpired to be 11 hours, 20 minutes and 11 seconds. It was free to enter, although donations of at least 6d were requested, This idea in itself raised over £250. A Merchant Navy exhibition was also held at the ‘England’s shop’ (that is the War Fund shop at 9 Bridge St, Walsall) from the 11 – 23 October, which raised nearly £200. The Service also opened its own shop at 13 Bridge St, where it received several hundred pounds in donations.

The period from the 16 to 23 October was the culmination of events and became ‘Merchant Navy Week’. This week commenced with a pageant to the ‘men of the Merchant Navy’ on the Sunday 17 October. This was held at the Town Hall and featured an organ recital by Private Glen Pratt of the US Army, followed by a parade of the various military services, a parade of flags and a walk-by of family of the serving merchant sailors from Walsall. Most of the pageant took place to the accompaniment of the South Staffordshire Regiment Band. The Town Hall hosted a boxing tournament on the Monday and school children’s entertainment on the Tuesday. The Harry Watts Band played for the War Aid Fund Dance on the Thursday and there was a Grand Nautical Ball on the Friday, both again at the Town Hall.  There was another War Aid Fund Dance on the Saturday, accompanied by Ronald Done and his orchestra.

The programme for the Merchant Navy Week, 16 - 23 October, 1943 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The programme for the Merchant Navy Week, 16 – 23 October, 1943
(Walsall Local History Centre)

On Sunday 16 January 1944 there was a second pageant and cheque presentation to the Comforts Service by Annie McShane on behalf of the Town. The pageant followed very much the format of the first, with the South Staffordshire’s again performing most of the accompaniment.  When the appeal was over it had raised a staggering £13,500 and was second only to money raised for the Red Cross within Walsall. A list of donations is included in the programme for the presentation and only when you examine it do you realise just what a monumental effort the people of Walsall made: from businesses and business organisations, schools, political parties, sports clubs and private individuals down to the first aid post on Pool St, all rallied to ‘help some needy seaman, who’ll say ‘God bless yer friend’.’

Programme for the cheque presentation and pageant, 16 Jan 1944 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Programme for the cheque presentation and pageant, 16 Jan 1944
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The loss of merchant shipping to the U-boats during the War was horrendous, which is why the German submariners called periods between 1940 and 1942 the ‘happy times’. As tactics and technology improved, 1943 would see the U-boats on the run, although not defeated. By the end of the War over 30,000 merchant seamen had lost their lives, proportionally a bigger loss than any of the armed forces. The people of Walsall clearly knew what the merchant men were facing, they didn’t have to be a coastal Town to appreciate that – and they showed their gratitude. The fund-raising didn’t stop after ‘Merchant Navy Week’, as they had the shop in Bridge St; indeed, there was the Red Duster Ball on 29 October 1943, where Harry Parry entertained all at the Town Hall – for 7/6d.

A massive, surviving poster for the Red Duster Ball in aid of the Comfort Service. 29 Oct 1943. (Walsall Local History Centre)

A massive and rare surviving poster for the Red Duster Ball at the Town Hall in aid of the Comfort Service. 29 Oct 1943.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

In memory of the Borough’s Merchant Seamen of WWII, Annie McShane and Baron Power.

 

Comments
  1. angvs72 says:

    I once had the privilege to work in a property where Merchant sea convoy records were being transferred to a digital database, it was fascinating how you could follow each individual, ship and convoy throughout its trans Atlantic journeys with descriptions of events, cargo and engagements. That would be a really good database to look through 🙂

  2. Sue Webb says:

    Would this be the Baron Power who owned the cafe in Walsall bus station when I was a child?

  3. Jilm Cox says:

    Remember Baron Power and his cafeteria in Bloxwich

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