Stories from Home
A Teesdale Business and the First World War
By Judith Phillips
The war affected so many aspects of life in Teesdale. The Roll of Honour on our project website (www.thebowesmuseumww1.org.uk) continues to grow with names, images and information about men and women from Teesdale who served during the war. Life at home changed, too, as the war made demands on family life, farming and businesses.
In the Reference Library in The Bowes Museum there is a fascinating account of William Smith & Sons of Barnard Castle by Norma L. Smith called ‘A Family Business’. At the beginning of the war, the business employed fifty men and the immediate mobilisation of the Territorials the day after war was declared meant that eighteen men left the works.
An early consequence of hostilities was a drop in foreign markets. Smiths lost one of their best customers, Jacob and Becker of Leipzig. The last order for their sweepers had been despatched in early 1914 and Smiths didn’t get their money until the debt was settled by the British government in 1920. Fortunately for the company, the War Office began ordering regular consignments of sweepers to be sent to France. These machines were to be horse-drawn, although the Royal Flying Corps ordered one to be drawn by ‘motor traction’ towards the end of the war.
When Belgian refugees arrived in Barnard Castle in late 1914 and 1915, the Smith family housed the Praet family from Antwerp in a family house next to the works in Queen Street. The house was then (and later) referred to as ‘Belgian House’. Smith family members helped feed, house and employ some of the refugees.
As part of the war effort, land near the Queen Steeet works was given over to allotments for local people to grow vegetables. The land is still used for allotments today – we grow a wide variety of vegetables on ours!
Members of the Smith family were directly affected. Bernard Smith, the 21-year old son of the business’s owners, was called up with the Territorials but did not serve overseas because of poor eyesight. As a sergeant in the Durham Light Infantry, he was stationed at Bishop Auckland. Bernard had studied at Ushaw College with a view to becoming a Roman Catholic priest but decided he did not have a vocation. After a short time in Canada, he returned to England and began working in the family business in 1912. His brother Billy was rejected for active service on medical grounds and worked at the business throughout the war.
Their sister Molly had to be hastily evacuated in 1914 from Brussels where she was studying at the Conservatoire of Music. During the war she was involved with helping refugee families while continuing her studies with the London College of Music. Another sister, Mary Alice, organised Girl Guides to make swabs for military hospitals and arranged for sphagnum moss to be collected from Bowes Moor to use on war wounds.
One Smith son-in-law, Billy Peacock, had served in France and returned with a badly-wounded leg that affected his mobility for the rest of his life. William Errington from Brignall, a Smith relation, joined up in 1917 and survived the war but never forgot its horrors.
I am grateful to Norma Smith for permission to use material from her book for the project. If you have any information about how the war affected businesses in Teesdale or have any stories or artefacts about Teesdale men and women during the war, we’d love to hear from you.