Monday, 2 November 2009

Lest we forget

Since the launch of this year's poppy appeal I have been reflecting on the records in the Chance collection associated with both the First and Second World Wars. Chance had an instrumental part to play in both wars and there is a wealth of material in the archives that testifies to this including correspondence and agreements with the Secretary of State for War, Admiralty & Minister of Munitions; minutes and correspondence associated with Umbroc, the shadow factory established by Chance and Pilkington at St Helens to ensure that bomb damage at Spon Lane would not disrupt the production of the vital optical glass required for the Second World War; posters advertising war products produced by the company; and reports and images of air raid damage. In this blog, however, I would like to focus on the records associated with the First World War.

In September 1921, at the unveiling of a memorial tablet, which records the names of employees of the Spon Lane Works that lost their lives in the great war, Sir Hugh Chance said that Chances were 'the eyes of the Army, Navy and the Air Force'. This is a fairly accurate description as the company made optical glass for gun-sights, range-finders, submarines, field-glasses and air-craft. Sheet glass was produced for trench periscopes, coloured glass was used for signalling and ship lights, special glass was supplied for gas masks and the Lighthouse Department supplied searchlights, flashers, bomb-sights and produced shells in the thousands (please refer to the picture below of the Shell Department at the glass works). In order to ensure that all of these necessary products were produced many men working at the glass works were not permitted to join up. In order to avoid receiving the cat-calls and white feathers that were handed out by a certain class of women to mark cowardice, these men were encouraged to wear a war service badge to show that they were employed in essential war work (the 1915 'On War Service' badge below was also found amongst the records).

Of the 337 men who joined the Colours, 242 returned to the works, while 55 died or were killed in action. These 55 are commemorated on the tablet, which the employees raised £120 towards the cost of whilst the directors promised to find the balance. It is important to note, however, that most of the remaining 40 men could not return to the glass works as they were 'incapacitated'. The fate of the wounded, both physically and mentally, is often neglected in the overall story of war and conflict as the tally of death tends to take precedence, however, I was taken by the story of one man who applied for the position of assistant works manager in 1921 after serving as a Lieutenant during the war.

There is a bundle of correspondence regarding his application and it is clear that Chance deemed him to be the best man for the job out of around a hundred candidates, despite the fact that he had suffered from shell shock during the war. In a reference, his previous employer describes him as 'one of our best students' and 'a very capable engineer'. To ensure that his illness during the war would not affect his appointment, Chance organised a thorough medical examination. Whilst the doctor states that the candidate's 'manner is a little jumpy' in a letter following the examination, he concludes that there is no reason why he should not succeed at the job and the company soon appointed him. Three months later, however, the new assistant works engineer was forced to resign. A year after his resignation he sent a letter to Chance requesting a certificate confirming that his resignation was due to ill health caused by 'my war disability', in order to claim an increased pension. Chance were happy to oblige and confirmed in their certificate that after a while, 'the strain of work told on him and, after being absent on one or two occasions, he finally broke down...and was compelled to send in his resignation, which was accepted by us with regret'. It is clear from this correspondence that Chance wished to help with the claim in any way they could. What is unclear from the records is whether the promising ex-serviceman ever managed to pull the pieces of his life back together.

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