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Electric Relief by J P Lethbridge

This article first appeared in in the April 2007 edition of "Stand To!", the magazine of The Western Front Association

Introduction

Birmingham City Council used to provide the city's own electricity supply. This operated as the council's Electric Supply Department from 1903 when it was taken into municipal ownership, under the inspiration of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914; the father of Neville Chamberlain), to the late 1940s when it was nationalised by the Attlee government.

During the Great War many Birmingham power workers served in the armed forces. To help them and their dependants a War Relief Fund was set up on 14 August 1914 and operated until March 1924.

Administration

Overall control of the fund was in the hands of a general committee of 30 men and three women departmental employees. The women were Miss Billington of the Secretary Clerks Office, Miss Harlow of the Filing Office and Miss Stokes of the Correspondence Office. There were also many volunteer helpers. Day to day control of the funds work was delegated to a Relief sub-committee of five men, which met frequently to decide actual cases - up to three evenings a week in the early part of the war.

The Funds President was Richard Alexander Chattock (1865-1936) Birmingham's City Electrical Engineer who headed the Electric Supply Department from 1903, when it was created, to his retirement in 1930. An artists son, he was born in Solihull and was a physics and engineering graduate of the University of London. Before coming to Birmingham he had worked in the private sector, and for other councils. Under his leadership Birmingham's electricity production capacity rose more than 50 times and new power stations were built, for instance at Nechells and Hams Hall. He met challenges including the need for electric power for the city's trams, and for the demands of war industry

Fund Raising

The Electrical Supply Department War Relief Fund raised money from voluntary weekly deductions from wages from 400 departmental employees and from extra voluntary donations. 600-9s. was raised and bank interest on this money raised a further 2-18s-4d. Fund raising was stopped in March 1919 though the fund continued in existence to help ex-service power workers and their families.

Expenditure

The purposes of the fund were:-

  • To make substantial grants to existing relief funds
  • To assist, either by gifts of money or loans, the dependants of men who joined the forces
  • To provide medical relief and financial assistance in the case of illness of dependants of men at the Front
  • To lend money to dependants whose allowances were delayed in payment
  • To assist cases of hardship, not connected with men who had gone to the Front, which cases had suffered more severely in consequence of the conditions imposed by the war
  • To send at each Christmas a useful present to the men on active service and to their wives and families at home

Towards the first objective, in the early stages of the war substantial grants were made to the Prince of Wales Fund (Local Branch), Princess Marys Fund for gifts to men in the Forces, the Red Cross, the Lady Mayoress's Fund for POWs and various other War Relief Agencies. 86-16s-1d were paid out to such funds. These contributions declined as more power workers joined the forces and their dependants needed help.

140 hardship cases were helped and 52-15s-7d was spent in this way. One major issue was the break down of the military bureaucracy early in the war and the consequent delay that service men's families faced in getting their appropriate allowances. Grants and loans from the committee helped the families until the military bureaucracy of the Adjutant Generals Department in London got its act together.

More specific help was also provided: for instance, in several cases funds were granted to set war widows up in small businesses, and in one case a widow was given furniture to allow her to take in lodgers.

The fund provided Christmas gifts both to servicemen and to their wives and families every year from 1914-1918, the total expenditure being 44-6s-10d. To quote a letter received by a serviceman from his wife at Christmas 1914:

"I have had a great surprise this morning (Christmas Eve). A motor called here from the Power Station and brought me my weekly allowance and what else do you think - a Christmas box of five shillings for myself and a toy and some chocolates for each of the children with a Christmas card saying it was from your mates at the Power Station. It touched me very much and when the motor had gone I cried a bit at the kindness of it. We are having as merry a Christmas as possible with you away but we want you back soon."

After the War

When the war ended the Relief Fund organised two 'Welcome Home Gatherings' for returning servicemen and their wives. One was held on 2 May 1919 and the second on 15 November 1919. They proved popular and a 17-18s-9d was spent on them.

In 1921 the fund raised a special subscription to erect a memorial to the 31 Birmingham City Council power workers killed in the war. A bronze memorial tablet was erected in the entrance hall of the Electrical Supply Departments Offices in Dale End. It has since been moved to Birmingham's Council House.

The fund gradually scaled down its activities when peace came. By 1924 three cases remained on its books. These were:

  • An employee who was killed in action left a widow and six children three of whom were still of school age in 1924. The family was periodically visited and supplied with clothes.
  • An employee who was severely wounded in action losing an arm, a leg and an eye was helped to start a small holding and poultry farm in Suffolk and still needed help.
  • A father died on active service and his widow died shortly afterwards leaving three children two of whom were still of school age in 1924. The children were looked after by their grandfather. The family were regularly visited and money supplied to keep the children in clothes.

In 1924 a sum of money and these three cases were handed over to three trustees and the fund was wound up; a small balance was donated to Birmingham Children's Hospital.

As the Committee said in its concluding report in 1924:

"It is gratifying to be able to look back and be conscious of the fact that in no case was an employee on active service or his dependants knowingly allowed to be in need and the only regret the Committee feel - and that is very real and intense - is that the necessity for such a fund ever arose."

Sources of Information

Final Report and Statement of Accounts of the City of Birmingham Electric Supply Department, War Relief Fund
Birmingham Evening Mail 16 March 1936The Engineer 20th March 1936

The names on the City of Birmingham Electric Supply Memorial, and others relating to Birmingham City Council, are listed on the War Memorial pages.