In 1914 Shenley had a population of about 1,500 with many people employed on the farms or in the big houses. The large estates brought workers in from all over the country and Shenley residents would often leave the village to find work elsewhere – but this all changed with the outbreak of the First World War. By December 1915 forty five men from the village, sixty from the parish as a whole, had volunteered for war service leading to severe labour shortages and by 1917 the farms and estates were being kept going by old men, women, and boys.
The Regular Army, the Reserves, and the Territorials had been expended by the end of 1915 stopping the German advance into France in 1914; at the 1st and 2nd Battles of Ypres; in the attempts to break through the entrenched Germans in Flanders; and at the mismanaged Gallipoli landings. By 1916 Kitchener’s Army of keen volunteers were ready to be squandered in the Somme battles, and many Shenley lads were amongst them.
In response to Lord Derby’s Scheme of 1915, a recruiting committee was formed in the village whose aim was to encourage men aged 18-40 to voluntarily register for military service which would then be deferred until they were called up at a later date. Nationally this was not a great success and the following year conscription was introduced.
The Military Service Act of January 1916 specified that single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were liable to be called-up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of religion. Conscription started on 2nd March 1916, and the act was extended to married men on 25th May 1916. The law went through several changes before the war’s end with the age limit eventually being raised to 51. Certain occupations were exempt but the army required 25,000 – 30,000 men each week to maintain a British Army of 70 Divisions.
There was a constant need for more men – for the wasteful Passchendaele battles in 1917 and to stop the German offensive in 1918 which ultimately turned into a German retreat and led to the armistice. The Herts Advertiser in 1917 and 1918 frequently refers to the calling up of men of military age and to the Barnet Rural Tribunals where men or their employers could claim exemption from military service.
From the beginning Shenley inhabitants must have been very aware there was a war on. The Royal Engineer companies of the 47th (London) Territorial Division came to the area at the outbreak of war and stayed until March 1915. They were followed by the newly raised 60th Division companies. Their Headquarters were at Radlett and they were billeted and trained in Shenley and other villages in the vicinity. The 60th Division moved to the Herts/Essex border in June 1915 and the 59th (North Midland) Division arrived in July. They were sent to Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising and from there to France and the Middle East.
A family of Belgian refugees arrived in September 1914 from Malines (Mechelen) in Flanders which had been bombarded by the Germans on 25th August. They stayed in Green Street in a vacant cottage belonging to Edward Speyer of Ridgehurst which had been furnished with donated household items that had been collected from around the village by the local schoolchildren. They were also given a weeks supply of food and arrangements were made for this to continue. The children attended Shenley School and eventually the family settled in Shenley Road, Boreham Wood.
In the early months of the war a number of men from the village volunteered as special constables. As well as continuing with their regular employment they worked in shifts to guard the Colne Valley Water Company water tank in Rectory Lane which was the main supply for the village. Others became Citizen Volunteers. Initially they drilled with men from Radlett at Newberries before forming their own squad with their headquarters in Shenley. Together they practised shooting at a miniature rifle range set up at the Boy’s School using rifles that belonged to the Metropolitan Police.
London Colney Aerodrome
From early 1916 the aerodrome was being established at Shenleybury (known officially as London Colney because Shenley sounded too much like Kenley another R.F.C. establishment near Croydon). It was situated on the left hand side of the road past St Botolph’s church and the camp was on the right. The Model Farm, which was part of the Porters Park Estate belonging to Cecil Raphael and close to the airfield, was also requisitioned by the military in February 1916.
Men of the Royal Flying Corps were billeted in the village, and villagers must have witnessed many of the crashes reported in the Herts Advertiser throughout 1917 and 1918. Two pilots are buried at St Botolph’s and thirteen are buried in St Albans cemetery; others were sent to their home parishes for burial.
Shenley War Committee
The Shenley War Committee, which was well established by late 1915, organised whist drives, dances and concerts and other entertainments, as well as jumble sales, to raise funds for the benefit of village men serving at the front and their families at home. Parcels of warm clothing and other useful items, sometimes postal orders, were sent to every man on active service at Christmas and Easter. Financial assistance was given, if needed, to wives and parents who wished to visit wounded soldiers in hospitals located in other parts of the country. Funds were also made available for invalided men who were waiting for pensions or other allowances. Donations were regularly sent to the Y.M.C.A, the Prisoner of War Fund and the Red Cross and other charitable organisations.
On the night of Saturday, 2nd September, 1916 thirteen German airships crossed the East Coast to bomb the Midlands and London. New blackout regulations had just come into force and the Germans had difficulty finding their targets. Three reached the outskirts of London and one of these was shot down at Cuffley at 2.20am by Lt William Leefe Robinson – the first German airship to be destroyed on British soil. Shenley residents would have seen and heard the exploding bombs which were dropped at random across a corner of the parish that night between the Colne and Bell Lane near Salisbury Hall, and at Ridge Hill.
Napsbury Military Hospital
Napsbury Military Hospital was only two miles from the village and wounded soldiers from Belgium and France regularly arrived there by hospital train. Napsbury was officially known as the County of Middlesex War Hospital and before the war had been the Middlesex County Asylum, a psychiatric hospital which opened in 1905. Wounded soldiers, including those suffering from shell shock, were treated there from late 1915 until 1919. The convalescing soldiers were made welcome in the village often receiving hospitality in the big houses (and no doubt in the small houses as well). They were regularly invited to Porters Park by Mrs Raphael who was the president of the War Committee.
The Home Front
A Red Cross Work Party was held once a week on Wednesday afternoons at the village hall where local women knitted socks, made items of clothing and also swabs and bandages that were sent to the hospital at Napsbury or to the Red Cross central depot in London; they produced 6,613 items in 1917. In January that year it was proposed that two acres of land attached to the Porters Park Golf Course should be used to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The work would be undertaken by the groundsman who by that time were all elderly.
Men from the Metropolitan Police who were stationed in Shenley volunteered to dig over the gardens of villagers whose sons or husbands were away on active service in readiness for spring sowing and at the annual Parish Council meeting in April 1917, a list was produced containing the names of twenty-one villagers who wanted more land to be made available for allotments in addition to those already in use. The Chairman, John Charrington, who at that time owned most of the land in the centre of the village, said he would be willing to let some for the purpose if they were really needed.
To further increase local food production the girls from Shenley School took on an allotment of ten poles on the recommendation of the Schools Inspector. It was in a field at the back of what would later become the Garden Nursery on London Road and the girls worked there for two hours each week in place of games and drill. Permission was given by the County Council for boys at the school to start a ‘Pig Club’. The members paid 6d a week for the upkeep of two pigs that were housed in a sty in the gardens at the back of the school and when the pigs were sold each boy received a share of the profits. This enterprise attracted the attention of the national press and a light-hearted account appeared in a popular daily newspaper informing it’s readers that the piglets had been named ‘Bapaume’ and ‘Peronne’.
Due to the shortage of labour German PoWs were brought in to work on the Porters Park estate. They came by train from a camp in Woodcroft Avenue, Mill Hill to Radlett and were escorted to and from the station by William Williams, Cecil Raphael’s coachman. The government introduced rationing from early 1918 and in May that year a ‘National Kitchen’ was opened in a temporary wooden building inside the main gates at Porters Park. It was managed by Margaret Raphael, assisted by Mary Gotto, the late Rector’s widow, who with others prepared and served hot meals; they cost 2d each and were very popular especially with the local school children.
There are thirty-seven names on the village war memorial – eight of whom came from other places. They were mostly employed on the farms and estates around Shenley and no doubt there were others, gassed or crippled in the war, who died young and are now forgotten. Two local men, Pte Charles Broome and Lt John Vyse, both of whom died of their wounds after the war, are buried in the churchyard at St Botolph’s.
Five million men from villages, towns and cities across the United Kingdom served in the Armed Forces during World War I – plus 80,000 women in non-combative roles – one in three were wounded and one in seven never returned.