Exhibition Review: ‘Peace and Plenty? Oldham and the First World War’

About fifteen thousand men from Oldham (Owdhamites) fought in the First World War, and over 2,600 of them were killed, with the highest number of deaths on a single day being on the first day of the Gallipoli campaign. This is the background to an exhibition at Gallery Oldham, on until the middle of January, which contains many contemporary posters, cartoons, photos and other mementoes.

Many of those who joined up went into two local regiments, the Oldham Territorials and the Oldham Pals. At first there was little difficulty in obtaining volunteers, and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 was used as an opportunity for recruitment. Supporters of the war, such as the local suffragette Annie Kenney, spoke enthusiastically in its favour, while attempts to hold anti-war meetings often resulted in violence, such as the sacking of an Independent Labour Party office in the town in August 1917.

Those who stayed in Oldham encountered problems with food shortages, especially of sugar and potatoes, with long queues at shops and markets and claims of profiteering. Women took over much of the work previously done by men, in engineering works, for instance. Loans from workers were used to finance the war effort, and Oldham was among the towns presented with a tank as thanks for this. The tanks were displayed locally, and many of those that survived until the Second World War were used as scrap.

And was it indeed peace and plenty when the war was over? For one thing, over six hundred Owdhamites died in the 1918 flu epidemic. In June 1919, cotton workers went on strike for three weeks and won a reduction of the working week to 48 hours (which meant they could eat their breakfast at home, rather than at the mill). Before the war, Oldham had been the world’s leading cotton town. After the war there was a short-lived speculative boom in the cotton industry, but this did not last, and unemployment grew in the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s. So Oldham, like other places, was in no way part of a ‘fit country for heroes’, as Lloyd George claimed.