Records of cases heard by the county’s military appeal tribunal during 1916-18 are being transferred into a digital archive at the Somerset Heritage Centre and are casting a new light on the many and diverse occupations in Somerset 100 years ago.
When conscription was introduced, the Military Service Act of 1916 made all British men liable to be called up for compulsory military service. Local tribunals were set up in many large towns across Somerset, along with a county appeal tribunal in Taunton, at which the decisions of the local tribunals could be challenged.
Exemptions could be asked for on the basis of medical unfitness, exceptional business or personal circumstances (such as the potential collapse of their business, or that they were vital in caring for elderly relatives), work of national importance and conscientious objection.
The records of the Somerset Appeal Tribunal generally show only the man’s name, address, occupation and the decision of the tribunal, yet they are a roll-call for a lost way of life. Occupations include lumpman, lofter, maltster and woollen mule spinner, and bear testimony to a bygone age.
Charles Cleal was a lumpman in an open salt works and was responsible for his own ‘lump pan’ containing salt crystals which would be moulded to produce a hard block (lump) of fine salt.
On some occasions jobs were regarded as being of national importance and became ‘certified occupations’, thus giving a man exemption. Cecil Lane was a lofter, also in the salt industry. His role was to stack salt blocks on the top of flues in a stove house in order for them to dry out. Cecil Lane was given exemption in March 1917 because his job had become a certified occupation.
It is not always clear from the records who made the appeal. On some occasions the employer appealed on their employee’s behalf, particularly if they were a vital and experienced member of the workforce.
Thomas Grinter from Taunton was a Head Maltster, responsible for selecting cereals, mainly barley, from the growing fields, for malting. He sought exemption in April 1917 and one was granted for three months, presumably to give his employers time to re-train a substitute.
By the time conscription was introduced, Britain had been at war for two years. Clothing supplies for the armed forces, such as puttees (strips of material, often wool, wound around the leg) were essential.
In May 1917 three puttee knitters from Wellington; John Perry, Harold Brown and James Wright, appeared before the Appeal Tribunal to request exemption.
It is clear the Tribunal faced a constant dilemma as it tried to satisfy employers wanting to retain their workmen in order to maintain production for the war effort, at the same time as meeting the needs of the armed forces.
In the case of the puttee knitters, only one of the appeals was allowed with the proviso that he should not be called up until July 1917. On this occasion the needs of the employers superseded those of the armed forces.
This article was written by Caroline Adams; a volunteer for the Somerset Remembers Project.