Michael Reeve (Hull) visits The National Archives to research First World War tobacco provision

On 20 and 21 June 2019 I conducted research at The National Archives in Kew, London. My aim was to collate primary sources to form the basis of a book chapter related to themes from my recently completed PhD. Namely, this work will focus on the charitable giving of tobacco to soldiers during the First World War, including the development of local tobacco funds and other grassroots organisations. This will form part of an edited collection, entitled Redcoats to Tommies: The Experience of the British Soldier, 1740-2000, edited by Kevin Linch and Matthew J. Lord. The basis of my contribution was a conference paper delivered at a symposium at the University of Leeds in 2018 on the role of grassroots voluntary organisations in the provision of tobacco and cigarettes to British troops during the First World War. This covered themes also explored in my doctoral thesis, namely the material, social, cultural and psychological means employed to encourage resilient attitudes in the context of war.

It was common during the First World War for civilians to send care packages and food parcels to loved ones fighting abroad, along with frequent correspondence. ‘Comforts funds’ sprang up all over the United Kingdom in response to a perceived need to provide additional warm clothing, games, sports equipment, gramophone records and tobacco to troops. Food was seen as especially important, given the low quality of the fare contained in army rations, coupled with the dire conditions of life in the trenches. Good food, sent by family members, wives or lovers, was seen to provide a real morale boost. The same was said of tobacco, described by some charitable funds as the ‘special need of the fighting man’. The cigarette was the foremost modern tobacco product: cheap, readily available and seen to aid morale by providing a means to combat war-related stresses and encourage easy social relations.

Page showing an extract from the War Charities Act register
Extract from the War Charities Act register

My first task was to scour the War Charities Act register (accession number CHAR 4/24), spanning the period 1914-18, for funds with an overt reference to smoking or tobacco, either in their names or descriptions. The image below (Figure 1) provides a glimpse of the kind of information provided by the register. You’ll notice on the right-hand page an example of a more colourful organisation name, Tommy’s Pipe, in Gillingham, Kent. Most interestingly, the fund was associated with the local Co-operative Society. Beyond the War Charities Act, I also accessed government files, memoranda and correspondence related to the relaxation of tobacco duties for charitable organisations (for example, ADM, 116/1860, ‘Duty Free Service Tobacco’, 1918-21). Figure 2 shows how many of the charities registered under the War Charities Act 1916 were ‘comforts funds’. I am hoping to determine how many of these funds were expressly concerned with tobacco provision. I also viewed and photographed a number of letters from famous tobacco manufacturers, including John Player and W.D. & H.O. Wills, who plead with clients to be patient while stocks of cigarettes were low owing to the demands placed on their business by the need to supply tobacco products to both the home market and for soldiers and sailors (T 172/250). The rest of the research process will involve the use of digital newspaper archives to collate tobacco fund advertisements from local and national newspapers.

The generous SSLH research grant made this research trip possible, pushing forward research themes from my doctoral research. I hope that the forthcoming book chapter will enable me to continue developing an academic career, producing more history ‘from below’ on the wartime lives of civilians and combatants. I am very grateful to the SSLH for this grant and applaud the efforts of the Society to support postgraduates and early career researchers

Images courtesy of the author.

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