Frank’s little secret

From L Cpl Crawshaw, 1st Dorset Regiment, Victoria Barracks, Belfast – Christmas 1913

To: Miss M Crawshaw, 389, St John St, Clerkenwell, E.C. London. Envelope date stamped Dec 22 (19)13

Follows is Geoff’s description of a Christmas card. The comments are also his.

Xmas card with small coloured picture of three long-horned cattle in stream with heather clad mountain in background left and trees shading dimly seen cottage to right. Underneath is an ivy (?) wreath round a white shield on which is a heraldic letter – might be an elaborate C. Inside the main message is:

May Health, Happiness and Prosperity attend you this Christmastide and in the coming Year is the sincere wish of L Cpl F Crawshaw.

Above it in smaller type are four lines of poetry:

“Let’s sing a song of Auld Lang Syne.

Should Auld friends be forgot?

For friendship cannot change with time

Though time may change our lot.

None of this sounds suitable for the Dorsets – although the scene may be Irish.

The card is accompanied by a short letter.

Just a card hoping you are in the pink. I have not heard from Dolly for sometime. Received letter quite safe and sound. I see you want me to meet you at Stewarts on Wed at 6 o’clock. Now Till I wont promise for what with being up at 6.30 in the morning and then catching the boat at 930 pm on Tuesday night and travelling until 12 on Wednesday, I expect I shall feel a bit tired, but look here me old peach, if I am not there I hope you come on to Brixton, but I expect I shall be there on the word fire so put on your best and keep your Glad Eye open for Bid so tat tas and roll on Tuesday night. Hoping to see you soon.


There is a long gap between this letter and the last one. As there is in the timing of this article. It would appear, due to the regular mail before and after this date, that many letters have disappeared, making the story ever more fragmented and frustrating to research. There are so many ifs and whats in my notes. Hence my pause of more than two weeks. But people’s lives are complex, organic things, including mine, and I have to keep reminding myself that I can only work with the material and spare time that I have to hand.

In the letter attached to this card, Frank has lost none of his South London bravado. He uses the phrase “keep your glad eye open” somewhat erroneously with his sister as it means to act flirtatiously. It’s easy to picture him full of swagger as they meet for the first time, we can only surmise, in probably over a year.

Mabel has apparently moved to Clerkenwell. She appears to be working in a place called Stewart’s. This is probably a shop and I found a reference to a Mrs Stewart living in a shop and residence just up the road at 407 St John Street. This could well be our “Stewart’s”, which gets several references in later letters. These buildings are now long gone and The National Cancer Research Institute stands in its place.

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Barracks? Oh Bummer!

Frank, along with the rest of his regiment, left Blackdown on the 9th January 1913 and arrived in Belfast 2 days later, on the 11th January. Victoria Barracks was the new home of the 1st Bn Dorsets. It stood in the area now known as New Lodge, a Catholic area to the immediate north of the city centre, up until the 1950s. All that remains today are a few houses and bits of wall.

The Dorsets were there from 1913 up until the outbreak of the war. After that they went to Londonderry in 1919 and then to Malta in 1924.

I wish I’d never clapped eyes on her

It’s hard to know what Frank has been up to as he is very scant on detail. He mentions Dolly, presumably she is a girlfriend. We’ll find out more of his relationship with her in the next letter.

I have found quite a few of Frank’s records from the National Archives in Kew. One of the most surprising records is his medical history. I won’t publish it here out of respect, but the following story will outline the malaise he was being treated for in Curragh Camp Hospital between 5th September and the 22nd September 1913.

Curragh Camp in County Kildare, about 30 miles south west of Dublin, was a large divisional army base for the British Army up until 1922. It now serves as a training centre for the Irish Army. Whenever you gather together a large group of soldiers there are bound to be problems. Excessive drinking and prostitution were rife in the British army at that time. Prostitution was especially reviled by the authorities as it spread disease throughout battle-ready troops.

Curragh Camp had a particularly repellant history of prostitution. Due to its relative remoteness, groups of women took up camp in the furze around the camp. They were a mixture of prostitutes, abandoned girlfriends and wives of the soldiers within the camp itself. They became known as the Wrens of Curragh and their ramshackle dwellings, sometimes just a hollowed-out shrub, were referred to as “nests”. James Greenwood, a journalist for the Pal Mall Gazette, wrote a series of articles on their plight. His visit incurred the wrath of a particularly violent wren called Kate.

“Her hair was streaming down her back; she had scarcely a rag of clothing on; and the fearful figure made at me with a large jug, intended to be smashed upon my skull. I declare her dreadful figure appalled me. I was so wonder-stricken, that I believe she might have knocked me on the head without resistance; but, quick as lightning, one of the women got before me, spreading her petticoat. ‘Get out of it!’ she shouted in terror ; ‘run!’ And so I did. Covered by this friendly and grateful wren, I passed out of the nest, and made my way homeward in the darkness.”

The problem with soldiers and venereal disease was so rife that the authorities were enabled by law to stop and arrest any women suspected of being a prostitute. Looking at the census for 1911 there are long lists of soldiers in the Curragh Camp Military hospital suffering from all manner of sexually transmitted diseases; the majority of the cases being diagnosed as gonorrhoea.

During the First World War 416,891 men of the British army were treated for venereal diseases. The figures are high, perhaps due to the fact that failure to declare infection would invariably lead to two years’ hard labour. Indeed venereal disease was described, in Medical Services: General History vol. 1, as causing “the greatest amount of constant inefficiency in the home commands…”. It certainly surprised me to find out that official brothels existed. One in Rouen was reportedly visited by 171,000 men in its first year.

Frank was a young soldier on an adventure of a lifetime, far away from home, and his youthful exuberance and carefree attitude seem to be little diminished by the episode.

Next week

We learn about Frank’s life in Belfast and he has a new girlfriend. I’ll be looking at the wider world for the first time, as European nations start to flex their muscles.