History of the Legion

The RBL in Billericay
Brian Hughes, M.B.E.

A Comrades of the Great War Pin Badge
British Legion members and Members of the Nazi German Government at Great Burstead Churchyard where the crew of Zeppelin L32 were buried
Rose Hall in Chapel Street
British Legion Members on Parade at the War Memorial in the High Street on Remembrance Sunday
The War Memorial after the Remembrance Parade

Nearly everyone is aware of the Royal British Legion through its annual Poppy Appeal and the Remembrance Sunday Services in November but not so many know how it came into being or that 2021 marks its Centenary.

The Great War from 1914 to 1918 was supposed to be the “War to end all  Wars” such was the horror of it. It had a devastating effect on the lives of servicemen and their dependents. So many members of our Armed Forces were killed or wounded and so many families lost their breadwinner. It is not difficult to imagine the suffering the war caused and how much people hoped there would not be another.

During those war years four organisations were created. They all represented the rights of soldiers, sailors, ex Servicemen, their widows and dependents. The largest, The Comrades of the Great War” was formed in 1917 and was non-political whereas the other three hoped to improve the lot of those they represented by political means.

Thanks largely to the efforts and persuasive powers of Earl (formerly Field Marshall) Douglas Haig and Frederick Lister, a campaigner for amalgamation, the four organisations were brought together in 1921 after a series of exploratory discussions and agreed to unite: in the aftermath of the War it had become apparent that there was need for one composite organisation to support and represent all members of the Armed Forces, to hold the government to account and ensure that all those who served and sacrificed were given the support they needed and deserved.

That one organisation was to be called “The British Legion” and it was constituted on 15 May 1921. Frederick Lister became its first Chairman and was knighted in 1961 for his services to it. It adopted the motto “service not self’. As her Majesty, The Queen, put it in a special message to its members and on its Centenary:

“Since 1921 when four ex-service organisations joined together in a spirit of placing service to others before self, the Legion has worked with alacrity, intelligence and commitment, pursing a mission of bringing together nations, communities and people to provide better futures for our Armed Forces, Veterans and their families. Remarkably the Legion’s purpose has remained unchanged to this day, as it continues to provide help and assistance to the Armed Forces Community under a lifelong duty of care, whilst keeping its promise never to forget the service and sacrifice of those who have been prepared to step into harm ‘s way in defence of democracy and freedom “.

Her Majesty described very succinctly the ongoing role of the Legion from 1921 to the present day.

At the end of the Great War there was an immense desire across the country to commemorate in a very public way those who had given their lives in the service of their country and this desire led to the erection of War Memorials in every village, town and city throughout the United Kingdom.

Plans were made for a War Memorial alongside St. Mary Magdalen Church in Billericay High Street and on 16 October 1921 a stone cross on a base engraved with the names of the sixty-two local men who had lost their lives was unveiled and dedicated by Major General Sir William Thwaites.

A Guard of Honour of forty ex Servicemen was led by former RSM John William Wheatley, born in 1877, who had fought with the Coldstream Guards in the Second Boer War and it was largely thanks to him and to Dr. (formerly Major) J.D. Wells who lived and practised as a GP at 22 High Street, Billericay that the “Comrades of the Great War” had been able to set up a Club in the town and that so many ex Servicemen had joined it.

Between 1917 and 1921 the Comrades met in the Billericay Reading Rooms but, as the membership of the Club grew it became apparent that they needed premises of their own. They therefore acquired a plot of land in Western Road which, at the time was largely undeveloped and built a “Comrades Hall” on what is now 154 Western Road.

John Wheatley who had become Captain of the Great Burstead Parish (Billericay) Fire Brigade in 1908 after his discharge from the army was deeply involved not only in the construction of the War Memorial only a few yards from his Fire Station in Sun Street, but also in the recruitment of the Comrades and the construction of the Comrades Hall. He later went onto become Honorary Secretary of the Representative Committee responsible for the annual Remembrance Day Service at the War Memorial. He died in 1957, after many years of Service to the Committee.

The construction of the Hall was completed at almost exactly at the same time as that of the War Memorial and, in late October 1921, less than a fortnight after its dedication, the Hall was opened officially by Major Joyce, D.S.O. Dr. Wells who, as a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been awarded a Military O.B.E. “for distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty” during the War presided over the meeting and invited Major Joyce, who had come down from Pall Mall in London to perform the opening ceremony, to address the meeting.

Major Joyce said that it was his great pleasure and privilege on behalf of the National Executive Committee of the British Legion to declare the Club premises open and to convey the best wishes of the British Legion to the ex-servicemen present.  He then explained the aims and objects of the Legion and urged everyone present to join it since it was working for a common cause and for the nation’s good.

For the next nine years the Comrades Club continued to operate the Hall but over this period most of the Comrades did indeed become members of the British Legion and when the Billericay Branch was formally established on 23 August 1930 the Comrades Hall was renamed the British Legion Hall. The difference between a Branch and a Club, incidentally, is that a Club usually has an  alcohol licence and is therefore able to arrange many more social events for its members and associate members than an “alcohol free” Branch. It is probably for this reason that the Comrades Club in Billericay continued as such many years after the British Legion was established in 1921.

During the depression of the 1930s membership of the Branch and of the Club appears to have declined, leading to less social activities and thereby putting a strain on the finances of the Club. Nevertheless, there was one notable event on 28 October 1936. On that day a delegation from Germany arrived in Billericay to arrange the transfer to a German War Graves cemetery of the bodies of the crew of Zeppelin, airship L. 32, that had been shot down over farmland adjoining Jacksons Lane by Second Lieutenant Frederick Sowrey,

D.S.O. of the Royal Flying Corps on 23 September 1916. Notwithstanding the brutality of the Great War on the ground the crew had been buried with full military honours in the church yard of Great Burstead Parish Church.

At the official handing over ceremony the standard of the Branch flew alongside a flag bearing the swastika emblem of the National Socialist Party and for the first and, thankfully, last time arms were raised in Nazi salutes in Billericay.  At the time, of course, there was no thought of yet another war which would result, three years later, in the Great War being renamed the First World War.

The demise of the Club came in 1939 when, with the outbreak of the Second World War it suffered a final and dramatic decline in membership, possibly as a result of its younger members being conscripted into the Armed Forces. It consequently went into liquidation not long after war was declared on 6 September, leading to the disposal of whatever assets it possessed. The Hall itself was immediately requisitioned by the Local Civil Defence Committee for the duration of the war and converted into a “retained Fire Station” in 1948: it was used as such until it closed in 1973.

The closure of the Hall left the remaining members of the Branch without a meeting place. The Branch had also suffered the loss, earlier in the summer, of its Secretary, Charles Houghton, who had been much involved in welfare work on behalf of the Branch and the comrades. The members had no option but to return to the Billericay Reading Rooms, taking whatever they could retrieve from the Hall with them until alternative premises could be located.

I am aware of the return of the Branch to the Reading Rooms because, as a former Chairman of the Trustees, I decided to explore the dusty roof void of the building. No one had been up into it for ages and among the broken chairs, tables and other discarded items of furniture, I came across a framed Roll of Honour of servicemen from Billericay who had died in the Great War. It would probably have been displayed on the wall of the Comrades Hall. I ensured that it was presented to the Cater Museum for safekeeping.

A solution to the accommodation problem was offered by Mrs. Alice Rose Taylor, the widow of Charles Taylor a Com Chandler, and their son, former Leading Aircraftsman, John Neville Taylor. The late Charles Taylor owned the Rose Hall in Chapel Street, originally built in 1850 as the British School, and had used it for many years as a grain store for his business. His Executors no longer had a use for it.

The British Legion accepted the offer and purchased the Hall on 29 May 1947 for the then substantial sum of nine hundred pounds. Quite how this amount was raised I have no idea but I suspect generous donations were made by leading local citizens, including Dr. Wells who would have been in his sixties at the time and close to retirement. The purchase of the Hall took place in the same year as the erection of the brick built 1939-1945 War Memorial behind the pre-existing First World War memorial.

Although the Club had ceased to function and the Branch had no permanent meeting place until the Rose Hall was purchased members continued throughout the Second World War to attend the War Memorial on 11 November and to organise the Service on Remembrance Sunday thanks largely to Dr. Wells and to John Wheatley.

As a former ex Serviceman, having served in a Royal Artillery Regiment stationed in Edinburgh and subsequently on active service in Cyprus while seconded to Military Intelligence, I joined the Branch of what was now the Royal British Legion in 1975. Membership was healthy at the time comprising principally ex Servicemen from the Second World War and their wives. Most of the male members had seen active service in the army or the Royal Air Force and many had moved to Billericay during the explosion in the population of the town, when the railway line from Liverpool Street to Southend on Sea was electrified in the 1950s.

They had been supplemented by ex-National Servicemen like myself who wanted to support the objectives of the Legion, to remember our Comrades and to raise enough money through the annual Poppy Appeal to provide essential welfare for veterans and their families. In this respect I had been Poppy Appeal Fund organiser for my college in the 1950s when it was still called “The Earl Haig fund”, a reminder to everyone at the time of his immense contribution to the founding and to the work of the British Legion.

The fact that, post War, the Branch was not a Club did not mean that it had no social activities. It had an annual Dinner for its members, an Old Tyme Dance section, a Whist Club and, from the early 1980s, a Scrabble Club. But it concentrated principally on fund raising and welfare matters, including making sure that elderly ex Servicemen and their dependents were given advice on the benefits available to them through the Legion itself and through Governmental Agencies and the Local Authority. The Welfare Section’s activities were as important as everything else within the Branch.

Having been built in 1850, the Rose Hall began to show its age in the 1970s and the Rotary Club of Billericay of which I was a member took a twenty one year lease in 1975 and undertook to maintain it until 1996. Thereafter, however maintenance of the Hall and management of hirings for it became the responsibility of the Branch. By 2012 it was evident that insufficient revenue would be generated to maintain and carry out essential repairs and it was sold by the property Department of the British Legion to a local businessman for conversion into a rehabilitation and advice centre for former drug users (now closed).

Although “homeless” once again, but with rooms available for its meetings, the work of the Branch continues. From March 2020 to July 2021 the coronavirus pandemic did indeed restrict the ability of the Branch to raise funds, carry out welfare work (most of which had been taken “in house” by “Head Office”) and to organise social events for members.

With the relaxation of the Covid regulations the Committee, which has been meeting on Zoom, has been able to resume its external activities, including to date attendance at the Billericay Summerfest and a barbeque for Branch members. The Branch intends to participate in the town’s annual Fun Walk in September and is assisting in the planning of the celebration of the Centenary of the War Memorial and the British Legion on 16 October as well as organising the Poppy Appeal and participation in the Remembrance Day Service and Parade in November.

Over the years the largely inactive element of the membership of the Branch has shrunk in size as the number of Second World War veterans has gradually diminished. Notwithstanding the reduction in overall numbers the amount raised by the Branch increased every year until 2020 and it is important t? note that membership is not restricted to ex Service personnel, if it ever was,  and that the Branch is looking forward not only to an increase in active membership and the assistance of non-members but to surpassing the amount raised in 2019.

The need for funds still exists to provide financial, social and emotional support to members and veterans of the armed forces and their dependents. In this respect the bravery of ex-servicemen and women has been brought vividly to the attention of the public through events like the “Invictus” Games where those who fought for their country display their determination to overcome what appear to be impossible physical odds. We owe a debt of gratitude to these people and others like them and it is that debt that we in the Legion and other like-minded citizens of Billericay try to repay.

Brian is President of the Billericay Branch.

 

 

 

 

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