The BBC World War One at Home live touring event is at West Park this weekend as part of the Wolverhampton & Black Country Show. Wolverhampton Archives will be represented together with the rest of our WAVE colleagues. On Saturday 12th July, archivist Heidi Mcintosh will be meeting Larry Lamb at 12.30 in the briefing room, talking about our white feather letter. Come along and find out more!
William Weller was a partner of the prestigious firm of architects known as Weller & Sons, which designed buildings in Wolverhampton in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the First World War, he was sent a white feather letter, which is one of the few that have survived to this day.
White feathers were given to men thought to be dodging military service. The Order of the White Feather was founded before the First World War, and women would hand white feathers to young men who they deemed to be cowards for avoiding military service.
Rather than being sent to Weller’s home address, the letter was sent to him care of the local Conservative Club, presumably for maximum effect. The associated file at the archives also includes information from the tribunal which excused his military service. Mr Weller, who was 41 when the letter was sent, had been excused from service for a number of reasons, namely:
- Medical grounds including night blindness
- playing a key role in providing homes for factory workers at the Wednesfield Weldless Steel Tube Company Ltd, which produced ships’ boilers for the war effort
- Being solely responsible for looking after his elderly mother and poorly sister.
The letter, which was signed ‘A. Chicken Heart, clerk to the council’, includes the line: ‘Your gallant + protracted defence against the brutal attacks of the local tribunal has been brought to the notice of the Supreme Council of the Most Noble Order of The Trench Dodgers.’
The file of papers includes witness statements made at the tribunal, a copy of William Weller’s defence, and various correspondence with the Ministry of Munitions of War and with other departments, demonstrating Weller’s various efforts to achieve military exemption. In 1921 the Ministry of Health decided that all papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service, including those on grounds of conscientious objection, should be destroyed, along with every tribunal minute book except those of the Central Tribunal. Thus the vast majority of files were lost, and those of Wolverhampton are among those that have not survived. Although the local newspapers, including the Express and Star and the Wolverhampton Chronicle did report on the tribunals, details of the individuals who came before them were anonymised, so we are unable to ascertain the details of Weller’s case.
It is very unusual for such an item to have survived for nearly a hundred years. They were meant to shame the recipient as they were sent to people who were perceived as cowards. It is now a very rare item giving a stark and chilling alternative view of the war.