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News Release - Issued by The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

Wartime Christmas: The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in 1914

In the archives which are based at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, there are boxes of documents relating to the activities of the Company of Merchant Adventurers and their Hall which date back over 655 years. An Elizabethan Royal Charter sits alongside Victorian minute books whilst the original Medieval deeds for the Hall are stored alongside Inn receipts for Georgian Merchants on official business. In one of these boxes is a small unassuming group of letters and documents tied up with string, on the front of the first document it reads, “Merchants Co. Tenancy Agreement with the Secretary of State, 1914”. These papers reveal the story of a group of men who spent Christmas at the Hall in 1914, four months before they joined thousands of others in a War which would eventually kill over 8 million people.

The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall has a rich and colourful history with many of its fascinating stories told in great detail. However the unearthing of a photo showing a number of soldiers sat around the Great Hall at Christmas has led to the very recent discovery of the Hall’s small but important role as a billet for soldiers during the first few months of the First World War.

The grainy black and white photo of a group of soldiers at Christmas time in the Hall has always intrigued staff; Who were the soldiers? What were they doing at the Hall? How did they hang those enormous Christmas garlands from the roof?! The unearthing of the documents has solved some of the mystery (although the mystery of how those garlands were put up may never be solved) and provides a glimpse into a unique Christmas which took place at the Hall 100 years ago.

The story began in September 1914 with a signed contract between the Company of Merchant Adventurers and the Secretary of State for the War Department which agreed that the Hall would be used as a billet for a number of troops and the Company would be paid £2.8.6 a week in rent. Up to 50 men were billeted in the building and were allowed to use the Great Hall and the Undercroft, the photograph and the papers identify the men as coming from the Territorial (Leeds Rifles) 1/7th West Yorkshire Regiment or “Kitchener’s Army” as many territorial forces were known.

The Leeds Rifles were formed at Carlton Barracks in Leeds in the summer of 1914 before moving to Selby, Strensall and then York in October. In March 1915 they moved to Gainsborough before arriving in France a month later. They would play an active part in some of the most notorious battles of the First World War including the Battle of the Somme, holding Ypres Salient and Passchendaele.

One of the documents in the archive is a Special Order which would have been pinned to the front door of the Hall which was a list of do’s and don’ts for Soldiers staying in billets. No smoking was allowed in any of the buildings, curfew was at 10.30 and one command states that “Singing or shouting whilst marching through the streets of York is strictly forbidden.”

Despite the strict instructions, it is clear from the photo that the soldiers made the Hall their home, the photo shows men reading, studying papers and smoking cigarettes in the Court Room (now part of the Great Hall where you are sitting). The archives also state a very long list of the repairs which were required in the Hall including a number of broken window frames and lamps, leading to the suspicion that football may have also been played in the Hall too!

Music would have been played on a number of occasions within the Hall, as those billeted here were part of the Regimental Band, illustrated by the Christmas greeting on the photo and by the large drum at the back of the Hall. Lauren Marshall, Hall Manager is looking forward to the concert, “We are delighted that the Yorkshire Volunteers Brass Ensemble will be playing at the Hall 100 years after their forebears were billeted here. The Concert will be an uplifting centenary commemoration of them and the Hall’s small role in a global conflict.”

Tickets for the Yorkshire Volunteers Brass Ensemble Concert at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall on Thursday 11th December are on sale now at £10.
For more information please contact Lauren Marshall on 01904 654818.