A shelter of one’s own — II

The previous post ended with this photo, and another very similar one, which Getty Images dates to 17 October 1917 with the caption 'Moses Shackman, centre, with members of the Jewish East End Shelter Corps. Their hats are labelled in Yiddish and English':

Raid Shelter Corps, 1917

As I noted, the hatbands actually say (in English, at least), 'RAID SHELTER CORPS'. This turns out to be a somewhat mysterious organisation, but I think I've managed to track it down.

Apart from Getty Images, almost the only source for the Raid Shelter Corps is the British Newspaper Archive, which has just 5 references. The first is from the end of October 1917 and is a brief notice in the Pall Mall Gazette that

To help women and children and infirm men during air raids a 'Raid Shelter Corps' has been formed in Stepney.1

A few days later, a similarly short paragraph appeared in the Daily Mirror:

Stepney's Raid Shelter Corps:-- A raid shelter corps has been formed in Stepney and 150,000 persons can be sheltered in the borough on raid nights.2

The information about the shelter capacity is so improbably high that it must refer to the use of existing structures such as churches and cellars.3

The Leeds Mercury then published a photo of a behatted clergyman (which I won't bother reproducing as it's not very interesting) under the title 'AIDS RAID VICTIMS' and with the caption:

The Rev. C. J. Tribe, leader of a London Raid Shelter Corps. The fifty members are pledged to assist women and children during air raids.4

This gives us a size and also a person: obviously not Jewish, as he's a clergyman. So it's not immediately obvious that this is the same organisation, especially since the location is given as London, not Stepney. Some digging in BNA shows that Tribe was a Methodist minister, and in late 1917 was based in the East End, so that does in fact fit.

Another Mirror article and another, more interesting, photo:

Daily Mirror, 10 November 1917, 8

At the first parade of the Stepney Raid Shelter Corps armlets were issued to the members, who assist women and children to shelter on air raid nights.5

Here we have armbands, not hatbands. They seem to have a circular design on them but unfortunately there's not enough detail to make it out.

There's just one more article about the Raid Shelter Corps in BNA and after all these tantalising snippets, fortunately it's a substantial one. Oddly, it's not in a metropolitan or even a major provincial newspaper, but the Middlesex & Buckingham Advertiser (and the Uxbridge Gazette). While it begins by noting that locals 'have had a lively experience of the air raid refugees', the reason for the interest seems to be that 'One of the instigators of the new movement is Mr Vincent Pitman, of Uxbridge', a printer by trader (and in 1920, involved in the guild socialism movement; perhaps related to Sir Isaac Pitman, as in shorthand).6 The Advertiser, presumably working from information provided by Pitman, claimed that the 'new movement [...] is growing so fast in scope and methods that it has almost outgrown its name -- the Stepney Raid Shelter Corps'.7 There's a fascinating suggestion that the 'movement' was spreading to other districts, but as there's no information given to help trace that this may just be journalistic hyperbole:

This interesting experiment began in the Borough of Stepney for instituting a corps of citizens to assist the police during air-raids, and to prepare for such contingencies. The people themselves have formed in various districts their own patrols, numbering from ten to fifty, and have already rendered assistance to their fellow citizens in directing them to the nearest shelters (lists of which were prepared), by assisting them when in those places, and by establishing confidence by sympathy.8

This fits with the information we have already, and suggests that the compilation of lists of shelters was one of the Corps' functions. A plea for funds gives insight into its other activities, planned or actual:

Experience is proving that the corps will require considerable equipment, as the condition of the crowd in the shelters is often pitiable and deplorable. Even confinements have taken place during these trying times. Movable refreshment apparatus, nursing appliances, sanitary conveniences. and so on, are wanted. For this purpose, funds are badly needed, and it would be a kindly act on the part of residents who are so comfortably and securely housed in the western suburbs to send a donation to the Hon. Secretary, Rev. C. J. Tribe, 7, Bromley-street, E.1.8

So here's Tribe again, though rather than the 'leader' of the Corps he's just the honorary secretary. The Advertiser in fact provides quite a complete list of the organisation of the Stepney organisation, which was based at Toynbee Hall and had a Central Committee comprising:

This is a fairly comprehensive list of almost all the local political, civic and religious leaders you would want in such an organisation. But what about where we came in, with Moses Shackman and the 'Jewish East End Shelter Corps'? I still haven't been able to find anything about him. But the president of the Corps was in fact Jewish. A. I. Belisha is Albert Isaac Belisha, uncle of Leslie Hore-Belisha, at this time serving in France but in the lead-up to the next war would be a reforming Secretary of State for War and probably the most prominent Jew in British public life in the 1930s.9 Albert Belisha was, among other things, a director of the Metropolitan Railway, so very successful in his own right.

That a Jewish businessman was president is useful evidence of the Raid Shelter Corps' ecumenical nature. But there's one other, odd, valuable but problematic source I've found for the Corps which goes further, and that's the Aeroplane:

A large and representative meeting was held on Oct. 17th [1917] at the Jewish Board of Guardians, Middlesex Street, when it was resolved to form an Air Raid Shelter Corps, having for its object the provision of a body of volunteers who would endeavour to restore confidence during air raids by giving every possible assistance to women, children and the infirm.

Mr Albert I. Belisha, who presided, said they had met to devise some means of assisting those who had little chance of protecting themselves during air raids. Though they had assembled at the Jewish Board of Guardians, he desired it to be clearly understood that they had not met in any sectarian spirit, but purely as Englishmen, with the view of restoring confidence and to be generally helpful by persuasion and good example. He was able to inform them that Major Lionel de Rothschild had expressed himself in warm sympathy with the movement, and he was grateful to Mr Vincent Pitman for having inaugurated it.10

This is a fascinating account of the origins of the Raid Shelter Corps. The initial meeting was held at the Jewish Board of Guardians; Belisha presided over that meeting and became president of the Corps itself; and Rothschild was in some way connected with the movement. All this strongly suggests that the impetus -- though perhaps not the inspiration, unless Pitman was also Jewish11 -- for the Corps originated within the Jewish community. Belisha's protestation that the meeting was not held 'in any sectarian spirit' also supports it, because otherwise he wouldn't have needed to say it; but the subsequent evolution of the Corps shows that he was genuine in his intention, because within weeks its organisation had acquired the full panoply of secular and Christian worthies listed above. Which makes it all the more interesting.

One final comment. The Aeroplane article quoted above seems a straightforward-enough piece of reporting. But the editor, C. G. Grey, added his own gloss, as was his wont:

[Excellent scheme! And the beauty of the idea is that the work of the corps will be done under cover. It should have no difficulty in recruiting. — Ed.]8

At first the imputation here passed me by, but then I realised that it's a slur implying that Jews are cowards and so would flock to join an air-raid organisation where they would work 'under cover', as opposed to doughty English firefighters and ambulance drivers, presumably. Par for the course for Grey, a notorious anti-semite, but also sadly par for the course for British airpower literature, particularly when discussing the air raids of the First World War. In fact, one of the leaders of the Corps, Bishop Paget, made his own anti-semitic contribution to this literature a few months after its founding when he wrote that

there is no doubt that the Eastern temperament of the Jews makes them far more subject to alarm than our own people.12

The Corps may originally have been a Jewish initiative, then, but it may not have done much to promote their acceptance as members of the British community under the raids. In any case, as these are all the records of the Raid Shelter Corps I've been able to find, it seems that it died after November 1917.

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  1. Pall Mall Gazette, 29 October 1917, 5. An identical notice appeared in Evening Express (Aberdeen), 1 November 1917, 1. []
  2. Daily Mirror, 1 November 1917, 2. []
  3. The Pall Mall Gazette, on the same page cited above, reported that neighbouring Bethnal Green had a nightly capacity of 40,000 shelterers, but the paragaph doesn't seem related to the news from Stepney. []
  4. Leeds Mercury, 2 November 1917, 6. []
  5. Daily Mirror, 10 November 1917, 8. []
  6. Middlesex & Buckingham Advertiser (Uxbridge), 23 November 1917, 2; Southall-Norwood Gazette (Southall), 5 November 1920, 5. []
  7. Middlesex & Buckingham Advertiser (Uxbridge), 23 November 1917, 2. []
  8. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  9. Scotsman (Edinburgh), 12 April 1938, 13. []
  10. Aeroplane, 24 October 1917, 264. []
  11. Sir Isaac Pitman, as far as I can tell, was not. []
  12. Henry Luke Paget, Records of the Raids (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918), 44. []

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