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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Curious Case of von Hawkins


On 17th May 1916 The Times published a report about a man who had been charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, a widely-ranging piece of legislation designed to maintain morale and prevent thoughtless acts that would prove detrimental to the war effort.  The article read:

£100 Fine for Disloyal Talk

William Hedley Hawkins, 34, of Bassett-road, Ladbroke-grove, a correspondence clerk employed at the Smithfield goods depot of the Great Western Railway, who surrendered to his bail at Guildhall yesterday, was fined £100 with the alternative of three months’ imprisonment for having made false statements calculated to prejudice recruiting. The case has been reported in The Times.

The defendant, giving evidence on his own behalf, denied having made many of the statements attributed to him. Last November, he said, he applied for and obtained permission to attest, but domestic matters prevented him from doing so. He had waited till the Government made some provision for married men. His nickname in the office was ‘Von Hawkins’. He certainly once made the absurd remark, ‘We shall one day see the Germans marching up the Mile End-road,’ and he also once said ‘I suppose I shall have to head a deputation if the Germans come over here.’ But that was mere chaff in reply to some bantering remarks. He urged that what he had said humorously had been taken seriously. Men who were employed at the Smithfield goods depot said they had attested on the defendant’s advice. [Attesting involved enlisting and being allowed to return to civilian life until called for.] 

Mr Frampton, for the defendant, said that notice of appeal would be given in due course.

The Pall Mall Gazette for Thursday 29th June 1916 reported the appeal proceedings under the headline:

Alleged to be Pro-German

The Statement of a City Clerk

An Appeal

 At the Guildhall Quarter Sessions today William Hedley Hawkins, a clerk in a city office of the Great Western Railway, appealed against a conviction for making false statements likely to prejudice the recruitment, discipline and training of HM Forces when he was fined £100 or three months’ imprisonment. Mr Moore for the respondent said that appellant made statements to fellow employees that ‘God made Germany the first country in the world, and put the Danube there to keep out the barbarians’, that the King and Queen were secretly friends of Germany, and that the Russians were the scum of the earth; that the English have ‘brought this war on themselves’, that he did not think the working classes should be made to pay for the war, and that he had in circulation circulars to repudiate the war loan. He also said that ‘all soldiers are licensed murderers of the English Government’, and that he would not willingly have them in his house. 

A young lady in the office had three brothers in the Army, and when appellant heard that they had taken part in a bayonet charge, he said that they ‘ought to have a special place in hell.’ 

He further remarked ‘Let people who are mugs enough go out and be shot’, and said there was no freedom in this country. The freedom of a fellow-employee, he said, was to work from nine in the morning until 5.30 at night. Of the Wittenberg camp incidents [during a 1914-15 typhus epidemic at a prisoner-of-war camp German guards and medical staff had abandoned their prisoners, who had previously been abused and allegedly tortured] he said that the British prisoners were not treated half so badly as the Germans in the English camp. He himself would not be called up; they would not want him, as he should not fight.

On the evening of Friday 30th June the Pall Mall Gazette reported on the continuation of the appeal:

The hearing was continued at the City Quarter Sessions today of an appeal by William Hedley Hawkins, a GWR clerk, against a conviction for making statements likely to prejudice recruiting and the discipline and training of HM Forces, and a fine of £100 or three months’ imprisonment. Charles Parnell, a staff clerk, said that in December last he heard the appellant say that he would rather fight for the Germans than the English, and when the Germans came he would go and meet them with a red flag. Another clerk said that the appellant had remarked that ‘the Germans were justified in sinking the Lusitania because it carried guns and ammunition.’ Detective Inspector Lane of the railway police told the court that when questioned the appellant said, ‘It is all rot. The statements are garbled by girls who did not understand’. 

Family Tradition 

Inspector Garrett of the City Police said that when charged prisoner said, ‘This is a trumped up charge engineered by the company. It has arisen through a lot of chipping that is going on’. Mr E Wild KC submitted that the statements were not such as would prejudice recruiting. Mr Wild referred to the speech of the Attorney General before the Bill was passed. 

The Chairman: ‘We are not concerned with the Act itself.’ 

Mr Wild said that the appellant was as anxious as anybody that this country should win the war. Defendant came from a Devonshire family, and there was a tradition that he was descended from Sir John Hawkins, the famous Admiral. The appellant had done the work of a recruiting sergeant, and was himself an attested man. He had been called ‘von Hawkins’ because for six years before the war he had worn his moustache in the German fashion and he looked like a German. 

The Debating Society Attitude 

The appellant said there was a great deal of badinage in the office, and he took ‘the debating society attitude’, to keep the argument going. When he was called ‘Daddy’ and ‘von Hawkins’ he took it as a joke, and he expected that his remarks would be take in the same spirit. Many of the remarks had been torn away from the context. His remarks about the Kaiser being a gentleman and a lover of peace were quotations from pre-war newspapers to show how opinions had changed in this country. 
Going to press for evening publication, the Pall Mall Gazette was unable to publish the end of the story, which was reported by The Times the following day, ending with:

The Court upheld the conviction and sentence. They allowed 14 days for payment of the fine, but refused to state a case.

£100 was probably more than Hawkins’ annual salary, and was the same amount of fine levied three weeks earlier on Bertrand Russell for publishing the leaflet ‘Two Years Hard Labour for Refusing to Disobey the Dictates of Conscience’. In London early morning readers of the report in The Times on 1st July may have noticed the cessation of the rumble of the guns in Flanders which had been firing continuously for eight days; at 7.30 that morning junior officers in the trenches blew their whistles for the first advance of what came to be known as the Battle of the Somme.

The story of Hawkins and what he did or did not say is not an easy one. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 allowed for censorship of information, so it is impossible to know exactly what Hawkins and his colleagues knew about the events at the Wittenberg camp. The evidence recorded in the trial reports for what Hawkins did or did not say may depend on memory, opportunism, grudges, fear or lies. Some of his alleged statements seem to have been bewilderingly provocative, stupidly so, as if calling down the power of the state on his head – the references to the Lusitania and soldiers as murderers seem particularly asking for trouble. Yet at times we have the impression of a grumpy old man (‘Daddy’ to his colleagues), avoiding enlisting – and the court report pages of the Pall Mall Gazette show frequent references to deserters and avoiders – who just got carried away with the persona of the ‘office pessimist’. He was still saddled with the nickname ‘von Hawkins’ through the long-term wearing of a ‘German moustache’. However, the post-Lusitania anti-German rioting would have rendered the wearing of such a moustache in 1916 inflammatory and probably dangerous; it is unlikely that he would have been able to maintain this and keep his job in an environment where anyone who had had a German-sounding family name would have anglicised it. Hawkins was clearly at pains to emphasise his ‘Englishness’. By the time of the trial he was apparently an attested man, and colleagues had enlisted on his advice. Did the reference to the King and Queen as ‘secretly friends of Germany’ touch a raw nerve (at this stage the royal family’s name had not yet been changed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and such concerns were felt by others)? With the reference to ‘the working classes [being] made to pay for the war’, and the reference to the red flag, was Hawkins perceived as a potential revolutionary?  Did the wrapping up of the trial without the bench making a case have anything to do with the critical battle opening in France? Was Hawkins being made an exemplar? 

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