THE EARLY YEARS
By Brendan King - Baldock Mail
The Baldock Branch was formed at a poorly attended meeting at the Town Hall on the 28th December 1922 ‘after many months of indecision’. The organising secretary of the district, a Major Nelson, had been invited to come and explain the purpose of the Legion to those present. He pointed out that before the foundation of the Legion in 1921 there had been many uncoordinated organisations trying to help ex-servicemen, but the Legion, which in two years, had formed over 2,000 branches, sought to provide a strong voice to articulate the many grievances of the veterans of the recent war; to assist servicemen, able and disabled, to find work; to assist the incapacitated, the widows and orphans; to provide a unifying spirit of community and national stability in a time of unrest and bitterness and to be free of distinctions of class or creed and open to all except conscientious objectors.
Major Nelson succeeded in persuading those present (probably not much more than a dozen out of 300-400 ex-servicemen of the town) that there was a need for a Legion branch in Baldock, and they duly voted to form one. A month later a further 25 had joined the ranks.
The reasons for this apparent lack of enthusiasm are not known, but we might attempt to guess at some of them. Certainly many men returning home wanted to forget the war, if they could, and would not be keen to join what, superficially, may have appeared to be an old-comrades association; others may not have seen it necessary or required locally.
Baldock was a small, quite self-sufficient community that seems to have readily pulled together in communal matters in times of rejoicing and need. The little town of about 2,400 people had lost 79 men during the Great War, a disproportionately heavy loss, it needed no prompting to honour them. Indeed the ladies of the town had made house-to-house collections to pay for the war memorial and a memorial bed in Letchworth hospital, while further donations provided another memorial in the parish church. During the national Thanksgiving Week in July 1919, Baldock put on a great show for its Peace Celebration, with a carnival, fancy-dress pageant and games very like the old, pre-war celebrations of coronations and jubilees, but now tinged with moments of sadness and tears amid the joyful scenes.
They had ended the week with a splendid Welcome Home dinner and concert for those servicemen who had returned home by then. This had all been done without the British Legion and perhaps that accounts for the initial disinterest in a local branch.
Whatever the reason, the new branch quickly grew so that, by the end of 1923, it had 183 paying members and had made its presence felt in the town. In August it had arranged with Baldock UDC for an old field gun to be placed as a memorial at the junction of Bell Row and the High Street, only to find that the children climbed all over it…
Unveiling the War Memorial on the Town Hall in February 1921
That November the branch played a major part in the ceremonies of remembrance, fixing a large laurel wreath on the war memorial into which people could put their own poppies ‘to form one large magnificent wreath’, while the attendance at the church services on the 11th, Armistice Sunday, were though to be the largest ever.
Placing wreaths on the 1914-1918 War Memorial on the Town Hall. Over 1000 people attended some Remembrance Sunday parades in the 1920s. (photo courtesy Baldock Museum)
The first AGM in February 1924 showed the good work the Legion did in providing relief and help to local ex-servicemen and those passing through on the road, often as tramps, and in providing a Christmas party for 320 children.
Above: Mr Sydney Balance of South Lodge, President of the Baldock branch, welcomes Viscount Hampden (seated to the right) to the British Legion fete, held in his grounds in June 1924.
The Baldock branch prospered during the following years, staging a variety of fundraising events; Poppy Day, of course, which in the early years was organised by Mrs Pedley (£24 was raising in 1924) and various fetes, concerts and dances. By the spring of 1925 the branch had its own band under bandmaster W.Askey to provide entertainment at variety concerts, and occasionally in the streets on a Sunday and by 1926 could boast a popular orchestra with an ‘up-to-date repertoire’, much in demand for dances.
The branch opened a new headquarters and clubroom in 1926, but in 1938 the building, in Mansfield Road, was taken over by the Baldock Working Men’s Club and the British Legion branch moved to the scout hut off Clothall Road behind The Maltings, possibly due to falling membership.
Nevertheless, the branch, by then strengthened by a women’s section, continued its good work and during the Second World War provided, amongst other things, parcels for Baldock servicemen overseas, and cigarettes for the wounded.
In his Armistice Day sermon in 1923, Revd Alington, the rector of Baldock, pointed out, as Major Nelson had not, that the first object of the constitution of the British Legion was ‘to perpetuate the memory of those who died in the service of their country’. This ideal was expressed in the idea of a Poppy Day which Field Marshal Haig had commended to the Legion in 1921 as ‘a Day of Remembrance, on which I hope every member of the community will wear a poppy as a token of remembrance and respect for the fallen, and a sign that the memory of those heroes is, and always will be, with us’.
Baldock Remembrance Day Parade 1957
Of the many good things the Legion has achieved it is with this that perhaps most people associate it; keeping alive the remembrance of all the dead of our armed forces of the Great War and since, in a way that had never been done for the largely forgotten dead of previous wars.
The original Baldock branch continued until it was disbanded c1966. It was refomed in May 2006 at Baldock Community Centre, the Chariman was Mr. Alan Drury and Secretary was Mr. David Greenwood. The branch has never had it's own premises and has held meetings at The Rose & Crown, The White Horse, Zeus Hotel (now Templars) and currently The Orange Tree.