World War One and the St. David's Priory Collection

This article was written by Katherine Williams and Lisa Karlsson, two postgraduate MA students from Swansea University. They participated in the GO Wales heritage skills placement scheme, from the 2-13 June 2014, under the guidance of the Archives’ staff. Through this placement they have learnt about archive processes and preservation, and have examined several collections including St. David’s Priory. By exploring these records they discovered how World War One affected the lives of everyday citizens in Swansea.

Katherine Williams and Lisa Karlsson looking at documents from the St David's Priory collection

Hygiene and Disease

Both children and teachers alike of St. David’s school suffered a range of illnesses and infections, such as ringworm, scarlatina (Scarlet Fever), diphtheria, measles, German measles (rubella), and mumps. One of the worst outbreaks the school experienced was that of influenza, which reached epidemic proportions in Swansea during the winter of 1918. St. David’s school was forced to close on several occasions, and influenza was still rife in the beginning of 1919. As a result St. David’s school was yet again closed on 10 March 1919 for sanitary reasons, by order of the local medical officer. Although such illnesses had been prevalent before the war, it is likely that deteriorating living conditions, malnutrition and poor hygiene worsened the spread of disease.

Diet and Nutrition

Even though the war effort was in its early stages in the summer of 1914, the impact on Swansea’s children could already be felt:

‘It was found necessary to feed the poor children during the holidays as some of the fathers and big brothers were called away to the front. The docks were closed also for some days so that people could not work.’
31 August 1914

St. David’s school took the step of providing two free meals a day for its poorest pupils, initially during the holidays, but this was later changed to include term time. The scheme was expanded to include the weekend, and the committee even proposed giving a third evening meal to the poorest children at one point.The St. David’s school logbooks demonstrate that the experience of children in Swansea was not too dissimilar to those of children abroad. This was noted on 18 November 1919 upon Father Fennell’s return to the school, where he recalled his time as an army chaplain in Germany. He reported that German children faced similar hardships to their Welsh counterparts, particularly with food shortages. As the St. David’s Priory records illustrate, food shortages were common.  Towards the end of the war the congregation of St. David’s were requested by the Food Control Committee to observe voluntary rationing regulations in the spring of 1917.

Relief Effort

The congregation of St. David’s organised fundraising events to support Catholic troops on the front. It also appears that there were a lot of strong links between Belgium and Swansea. The congregation diligently raised money, particularly for Belgian refugees, orphans and soldiers, selling flags and photos. It is possible that these connections were made through the pre-existing Belgian metal worker community in the local area. In addition, a local convent organised knitting drives to raise funds and send care packages to troops.

The Sacred Heart of Christ with St Patrick and St Peter, St David's Priory

In Memoriam

The congregation of St. David’s Priory commemorated those who died during the war. They regularly held mass for the safe return of congregation members on the front, and sung requiem for the soldiers and sailors who had died:

pray for our soldiers and sailors that God may give us a speedy victory and lasting peace.’
16 December 1917

The congregation even organised the construction of two memorial windows for those who had lost their lives. The Reverend Canon Gwydir, a manager of St. David’s School, was particularly commemorated after he drowned on the hospital ship, Rohilla, in 1914. As a beloved member of the clergy, he was noted for his selflessness and heroic actions, and a memorial was erected by the St. David’s congregation in his honour. The memorial service was conducted by the Archbishop of Wales himself, and masses were held in remembrance of his brave conduct.

Photograph of window of the Sacred Heart of Christ with St Patrick and St Peter, St David's Priory, from Martin Crampin (ed.), Stained Glass in Wales Catalogue, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth, 2011. (accessed 9 June 2014)