Local reaction to the outbreak of war was mixed.

There was panic buying of food but this soon subsided.

Many were on the hunt for German spies. A guard was placed on the Ilford Water Works and an innocent Russian journalist was arrested in nearby Epping Forest.

Horses were taken from local businesses to be used by the army for transport. Charities, such as the Ilford Women's War Help Society, were set up.

On 28 August 1914, the local Woodford and Wanstead Bugle newspaper summed up the mood:

The whole of Europe has become embroiled in what will probably be the greatest conflict of armed force which the world has ever seen.

It affects everybody, even in a district such as that in which we live, where there is no garrison, no great industry to be protected, no special attraction from the point of view of the enemy." 

Advertisement for The Stores, High Street, Wanstead, August 1914. © Redbridge Information & Heritage P11936

In the fevered atmosphere at the outbreak of war, many local people with ‘foreign-sounding’ names had to show they were not German.

These incidents highlight one of the lesser known but significant migrant populations living in London.

In 1914, there were over 50,000 Germans in the country and many had started families and businesses in east London, forming a significant sector of the local community as the area’s bakers, butchers, hairdressers and jewellers.

However, when war broke out all German nationals were interned in camps, including one at Stratford, since these ‘Enemy Aliens’ were seen as a potential threat to national security.

Anti-German sentiment rose again in May 1915 after the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania and there were disturbances in Manor Park and Ilford.

The photograph shows Theodore Dembon who was born in Vienna but by 1913 had a hairdressing shop at 347 High Road, Ilford. In 1915 Theodore was interned as an Enemy Alien. Two of his children were looked after by his late wife’s family while another son was placed in an orphanage. They never heard from their father again. It was only many years later that one of Theodore’s sons, when terminally ill, felt able to finally reveal this family tragedy.

Theodore Dembon. © Courtesy of Mary McCarten

One of the first major impacts of the war was the arrival in Ilford of Belgian refugees.

From September 1914, around 250,000 Belgian refugees arrived in Britain to escape the fighting. The British government offered ‘the hospitality of the British nation’ and gave financial support. Local voluntary committees were set up to find homes for the Belgians.

Ilford Council agreed to provide Valentines Mansion. The Council had bought the house in 1912 and it was currently empty. The Mansion was equipped and furnished by local residents’ donations. A committee fund-raised to cover ongoing costs.

The local newspaper recorded that on 10 November 1914, the first group of Belgian refugees of “nine gentleman, eight ladies and four children…of a class similar to Ilford people” arrived at the Mansion.

Valentines Mansion was home to 270 refugees over the course of the war. Most stayed for a short time before finding accommodation elsewhere. A child was even born in the house on 28 November 1914 – she was named Maria Valentine Franck. The refugees appear to have left the Mansion by May 1918 and the Mansions was converted into a military convalescent hospital from October 1918 until March1919.

Belgian refugees also stayed in at least five private homes in Wanstead and Woodford. The first small contingent arrived in Wanstead on Friday 17 September 1914 and was welcomed at the Sunday service of the Wanstead Congregational Church.

A group of ten individuals, comprising three families from Malines (now known as ‘Mechelen’, in Flemish) were put up in a large house called ‘Clooncaven’ in Aldersbrook from October 1914. Support for the refugees came from the Wanstead Emergency Food Fund which by January 1915 was assisting 200 Belgians in the district.

As in Ilford, there was a host of fund-raising activities to support the refugees from such groups as the Wanstead Primrose League, Woodford Waverley football club, the Woodford Congregational Guild and the Friends of St. Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic church, Woodford Green.

Repatriation of the Belgians back to their shattered country began in early 1919.

Belgian refugees outside Valentines Mansion, January 1915. © Redbridge Information & HeritageProgramme for a fund-raising concert for Belgian Refugees, Ilford Town Hall, 19 November 1914. © Redbridge Information & Heritage

To treat the vast numbers of wounded soldiers arriving back in Britain, a network of 3000 temporary hospitals were created, including several in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford.

At the outbreak of the war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem combined to form the Joint War Committee.

The buildings used for hospitals varied widely, ranging from town halls and schools to large and small private houses, both in the country and in cities. The most suitable ones were established as ‘auxiliary’ hospitals, attached to central military hospitals.

In many cases, women in the local neighbourhood volunteered on a part-time basis as Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, for which they received a certain amount of first-aid training. The hospitals often needed to supplement voluntary work with paid roles, such as cooks. Local medics also volunteered, despite the extra strain that the medical profession was already under at that time.

The Red Cross records of these individuals, including those living or working in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford, can be searched in the Red Cross website.

Find out more about local military hospitals in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford.

Patients and Staff at Woodford and Wanstead Military Hospital. © Courtesy of Woodford County High School Ilford Bed Plaque, 1915. © Redbridge Museum 1996.278. This plaque comes from St John's Hospital, Étaples, France, which was close to the frontline. In March 1915, members of Ilford St. John Ambulance Brigade organised a street collection to raise £100 to sponsor an ‘Ilford Bed’ at the hospital, which treated 35,000 patients during the war. It is not known how the bed plaque came back to Ilford after the war. Certificate of Service for Cecila Matthews of Wanstead. © Redbridge Museum 1996.277. Cecilia Matthews lived at 36 Cowley Road, Wanstead. She was a 22 years old insurance clerk when she became a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in December 1915. V.A.D’s were trained by the Joint Committee of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.  Cecilia was one of the thousands who helped to support regular hospital staff.