The Builder reports on mounting casualities as the war’s impact on Britain - and its construction industry - becomes clear

Thiepval memorial

Edwin Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, built in 1932, commemorates more than 72,000 British and South African soldiers who died on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 with no known grave.

In our second archives piece on the First World War, we bring you The Builder’s coverage as the conflict on the Western Front becomes into a bloody stalemate. Below are a series of articles including some obituaries of young men who had links to the construction industry. These are taken just from July 1916, the first month of the Battle of the Somme, which would eventually leave nearly 100,000 British soldiers dead.

> Also read: From the archives: The First World War breaks out, 1914

A leading editorial from January 1915 reflects on the preceding 12 months and the shock caused by the war’s outbreak, on the country as well as the construction industry. This piece is followed by some news items on the introduction of restrictions on construction work. They contain an interesting disapproval from the writer of what they consider unnecessary construction in war time, or “fancy work”, that could be interpreted as an early example of changing tastes in 20th century design. Following the war, the ornamentation and perceived frivolity of the Victorian and Edwardian eras was replaced by an increasingly stripped back modernism, firstly expressed in the 1920s by Bauhaus and Art Deco, and after the Second World War by brutalism.

Obituaries, July 1916

Second-Lieutenant H. W. Pegg.

Second-Lieutenant H. W. Pegg, who died of wounds on July 4, was the youngest son of Mr. H. Carter Pegg, F.R.I.B.A., of Westminster and Thornton Heath, Croydon, partner of the late Mr. G. T. Hine, F.R.I.B.A., F.S.I. He was educated at the Whitgift Grammar School, Croydon, and when eighteen years of age obtained a commission in the East Surrey Regiment in December, 1914.

Second-Lieutenant L. S. Ford.

Second-Lieutenant Lawton S. Ford, who was killed on July 1, aged twenty-five, was the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Lawton Ford, of Esher. Having passed the London Matriculation examination, he entered the Architectural Association School with the intention of becoming an architect. Upon the outbreak of the war he joined the Motor Section of the Army Service Corps, and in April, 1915, he obtained a commission in the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment.

Lieutenant Lawton S. Ford.

We regret to announce that the only son of Mr. Lawton R. Ford, District Surveyor for the District of St. James, Westminster, Lieutenant Lawton S. Ford, of the Royal West Surrey Regiment, was killed in action on the 1st inst. He had been through the day schools of the Architectural Association, and passed his Intermediate of the R.I.B.A. high on the list just before the outbreak of war, and in August, 1914, joined the motor transport as a private, subsequently obtaining a commission in the Surreys and latterly became a lieutenant. He was twenty-five years of age. The Colonel writes that on more than one occasion he showed worth as a leader of the men.

Captain G. Dickins.

Captain Guy Dickins, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who died from wounds on July 17, was the son of the late Mr. A. L. Dickins, of Hopefield, Manchester. He was a scholar of Winchester and Kew College, Oxford, taking a First Class in the Final Classical Schools, 1904. As a Craven Fellow he worked for some years in the British School of Archaeology, Athens; he was elected Fellow and Lecturer, St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1908, and published, with other books, the Catalogue of Sculptures in the Acropolis Museum. He obtained a commission soon after the war. began, and was gazetted captain in 1915.

Archives WW1 obituaries

Obituaries printed in July 1916 during the first month of the Battle of the Somme

Captain E. M. Gregson.

Captain Edward Maurice Gregson, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who fell June 28, aged twenty-six years, was the elder son and a partner of Mr. G. E. Gregson, of Liverpool and Southport, surveyor and agent to the Hesketh estates. On leaving Shrewsbury School he was articled to his father, at Preston, as a surveyor and mining engineer. At the outbreak of the war he was a Professional Associate of the Surveyors’ Institution, and was studying for his Fellowship. He had served at the front since May of last year, and was in the fighting at Festubert.

Lieutenant H. H. Atkin-Berry, R.N.

The death, in action, is announced of Lieutenant Harold Harding Atkin-Berry, R.N., aged twenty-four years, third son of Mr. W. H. Atkin-Berry, F.R.I.B.A., and Mrs. Atkin- Berry, of St. Margarets, West-hill, S Sydenham. 

Second-Lieutenant F. Saxon Snell.

The death, in action, on July 11, is announced of Second-Lieutenant Frank Saxon Snell, B.A.Cantab., Royal Berkshires, only son of Mr. A. Saxon Snell, F.R.I.B.A., and Mrs. Saxon Snell, of Cranford, Cookham Dean, Berks, aged twenty-nine years

Second-Lieutenant C. K. Howe.

Second-Lieutenant Charles Kingsley Howe, Berkshire Regiment, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Foster Howe, of Fairhaven, Lewes, fell on July 1. He studied under Mr. Edmund J. Sullivan, A.R.W.S.; he joined the teaching staff of the Goldsmiths’ College Art School, Hatcham, and exhibited at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers. He enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in September, 1914, and obtained a commission last year.

Second-Lieutenant A. B. K. Cook. 

Second-Lieutenant Arthur Basil Kemball Cook, Royal Fusiliers, was killed on July 1, aged thirty years. He was a son of Mr. A. K. Cook, of The Close, Winchester. He was a Scholar of Winchester and of New College, Oxford, and an architect by profession.

Captain N. W. Hadwen.

Captain Noel Waugh Hadwen, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, was killed on July 1, aged thirty years. He was a son of Mr. F. W. Hadwen, of Kebroyd Triangle, Yorks, and was educated at Locker’s Park and Harrow. He practised as an architect in Dean’s-yard, Westminster; he became a member of the Architectural Association in 1904, and at the time of joining the Army in September, 1914, was a partner of Mr. E. Guy Dawber, F.R.I.B.A. 

Captain R. Roberts.

Captain Reuben Roberts, Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Supplies, who fell on July 8, was a son of the late Mr. Roberts and of Mrs. Roberts, of “The Nook,” Westminster Park, Chester. On quitting King William’s College, Isle of Man, he served his articles as an architect to Messrs. Lockwood & Sons, of Chester. In January last year he joined the Inns of Court O.T.C. and obtained a commission in the Army Ordnance Department Corps.

Second-Lieutenant D. J. Gordon.

Second-Lieutenant Donald Jervis Gordon, Border Regiment, who fell whilst leading his platoon in the attack of July 3-4, was the third son of the late Thomas Gordon, F.R.I.B.A., and Mrs. T. Gordon, of Sevenoaks and Eastbourne. He had his education at Lancing College; in 1909 he became a student R.I.B.A., and won a Travelling Studentship three years in succession. He joined the Public Schools Brigade in August, 1914, and shortly afterwards was gazetted to the Border Regiment.

Captain P. G. Graham.

The death is reported of Captain Percy G. Graham, of Newcastle, architect, who enlisted upon the outbreak of the war, and lately obtained his commission. Captain Graham was a distinguished sportsman and polo-player; he was also champion swimmer of the North of England, and for a term of seven years held the Newcastle Corporation Cup.


Leading editorial, 8 January 1915

Archives WW1 editorial text

Editorial as printed in January 1915


TRUTH is said to be stranger than fiction, and twelve months ago we should have listened with little belief or interest to anyone who had assumed the mantle of a prophet and had told us what was to come in the next year. Only a century separates us from the last attempt made by the Man of Destiny to change the face of Europe, and we find ourselves in the throes of the greatest war that has ever been waged in the history of the world - a struggle which may reform Europe finally and settle the boundaries of races and nations until frontier lines have lost their meaning and use.

The next war may be an international war of labour and capital, or may quite possibly never come about at all. The web of good and evil is inextricably mixed in the warp and woof of life, and we in our generation have lived to see the most plausible of dogmas rudely shaken, the most convincing arguments fall to the ground, and all the pessimistic theories of those who held our race to be worn out and effete proved meaningless. Cosmopolitanism has, for the present, gone by the board, and Germany, successful in nothing else, has seen her own spirit of unity and passionate nationalism reflected in the countries of her enemies. Her greatest claim to fame may, in fact, be held to be in the future that she discovered Greater Britain as a scattered congerie of ocean-sundered lands and welded it by her action into the mightiest empire in reality, as in name, that the world has ever seen. 

The War of Secession made the United States as we know it; the present war will end by bringing home to the most ignorant the greatness of the British Empire. The aggression of Germany was the one thing necessary to secure to France the redemption of the lost provinces, the one possible means of securing the undoing of the political crime which dismembered Poland and will form the Magna Charta of all the suffering races of Europe.

We do not know what lies before us, and cannot tell how long the struggle may last; but we most of us feel confidence and faith that we are working towards a known and inevitable result, and that, whatever the present and future cost may be, generations to come will be freer, happier, and more prosperous than they could have ever been without the present struggle, and in spite of pessimistic theories we believe those living will reap prosperity and happiness too.

The year that is past is sharply divided in our memories into two parts of seven and five months, in the first of which we lived our ordinary lives and pursued our usual ambitions, and the second in which the very foundations of all that was normal and usual seemed to have been struck from under us, and all the usual equations of our existence have been disturbed and altered.

The marked revival of trade which was a feature of the first part of the year was marred for the building trade by the protracted dispute between capital and labour, which might have ended in a national lock-out had not external circumstances emphasised the necessity in the national interests of a more conciliatory attitude and brought about agreement, not, unfortunately, before the partial stoppage of work at the outbreak of the war rendered the recovery of what had been lost during the struggle impossible. Buildings of a speculative nature have in very many cases come to a stop since the early days of August, because finance has been a greater difficulty, and a smaller number of private works have been put in hand; and, though there is every likelihood of work resuming a more normal course, it would not be reasonable to expect the ante bellum conditions to obtain.

Seeing that the main cause of the dispute was not one of rates of wages or hardships suffered by the building trade, but the right of the masters to employ free labour on the same terms as trade unionist labour, our view has always been that the success of the unions would have been a national calamity, and we hope the effect of the strike will be seen in the adoption of a more conciliatory spirit in the future. The simile contained in the fable of the dog who dropped a bone to secure its reflection is always in our minds in connection with a labour dispute, which can never be entered into by either party without loss, and so should be indulged in as a last resort. The better education of the working classes alone is likely to bring about a more reasonable feeling, coupled with the repeal of any legislation making it impossible for the contractors associations to recover collective damages from the unions for breaches of contract. The dispute, however, had the result of showing the strength of union which exists between the various associations of masters, of which a pleasing testimony was given in the presentation made to the Past-President of the London Master Builders’ Association, Mr. Walter Lawrence, Jun.; and the fact that this union exists should discourage those who try to ferment unrest.

Public competitions of the first importance have been few in number, the preliminary competition for the Board of Trade Offices, the first stage of which was decided in the spring by the selection of ten competitors for the final competition, being the chief. The competition for the Water Board Offices resulted in the choice of the design of Mr. Austen Hall, while that for the extension of the Manchester Exchange ended in the appointment of Messrs. Bradshaw & Gass as architects. The great Canadian Government competition for the new Government Buildings was stopped by the outbreak of war, not unfortunately without incidents which do not happily mark the conduct of competitions in this country. The competition for Parliament Buildings for the Australian Capital has also been postponed in consequence of the war.

Town planning is coming more and more to the front and occupying a greater field in architectural practice, and since the declaration of war the Government has done all that can be done to urge communities to put the provisions of the Housing and Town Planning Act into force, with the result that the applications dealt with in the last seven months have exceeded in number those dealt with in any equivalent period. The Government has also done much by pressing on with all schemes actually in hand, the staff of the Office of Works having been largely increased to deal with the additional demands on its attention.

We wish, as we have said before, that in the desire of the Government to help the building trade they would remember that only by placing work in the hands of outside architects can they help professional men, who deserve reasonable benevolence no less than the working classes, since much work which would normally go on is at a standstill; and we have called attention to the mistake made in increasing the size of official staffs to cope with exceptional circumstances, since experience proves that such staffs are seldom reduced after the period of pressure is at an end. Unfortunately, it is easier in a democracy to obtain justice if the demand is backed by votes than if reason alone is depended on.

The ravages of war have been brought home to our generation by the appalling destruction wrought in Belgium, France, and Poland, and the immunity of England from similar damage is due only to its insular position and its Navy. We are afraid that when peace comes so much will have to be done in supplying bare utilitarian accommodation, urgently needed, that there will be little for replacing the artistic treasures and heirlooms of the past which have perished, and that the work necessitated by war will for the most part be sternly practical in character.

The efforts of the architectural profession and the building trade generally to support the patriotic and national movements and to organise measures of relief have been all that could be hoped for. In conclusion, we would say that we think all may look on the future with quiet confidence, and that we believe we have seen the worst of the crisis as it affects building.


News item, 7 July 1916

Restrictions on Building.

IT was recently announced in the Times that the Minister of Munitions is likely shortly to take further steps to restrict the erection of new buildings and only to permit building operations to be undertaken under licence. It is a pity that some well-organised scheme was not instituted earlier in the war, as to our knowledge some entirely unnecessary building operations have been started since the war began, and men are being engaged on “fancy work” to the detriment of more necessary operations. The licence should, however, not be restricted to new buildings, but should include enlargements and alterations. In one parish we could name, despite the protest of some of the parishioners, a scheme for a new vestry and organ chamber is being carried out since the war began, although the existing vestry has served all necessary purposes for over half a century and the organ is a modern instrument. 

When building operations are restricted it is those who have commercial interests at stake who suffer severely; ground rents are running on, and money may have been borrowed before the war to carry out building operations and the financial position of the contractor may be jeopardised by delay. It is unsatisfactory in such conditions to find so many persons indifferent to national interests and still absorbed in parochial affairs. Take the case we have mentioned. The first duty of the parish would appear to have been to suspend the scheme for the duration of the war and to invest any sums in hand in War Loan. As it is, not only is an extravagant policy pursued, but men are taken either from national service or from pressing commercial work to further a scheme which could and should have been postponed, and where such postponement would have been to the detriment of no one. 

No doubt this is only one out of many cases, but we instance it as showing that in any scheme for restricting building operations some discrimination should be shown and necessary operations should have precedence of “fancy work,” which in itself is an unnecessary luxury, violating the principles of economy enjoined upon all in these strenuous times.


News item, 21 July 1916

Government Restriction of Building.

DURING the week an order has been issued to the effect that no building or engineering work, the total cost of which exceeds £500, may be undertaken without the sanction of the Minister of Munitions, the limit being that of the completed cost of the proposed works. We do not know as we write whether the new regulation is likely to diminish the amount of building work carried on at the present moment, or whether it will simply act as an official register which will enable the authorities to gauge the extent to which labour is engaged in private work, so that they may be able, be should necessity arise, to direct it into channels in which it may of direct national service. No one may use a still without obtaining the consent and sanction of the authorities, but such sanction is readily given when it is made clear that the still is not to be used for illicit purposes which would conflict with the interests of national excise. In the absence of fuller information it is impossible to say what will be the effect of the new order on the building trade, but even should it result in a further curtailment of building activities it will have the result of increasing the enormous amount of work which will be put in hand on the conclusion of peace.

More from the archives:

>> Nelson’s Column runs out of money, 1843-44

>> The clearance of London’s worst slum, 1843-46

>> The construction of the Palace of Westminster, 1847

>> Benjamin Disraeli’s proposal to hang architects, 1847

>> The Crystal Palace’s leaking roof, 1851

>> Cleaning up the Great Stink, 1858

>> Setbacks on the world’s first underground railway, 1860

>> The opening of Clifton Suspension Bridge, 1864

>> Replacing Old Smithfield Market, 1864-68

>> Alternative designs for Manchester Town Hall, 1868

>> The construction of the Forth Bridge, 1873-90

>> The demolition of Northumberland House, 1874

>> Dodging falling bricks at the Natural History Museum construction site, 1876

>> An alternative proposal for Tower Bridge, 1878

>> The Tay Bridge disaster, 1879

>> Building in Bombay, 1879 - 1892

>> Cologne Cathedral’s topping out ceremony, 1880

>> Britain’s dim view of the Eiffel Tower, 1886-89

>> First proposals for the Glasgow Subway, 1887

>> The First World War breaks out, 1914