During the First World War, the occupants of 15 Tenth Avenue, Heaton were a Mr and Mrs Laws and their nine children. We’ve been researching the family, and in particular Mrs Laws, for our ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project.
Comforts for the Troops
Deborah Dye was born in Sunderland in 1871, the daughter of a master mariner. Prior to her marriage to John Laws at the age of 20 years, she had worked as a dressmaker. You might think that Mrs Laws would have had enough to do, looking after her large family, but following the outbreak of the war, when she was in her mid-forties, she used her needlework skills to help the country. there are frequent mentions in the local newspapers of ‘Mrs Laws’ as a wool distributor and organiser of knitting of “comforts for the troops”.
There was major drive during the War to encourage those at home to knit clothing for sons, brothers and husbands at the front to keep them warm. It was also a way in which those at home could provide support and care for loved ones.
More unusual items of clothing included balaclavas with ear flaps that could be lifted so that soldiers could listen for the enemy and gloves that made it easier to fire a gun. Magazine and yarn manufacturers were mobilised to produce a range of special knitting patterns for these items. As wool became scarce, outgrown jumpers were unpicked to be knitted up again and sent to the front.
Most famously there was drive to knit socks. Lord Kitchener apparently asked Queen Mary to lead the movement to knit 30,000 pairs of socks, which were particularly important in maintaining foot hygiene and preventing “trench foot”. This was a harsh form of athlete’s foot, which at its severest, could lead to soldiers being unable to take part in combat. Nor were these knitting drives confined to Britain. 1.3 million pairs of socks were knitted by Australian women too!
But Mrs Laws may not have been acting purely out of altruism. Her two eldest sons and possibly two younger sons served in the forces during the war. William Joseph Laws reached the rank of Lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers, for a time working with the Chinese Labour Corps. The Chinese Labour Corps, comprising 140,000 Chinese workers were recruited by the Allies during the War to undertake a range of support work for the forces, to enable soldiers to fight on the front line. It seems that this corps was overseen by allied regiments. We know too that the Laws’ second son, David Neville Laws, served in the Merchant Navy. It may well have been that by organising the knitting, Deborah Laws felt that she was doing something to help her boys, their friends and other young men like them.
John Laws, who in 1911 was a district manager for a drinks company, perhaps the job which brought the family to Newcastle, was to die in 1937 but Deborah lived to the age of 91 years. She died in Newcastle in 1962.
Can you help?
This article was researched by Jeanie Molyneux for Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project. If you can add to the story of the Laws family or anything mentioned in the article, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
We are also looking for local volunteers to help teach children of Ravenswood Primary School to knit. If you think you might be able to help, please contact Chris via the email address above.