The charity that took care of service families

The SSFA's agreement with the BMA probably paid for Bury soldier Thomas Dureall's children's treatment after the 1916 Zeppelin raid

The SSFA's agreement with the BMA probably paid for Bury soldier Thomas Dureall's children's treatment after the 1916 Zeppelin raid

Today there is outcry if families of soldiers fighting abroad are not looked after while they fight abroad, but when World War One started there was no such provision.

It was the industrial size of the conflict that changed things, though the administration of family care came to a charity, begun in 1885, that still looks after service families’ welfare.

Known today as the Soldiers’, Sailors and Airmen’s Family Association, it was in 1914 the SSFA.

SSAFA case worker John Burn has been researching how the charity mobilised along with the forces at the beginning of the war, and has been stunned by the magnitude of it.

“A lot of changes happened because of the First World War – far more than people realise,” he said.

Until 1914 only a certain percentage of soldiers were allowed to marry and their wives were registered as ‘on strength’ so if their men went abroad they received a separation allowance, which ranged from 1s 1d (about 5.5p) a day for ranks below sergeant to 2s 3d (11.5p) for a warrant officer. Sailors wives got no allowance.

Those families not on strength became the responsibility of their home parish’s Poor Laws.

John said: “There was no way the parishioners of Bury would have wanted to subsidise these soldiers’ wives from their Poor Law taxes.”

But when war broke out, the Government realised it was calling up so many that it could no longer differentiate between on and off strength, so all families got the allowance, including sailors’.

But some still struggled so Queen Alexandra, who became president of the SSFA in 1885, wrote to The Times soon after war broke out asking for donations. Her grandson, Prince of Wales, simultaneously wrote to the paper urging a National Relief Fund.

The royals agreed to make it one fund with the SSFA administering it because it was the only organisation with an infrastructure in place.

John says it had 180 representatives in Suffolk in 1913 but once the war started it increased that to 450 parish representatives with Henham’s Lady Stradbroke responsible for the east of the county and Ickworth’s Lady Bristol, the west.

Nationally, the public gave generously. John said: “They raised millions of pounds in a very short period.”

Donations were listed in the papers. Within weeks of the war starting the Bury Free Press listed local donations, with the Marquis and Marchioness of Bristol giving a hefty £500, when the average weekly wage was 16s (80p). Sir Edward Walter Greene, grandson of Greene King’s founder, also gave £500.

In October 1914 the British Medical Association and Pharmaceutical Society announced they would liaise with SSFA so medical bills for soldiers’ families would be paid by the charity. It probably paid for the nine months hospital treatment Annie Dureall needed when a Zeppelin bomb killed her mother and temporarily blinded her in 1916.

John says SSFA volunteers often helped poorly educated wives apply for allowances. But there were those not so charitable. Though he has not found cases in Suffolk, families of agricultural workers who joined up were sometimes evicted from tied cottages.

Visit to read about the SSAFA’s work today.




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