Last night Witley Camp was buzzing with soldiers returning reluctantly from their landing leave, and full of stories of what they had seen and done. The second shift of soldiers spent today getting ready to start their leave, and marched together to Milford Station to get an early evening train to Waterloo Station.
The unlighted streets were “as black as ink,” and even the oldest Londoners got lost, their driver told them as he struggled to find the quarters they had arranged. Their second shock was discovering that their lodging house suddenly increased the charge – doubled it, in fact – on realizing that they were Canadians. The angry young men betook themselves to the Central YMCA, then as now on Great Russell Street close to Tottenham Court Road. Though full, the staff was prepared to let them sleep on “lounges and the floor,” until someone made arrangements for them to move to the Shakespeare Hut.(1)
The Shakespeare Hut was a shelter for overseas soldiers – used mostly by Australians and New Zealanders – on the corner of Keppel and Gower Streets, a little to the north and west of the Central Y. The site is now swallowed up in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Originally intended to be a theatre to honour the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death (April 1616), it was put to use as a YMCA rest centre when the need for safe, cheap accommodation became increasingly apparent. (The building retained a theatre where some of London’s most famous thespians entertained the troops with scenes from Shakespeare.) (2)
The accommodation was not luxurious, even if you were lucky enough to get a bed in the dormitory. Our impromptu visitors were given what Archie Wills called “shake-me-downs” – temporary bedding to spread on a patch of empty floor.(1)
The need for safe accommodation was highlighted by Wills’s description of their first venturing forth:
“We went out on the street at 10:30 pm for a walk. We saw some interesting sites [sic]. Plenty of Janes [prostitutes] on the street. A few can’t go two feet without being accosted and it’s as much as your purse is worth to stand still for a minute in some parts.” (1)
(1) Wills, Archie. Diary. 3: 54-56. October 6, 1916. Archie Wills Fonds, University of Victoria Archives. Copyright 2007, University of Victoria.
(2) “Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut,” a centenary project of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
These images of the Shakespeare Hut and others appear on the Shakespeare Hut website, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, which holds a YMCA collection.