Four days after the outbreak of the First World War, the British government passed the Defence of the Realm Act. So short an Act, so long its arm. Only a paragraph in length, it gave Whitehall all-encompassing powers to protect the country. Even flying a kite infringed the measures, since it was deemed likely to attract a passing Zeppelin.
But an even less likely prosecution under the Act took place in Birmingham in August 1915. The defendant concerned was a jeweller’s factor, based in Great Hampton Street. He was charged with having in his possession documents relative to the location, numbers and deployment of British troops.
The fact the individual’s name happened to be Adolph only added to suspicions, though we must add that this was not yet a name to carry the misgivings it would 20 years later. His other name was Scott – somewhat more innocent.
In many ways this looked like a fair cop. Adolph Scott did indeed possess a whole filing-cabinet full of papers concerning British Army regiments. Could there be an innocent explanation?
Yes, there could. Mr Scott happened to work for a firm that made sweetheart brooches and badges, which British soldiers, preparing to embark for Flanders, would give to their loved ones as a memento. Such badges incorporated the regimental crest, with some token of undying (with any luck) affection.
Adolph Scott, spotting a ready and lucrative market, sent letters up and down the country, enquiring which regiments and battalions were stationed where, so that he could target his business more precisely. And thus a large and incriminating body of evidence was amassed. Someone must have snitched.
In fact, no one at his trial suggested that Scott had any sinister intent; only that his entrepreneurial spirit had crossed an important line, the one designated by the Defence of the Realm Act. The magistrate had in his armoury a £100 fine or six months’ imprisonment, but chose instead to impose a penalty of £10, along with a few words of warning.
But it’s a nice indication that Birmingham contributed more to the war than just guns and shells.
* Dr Chris Upton is Reader in Public History at Newman University Birmingham