Snobs and knuts; class aspiration in First World War Wales

The August 1917 issue of The Welsh Outlook contained an article entitled ‘A School for Snobs’:



What immediately catches the eye here is the use of the word ‘snob’. Blackie’s Standard Dictionary (1925) defines ‘snob’ as ‘a shoemaker; one who apes gentility; a would-be aristocrat’; while H C Wyld’s The Universal English Dictionary (1936) gives ‘the original sense, cobbler’s mate or boy’, and then ‘1. (archaic or obsolete) a a person belonging to the so-called vulgar or lower classes; person of no breeding or social position; in Phr a snob or a nob; b (obs university slang) townsman. 2 a A person who pretends, from vulgar ostentation, to be better than he is; one who pretends to belong to, or be familiar with people of high social standing or of great wealth or reputation; one who puts an exaggerated and vulgar estimate on rank, wealth, fashionable society or distinction and endeavours to conceal his own supposed inferior position or connexions; b also applied to persons who adopt a similar attitude in intellectual or artistic spheres. 3 A cobbler.

It is tempting to read the last entry as a call to the previously described characters to stop being silly.

John Camden, several decades earlier, in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1865), defined a snob as ‘a low, vulgar or affected person. Supposed to be from the nick-name applied to Crispin, a maker of shoes;’ Camden goes on to give a few possible etymologies from Latin abbreviations varying on the idea of sine nobilitate (without nobility) or fil. nob. (son of nobility) producing quasi-nobs ‘“like a nob”, which by a process of contraction would be shortened to si-nob, and then ‘snob’, one who pretends to be what he is not, and apes his betters. The short and expressive terms which many think fitly represent the three great estates of the realm, Nob, Snob and Mob, were all originally slang words.’

While The Welsh Outlook was worried about snobs in the Rhondda valley, at Pontypridd, where the Rhondda joins the Taff, on 7 November 1914 the local paper was pointing out that a new regiment, presumably of men from Pontypridd, should be called the ‘Broadway Knuts’, the Broadway being the main road from Pontypridd to Treforest, and ‘knuts’ being the young men about town who affected evening dress and monocles, or at the very least dressed as fashionably as they could. Were young men like this ever seen in Pontypridd, a town with 15 coalmines, known familiarly as ‘the Wild West’? Perhaps the Rhondda Educational Authority was eyeing the opportunity for a bit of gentrification based on the idea of a regiment of knuts parading up and down the Broadway, though it seems unlikely. Given the wear expected of miners’ boots a regiment of snobs would be more probable; cobblers, that is.


According to the OED the knuts fell away during the war; the last citation given is from The Listener of 6 September 1973 –  ‘The ‘silly asses’, the ‘knuts’ who were wiped out on the Somme’.  Partridge states that the term was extended to VIPs crossing to France during the war, and was further extended to the Dover Patrol itself. A ‘knut among knuts’ might be a ‘filbert’; Partridge dates this term to 1900-1920, and states it was popularised by the song ‘I’m Gilbert the Filbert, Colonel of the Knuts’, from the revue ‘The Passing Show of 1914’. The song was made famous by Basil Hallam, whose death, falling from an observation balloon at the Somme in August 1916, perhaps indeed marked the end of the knuts.


Refugees and the language of class

With huge numbers of Belgian refugees arriving in Britain in a matter of weeks only – most in the first half of October 1914 – pressure on administrators involved in the reception and registration of the huge number of arrivals must have been far beyond the call of duty. The sheer numbers made it impossible to oversee the whole reception, allocation and accommodation operation, not least because several organisations were involved. These were mainly the War Refugees Committee and the Local Government Board, but the Catholic Women’s League was involved too, and local refugee committees, as well as the police. A period in which several registers were in place was only concluded when by the end of November the services of the General Register Office, established in 1837, were extended to include refugees. This was put into practice in early December 1914.

Not only did the various registration institutions struggle with the spelling of Belgian names and often as well with Dutch, let alone the variety of Flemish dialects, but also registration meant a rudimentary classification of Belgians: better-off refugees were provided with a pink registration card, all the others were given a blue label. A pink card entitled refugees to better transport and better accommodation. Belgians who were given a blue card were sent to dispersal centres such as Alexandra Palace and Earl’s Court, where it was said ‘one does not want to take good class people’. As the Ilford Recorder put it on 6th November 1914 ‘Everything is now being put in order for the reception of Ilford’s visitors, who are all of the superior artisan class’. The designation of pink for well off and blue for not well off may have been an unofficial standard language of colour (there were several codes in use in popular culture at the time; the language of stamps, coding signals according to the angle of the stamp on an envelope, and the languages of flowers both facilitated the passing of simple messages between lovers). The source of this pink and blue may well have been Charles Booth’s famous ‘poverty map’, properly the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903), in which the social status of the residents of streets and sections of streets was described using a designated colour-coding: “Middle class. Well-to-do” as red; “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings” as pink; “Mixed. Some comfortable others poor” as purple; “Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family” as light blue; “Very poor, casual. Chronic want” as dark blue; and “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal” as black. Booth’s colour-coding of social class may have seemed in the early twentieth century as natural as the colour-coding in relief maps that we now accept without questioning. Certainly one of the strongest class distinctions at this time – between the middle class and the working class – was maintained in the pink and blue apportioned to the arriving Belgian refugees. It is a distinction found in the ranks of the British Army, particularly later on in the war, in the terms ‘gentleman ranker’ and ‘temporary gentleman’, respectively a man of the upper middle class or above who chose to serve as a private soldier, and a working class or lower middle class man commissioned as an officer in wartime.


Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 17.21.33

Imperial War Museum Q 53305

There is a really nice picture – copyright owned by the Imperial War Museum – of a party of Belgian refugees arriving at Victoria Station where the labels are clearly visible.

This practice of separating the poor and working class Belgians from those who had the means to support themselves in exile – for the war would be “over by Christmas” – was implemented by the WRC in September 1914 and remained in place well after the reorganisation of registration. However, judging the destitute upon arrival and categorising them must inevitably have incurred problems.

As the war dragged on a peculiar process of inverse social mobility occurred in the Belgian community in Britain: working class Belgians, who were unemployed in exile, constituted a great workforce that was rapidly absorbed into the British war industry. They started earning fair wages, whereas those better-off Belgians who had been privileged from the start exhausted their own means, became increasingly dependent on charity support and, more importantly, started working too.

Lady Lugard, who had been instrumental in establishing the War Refugees Committee subsequently established a network in support of those Belgian refugees who needed support different to those of a poorer background.

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(Imperial War Museum, Women Work Collection, BEL 3 – 12)


Most of the really well-to-do though would not be part of any of these charity and reception schemes as they would have crossed the Channel earlier. People who were able to afford a Channel crossing in August or the first half of September did so and fled the country with as much household material they could take. Those heading for Britain end of August did so in the wake of the royal children.

The first, rather small, wave of refugees followed the first Zeppelin raids on Antwerp. These took place during the night of 24 August, with one of the devices demolishing a house only 100 yards from the Royal Palace in Antwerp where the royal family was staying at the time. The three royal children were subsequently brought to England and left in the care of a friend of King Albert, Lord Curzon, at the latter’s Hackwood estate in Basingstoke.[1]


Declercq, C. (2015) Belgian refugees in Britain 1914-1919. A cross-cultural study of Belgian identity in exile. Unpublished PhD dissertation. London: Imperial College London. p. 108, 114-115.

Gatrell, P. (2013) The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: OUP. p.32.

[1]                 Lord Curzon was the translator of the opening text of the Book of Belgium’s Gratitude, a charity book published in 1915.

The refugee experience, Flanders and Wales

The wartime ‘Report of the Central Register of Belgian Refugees’ included the statement – ‘Add to this the Shakespearean tendency of the Flemish peasant to spell his surname differently on any occasion that arose for spelling it, and it is no matter for wonder that the records abounded in errors, omissions and inaccuracies.’


How did the Flemish monolingual refugees manage to communicate with their hosts? A number of ways emerged, including the use of latin as a lingua franca in Catholic communities, and probably the use of children as intermediaries. Were particular accents of English – or even languages other than English – easier for Flemish-speakers?




The experiences of the Belgian refugees in Britain, and the experiences of their hosts, is a subject whose complexity that has emerged during this centennial period; Rose Macaulay, in Non-Combatants and Others (1916), indicates that there was by no means a uniformity of response: ‘Margot was a good girl, but, like so many others, tired of Belgians, though this Belgian was a nice one, as strangers in a foreign land go. Alix hated and feared her whole nation; they had been through altogether too much.’ … Mrs. Frampton, moved doubtless by some sequence of thought known to herself, said, ‘They say those Belgians in the corner house eat ten pounds of cheese each week. Edwards’ boy told Florence. Just fancy that. Not that one grudges them anything, poor things.’


The refugee experience linking Belgium and Wales is just one of the subjects that will be explored in ‘Flanders and Wales, a First World War Symposium’ this Thursday at the Pierhead, Cardiff. The day is organized with reference to the commemoration of the Passchendaele campaign of July-November 1917, 100 years ago, and is sponsored by the Cardiff University, the Government of Flanders, and the Welsh Government.


Have a further look at the following site for the full programme and more information:


Attendance at the symposium is free and lunch will be provided.   All those attending are invited to an evening reception.  If you would like to attend, please register on the following webpage:


Finish Johnny pc backFinish Johnny fr

While this card, published for the 8th Field Survey Company of the Royal Engineers, displays the relief and delight of surviving the war and overcoming the forces of Turkey and Bulgaria, it raises the question of who is ‘Johnny’? The OED defines the term as ‘Applied humorously or contemptuously to various classes of men’, and the examples given tend generally to be downward-looking: Byron’s ‘The English Johnnies who had never been out of a Cockney workshop before’, or the Daily News’ ‘An idle and vacuous young aristocrat, of the class popularly known as ‘Johnnies’’ (1889). The list of slang expressions given ranges from the familiar ‘rubber johnnies’ to names for penguins, toilets, and, in compounds, newcomers and novices. But there might also be some power in low-status ‘johnny’ jobs: background research on the culture of chorus girls and ‘knuts’ from the early twentieth century reveals the role of the ‘stage-door johnny’, controlling visitors’ access to changing rooms.


Throughout the nineteenth century ‘Johnny’ came to be associated in English with the ‘other’, the foreigner, or often the enemy: the OED lists, ‘Johnny Reb’ as the Union soldiers’ name for a Confederate soldier, ‘Jonny Crapaud’ – Partridge and others note that this became ‘Crapose’ – as the Canadian slang for a French-speaking Canadian, or the French nation as a whole; ‘Johnny’ was a soldier, presumably Indian, of the (British) Indian Army, a Gurkha, an Arab, or a Breton onion-seller. As regards this last, in the 1960s the term ‘shoni onions’ was still in use in South Wales, though by then there were few of the seasonally migrant onion-sellers still working the valleys. Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds ‘Johnny Chinaman’ to the list of foreigners, while Collins online  gives ‘a person from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom’ as the definition of ‘Johnny foreigner’. ‘Johnny Dago’ seems to be a more recent term. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1972) supports the documentation of ‘Johnny’ from the seventeenth century as a familiar term for a man, but it appears that the implications of the word began to indicate a ‘looking down’ relationship from around the end of the eighteenth century, as it began to be applied to foreigners (including by Spaniards to the English), workmen, soldiers and sailors.


The OED gives 1919 as the first printed documentation of ‘Johnny Turk’, in Punch; Punch was indeed a great documenter of soldier slang, but often, inevitably, catching up with innovations in slang terms; ‘Johnny Turk’ as a recognisable nickname survived beyond the Second World War, with a horse with that name racing in 1954. In a further twist Turkish soldiers seem to have bounced the name back – Matthew Wright in Shattered Glory (2010), amongst many others, reports on Allied soldiers being called ‘Johnny Kikrik’ [any comments on this are very welcome]. Partridge in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also notes the term ‘Johnny Squarehead’ from the First World War. Fraser and Gibbons (1925) give ‘Johnny’ as ‘A Turk’, and note that ‘as a Service nickname it dates from the Crimean War’; five years later Brophy and Partridge added that ‘Johnny’ was applied rarely to Germans. Green’s Dictionary of Slang again supplies the following from Australian E G Dodd’s diary from March 1918: ‘This afternoon Johnny got a bit vicious and was pounding pretty heavily. The boys seem to think the Bosche is going to bring something off by way of an attack. … Johnny has been pasting Vermelles and Philosophe with big stuff.’


This leaves the Bulgarian soldier on the right in the postcard. Bulgarians received an inevitable nickname, clearly indicated in this postcard, but ‘Johnny Bulgar’ was more likely a civilian term.  BulgarH C Owen, editor of The Balkan News, criticising the Bulgarians’ treatment of prisoners of war in a footnote in Salonica and After – the Sideshow that Ended the War (1919): ‘It is true that our soldiers of the B.S.F., with their usual “sportsmanship” — that baffling quality which no other country quite understands – made the very best of Johnny Bulgar in every way, and were always ready to hail any good point they found in him as opponent, whether of courage or anything else’. Note the contrast between British ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘Johnny Bulgar’. Owen’s view that ‘there is a strain of very real savagery running throughout the Balkans and the Bulgar has an extra dose of it’ was no doubt the view of many prisoners of war, and expressed the sentiment that the vanquished nations should pay, both morally and financially, for the war.


The use of ‘Johnny Turk’, ‘Johnny Squarehead’ and ‘Johnny Bulgar’ is more complex than at first appears. It patronises, it creates an ‘other’, but it is also familiarising, like ‘Old Man Fritz’ or ‘Brother Boche’. Here it is worth asking – what do we want to do with language? For the soldier in the trench the desire to manage fear brought the use of terms that took the power and dread out of the situation – ‘Johnny Turk’ was less of a threat than ‘the Turkish Army’. For the civilian commenting on outrage and retribution, while there was clearly a reference to familiarity, ‘Johnny Bulgar’ was primarily a term of disparagement.


‘… our first intimation that Johnny Bulgar had suffered some serious disaster.’ From The Great War … I Was There, magazine series 1938-9







9th November, Flanders and Wales, a First World War symposium

A little more than a week now to the one-day symposium to be held at the Pierhead, Cardiff, celebrating the links between Flanders and Wales during the First World War.

FlaWa poster 05a

The programme includes presentations on:

Passchendaele in History and Memory (Toby Thacker)

Conscientious Objectors in Wales during the First World War (Aled Eirug)

The ‘hidden’ but wonderful story of Belgian refugees in Wales (Christophe Declercq)

The Belgian refugees in Rhyl (Toni Vitti)

Belgian refugees in Laugharne and Carmarthenshire (John Bradshaw)

Soir héroïque: Belgian refugee musicians in Wales (Rhian Davies)

“Wales is among the most beautiful spots in Great Britain”: Gustave Van de Woestyne, painter in exile (Peter Theunynck)

Frank Brangwyn and Flemish refugee artists in Wales  (Hugh Dunthorne)

Welsh Soldiers and their Identity on the Western Front (Gethin Matthews)

Censorship and the Welsh language in the First World War (Ifor ap Glyn)


Booking for the symposium is free on


The Home Front was as much a scene as the military Front for the considering and digesting of words. The press fed information to a public eager for news, and as the citizen army encountered new place-names in France and Flanders, so the families at home dealt with the same for novel place-names in eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

The fortress town of Przemysl came to attention of many readers of the news in 1914 and 1915. Then in the Austro-Hungarian province of Eastern Galicia, now an area in both Poland and Ukraine, Przemysl was by the end of September 1914 isolated behind the Russian advance, and though for a while the siege was lifted, after much fighting it surrendered to the Russians on 28 March 1915. The German army retook it in early June 1915. Readers of The Great War, published by the Amalgamated Press (Vol 4 in 1915), would no doubt have struggled with many of the place names presented to them, but Przemysl, as a locus of stationary conflict, appeared frequently, and was a significant example of the difficulties of place-name pronunciation.


As the news of the investment of Przemysl came through to the west discussion of the pronunciation became important enough to feature in the correspondence of Notes and Queries, the long-running academic forum. On 21 November 1914 Robert Pierpoint asked what must have been in many people’s minds:


How is this name pronounced? Is the language of Galicia Polish or Russian, or neither? A Russian friend of mine who lives in the Crimea, writing in French, spells the name “Premisle”. As, however, “Cracovie” occurs in his letter, it may be that “Premisle” is merely a French rendering of the name.


His query was addressed by H. H. Johnson of Torquay on 5 December with:


Mr Robert Pierpoint will be sorry to know that we British cannot get our tongue to fashion aright this word. I consulted lately a Bohemian, who tried vainly (and smilingly) to make me pronounce the r, which apparently is something like tch, so that the whole word runs nearly P’tchz’m’sl. Galician, Polish, Russian, and Bohemian are all allied phonetically, and are all Slav.


Francis Marchant in Streatham gave more information:


The Polish compound consonant rz corresponds to the Bohemian ř (rzh, or trilled r). In grammatical lists the sound is described as that of French g in logis, and the letter ż has the same sound. Přemysl was the first legendary Bohemian prince, and Přemysl Ottakar one of the greatest kings. Etymologically, the name would appear to mean forethought.


‘L. L. K.’ followed this with


The name of this town is pronounced Pshe-missl. As regards the query about Poland, the predominant language is , of course, Polish, but nearly as large a percentage speak Ruthenian, i.e. “Little-Russian”. The Yiddish element is also well represented.


And H. Krebs offered


The name of Przemysl (meaning originally, in Polish, perception, invention, industry) is pronounced nearly Pshemeesle in English. The languages of Galicia are partly Polish (chiefly in Western Galicia, having at Cracow its centre); partly Ruthenian or Malo- (i.e. Little- or Southern-) Russian, with the capital of L’vov (i.e. Leopolis, or Lemberg) in eastern Galicia. Ruthenian, or Malo-Russian, differs as widely from Veliko- or Great-Russian as from Polish.


The readers of an article published in the Home Circle magazine on 13 March 1915 might have been struck dumb when confronted with this, but effectively engaged in the same activity; the parents and two children bicker over pronunciations of places in the news. After Herbert and Mr Jones have disagreed over ‘Crarcow’ or ‘Crak-ko’ (see above), the family sets to over another ‘great Austrian fortress on the borders of Poland’.


“They don’t seem to have surrounded that other place yet,” said Mrs. Jones. “I mean that town near those mountains, the Carpet-something.”

“The Carpathians,” said Mr. Jones. “The town you mean is Pr-Pr-Prz-z-”

“That’s got him!” grinned Herbert, giving his sister a nudge. “Go on, father; keep up the bombardment! P-r-z-y- I don’t know how to spell it!”

Mr. Jones cleared his throat and looked severely at his son.

“I dare say” he said, “that none of you would recognise the place if I gave it the proper pronunciation. When the natives speak of it –”

“I know” said Bert. “They purr first then spit like a cat.”

“It says here,” said Dolly, reading the evening paper, “that the Germans hold a fortified position on the Strykow-Zgierz-Szadek-Zdunska-Wola line. It must be a difficult place to hold with names like that  …”

No doubt the multilinguism of the armies on both sides on the Eastern Front added to the mix, as much as the evident ‘funny foreign place-names’ attitude.

All this makes for an interesting comparison of approaches that combines both the negotiating of place-names between languages, and the forcing of the foreign place-name into phonetic units convenient to English-speakers; but which rather assumes that all English-speakers, even then, spoke alike – a fair proportion of the population of east London in 1914 would have not had much difficulty with Przemysl, though H. H. Johnson in Torquay may not have been aware of this. To a certain extent negotiating foreign place-names and forcing them into English speech overlap, suggesting that pronunciation, like geography, lies along a two-dimensional continuum – Robert Pierpoint seems to have been more comfortable with the French ‘Premisle’ than the local ‘Przemysl’. But the changes between L’vov, Leopolis and Lemberg are not only to do with cultural and imperatorial associations – the sound changes from ‘their sounds’ to ‘our sounds’ are part of the process too, and were very much part of the experience of troops anywhere during the First World War.





Body (and) language

Or three aspects of the body and language.

The first is the most obvious gesture of war, a body signal; as the soldier’s body must signal success by remaining whole, or failure by the breaking of the boundary of the soldier’s body. The bodily signal of surrender is so obvious, but what is the signal of victory, if there was one at all? Perhaps just the hands remaining on the pointed weapon. ‘Up went their hands’, are the words in the soldier’s letter home, suggesting that this gesture was the most important bodily action at this point: the hands more important than any other part of the body, more than speech, the gesture allowing no deceit; the defeated soldier’s life is in the place of his hands more than in his words, ‘Kamerad … Pardon’.

Incidentally, a common custom for ensuring prisoners could not use concealed weapons was to cut off their trouser buttons, so they had to hold their trousers up by hand; demeaning, effective, and no doubt causing resentment, but probably often forestalling physical violence.


Bandawe bin Mtawa enlisted in the King’s African Rifles on 7th November 1917, being discharged on 31st March 1919. His army records give a physical record, his height, chest measurement, and the fact that he had scars on his legs; on discharge his record carries space for recording his age, height, complexion, eyes and hair (presumably colour), and descriptive marks, as well as his trade and intended place of residence; in comparison, there is only one line allowed for description of his character (good, though he was lashed five times for ‘urinating in the lines’, was absent once from drill parade, and ‘stat[ed] a falsehood to his Company Officer’, for which he was confined to barracks for 14 days). The presence and mark of his body, his affirmation of self, is seen in the thumbprint on his discharge document. His silver war medal is damaged, notably on the legs of the horse.



bandawe medal

On 19th December 1914 the Girl’s Friend magazine reported on the case of a soldier rendered physically outside communication:


The Shell in the Sand


While serving with the Naval Brigade at Antwerp a remarkable experience befell Police-Constable Smith, of the Metropolitan Force. He relates that a German shell exploded in the sand, with the result that quite a “sand blizzard” was experienced over a limited area. After the commotion had subsided, the constable – otherwise apparently unhurt – was deaf and dumb.

Smith was brought back to this country, and placed in an observation ward at Chatham Hospital, where the doctor finally decided to operate.

It was then found that not only were the drums of the man’s ears coated with fine sand, which was packed in like a piece of marble, but that sand had also got under the muscles of the tongue, and into the throat. After the sand had been removed, Smith discovered to his delight that he could both hear and speak. He is now back at Woodford, almost ready to resume duty.