The Boy Signallers: Leslie Evans and Philip Adams

In 1914 the school leaving age was 14 years. As the war progressed in response to labour shortages it was not uncommon for local education authorities to allow pupils to leave school before the normal leaving age. The school log books for this period held at the Glamorgan Archives contain numerous examples of young children being allowed to leave school before the age of 14 to work on local farms. However, perhaps one of the strangest entries in the school log books was the release of two young boys from Barry High School in November 1914. On the 3 November 1914 the Head teacher recorded in the school log book:

ESE3_5 p48

Two boys Leslie Evans (Add. No: 1320) and Philip Adams (Ass. No: 1385) both of school age were removed from the registers this morning. They have gone to sea as signallers in connection with the coaling of the Fleet and have been granted leave by the Education Committee for that purpose [Barry High School for Boys, 3 Nov 1914, ESE3/5 p.48]

At the time Philip Adams was just 13 years of age. His father, also Philip Adams, was originally from Kent and the family had moved from the Medway area to secure work in the Barry docks where Philip senior was a dockside labourer. They lived at 21 Trinity Street, Barry and young Philip had 2 sisters and 2 brothers. Leslie Evans was a local boy and although older than Philip he was still only 13 years of age. His father, James worked on the railway as a coal tipper and the family lived at 108 Porthkerry Road, Barry.

It must have been quite a sensation for such young boys to be suddenly caught up in the hustle and bustle of war. The local newspaper, the Barry Dock News, provided a number of clues as to the background to this decision. On 28 August 1914, three weeks after the outbreak of war, the newspaper printed a letter from the District Scoutmaster, E Davies:

I would like to ask all lads who are ex-Scouts to rejoin again at once and also to ask all lads between the ages of 12 and 19 to join one or other of the Troops in the district. The Scouts throughout the country are doing excellent work and in our own town. We have Scouts employed in watching bridges, the reservoir, the viaduct and tunnel, assisting as messengers and orderlies at the hospitals and for the military, gathering money for the Prince of Wales Fund, collecting up old newspapers etc. [Barry Dock News, 28 Aug 1914]

As in other parts of Britain, the scouts moved quickly to help the war effort. In the early months of the war there was a fear of invasion and numerous spy scares. Before national arrangements were put in place in 1915 for the Volunteer Training Corps – effectively the local Home Guard – the Scouts provided a valuable resource to help guard key installations and communication routes. The next section of Mr Davies’ letter, however, added a new dimension to the contribution being made in Barry:

We have also been able to send away lads as Signallers in connection with our naval coaling and I have a large class under instruction now [Barry Dock News, 28 Aug 1914]

It was recognised that the coal from South Wales was of exceptional quality. The large fleet of small coaling ships based at Barry, therefore, had a vital role to play in keeping the fleet supplied with fuel. The local newspaper, in an article published just after the end of the war, explained why there was a need to enlist the help of the Scouts.

Officers in the Mercantile Marine had great difficulty in reading the signals given by the Royal Navy and the Shipping Federation approached the scout authorities at Barry asking for help by supplying signallers as a temporary measure. A class of thirteen boys was formed and trained by Mr E E Davies, assistant commissioner to the Land Scouts afterwards going to sea. Their ages varies between 13 and 18 [Barry Dock News, 5 Dec 1919]

Philip Adams and Leslie Evans were almost certainly part of the group of local scouts being trained as Signallers. Despite the pressing need for Signallers there were inevitably doubts about sending such young boys to sea and the decision to release them from school had to be taken by the Barry School Management Committee. The Barry Dock Times recorded the outcome of the meeting held in October 1914 when the case for releasing three boys under the age of 14 for service at sea was considered:

Colonel J A Hughes CB wrote stating that twelve boys from Barry were prepared to go to sea as signallers on the Admiralty coaling ships. Three of the lads were attending the elementary schools. ‘We are employing older boys as far as possible’ the letter added ‘but it is absolutely necessary that these boys should be granted leave. The work they are doing is very important and they are doing it well. They are of very great service to the country and their work entails some danger’ [Barry Dock News, 30 Oct 1914]

The newspaper reported that Colonel Hughes’ request was ‘unanimously granted’ and four days later the Head Teacher of Barry High School for Boys confirmed that the two 13 year olds at his school had left.

The warning that service on the colliers was not without risk was well founded. German submarines took a heavy toll of the small coal ships from the ports of south Wales, often sailing alone and unarmed before the introduction of convoys protected by the Royal Navy.

It is likely that 13 year olds being pressed into service was a temporary measure and that Philip and Leslie were back in Barry within a year. However, we do know from the Barry Dock News that:

Of these thirteen gallant lads, two paid the supreme sacrifice, while war medals are to be awarded to the other scouts [Barry Dock News, 5 Dec 1919]

Our best guess from the records available is that both Philip Adams and Leslie Evans came through the experience unscathed.

Barry High School had its share of war heroes. For example, the Headmaster’s logbook records several occasions when medals were presented to ‘old boys’ of the school:

ESE3_5 p90

School closed this afternoon in celebration of the award of the Military Cross to 2nd Lieut. Reg Phillips, one of the old boys of this school.  A general assembly was held at the end of the morning session; and a wristwatch and fountain pen were presented to him [Barry High School for Boys, 2 Nov 1917, ESE3/5 p.90]

ESE3_5 p99

ESE3_5 p100

This afternoon a presentation was made to Albert Sylvester, one of the old boys of the school, who was also decorated with the Military Medal by the Chairman of the District Council [Barry High School for Boys, 31 May 1918, ESE3/5 p.99]

There is no mention of Philip Adams or Leslie Evans returning to the school. Nevertheless, their contribution, along with others in the Barry Scouts, was celebrated in the local press. As Colonel Hughes, who had put the case for the boys release from school in 1914, said some 5 year later – the young Signallers were …gallant lads… and …the war record of the Barry Boy Scouts is one that the public will rightly be proud of [Barry Dock News, 5 Dec 1919]

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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