Bills and billeting

With many thousands of troops descending on Luton for training soon after the outset of war there were not enough public buildings and empty houses to accommodate them. The answer was to billet troops in private houses. Soldiers billeted in Luton in Salisbury Road 1914

Most Lutonians opened their hearts and their homes to the men who responded to the call of duty on behalf of their King and country - and the extra income for doing so was a welcome addition to the household budget. But there were a few who were reluctant - and from reports in The Luton News it seems the Army was not prepared to take "no" for an answer.

Women pleaded that they could not help because they had sick children to care for, even if they didn't have any children at all, and there were others who hoped the billeting officer would go away if they didn't answer the knock on the door, only for the twitch of a curtain to give them away. And the reward for their reticence was a '6' chalked on the door - indicating billeting for six soldiers instead of perhaps three.

But then came the vexed question of what was the going rate for the hospitality. Letters began appearing in The Luton News seeking an answer to why there seemed to be disparity in what different households received.

"I would be glad to know what is really the amount allowed for billeting the troops in private houses," wrote a letter writer under the pseudonym Fair Play. "Some people are being paid 3d per man each night, but the majority are getting 3d [in total]. In my own case we cook dinner for the men (six of them), find plates and dishes and look after them generally, and get paid 3d. A friend of mine has four men out of another regiment and gets 3d each man per night...there is a great deal of discontent among the householders."

But the gripes didn't end there. Another letter writer wrote: "Would you enlighten me why it is that at a time like the present, when everyone is supposed to be willing to do what they can to help, soldiers should be all, or nearly so, with the exception of public buildings, be billeted on the working classes, and leave such as live in the big houses, who have more room, alone? Why should Hart Hill, London Road, Lansdowne Road etc not have their fair share?"

It was the Editor of The Luton News - not the military - who responded to this correspondent's "misapprehension". The billeting officers, he claimed, made no invidious distinctions. The object is to place the men as near the centres of operations as possible. As a matter of fact, many of the working class residents are only too glad to provide all the accommodation they can, because in addition to its being a patriotic duty, the monetary payments allowed make a nice little addition to the weekly income."

At least the troops seemed impressed with their welcome in Luton. One wrote: "I fully expected to find the householders grumble at the inconvenience to which they have been put but was pleasantly surprised, for the men have been made very welcome, and in many cases their hosts are exceedingly kind, and assist them with their cooking in every way."

By mid-November 1914 the question of payments for billeting looked as though it had finally been resolved in a letter from Town Clerk W. Smith. He wrote:

"Numerous complaints having been made to the Mayor and I and to the War Office as to the variation of the sums paid for billeting troops in houses in the borough, I think it well to state, for the information of the inhabitants, that the following are the rates which the military authorities are legally liable to pay:

Accommodation to be provided - lodging and attendance (in an occupied dwelling house) for soldier, where meals furnished, price to be paid to occupier, 9d per night per man. (There is a specified scale of prices for meals).

Where no meals furnished, lodging and attendance (in an occupied dwelling house), and candles, vinegar, salt, and the use of fire and the necessary utensils for dressing and eating his meat, 9d per man per night.

For the 9d the military authorities can require the provision of a separate bed for each man (if a bed is available); but if they do not demand a bed they are still liable to pay the full rate of 9d per night for each man billeted in an occupied dwelling house.

For accommodation in an unoccupied dwelling house, or in a building not a dwelling house, the price to be paid is 3d per night for each man, and no bed or attendance can be required.

The letter added that any person who had received less than 9d per night per man should at once see the Billeting Officer and ask for payment of the arrears due.