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December 1914 in Salford saw a spate of curious robberies much remarked upon in the local newspapers. 

History With Flynn

Their target? Not cash, or jewellery, but simply wood for fuel. 

It was the first winter of the Great War in Salford, and while coal was not officially rationed until 1916, supplies of fuel and light were restricted and many families were suffering. 

Looking through the record books, the winter temperatures in Salford were not particularly harsh. 

But the Defence of the Realm Act, passed in August 1914, allowed the government to take charge both of coal production and supply, and there is no doubt that nearly all of the coal that was being produced at this time would have gone to the mills, mines and factories producing weapons and munitions and the war effort in general. 

Mysterious figures were spotted carrying railway lamps lurking in the shadows of Weaste, ready to pounce and steal timber of any description, even front and back doors were not safe from this unscrupulous bunch of plunderers. 

The local residents were furious and one told the Salford City Reporter that "this nefarious practice starts at 11.30pm and continues until nearly 6am." 

We learn that this gang of villians were stealing trees from the estate of Mr Edward Tootal - known as the Weaste Estate - going as far as the railway lines on the Eccles New Road side. 

It is worth remembering that the Tootal Drive and Meadowgate Estates had yet to be built and early maps show that the area of Tootal Drive spreading up to Buile Hill Park was known as Bluebell Woods, a good indication of the rural nature of Weaste at the time. 

Trees were spotted stripped of their bark and chopped down awaiting collection which would happen several hours later, the noise of their waggons carrying the timber would be drowned out by the noise of the passing steam trains. 

It was reported that gas lamps had been tampered with, however,


"brilliant lights are retained in the bedroom windows on the main roads to apparently aid the thieves there." 

The newspaper then goes on to say that:


"While this timber plunder is going on the trade of the Guardians is suffering also the coal trade is at a low ebb. 

"The people who are using the wood can well afford to pay for it if they spend a little less on dress and finery. 

"But then as a Salford Warrants Officer calls this locality the 'Debtors Retreat' perhaps this can not be wondered at." 

A favourite time to steal the timber was apparently when there was storm raging, as the noise drowned out the sound of the cart wheels as they shifted their ill gotten goods to nearby houses. 

One resident complained that dogs which used to bark through the night were suspiciously quiet - no doubt silenced by "mystery biscuits" fed to them. 

The following week the Salford City Reporter stated that the situation had got much worse, as trees were reported as being stolen near Weaste Hall by gangs using coded whistles and using scouts as look outs in back entries where the sound of wood being sawed up could be clearly heard! 

The police came in for criticism saying that they "pay little or no attention to the action of the men in the night time", and more damningly that, "they only walked down one side of the thoroughfare - possibly Weaste Lane - and return with extreme quiteness apparently taking no notice of what is going on around them." 

Some of these thieves were a little more enterprising and would under cover of darkness sneak into the rear of large houses in the area and steal the wood which the owner had stockpiled over the year. 

Others stated that the money saved by not purchasing wood enabled these men to spend it in other directions, possibly food for their families? 

I looked through further editions of the newspaper and found no stories of the timber plunderers being hauled up before the local Magistrates Court and the story seemed to fade away. 

Can we assume that by Christmas 1915 the Great War had started in earnest and that more local men had enlisted in the army? 

On reflection it seems staggering to read about the moral outrage that the actions of these desperate men had caused. 

I know full well if I had no money for coal and there were trees close to my house I would be out there chopping a few down to keep warm, and possibly keeping my eye out for a Christmas tree to add to the festive season of goodwill. 

Image taken from 'Salford 1900-1914' by Roy Bullock

Wood you believe it? This article was first sawn on SalfordOnline on the 9th December 2014, it is reproduced here courtesy of a man often described as thick as two short planks, Mr Tony 'Timbbbbbeeeerrrrrr' Flynn.

Tony Flynn

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