A unique piece of First World War history has been discovered among Wolverhampton’s archives. It is a rare white feather, sent to men accused of cowardice for not being in uniform, and it was found along with a letter sent to local man, William Weller, despite him being excused from military service on medical grounds and because his work in Wolverhampton was vital to the war effort.
The find, hailed by City Archivist Heidi McIntosh as “incredibly rare”, came when staff were looking through a collection of material belonging to the Wolverhamptonbased Weller firm of architects, which designed many local buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries. William was one of the partners in the firm.
The Order of the White Feather was founded at the start of the First World War and aimed to coerce men to enlist in the army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform.
The campaign proved very effective, so much so that employees working in state industries had to be issued with “King and Country” badges indicating that they too were serving the war effort.
In addition, a Silver War Badge was presented to service personnel honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness so that they weren’t challenged for not wearing uniform.
The letter, sent in the latter stages of the war and signed by “A. Chicken Heart”, made the recipient a “Companion” of the “Most Noble Order of the Trench Dodgers” for his perceived “devotion to self regardless of narrow patriotism”, and included a white feather, the insignia of the order.
The full text from the white feather letter is as follows:
“Sir, Your gallant and protracted defence against the brutal attacks of the local tribunal has been brought to the notice of the Supreme Council of the Most Noble Order of the Trench Dodgers.
“I am to inform you that the Council have therefore, as a reward for your devotion to self regardless of narrow patriotism, made you a Companion of the said Most Noble Order, the insignia of which is forwarded herewith.
“I am, Sir, Your obedient servant, A. Chicken Heart, Clerk to the Council.”
Heidi McIntosh said, “The white feather was meant to shame the recipient and would not be expected to be kept with pride as they were sent to people who were perceived as cowards. Arguably William, who was in his early 40s at the time, shouldn’t have been sent this white feather in the first place because he had been excused from service on medical grounds and because he was carrying out essential war work by building homes for steel industry workers, but it seems he decided to keep it along with the letter.
“And we’re very grateful that he did as it’s a fascinating artefact and an incredibly rare find, even the Imperial War Museum doesn’t appear to have one. It gives a stark and chilling alternative view of the war.”
The Weller papers were bequeathed by family member Brian Weller to the Wolverhampton Buildings Preservation Trust. The University of Wolverhampton’s School of Art and Design is working with Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Service to explore the architectural contribution that the Weller family made to the area, and are attempting to secure funding to make the material more widely available.