With Britain at war, national priorities had to change. The war effort required facilities of many different kinds, from offices for administrators to land for training recruits. To make sure such facilities were available, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed on 8 August 1914, gave the government powers to requisition buildings or land for the war effort. Nevertheless, the government preferred persuasion to coercion, so property owners were encouraged to lend premises voluntarily, as a contribution to the war effort.
The response to the general invitation to our neighbours and others at Norbury to come in and use our range has far exceeded the hopes of the committee of the club, and the result has been a crowded attendance upon practically every night since the new rule commenced. Good shots, poor shots, and men who were not shots at all (but are fast becoming such) have gladly accepted the hospitality offered.
County & Westminster Magazine report, November 1914
The banks’ property portfolios consisted mainly of branch buildings, which could do more for the nation by continuing to operate as banks than by being converted to any other use. Some of the bigger London banks, however, owned sizeable sports grounds for staff use. Some of these had specialist facilities that took on new significance in wartime. London County & Westminster Bank, for example, had a rifle range at its ground in Norbury. As soon as war was declared, it made the range available every weekday evening, not only for staff but for members of the public who wanted to brush up their shooting skills, or experience handling a rifle for the first time.
Even leaving aside the specialist facilities, the London sports fields themselves were precious open spaces, well-maintained and easily accessible for large numbers of people. Many of the men who had used them before the war were among the first to go away on military service, and the colleagues they left behind had to work extra hours to cover for their absence. There was little time left for sport.
From September 1914, London County & Westminster Bank’s sports ground in Norbury was used by a volunteer training company, formed to give basic military training to men who could not yet join the army, either because of age or poor health, or because their employers had not given them permission to volunteer. It was drawn mainly from the bank’s staff, but local men were also welcome to join. Its first Saturday training session attracted 200 attendees, and that number soon grew to 300. They met at the sports ground every Saturday afternoon and Wednesday evening. By the end of the year, more than 30 members had passed from the training company into the army.
In March 1915, part of London County & Westminster’s sports ground was requisitioned by the War Office for use as officers’ quarters for a military camp on the adjoining golf course. As part of the deal, the War Office paid rent, and took over responsibility for mowing the grass and paying the groundsman. Meanwhile, the rest of the ground was allowed to remain set up for sports, but was shared with soldiers stationed in Norbury, giving them facilities for athletics, football and rugby. The following year the pavilion was made available for recreational use by patients at a nearby military hospital, and the cricket pitch was used by Australian army teams.
Bank staff also continued to use the facilities at Norbury. In summer 1917, and again in 1918, the ground was the venue for charity open days, through which staff raised money to buy YMCA huts for soldiers.
Meanwhile, over in Dulwich, Parr’s Bank’s sports ground was also used for military training, including trench digging practise. By 1917, however, the government had in mind a new use for spare land. The German U-boat blockade was significantly reducing grain imports, and agricultural productivity was being shaken by the absence of farm workers on military service. Food prices were rising rapidly, and long queues outside shops were a common sight. Rationing was introduced as a voluntary measure in 1917, and became compulsory the following year. Everyone was exhorted to grow what food they could, and thousands of acres of land were turned over for use as allotments. The number of allotments in Britain peaked at 1.5m during the war, compared to 600,000 in 1913.
In winter 1917-18 a group of would-be allotment holders working for London County Council approached Parr’s Bank to ask for permission to use its Dulwich sports ground for allotments. The bank had resisted earlier approaches, but now agreed, partly because pressure on land was increasing, and partly because by that time Parr’s was merging with London County & Westminster Bank, so there was a prospect of staff being able to use that bank’s sports facilities in Norbury.
In March 1918 Parr’s handed over the keys to its sports ground to the so-called ‘plotters’, so that they could bring manure onto their new plots. The agreement granted them use of the land for three years, and they worked the land throughout the growing seasons of 1918, 1919 and 1920. After everything had been harvested at the end of 1920 they left the land, and the bank began the work of converting it back to sports use.