Visitor books to be uploaded in the new year

Visbooks

Our team of volunteers is putting the finishing touches to an online database that will provide an exciting and unique new resources for First World War scholars and family historians alike.

Early in the new year, Step Short will be uploading the names contained in the Mole Cafe visitor books and revealing the details of 42,000 soldiers, nurses and others who passed through the town on their way to the Western Front between 1914 and 1919.

The names are contained in eight visitors’ books that were kept at the Mole Cafe on the harbour, where many of the millions of soldiers who boarded troop ships on their way to the battlefields paused for a last cuppa and a bite to eat.

Amongst those who signed the books were Major General Hugh Trenchard, war artist John Lavery, VC recipient George Saunders and Major Winston Churchill, posted to the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards in November 1915.

Step Short has scanned every page of the historic documents, brought to the charity’s attention by historian Charles Fair a few years ago, and is now finishing the job of transcribing every one of the handwritten names.

The information will provide a unique resource to historians, family researchers and anyone with an interest in those who crossed from Folkestone to the Western Front during and just after the First World War. Publishing the database is one of the main strands of Step Short’s work to commemorate the centenary of the conflict.

The commemorations will include the unveiling of a memorial arch on The Leas in August – another project masterminded by Step Short in memory of those who marched through the town to an uncertain future 100 years ago.

Every race, creed and social class, from King George V to the humblest private soldier, is represented in the Harbour Canteen books. The date, rank, name and corps or unit is included alongside most of the names, while some visitors added their regimental number and a few included comments or short poems.

Major General Trenchard, whose rank at the time – April 5, 1918 – reflects the fact that the organisation he had played a part in founding just four days earlier had its roots in the Army, added the initials CAS – for Chief of the Air Staff.

Another signature in one of the books is that of Roger Keyes, Vice Admiral, Dover Patrol, who was in the canteen on February 16, 1918. He masterminded the famous raid on Zeebrugge on St George’s Day, 23 April 1918 and may have been inspecting the harbour rather than travelling to France.  Official war artist John Lavery was not well enough to visit the Western Front, but the Harbour Canteen books show that he at least visited Folkestone on May 23, 1918.

The scanned pages will be free to access, but there will be an option for visitors to pay a small fee to use an index that will make searching easier and provide a full transcript of the hand-written entries. You can see a sample page by following this link.