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Thursday 23 February 2017

News: WW1 file records arrest of Lerwick Post Office staff, 1914

During World War One, the Scottish Office introduced a number of security measures to protect Scotland from enemy action. Many of these are detailed in a series of First World War files held by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS ref. HH31).

One set of files (NAS ref. HH31/17/1-6) records a particular incident which occurred in the Shetland Islands at the start of the War. On Sunday 1 November 1914 the warder in charge of Lerwick prison was instructed by order of the Commanding Officer of HM Forces based in Shetland to receive the Postmaster and 39 other staff of Lerwick Post Office. No information relating to any charges was given, and the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H.C. Evans, indicated that he was "acting on confidential Admiralty instructions".

Lerwick Post Office c1912
© Shetland Museum and Archives

As there were only 11 free cells in the prison at the time, the Post Office staff were kept in very crowded conditions. The prison warder complained about the inadequate accommodation, but was told that there was no other place in which the men could be housed. Food and more comfortable bedding was brought to the prisoners by friends and families, and they were allowed to smoke and play musical instruments. They were detained in prison until 7 November, when an order from the Admiralty finally came for their release.

On 9 November an inspector from the Prison Commissioners for Scotland visited Lerwick to report on the situation. The files contain both his official and confidential reports. The official report details the circumstances of the Post Office workers' arrest, detention and release. Colonel Evans had given instructions that the men were "not to be treated as prisoners but as persons under arrest", but it is clear that none of the men had any idea of the charges being brought against them.

Copy extract from Shetland Prison Register, showing the names of the arrested post office staff (NAS ref. HH31/17/6)Copy extract from Shetland Prison Register, showing the names of the arrested post office staff (NAS ref. HH31/17/6)

Copy extract from Shetland Prison Register, showing the names of the arrested post office staff (NAS ref. HH31/17/6)

It is the inspector's confidential report which sheds more light on the matter. Sunday 1 November was Communion Sunday, and Colonel Evans was met after morning service with orders from the Admiralty to arrest the Post Office staff. They were informed that they were being detained under numbers 12 and 13 of the Defence of the Realm Regulations, relating to the extinguishing of lamps and the movement of citizens. Only the Postmaster was told that there was a suspicion that secret correspondence passing through Lerwick Post Office for the Fleet had been tampered with. The men were taken to prison under an armed naval escort and their homes searched.

The confidential report states that the Post Office staff were very grateful to the staff of the prison for looking after them so well, although the inspector himself was of the opinion that they might have been better housed in some other location, such as the Territorial Drill Hall or the Town Hall, and thus "spared the indignity of having been sent to a common prison".

The details of their incarceration were entered into the prison register separately, at the back, and the files contain copies of these entries. After release the names were struck through. A request was later made by the General Post Office in London that any records which had been created at the prison relating to their wrongful arrest should be destroyed. This suggestion was rejected by the Prison Commissioners and the Scottish Office as evidenced by a letter to the Under-Secretary for Scotland, dated 29 July 1915: "It was [a] matter of notoriety that these Postal officials had been arrested, and destroying any record of the fact will not alter the fact". It was however agreed that a note should be inserted at the bottom of the page to the effect that: "All the above named men were released at the instance of the Admiralty who expressed themselves satisfied that the charges against them were wholly unfounded".

Some further records relating to this incident can be found at Shetland Archives (link on left-hand side of this page), and a book on the subject is due to be published shortly.


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