Defence of the Realm Act

Defence of the Realm Act

On the day war broke out, the Government took over control of the railways – the first measure of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). DORA swelled immensely during the war, as hundreds of measures were added to it. Some of its provisions, such as the lighting restrictions, were sensible and would clearly reduce the danger of aerial attack.

Other provisions of DORA were trivial and irritating. As a writer in the Linlithgow Gazette complained in May 1917:

It may be asked how the war is being helped along because a shopkeeper is forbidden to sell a tie after eight o'clock, or nine o'clock on Saturday, but there the Order is.

So minor were the offences that could lead to prosecutions, that for the first time respectable middle-class individuals found themselves hauled up in court. In 1915, a young middle-class Edinburgh lady, Miss Mona Jeffrey, who had taken a snap of the Forth Bridge, found herself in Linlithgow Sheriff Court, was admonished and had her camera confiscated.

There was a weary acceptance by most people of all these irritating restrictions. But the Linlithgow Gazette on 13 July 1917 reported severe criticism of the Government by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, incensed by a new order under DORA to prevent sporting use of gun cartridges:

His Lordship... was thinking of making a collection of notices emanating from the Government departments which he could only characterise as incredible stupidity. 

Nevertheless the Gazette writer concluded by agreeing that shooting for sport should be banned at present.

At the end of the war, a committee was set up to look at all the wartime legislation - whether it could be repealed, continued or become permanent legislation. 'The Committee state that there are over 190 emergency statutes, together with 260 regulations under the Defence of the Realm Acts.' The Procurator Fiscal of West Lothian pointed out that government departments had sent him no fewer than 1,590 orders in the course of the war – most of them offences new to the criminal law of the country.

On 29 November 1918, the Gazette welcomed the immediate removal of street lighting restrictions:

Lights up! One by one we cross the DORA edicts out.  Soon the lady will be sent about her business.

To read more about the Defence of the Realm Act and how it affected ordinary people in West Lothian, open the PDF below.

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Front cover of act
The Defence of the Realm Act became a weighty document