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DORA

The Defence of the Realm Act

Four days after Britain entered the First World War, the UK government introduced The Defence of the Realm Act – DORA. Only about a paragraph long, it went through the Houses of Parliament on 8th August 1914 with no debate. It was introduced and passed in the interests of ‘securing public safety’ and, “in order to control communications, the nation's ports and subject civilians to the rule of military courts” i.

Over the course of the war it was revised and expanded a further six times. The effects of DORA were incredibly far reaching, with some of the rules and restrictions still having an impact on UK law and attitudes in the 21st century.

DORA gave the government the power to prosecute anyone whose actions could ‘jeopardise the success of the operations of HM Forces or to assist the enemy’. Such a vague description could be applied to many areas of life.

Censorship was introduced as part of DORA, regulating what the press could and couldn’t report. The censorship also applied to private mail, in particular between those serving in the forces and their friends or family, or anyone writing to someone outside of the UK. Military censors examined 300,000 private telegrams in 1916 aloneii.

Extract from Rachel Wisotzky (1894-1984) Personal Record. Post Office Clerk during the First World War 

"...It was a long war and the soldiers or sailors would write home frequently. The problem was that British officers had to read all letters home for security and possible censoring. All men were, therefore, required to write their letters home in English. What’s the problem? Their parents back in London often could not read. Those who could read, frequently did not understand enough English. In the early 20th century there were three or more postal deliveries every weekday... Rachel would translate the letters into Yiddish, aloud through the grille, to anxious relatives. For those parents who were able to read, she wrote in Yiddish between the lines of English, so that they could share their letters with other relatives..."  

 

Opponents to the war could be arrested and imprisoned. Foreign nationals had their movements restricted and could also be interned.

The law helped to facilitate the seizing of land or businesses, ensuring that they were turned over to war production (although the owners of factories remained the owners and beneficiaries of the business). Many of the inclusions under DORA were about ensuring that the British Home Front did not use up essential resources needed for the military and to try and maximise wartime production.

Under the powers of DORA, British Summer Time was instituted in May 1916. This introduced the time changes in spring and autumn when the clocks are put forward or back. The original purpose was to maximise daylight working hours, particularly in agriculture. Its effect still with us today, is a standardisation of time across the whole of the UK.

Licensing laws were also introduced for pubs. Prior to the First World War, pubs could have flexible opening hours – now they were restricted to the more familiar times of lunchtime only and evening closing at 11pm. The strength of beer was also controlled to regulate the amount and level of intoxication the working man could achieve.

Bread – one of the staples of many people’s diet in the war years - was also regulated. Fines were issued for making white flour instead of wholewheat and for allowing rats to invade wheat stores.

It was the first time that drugs were banned. Cocaine and opium possession became illegal, except by medical professionals. These drugs were desperately needed in the hospitals and could no longer be used for recreation as they had been previously.

Other rules that may have had a sensible purpose during the war now seem ridiculous and were quickly overturned post war. These included bans on: whistling for London taxis (in case it should be mistaken for an air raid warning); the purchase of binoculars; ringing church bells; melting down gold or silver.

Many of the intrusive elements of DORA were also abandoned post war, but it is interesting exploring those that were kept, including the ending of public access to railway lines and areas of sea ports.

 

Notes:

i https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/parliament-and-the-first-world-war/legislation-and-acts-of-war/defence-of-the-realm-act-1914/

iihttp://www.iwm.org.uk/history/10-surprising-laws-passed-during-the-first-world-war

 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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