Friday, 27 March 2015

Muddy Choir - I love it when a project comes together!

Archives and theatre might not seem like the most obvious of couplings but one of the projects that Jo has been working on with Durham at War put it to the test:

Marigold Hughes, the schools producer for Theatre Centre, got in touch with the Record Office at the end of last year about working on the “Into the Trenches” project.  Marigold is originally a Durham lass but works with Theatre Centre in London and so was keen to develop a project in this area.  Although not exactly what we are used to doing, we jumped at the chance.
Farringdon School post-performance review, photograph taken by Chris Auld
Farringdon School post-performance review, photograph taken by Chris Auld
The project centred around a performance of Theatre Centre’s play “The Muddy Choir”, featuring three Sunderland men in the trenches in the First World War.  Each of the five schools involved (Parkview, Chester-le-Street; Hermitage, Chester-le-Street; Egglescliffe School, Stockton; Sandhill View Arts School, Sunderland and Farringdon Community Academy, Sunderland) saw a performance of the play and got the chance to discuss performance and characterisation with the cast.  The kids then worked with Live Theatre’s award winning playwright, Paddy Campbell, and their creative writing guru, Tracy Gillman, to produce their own piece of theatre.  The performances took place the week of the 16 March.

My part in all this started in November when I started pulling together two sessions to be delivered to the students in order to provide historical background and an insight into research techniques.  I went into all five schools in December and January.  I was even in a class that was visited by an Ofsted inspector!  I tried, as much as possible, to draw on local stories of life on the Home Front and of recruitment and conscription.  We listened to the incomparable Lizzie Holmes of Horden and wondered at the experience of conscientious objectors from Chester-le-Street, Ferryhill and Esh Winning.
Performance by The Hermitage, photograph taken by Chris Auld
Performance by The Hermitage, photograph taken by Chris Auld
Fast forward to March.  The groups that I had worked with did everyone involved in the project proud.  The plays involved some beautiful writing and moving performances, not to mention impressive props and sound effects!  Videos of all the work that the kids did will be available to view on Theatre Centre’s website in the next few weeks.  I, for one, will be viewing them all again.  I am unwilling to confirm whether there will be a packet of hankies by my side, just in case something gets in my eye.
Egglescliffe finish their performance, photograph taken by Chris Auld
Egglescliffe finish their performance, photograph taken by Chris Auld

Friday, 20 March 2015

Buckingham Palace?

Private Robert Constantine of Gateshead was in the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. The dates of his letters show that he left for France a few days before the rest of his battalion in April 1915. This suggests that he might have been in the transport section. Constantine’s letters are being transcribed by one of our volunteers.

Arriving in London on the evening of 15 April before continuing to Folkestone, the men found that all boats to France had been stopped. Private Constantine writes home to his brother.

Private Robert Constantine, October 1914 (D/DLI 7/137/54)
D/DLI 7/137/54 Private Robert Constantine, October 1914

Friday 16 April 1915
I am writing this in Buckingham Palace. I wrote to Doris last night but that was before we were put up in the Palace.
We were properly stranded last night and when we got to the Palace we were all properly tired out but we had a good bed and a grand feed this morning.

We had a trip round the city today and had a free dinner at The Union Jack Club. I am now waiting for my tea here in the Palace and then make for the Station but I hope the boats are stopped tonight again.

Was Private Constantine actually put up somewhere in Buckingham Palace or was it more likely to have been Wellington Barracks, a grand building in its own right, home of The Guards, and a stone’s throw from the Palace? 

The 9th was one of the five territorial battalions that went out to France in April 1915 and into the Second Battle of Ypres. An exhibition about this battle is coming soon at the Record Office.

Friday, 13 March 2015

A conscientious volunteer

This week we have a post written by one of our Durham at War volunteers.

Darlington Local Tribunal, with thanks to the Local Studies Centre, Darlington Library
Darlington Local Tribunal, applications were made here for exemption from military service. Reproduced with thanks to the Local Studies Centre at Darlington Library
You know the old saying, ‘Never volunteer’, well I ignored it and, as my uncle was a conscientious objector [C.O.] during the Second World War, I put my name down to research C.O.s in the First World War. That’s when life as I knew it changed! My Durham at War volunteer co-ordinator, Jo, says I threw myself into it and I suppose she’s right.

Since those who would not fight had to appear before local, county and central Tribunals, I thought the only way I could find names was to plough through as many local newspapers as I could find for Tribunals. I thought I would contact the Working Class Movement Library just to ask for advice on where else to look as many C.O.s were Socialists and Labour Party members. They put me in touch with Cyril Pearce who, as a result of researching C.O.s in his native Huddersfield and getting carried away, has a large database of C.O.s for the whole country and he sent me a list of 260 men from County Durham!! Christmas and birthday presents all rolled into one! 

Since then I’ve spent hours trying to add information to this database using Ancestry. I had an e-mail from Jo to tell me that records from the Quaker organisation, The Friends Ambulance Unit, are now available online and they include photos! This will be a real bonus in helping to bring the stories alive. My husband is starving, the washing is piling up and he has just bought me a new vacuum cleaner in case the old one is broken!

Extract from services papers for the Non-Combatant Corps
Extract from services papers for the Non-Combatant Corps
I’m hooked on trying to understand the system then in place for deciding what to do with these men and I am getting emotionally involved with their stories. Some seemed to just turn up at a Tribunal and get total exemption while others were sent to the Non-Combatant Corps and others suffered worse by being sent to fighting units. As soon as they refused an order, they were on trial and served prison sentences where the punishments were tough. One man died in Wormwood Scrubs officially from pneumonia but an eyewitness said he died from the beating he received. His funeral seems to have been interesting so I hope to find that report.

I’m also re-evaluating how I feel about this subject all the time. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as ‘they were all cowards who refused to fight’ anymore. I suppose that’s another facet of this project. It’s a steep learning curve and I still have a lot to do. I’m ordering books from the library – something I very rarely do. I’m going to the Durham Miner’s Hall to see if they have anything on men who were part of the hierarchy. I’d like to find a grave for the man above who died. 

I find the subject fascinating but must close now as my husband has given up and gone to the fish and chip shop after putting the laundry in to wash! Bless him! Such are the joys of being a volunteer.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Flower Shows, Doctors and Window Breakers

This week we have another post by Jo Vietzke for International Women’s Day on 8th March.  
International Women's Day logo
When researching a defined period such as the First World War, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Aug 1914-Nov 1918 as a separate period; existing by itself and disconnected from everything around it.

Recently, I’ve been reminded on a couple of occasions that this is not the case.   One of our volunteers at Darlington has done an amazing job of indexing the Northern Despatch for the Local Studies Library.  When talking about what she had found one of the most remarkable things that struck her was the normality.  The newspaper carried on reporting the local flower shows and listing the entertainments to be seen at the theatre and cinema.  Life carried on.

The other instance was sparked by an article which I stumbled upon in the Durham Advertiser (December 18, 1914) with the headline: “Suffragists and the War: Helpful Work for Women”.  Most of the literature on the women’s suffrage movement notes that the struggle by groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union was suspended for the duration of the war and that their focus changed to supporting the war effort.  While this might be true in general, the full picture is more varied and complex.

Mention suffragettes and most people think of radical women throwing themselves under horses or chaining themselves to the railings of Downing Street.  London, as the political capital of the country, was undoubtedly the focus of the calls for women’s suffrage but the North East also saw a certain degree of militant action.  During the summer of 1914, just weeks before the beginning of war, an arsonist who left suffrage pamphlets at the scene tried to set fire to Cocken Hall, the house that the Durham Pals later used as a training centre.  The Newcastle Journal reported in June 1914 a supposed attempt to set fire to a train and the disruption of services at Newcastle Cathedral.

Doctor Ethel Williams' Suffragette banner, by permission of the Librarian, Robinson Library, Newcastle University
Doctor Ethel Williams' Suffragette banner, by permission of the Librarian, Robinson Library, Newcastle University
These actions clearly grabbed the headlines but other women chose different tactics.   The Durham Advertiser article from 18 December 1914 mentioned a woman named Dr Ethel Williams (Ethel May Nucella Williams, 1863-1948).  A little bit of scratching below the surface revealed an extraordinary person.  In July 1914, when the militants were trying to fire-bomb trains, Dr Williams presided over a debate at the Durham Miners’ Gala for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  She chaired the North Eastern Federation of the NUWSS and at the outbreak of war joined the Women’s Executive of the Patriots League of Honour.  The banner above belonged to Williams and is held at the Robinson Library Special Collections, Newcastle University.  You can read more about it here:

The period of the war saw Dr Williams lecturing on sex education, campaigning against prostitution and for the better treatment of women and children in detention.  All of this whilst also working as Newcastle’s first woman doctor.  One heart-breaking story in the Newcastle Journal names her as the doctor called out to a suicide of a woman whose husband was away (possibly at war) and who had just given birth.  Her work to better the lives of the women of the North East didn’t stop because the country was at war, even if the NUWSS had suspended its suffragist activities.