During the centenary years of the First World War even the most casual of observers is likely to be inundated with acts of commemoration, remembrance, entertainment and education. The landmark anniversary has seen plans laid for thousands of national television hours of varying content and quality to be dedicated to the Great War. Radio stations and web sites are promising similar campaigns and many museums not normally concerned with documenting or presenting conflict are scrambling to find space in which to appropriate their usual material to relate to the war. The Great War was a cataclysmic world event, understandably still raw and poignant to so many having left so few untouched, and historiographically, it sparks heated debate to this day. Time will tell how this is affected by four years of such intensive coverage, though it is unlikely to dampen the flames.
On a more localised level the picture is again one of great interest and activity and Derbyshire is certainly a part of this. For the time being at least the county appears to be a hive of activity. Local academics, history groups, libraries and the university in particular have been and will continue to present a series of events.
A student led public conference at the University of Derby chaired by Dr. Ruth Larsen and Dr. Ian Whitehead (whose book Doctors and the Great War has just been re-published), was one of the first notable events of this centenary year of the outbreak of the war. As a module taken by all second-year history undergraduates the conference aimed to both engage the public and tackle scholarly debate. In its seventh year of running the ‘Public History’ module in 2014 culminated in a conference titled ‘The Great War, 1914-1918’ with a full day of papers prepared by students and warmly received by a large audience. The papers presented often aimed to challenge preconceptions about the Great War with public history, the experience of killing, the nature of commemoration, the white feather movement and even toys among the topics covered. Part of the conference’s success could be seen in the range of people present on the day. Beside the university lecturers, friends and family the marketing of the conference drew a large number of people who would not normally find themselves at the university. This mixture of people was testament not only to a successful public engagement on the part of the university and the students but also an interested body of people in Derby and the surrounding areas and there was lively and spirited debate between all. The conference also attracted interest from the media with students appearing on the local BBC Radio Derby to talk about the event and central programming were specifically interested in talking to the group concerned with gender and the white feather movement.
Also in the county, local history group ‘Living in the Past’ recently hosted an exhibition focusing on everyday life in Derby during the First World War. Objects from around the house were displayed alongside information about how they were used and a local history element was provided by displays detailing the area in the early twentieth century utilising aerial photography and Ordinance Survey maps. The displays on offer in this area would be of note to those interested in the development of the city of Derby besides the intention of creating a picture of life during the war. The exhibition was tightly packed into a series of reception rooms at the hotel next-door to local pub ‘Mr Grundy’s Tavern’ on Ashbourne Road, Derby and in line with this connection research was done into the story behind Mr Grundy. Upon viewing the exhibits the theme of gender was one that ran strongly throughout and a collection of material taken from a soldier’s autograph book was of particular interest. Life during the First World War is also the focus of various exhibitions and activities in place throughout August at Chesterfield Museum. Similarly the Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock is running an exhibition entitled ‘The Last Summer’ until the 27th September which focuses on Derbyshire during the summer of 1914. This particular event is part of a wider project called ‘Derbyshire Lives in the First World War’. Collectively these varied initiatives provide the opportunity for visitors to learn about life on both the Front Line and the Home Front.
The interest in the story behind Mr Grundy is indicative of a wider trend. The centenary is giving families and communities the chance to celebrate the bravery of their friends and family. A glance at the Derby Telegraph shows coverage of local people proudly displaying photographs and medals and retelling stories. As with the case of Mr Grundy there may often be a blurred line between fact and myth, however in the context of a local newspaper and collective reflection these could prove counterproductive to question. There are dedicated listings for collective acts of remembrance in various parishes, villages and towns and an example of these is seen in ‘A Parish Remembers’ from Hilton, Derbyshire. The people of Hilton have created a ‘memory book’ which is being produced to coincide with the opening of a new ‘memory meadow’ in Hilton on 4th August. Each man will receive a tree with an individual plaque giving personal details. There will also be an engraved polished black granite slab inlaid into a large granite rock to serve as a central point of commemoration for the site. The project as a whole has been a community effort and the ‘memory book’ A Parish Remembers will be sold to the benefit of Troop Aid, a military charity run from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.
Derby’s Local Studies Library is also continuing the theme of examining the war through the lives of local people. Although the library is in the process of moving location to the old Magistrate’s Court in Full Street, it is still finding time to become involved. In association with the Derbyshire Records Office noted above the Local Studies Library has received Heritage Lottery Funding for the Derbyshire Remembers project, led by the Fifth World Theatre. Volunteers have been recruited to research First World War material at the Local Studies Library and Derbyshire Records Office, with particular attention to the Derby Home Front and soldiers from Sudbury. The information gathered will be worked into a user friendly format and the Fifth Word Theatre will then work in two schools from Derby and Sudbury. Children from the schools will act as curators selecting items from the material provided to produce an exhibition of their own. The Fifth World Theatre has previously run a similar project in Hackney named ‘Hackney Remembers’ which was a great success and provided an excellent point of interaction and engagement. Additionally the Local Studies Library plans to archive material gathered by the local history group Six Streets who state that they aim to investigate the impact that the war had on Derby.
During July, Derby City Libraries ran an impressive series of well-attended events for the WW1 centenary spread across libraries in the city. This began with a set of talks at Allestree Library on 2 July. After the Centre for Hidden Histories was introduced Becky Pyne Edwards Banks, a former Derby University student spoke about her dissertation on WW1 military tribunals and conscientious objectors. She was followed by Dr. Nigel Hunt of Nottingham University, author of Memory, War and Trauma (Cambridge University Press, 2010), who did a superb talk on shell shock and war trauma and its treatments before and after. Finally, Professor Robert Hudson of Derby University, an expert on identity politics, nationalism and identity formation, spoke about WW1 and the Serb, Bosnian (Southern Balkan) communities in Derby. and how he was developing a project for the Centre with them. The sessions packed a lot into one evening (in a great setting surrounded by books with a keen audience) and there were quite a few questions at the end, particularly to Becky and Nigel on their subjects.
Further WW1-related talks in the series taking place included one from Brian Stone on the ‘Lessons and Legacies of the Great War’ at the Phillip Whitehead Memorial Library and from Charles Hanson of Hansons Auctioneer and Valuers Ltd, who spoke about military memorabilia and collectibles at Mickleover Library. Dr. Ann Featherstone examined the music halls in war time at Ilkestone Library and Dr. Mike Galer, formerly Keeper of Military History at Derby Museums, gave a stimulating talk on ‘Derby at War’ which looked at the local military and non-military impact. Finally, Laura Hankin spoke on ‘Women and the First World War: Dispelling the Myths’, examining women in the workplace and at home, and the role of the war in encouraging female suffrage. A trip to one such event again showed, as with the University of Derby conference, that if it is booked, then people will come. A question and answer session saw a strong showing from those interested in their own personal and family stories but also from history groups and those with research in mind. In some cases, these talks result from – or will result in very welcome publications such as Mike Galer’s Great War Britain: Derby: Remembering 1914-18 which is about to be published by The History Press.
A final project to note is the Centre for Hidden Histories of the First World War, led by Professor John Beckett from the University of Nottingham teamed with both Nottingham Trent and the University of Derby. The research centre is a three year project backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund focussing on community and commemoration. The project intends to be run in close partnership with communities and address the commemorative needs of minority groups such as those from Ireland or the Balkans. The centre is well placed in the East Midlands in this respect. The group has already forged links with local museums and archives and plans to build upon this platform. In considering how people’s memory or war shapes their identity they hope to explore the complexity of cultural memory. It is an outlook with space to evolve and grow but with a team of well placed academics, funding and a network of community partners the Centre for Hidden Histories hopes by 2018 to have gained ‘a better understanding of the legacy of the First World War that will resonate across all British communities’.
What has been discussed here is only, of course, really a small taste of centenary events occurring in Derbyshire and elsewhere. Derbyshire is not out of the ordinary in the range of events and exhibitions on offer and if the county is at all representative of country-wide trends then the centenary years will be a time when communities and families look inwards to grieve and remember as well as learn and explore. Perhaps larger cities will play host to remembrance on behalf of imagined communities on a greater scale; however Derby and Derbyshire at the current time seem intent on local history. The four years will also give historians, academics and institutes an opportunity to capitalise on the increased interest to engage closely with the public, an attempt to do so which has already begun in earnest.
For more information about events at Derby City Libraries please see the website: www.derby.gov.uk/libraries
Information about future events and historical articles appear in the Derby Telegraph see: http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/
For the Living the Past: Communtity Archaeology Project see: http://www.livinginthepast.org.uk/
For the Six Streets group go to their website at: http://www.sixstreetsderby.org.uk/
For more on the ‘Centre for Hidden Histories’ please email: HiddenHistories@nottingham.ac.uk
For information about various other projects in the county (including the Derbyshire Remembers Project) and online resources: http://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/record_office/first_world_war/default.asp
Thomas Debaere, University of Derby
Photographs: Examples of War Memorials in Derby
First World War graves and war memorial, Nottingham Road Cemetery, Derby
Memorial to Second Lieutenant James Ernest Shackleton (1895-1918), Uttoxeter Rd Cemetery, Derby, killed in action near Epehy, France, 21 March 1918.
Memorial to the men of the Third Batallion, the Sherwood Foresters who died in the Great War, 1914-19, Derby Cathedral
Memorial to Petty Officer Stoker C. Bennett RN (1869-1917), who lost his life aboard HMS Vivid, 30 July, 1917, Nottingham Rd Cemetery, Derby
Memorial to Pattie Hyde, ‘Worker 4624’, Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps, who died 25 March 1919-Nottingham Rd Cemetery, Derby
Memorial to Private F. Jordon (1897-1919), Notts and Derby Regiment-Nottingham Rd Cemetery, Derby