The Derbyshire Lives through the First World War project
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 November 2018
as supplied Derbys Record Office
As we commemorate the 1918 Armistice, Pat Ashworth looks into the poignant local projects that have brought to life the effect of the 1914-1918 conflict on our ancestors' lives
THERE are six miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving at Derbyshire County Council’s Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock, over five of them already full. It’s a noble calling. Archivists have a duty to store material that nobody might ever want to consult again but which remains carefully documented, stored and preserved just in case someone should.
Beyond the obligation to hold the public records of myriad bodies such as councils, courts and hospitals, they can hold ‘anything else related to Derbyshire that we want to,’ says archivist, Sarah Chubb, reflecting. ‘The archivist, in a sense, has the ultimate power over history. Our job is to try and anticipate what people might be interested in. Fashions change in research, so sometimes people are looking very much at economic history and then there’ll be a new wave of interest in women’s history or the history of minority communities – looking at the same records sometimes but through a different lens.’
Nor do you have to be important to have your details recorded, she emphasises, because the objective of such an archive is to capture the lives of the whole county, from the highest gentry to the lowliest farmhand. That’s been beautifully illustrated over the past four years, with the First World War centenary inspiring communities to research and remember this deeply poignant chapter of their own local history.
Heritage Lottery Funding enabled more than 60 towns and villages to work with the Record Office to discover ‘Derbyshire Lives Through the First World War.’ Innovative projects ranged from Glossop’s Tunics for Goalposts – how the war impacted on the town’s leading football club – to Grassmoor’s Class of 1916 (looking at school life), and Chesterfield’s Hidden Strangers, an exploration of the lives of the often vilified German, Hungarian and Austrian families resident in the town.
In Youlgreave, work continues on a project around a stained glass memorial window in All Saints’ Church, containing fragments from the war-damaged St Martin’s Cathedral and other churches in Ypres. These were brought back by Captain Charles Waterhouse, whose younger brother had died in Gallipoli. The fragments were used to create the roundels of the window, and a new stained glass memorial will have two sections – one in St Martin’s and one in All Saints.
The Record Office started indexing its World War One materials in 2014. They include family collections of letters, diaries and photographs; posters and postcards; records of conscription tribunals; recruitment campaigns; peace celebrations; fundraisers for the troops; sketches and watercolours… the list is endless. Some of the records were well known: that stone from the Middleton quarry was used for the Commonwealth War Graves, for instance, and that a Gell family member had the honour of choosing a body to be laid in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
But other stories came to light, like those of the Derbyshire miners recruited to be stokers on Royal Navy ships because of their skills with the shovel. One died on the same ship as Lord Kitchener. Then there was the unearthing of a plot to sabotage the feed of horses in order to disable them… And more was discovered about conscientious objectors, through records of the tribunals they had to attend.
I am privileged to go below stairs into the stores themselves. The Victorian part of the building, high on a hill and with a breathtaking view across the valley to Riber, was first a hydro and later, in the 1920s, a school. Walking through its maze of corridors and companionways with doors opened before us and locked behind us feels curiously like being on a ship. I’ve seen library stacks before and the great winding mechanism that opens up aisles through the shelves, but I’m always excited by the promise these acid-free, damp-resistant cardboard boxes hold.
And they don’t disappoint. I’m looking first-hand and with a lump in my throat at the diaries of Maria Gyte, a farmer’s wife who kept an account of her thoughts and her everyday occupations. August 4th 1914 finds her ‘Rather gloomy at times. Men working on the hay (Waterlands). W[illia]m mowed croft heads. Nothing can be talked about but the war. This has come so suddenly… England has fought for peace but it is feared that she will have to fight as Germany is proving very aggressive… Wm also mowed Little Butts.
England declared war on Germany.’
The ‘dreadful news’ came on 13th November 1917 that ‘our poor Tony had died in the field ambulance on Nov 2nd. We are all in a sad way. Poor lad it is only six months since he went into training and now killed in the beauty of his manhood… My poor dear Tony gone for ever and we shall never see his face any more on this earth. How shall we bear it?’
And now, on thin scrap paper that represents anything he could scrounge, I’m looking at the extraordinary comic sketches produced by HJ Rylands, a Derbyshire man known to have been an engineer before the war but an artist at heart. ‘This was probably his way of keeping amused in the boring times,’ Sarah says, picking up paper that is at times as delicate and thin as tissue.
Rylands (who survived the war and led a long life) loves poking fun at the officers in particular. One of his cartoons depicts a Transport Officer on horseback and a Quartermaster Sergeant holding out a nosebag. The pencilled caption reads: ‘QM Sergeant, “I have a nosebag for you, Sir.” Transport Officer, “Thanks, old fella, but I’d prefer eating off a plate.”’ Another sketch has a hapless young soldier trying to mount a horse, clearly for the first time, with the barked instruction to vault into the saddle, ‘not trying to climb up the bloody ‘oss.’
In another box, I’m seeing delicate watercolour sketches showing a less familiar side of the war: the action seen by many Derbyshire men in Jerusalem and Egypt. Here is a veiled woman; here a Middle Eastern man. It leads me to muse on how abrupt their translation was from some village in the Peak District to this completely alien territory. One snapshot is on a postcard home, another on a Christmas card.
Soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters came across a printing press in Ypres and used it to produce a satirical newspaper called The Wipers Times (since, the substance of a gleeful play by Ian Hislop). The one in front of me now, creased and dirty from being folded into a pocket, belonged to Sergeant Oliver Holmes of Clay Cross. It contains this delicious mock-advertisement:
To HARASSED SUBALTERNS
Is your life miserable? Are you unhappy? Do you hate your Commander?
Then buy him one of our new Patent Tip Duck Boards.
You get him on the end. The Duck Board does the rest.
Made in three sizes and every time a Blighty!
Then there are the memorabilia of the staunch women who ran things while the men were away. A pamphlet written by the Honourable Edith Lyttleton Gell of Hopton Hall rallies women to work with the stirring, ‘What can I do for thee, England, my England?’ The answer is clear: ‘Bring up your reserves! Mobilise the maidens!’
It is the many photographs and letters that Sarah Chubb continues to find the most poignant. ‘It’s that youthfulness, that writing home and saying it’s all fine,’ she says. ‘And the sheer waste of those young lives. When you read letters, you begin to make personal connections.’
So it cuts to the quick to see young Joseph Arthur Hodgkiss proudly standing outside his hut whilst training at Berkhamsted Barracks; to read a letter home from Northern France that says, ‘A few lines to let you know I’m still in the pink and enjoying myself. I’m in the firing line and it’s ok’; to admire a birthday card sent home from the Front; later, to see a photograph of his grieving mother at his grave in France.
Over the last few years, stories like these and many of the county’s commemorative projects have uncovered the tale of how the First World War changed the lives of people across the city and county 100 years ago, giving the county an invaluable memorial.
Comprehensive details of the Record Office’s ‘Derbyshire Lives through the First World War’ project can be seen online at www.derbyshirelives.uk.