We’re delighted to welcome Lauren Theweneti from the Preservative Party in Leeds this week. We asked her to tell us about their First World War exhibition (which opens TODAY) and moving beyond statistics to find the personal stories of those involved…
Hi, I’m Lauren, a member of the Preservative Party. The Preservative Party is comprised of around twenty 14-24 year olds and we work with Leeds Museums and Galleries, especially Leeds City Museum, on projects and exhibitions for the general public. For the past few years we have been working towards our new exhibition called In Their Footsteps, which aims to tell the personal stories of people from Leeds who were involved in the First World War.
The project has been coming together extremely well and is now opening to the general public on the 1st July 2016- exactly 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme.
As a group we have done extensive research into the war and the impact that it had on people’s lives. We hope that our exhibition will move past statistics and evaluate the conflict and its impact in a much more personal way, one which includes stories of those who we may forget were affected by the it.
The most significant way that we have done this is by expanding the themes of our exhibition. Instead of making this a project that focuses solely on the experience of soldiers we have also researched the lives of the amazing women who also had a huge impact on the war effort. We wanted to give a voice to the courageous women who are often forgotten in traditional evaluations, due to the fact that they very rarely went right to the Front.
My research looked specifically at nursing stories of the First World War, and through our research we selected three key nurses whose lives we were going to follow. These nurses – Annie Storey, Lucy Manley and Violet Towers – all nursed in Leeds at some time during the war, then either moved elsewhere in the country or were shipped overseas. We were lucky to work with Special Collections at the University of Leeds who hold their archives as part of the Liddle Collection. Our research was supported and they have allowed us to loan the objects for the exhibition!
Each of these nurses has an amazing story that we have tried to tell.
My favourite story follows the life of Nurse Violet Towers. Violet nursed at Beckett’s Park hospital in Leeds throughout the War. It was on one of the wards that she met the man that she would later marry. Relationships between nurses and soldiers were not really encouraged, yet this couple managed to keep their relationship secret throughout the war, with Violet’s soon to be husband then following her overseas after the War. It was stories like these that we wanted to tell. We want to be able to show people that life went on and there was some semblance of normalcy even when this devastating war was gripping the world.
As part of Women’s History Month we have been talking to heritage practitioners and historians about Women’s History and the many ways of telling the stories of fascinating females throughout time.
Here we talk to Kathy Hipperson, one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, about her most recent work, which focuses on forgotten stories from History – with women front and centre of the tale.
Time Will Tell Theatre is a theatre company specifically put together to add more drama to history! However we aren’t particularly interested in the well-known, often told bits of history, we like to find bits that, as a rule, not many have considered. And this year we have been commissioned to tell two very specific, virtually unknown stories.
The first, set against the backdrop of The Great War, featured the charter of a Royal Society; the second a story from the British Civil Wars, featured petitions to Parliament. The one thing they had in common was their involvement in women’s history in Britain.
‘The Way to the Stars’, a piece commissioned by the Royal Astronomical Society, was performed at the society’s meeting held in January 2016 and celebrated the Centenary of the first female fellows to be voted into the society. The performance was half an hour and was a journey through time, from female Ancient Greek astronomers to those risking their lives during World War One to track the path of comets.
While the rest of the country was enduring the pain and uncertainty of war in 1916 the Society’s male fellows decided to approach the Privy Council, to ask for all male terms and references in their charter to be changed to something non-gender specific. This then would allow female fellows to be voted into the society. Our journey in researching, writing and performing this play introduced us to some wonderful female astronomers, including Mandy Bailey whose article about women in the RAS is fascinating.
Recently we performed ‘Death Makes Me Poor’ as part of an opening to a new exhibition at theNational Civil War Centre, Newark. The exhibition itself is called ‘Battle Scarred’ and is a look at surgery, medicine and military welfare during the British Civil Wars, when Parliament fought against King Charles I. At first glance the exhibition might appear to be all war and gore, but it includes petitions to Parliament from those wounded fighting in the war AND from the widows of those killed.
The story of Parliament’s passing of this ordinance and its attempt to honour its commitment to serving soldiers and their families is interesting on many levels, but the parts of the tale that were particularly relevant to us in telling the women’s story were these:
Only those injured, and the widows of men killed, whilst fighting in the service of Parliament during the Civil War could apply for support.(Meaning that royalist widows got nothing!)
While those injured in war had, in the past, been allowed to personally petition for pensions, this was the first time that widows and female dependants were allowed to do so.
The widows could be from any level of society. The only requirement was that they could draft the petition. It wasn’t just for the privileged wives of officers.
Part of the reason for this ordinance was the same motivation as that of the British government in 1915: to encourage men to join the cause by referring to their wives – “come and join the army, if anything happens to you we will look after your family and widow”. But the really important thing is the acknowledgment of Parliament’s responsibility to support the women themselves if needed. It gave women of all statuses a new found legal right.
Unfortunately the reality was, that as the wars dragged on, the pensions and payments given were woefully inadequate, and the money given to the widows of officers was far more generous than the £2 or £3 offered to widows of soldiers. But the significance of the ordinance in women’s history is huge!
But only short lived. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and from then on only those who had supported the royal cause during the war were allowed to petition. Even then, it would seem those Royalist widows who did petition were less likely to gain a pension – more likely a single, gentle arm-patting, one-off payment.
This new, radical acknowledgment of women within the law courts would no longer break any new ground.
I am in awe of the passion of those female astronomers – working so hard at their science with great commitment, knowing that their work could only be recognised through men,and we should not forget the role of the men of the Royal Astronomical Society who, with what seems like very little pressure, changed their charter to bring about history.
And then the strength of those widows of the 17th Century is staggering. According to their petitions, they had in many cases been subjected to abuse during the war, so to then enter the male legal world to ask for help was extremely courageous. They were often required to appear in person at their hearing, standing alone before a court of men to ask for support.
As our projects for the rest of the year look towards the Battle of Hastings, King Arthur and the Gospels at Lindesfarne I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of telling these stories of women in history.
Kathy is one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, a theatre company set up to work mainly in the heritage industry. Simon and Kathy have been working in the field of historical interpretation and education for over 15 years, both training as actors now can be found putting on site specific and historically specific productions across the country.