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Doncaster’s WWI stories and collections become contemporary folk songs

a photo of a group of men with overcoast standing on top of a First World War tank

The Mayor of Doncaster and and other dignitaries on top of Egbert the tank. April 1918. Doncaster Local Studies Library

Ahead of a special Museums at Night concert performance on May 15, Jude Holland, project manager of Doncaster 1914-18, talks about the collection objects and stories from the First World War that have inspired a series of songs by renowned folk singers Findlay Napier, Bella Hardy and Greg Russell as part of the War and Peace project

Throughout the centenary, we worked with the people of Doncaster to share hundreds of amazing family stories of love, loss, camaraderie and community spirit in a series of events, exhibitions and the Doncaster 1914 – 1918 At Home at War website www.doncaster1914-18.org.uk

Now, in the centenary year of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and the Peace celebrations that followed in Doncaster and across the country we have been working with the internationally renowned singer-songwriters Findlay Napier, Bella Hardy and Greg Russell who will present an intimate evening of storytelling and song, inspired by stories from the archives, and those collected from Doncaster people through Doncaster 1914-18. A special Museums at Night performance at Cusworth Hall in Doncaster will be followed by a series of gigs across the country. These are some of the objects and stories that inspired their songs.

Egbert the Tank

a photo of a group of soldiers in hospital blues in front of a First World War Tank

Wounded Doncaster soldiers in front of Egbert the Tank. Doncaster Local Studies Library

One of the songs that Greg has written is about Egbert the Tank, who came to Doncaster in April 1918 as part of a national initiative to encourage members of the public to buy war bonds. Tanks were sent to different towns across the country and people would come and see them, kids would climb up on them and people would be talking to local residents to encourage them to buy the war bonds.

In our local studies collection we have a fantastic image of the mayor at the time, Abner Carr, and other councillors on top of Egbert the Tank in the marketplace in Doncaster and a photo of veterans in front of the tank as well.

Lynsey Slater, our researcher, discovered that they also put on an assault course on the Race Common, which Greg refers to in the song, as part of a whole week of activities. The local papers made a big fuss of this and in the Archives we also have the school log books of various primary schools including Hexthorpe Middle School who we know went along and bought 318 war bonds. In that week Doncaster raised £400,000 on war bonds and became one of just a handful of towns across the country that became a £1 million town. Doncaster actually got a tank as a reward after the war but it wasn’t Egbert – who I think went to Hartlepool.

Greg’s song about the whole story and spectacle was inspired by these two photographs in our collection. We actually put on an event to recreate that in June last year in Doncaster marketplace with Rosie Winterton, our Doncaster Central MP and Civic Mayor, Majid Khan, and quite a few other councillors standing on top of the tank.

Quaker minute book

a photo of an open book with hand written notes in it

Quaker Minutes Book.

Greg has written a song about conscientious objectors inspired by an object from the Doncaster Archive Collection, which is this minute book from 1916 of the Local Society of Friends, the Quakers. In it is a letter sent by the local Quakers to members of its group who were not in Doncaster, which reads: “Your circumstances differ so much, some are on the battlefield, some are on the sea, some are aiding the work of rescue and nursing the sick and wounded soldiers and some are in prison.”

I think this sums up the experiences of Quakers during the First World War and how there were different perspectives within the group – from the absolutist conscientious objectors who completely refused to fight, to those (of which there are local examples) who volunteered with the Quaker Ambulance Service and helped on the frontline – but were not involved in the fighting.

We know of several Doncaster Quakers who were imprisoned and the Quaker minutes book talks about members of the group being elected as representatives to support some the absolutist conscientious objectors who had been called before the Doncaster tribunals. Some of the people mentioned are Joseph Frith Clark who was a councillor at the time, and his two children Hannah Clark and Oswald Clark.

Hannah went on to become the first female councillor in Doncaster, and Oswald Clark was sent to prison himself as a conscientious objector.

The minute book also led us to discover the story of another Doncaster conscientious objector called Harry Rhodes who was actually from a much more humble background. The Clarks, although they were Quakers, were members of the establishment in Doncaster, but Harry was a railway worker from the working class district of Hexthorpe. He was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth in London as an absolutist conscientious objector.

For our ‘Keep the Home Fires burning’ exhibition in which the minute book was displayed, we also borrowed from the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds some objects that were from Harry’s personal collection including a birthday card with a bit of lucky heather on the front and a paper chain of paper men, sent to him by Oswald Clark. The message inscribed on the paper men, who were decorated with prison uniforms, reads: “United we Stand, Divided we Fall.”

You think of that kind of brotherhood and camaraderie in the trenches, but this is an example of that happening at home between men who were in prison – effectively fighting for their beliefs. We are at the end of the centenary now and we’ve got that opportunity to reflect on the nuances of the war and in this anniversary year of the Treaty of Versailles we were really keen to reflect the stories both of those who fought and those who refused to fight and those who were left behind.

Belles of the Brick Field

Women workers at Mexborough Brickworks. Courtesy Mexborough Family History Society

Bella was influenced by the stories of women workers and particularly an article in the Doncaster Gazette from February 1918, titled “Belles of the Brick Field” about female brick workers in Doncaster. The local paper disputed Peterborough’s claim to have had the first women brick makers, pointing out that women brick makers were already working at Edlington Brickworks in Doncaster.

And through the Doncaster 1914-18 project we built links with local history societies that gave us lots of amazing additional information and photographs of women workers in Mexborough that we featured in our Keep the Home Fires Burning exhibition.

Lynsey uncovered the story of Lilian Smith who was from Bentley in Doncaster, but who worked as a munitions worker in Middlesex between October 1917 and July 1918. In April 1919 she was awarded an OBE for the courage she displayed on an occasion of danger in a munitions factory when a belt came off some machinery that she was using to make six inch shells. She grabbed the belt and tried to set it back on to her machine but she was injured when it leapt off and sent her flying; her head crashed against a beam. She survived and spent just a fortnight in hospital, but she essentially prevented it from being a much worse accident.

It’s just one of those stories of women keeping industries going and how life changed considerably for women across Doncaster and the country during the war.

The remorse and death of Harry Sharper

a war offcie letter informing a wife of the death of her husband

Harry Sharper War Office letter.

This is the story of Harry Sharper who was born outside of Doncaster but moved here as a child. He married Annie and they had a son Dixon Taylor and in our collection we have memorabilia relating to Harry and his death together with letters written by him from the trenches that Annie saved.

Another railway worker, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1915 and the most moving letter in the collection is one that he sent to Annie shortly before his death, killed by a shell on Observation Duty in March 1917.

The letter describes her as his “dearest, best little woman on earth”. And he alludes to their separation and although we’re not entirely sure of their exact circumstances it seems like they’d had quite a lot of problems in their marriage and they may even have been living apart by the war broke out.

He says that the war has made a different man of him, and when he returns he will devote himself to her and their son Dixon Taylor. He writes in the letter: “There’ll be no deception and no old associates.” It’s just a wonderful letter of love and reconciliation, but sadly he never returned, which makes it incredibly moving and Annie treasured that letter and other material associated with him for the rest of her life.

As well as photographs there’s the telegram confirming Harry’s death, a letter of condolence Annie received from the Secretary of State for War on behalf of the King, a letter confirming the details of his burial in Arras Cemetery in 1917 and some newspaper cuttings relating to his death that she also saved.

Vic the Dog and the lucky cigarette case

a photo of an open coiagrette case with a cigratte packets, lighter and shrapnel ball still embedded in the lid

Albert Drury’s Cigarette Case with contents (and embedded shrapnel ball) submitted by Isobel Sampson

This story came to us from a lady called Isobel, who came along to one of our digitisation roadshow events where people bring their family objects for us to digitise and add to our website with their stories. She had some amazing objects, including a cigarette case which still has a piece of shrapnel embedded in it and which saved the life of her father, Albert John Drury.

Albert John Drury was from Wheatley in Doncaster and was in the Green Howards during the First World War having joined the army at the end of his apprenticeship at Cole Brothers, a department store which later became John Lewis, in Sheffield. While he was serving he was hit in the chest at Martinpuich, but luckily his cigarette case in his top pocket took the impact of the shrapnel, which then went through his arm rather than going into his heart. There’s shrapnel still lodged in the case.

Then in 1917 he was shot and wounded again when he and a comrade, Tom Dresser, were sent to a chemical works in Roeux, to take a message and flares out of the trenches. They were both shot and wounded but Tom Dresser was able to continue with his message and was awarded a Victoria Cross.

Bert had been shot in the jaw and fell into a trench. When the medical orderlies came by, one of them said: “That one’s a goner, take his water bottle!” Luckily he became able to crawl and was rescued by the Canadians, but for a time he was reported missing believed killed, but then processed by the British and sent to a military hospital in Didsbury near Manchester. He went back to the front again but because he was quite badly facially injured, he worked for the Transport Corp rather than fighting again on the frontline.

a photo of a sert of three WWI service medals and a World War Two defence medal

Albert Drury’s medals. Submitted by Isobel Sampson.

While he was in Northern France, they were billeted in an old school or college and this is a story that you hear quite a lot, that there were a lot of stray dogs just behind the lines where people had been evacuated from their homes, so the soldiers befriended the dogs, and that’s something that we see quite a lot in photographs. Unfortunately we don’t have a photograph of Vic but we know he was a little black and tan smooth-haired terrier and they called him Armentières Vic.

The dog attached himself to Albert and he used to sleep on Albert’s feet at night, but when he was due to go on leave the soldiers were told that the dogs must all be shot. Albert didn’t want to do that and so he put Vic in his kitbag and, worried he might start barking, as a last resort he put him inside his great coat. He said on the dockside a military official inspected all the soldiers, lined up, and Vic stuck his head out but the official said “If anyone sees this, I haven’t seen it!”

Albert had arranged for his mother and sister to meet him at Doncaster Railway Station with a dog collar and lead, and then when the train pulled in Bert quickly passed Vic out of the window to them before he got off the train.

Vic lived in St Mary’s Road in Doncaster with the family for another 16 years. They always called him Vic from Armentières, but unfortunately because of living so close to the battlefield when he heard thunder, he would hide under the furniture and tremble in fear.

Greg Russell worked with local community arts organisation Darts (Doncaster Arts) as part of the War and Peace Project and their Sing Out! project to compose a song with local primary school children based on Albert and Vic’s story.

Flying Officer Lake and his Brisfit

a photo of a WWI pilot next to a bi-plane

Royal Flying Corps Officer Lake, beside his Bristol F2 fighter. Bagshaw Collection

Both Greg and Finlay were quite moved by this photograph when they saw it. It’s of Royal Flying Corps Officer Lake, beside the Bristol F2 fighter plane known affectionately as the ‘Brisfit’ or ‘Biff’, which was a two-seater biplane used for both fighting and observation. Look closely and you will see that the plane is decorated with the symbol of a swastika, which might be quite a surprise to modern audiences.

But at this time it was an ancient symbol, which in Sanskrit means ‘wellbeing’ and was used by British and American military during the First World War, which is something I didn’t realise before the project.

We have a great collection of glass plate negatives from the studio of Luke Bagshaw, a commercial photographer who took thousands of photographs of Doncaster and its people in the first half of the 20th century. We catalogued the collection with funding from the National Archives, and digitised the First World War negatives as part of Doncaster 1914-18 and this pilot was featured in an exhibition that was largely researched and curated by some of our project volunteers. During their research they discovered that some of the pilots named themselves the Twenty Minute Club; aviation was in its infancy at that time and they had a very short life expectancy.

In terms of the airfields Doncaster was a really important site during the First World War and even before then it was a centre of early aviation. One of the earliest air shows in Britain was held on Doncaster Race Course in 1908. Then in 1916 with the growing Zeppelin threat along the East Coast and the Zeppelin bombing of Sheffield, Doncaster and South Yorkshire’s airfields played a key role in defence against the Zeppelins. As part of the project we worked with the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, which is a volunteer-run museum based in Doncaster, to create a new permanent gallery about that story, but we don’t know what happened to this particular pilot and would love to find out more.

Bella Hardy, Greg Russell and Findlay Napier will be recreating Doncaster’s stories through newly-composed folk songs and story-telling during four intimate evening performances in Doncaster, Shrewsbury and London. To launch the tour, there will be a special premiere performance at Cusworth Hall on 15 May – a Museums at Night showcase – featuring specially-designed projections by artist Wayne Sables. For tickets visit eventbrite 
 or for more information see  www.warandpeaceproject.com

Explore the stories from the Doncaster 1914-18 Project at www.doncaster1914-18.org.uk

Doncaster 1914-18 is generously supported with a grant of more than £900,000 by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. During the four-year project, Doncaster 1914-18 has featured an ever-changing programme of events, exhibitions and community projects.

War and Peace is a collaboration between Doncaster 1914-18 and Sounds Just Fine, and has been generously supported by Arts Council England.

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Doncaster Museum

Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Doncaster Museum is full of exciting collections depicting various aspects of natural history, archaeology, and local history. Visitors are invited to take a journey around the museum by the ‘River and Road' route and discover the history of one of England's oldest towns. Our Museum Education service provides school workshops…

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