As a folk singer and songwriter, I am interested in cultural memory and the way stories are passed down through the ‘oral tradition’. Since September 2016 I have been touring ‘No Petticoats Here’, a one-woman performance of original music and storytelling which I wrote in response to my own frustration at the absence of women’s First World War experiences I had come across since the start of centenary commemorations in 2014. As a former history and citizenship teacher, I recall only too well the disappointment of students who could not see themselves in the history books available to us as teaching and learning resources.
Working with Portsmouth based charity The Urban Vocal Group, I designed the project ‘Never Had They Ever’ to engage a younger audience with the stories of First World War women with the intention that they will pass on this heritage to their communities and peers to generate further interest. Participants were aged 13 -19 years and through their words the heritage is placed in a modern context, making it relatable and accessible, demonstrating its relevance today.
Never Had They Ever brought together young researchers from Salisbury and Portsmouth to explore women’s experiences of work during the First World War in order to compare the experiences of these two cities with strong military connections. Urban and industrial, located on the coast, Portsmouth’s position as a Royal Navy base during the First World War drew increasing numbers of women into both civilian and military roles. Situated in neighbouring Wiltshire, the market city of Salisbury served a sprawling rural hinterland whilst Salisbury Plain hosted large numbers of soldiers. We were interested to explore how these local differences impacted women’s experiences of the First World War.
The project took place through a programme of workshops with visits to the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Explosion! Museum and a visit from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre’s Heritage Education Officer Ruth Butler, who brought materials and artefacts from the archives to Salisbury. We borrowed costumes and handling boxes from Salisbury Museum containing a mixture of replica and original items ranging from ration books and postcards to tins of bully beef. One aim of the project was to open up public archives, collections, museums and record centres and to encourage young people to engage with these resources with additional literature and online research taking a back seat.
The research programme culminated in a sharing event bringing both groups together. Through peer learning, the two groups shared their research, comparing and contrasting what they had found out about women’s First World War experiences of work and highlighting the impact of local identity on the work women undertook during the conflict.
The young researchers were supported during the research process to identify the aspect of women’s First World War experience that interested them most, to undertake more detailed research on this area and then to respond to this heritage through song by writing lyrics, melody and musical accompaniment. The songs were recorded and each young person was given a number of choices to enhance the storytelling in the way they felt best expressed the story behind their song. The young researchers also wrote and recorded a ‘Heritage Track’; short, spoken accounts describing the heritage at the heart of their research and analysing its relevance today.
On Monday 7th May 2018 we will celebrate the results of this project with a public performance of the songs at the Explosion! Museum’s May Day Family Fete. Performances will take place at 12.15pm and 1.30pm (the fete takes place 11am -3pm) and there will be a temporary exhibition outlining the heritage explored and how we researched and developed the materials. We invite those working in education, heritage, the arts and the wider community to come and enjoy the results of our work.
The songs, heritage tracks and a resource book (containing lyrics, details of the project and a scheme of work with resources) will soon be available to access online free of charge (available on The Urban Vocal Group website) and we encourage you to share these more widely. Limited copies of the resource book and CD will be available to schools and heritage organisations, please contact Louise Jordan for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We hope that these resources will help those involved in teaching and sharing First World War history to make women’s First World War experiences an integral part of this transformative part of our heritage.
Never Had They Ever was made possible by money raised by National Lottery players and awarded through Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War: then and now’ programme.
Images © The Urban Vocal Group, taken at Explosion! Museum, the National Museum of the Royal Navy and The Old Blacksmiths Studios, Portsmouth.
Gateways' Prof. Brad Beaven (University of Portsmouth) provided academic advice on this project.