My last post on this blog bemoaned not having enough time to do any blogging. Over the last six months, I have done a lot of blogging – or rather, editing up other people’s blog posts – but it has been over on the blog for Rochester and Borstal in the First World War and also, in 2017, on Royal Tunbridge Wells Belgian Refugees 1914-18. Both blogs are the [partial] fruits of AHRC/Gateways to the First World War projects, which are about enabling community engagement with the history of the First World War. I’ve really enjoyed my involvement with both projects, from getting stuck in on the research to working with volunteers. But – I think these projects have also had a transformative impact on the way I think about the experience of the war, and also of doing research. Not really one of the aims of the Gateways work, but an outcome nonetheless.
Before 2016, I never really saw myself as being an historian of the First World War. Of course, it was something I taught as part of being a teacher of modern British history, and it has always been an important element of my research on the settlement movement, juvenile delinquency and legal advice. From these angles, the war existed as a disruptive force, taking away many of the dramatis personae of settlements, boys’ clubs, juvenile courts and Poor Man’s Lawyer groups, and returning them in a different state, if at all. One of the most poignant things I researched for my PhD was the Toynbee Hall scout group and their network, who pretty much marched up to the Whitechapel Recruitment Office together, with few returning. War was a stressor, putting strains on people who were trying to change the status quo in their particular way.
What the Rochester & Borstal project has done for me is to bring alive the experience of leaving home for a conflict that, on the outset, looked like it would be over by Christmas, would provide lots of excitement and a chance to see the world beyond the Medway valley. For many of them, it would be an escape or at least a change from a hard-pressed life. However, all too soon it would apparent that many of the young men would not be back by Christmas – or at all. One street in particular – Sidney Road in Borstal – lost many of its young men to the war. I shudder to think what it must have been like to see the telegram boy coming down that street. In addition to writing the biographies, as far as we can, of these men and their families, I’ve also been pin-pointing the places they lived or were associated with on a Google map. In this way, you see the neighbours who at different times, and in different services, go off to war; or ‘see’ the ghosts that you might pass every day. I regularly drive (or rather, queue in traffic) along a stretch of road where several men lived. The homes of others have disappeared, demolished for what would become the car parks for two supermarkets in Strood. For others, I wonder what it must have been like to lose a brother, father, uncle, cousin, colleague, friend or son who volunteered in the first years of the war, and what it must have meant to receive your call-up papers after conscription was introduced in 1916. Would you be afraid? Would you be angry? Would you be pleased to serve your country? I don’t know. We might know about those who were able to leave those thoughts behind on paper or in art, but for the specific men I encountered on this project… we may never know.
How have we found these stories, these places? Through using the richness of digitised family history sources, such as Ancestry.co.uk and Findmypast.co.uk. These sites are more geared up for the researchers who are building up a family tree, and are not without their limitations – machine-transcription for starters. It’s also difficult to search by street, though not impossible. But it makes a lot of the slog of archival research and particularly record linkage far more accessible – and also easier for people who are new to archival research to get stuck in. And the ability to connect with family members who have dug up things or made links is priceless. My dabbling in geohumanities really is just sticking pins on a Google map with a link to the person’s biography, but this visualisation is incredibly powerful in linking these pasts to one’s experience of the present.
So I will keep thinking about these men as I drive or walk past their homes, because I now know where they lived and I know what their lives were like. And I would not have done, had it not been for this project.