Between June and August 2021, I curated a blog-based public history project chertseywm100.com in partnership with Chertsey Museum to commemorate the centenary of the Chertsey Town War Memorial.
The project contributed towards my MA in Public History at Royal Holloway University of London which was awarded with distinction. Although submitted to the university for assessment on 31 August, the project continued until the centenary of the memorial’s unveiling on 30 October. This blog is an abridged version of the reflective essay which formed part of the project submission.
In 2005 I watched a Channel 4 series ‘Not Forgotten’ about the First World War presented by Ian Hislop, then read the accompanying book by Neil Oliver. These highlighted stories from across the United Kingdom about some of those who were impacted by the conflict, both in the various theatres of the first global war and on the home front. Since then, I have often stopped at war memorials and reflected on the lists of names but invariably have been left frustrated because there is rarely any other information. This was my inspiration for discovering and sharing stories about some of those who lost their lives.
With only three months to complete this project, I required easy access to information, images, and existing research. I contacted Chertsey Museum in Surrey about working in partnership and my approach to curator Emma Warren was timely. The centenary of the unveiling of the Chertsey Town War Memorial was just a few months away, on 30 October 2021.
The town’s war memorial displays the names of 128 men and one woman who lost their lives as a result of the First World War. These 129 people represented almost one in 20 of Chertsey’s pre-war population and suggests that few in the town would have been left untouched by the conflict. The project sought not only to explore the stories of some of those named on the memorial but also to rise to the challenge set by Ludmilla Jordanova in her discussion on First World War anniversaries to ‘develop fresh historical perspectives.’ Therefore, the project also highlighted the impact on Chertsey more generally; on those who lost loved ones, on those who did not serve in the military, and on those who served and returned bearing the physical or mental scars of war.
Partnership with Chertsey Museum
Chertsey Museum is funded by Runnymede Borough Council and, despite its name, also covers Egham (which has its own privately-funded museum), Addlestone, and surrounding areas. Emma Warren shared research which was created by her team for their borough-wide ‘Runnymede Remembered’ project that marked the 1914-18 centenary.
The museum’s research included spreadsheets with basic information about the 129 names on Chertsey’s memorial, and about the hundreds of local applications requesting exemptions from military service. Their Runnymede Remembered Archive contains 3,598 clippings from the Surrey Herald between 1914 and 1920.
The museum had established Facebook and Twitter accounts for Runnymede Remembered and Emma delegated the management of these to me for the duration of my project. As the project developed, I hosted three videos on the museum’s YouTube channel. I included the hashtag #chertseywm100 in all social media posts, articles, and other outputs.
Emma had an extensive network of contacts which included families with links to the war memorial, and local historians who had carried out prior research. I emailed these contacts directly or followed up on introductions, and they proved to be invaluable.
Project design and initial research
As the Covid pandemic continued into 2021, it became clear that my project outputs would have to be primarily digital. Because I wanted the project to be story-led and as accessible as possible, I designed it around a series of illustrated blog posts. For the project to be successful, especially over such a short period, I had to engage with audiences quickly and easily.
The blogsite was launched on 2 June 2021 with an introductory blog which set out the types of stories I was seeking and the ways that I could be contacted. The substantive blogs would follow at regular intervals between the end of June and mid-September. The early launch enabled the subjects for the stories to be driven by audience responses, and also created an awareness of the memorial’s centenary.
I set out with the intention of producing a series of blogs which featured those named on the memorial, the bereaved relatives, those who served and died but whose names were omitted from the memorial, those who returned from the war, those involved with the planning and building of the memorial, and those who attended the unveiling ceremony. This list was influenced by my academic supervisor Dr Edward Madigan, who has espoused in his Historians for History blog and in an interview for my podcast The Remembrance of War, how commemoration of the First World War focused almost exclusively on the dead and largely ignored the bereaved and those who returned. Following discussions with Edward, I extended my research to include theatres of war other than the Western Front, elements of life on the home front in Chertsey, and those who served but died in Britain.
As I waited for responses from the public, I conducted an analysis of the 129 names on the memorial. I discovered twelve instances of matching surnames and confirmed seven pairs of brothers. The memorial commemorates service personnel from 48 units. Almost one-third served in the East Surrey Regiment or the Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey). Other units included Australian, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh regiments, the Royal Navy, the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Air Force.
Named on the memorial is one man who served in the Red Cross Society as an ambulance driver, and one woman who served in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Approximately two-thirds died in France or Belgium, but in this global conflict, at least five men from Chertsey lost their lives in what is now Turkey, four in Iraq, two in India, and others in Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, and at sea in the Mediterranean. At least 17 of those named on the memorial passed away and are buried in Britain, including ten in Chertsey and two at nearby Brookwood Military Cemetery.
Deaths per month are shown graphically below. There were prolonged peaks in the summer and autumn of 1916, coinciding with the Battle of the Somme, and the summer and autumn of 1917 coinciding with the Third Battle of Ypres. Seven named on the memorial died after the end of hostilities on 11 November 1918.
This initial analytic work was important as it enabled me to align the themes for the blogs with the overall experience of the people of Chertsey. I was able to identify stories that fitted with my aspirations, particularly including the experiences of women, and of men who survived, or who served in more distant campaigns in Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles.
My research for the blogs drew upon a range of sources including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, the Imperial War Museums’ War Memorial Register, and the Surrey Herald clippings in the Runnymede Remembered Archive. A subscription to the Find My Past online genealogy service enabled me to search census returns, registrations of births, marriages and deaths, military records, and newspapers. The census records for 1891, 1901, and 1911 were particularly useful in establishing the backgrounds of the families featured in the blogs.
Access to the 1921 census would have enabled me to appraise each family’s circumstances shortly before the memorial’s unveiling but these records would not be available publicly until January 2022. The newspaper clippings were helpful in establishing pre-war employment and pastimes, and more details about military service. Yet, I was mindful that these articles, especially those written earlier in the war, also reflected the patriotic fervour of the time.
The blogs included those with involvement from family members and those without. Where possible I wanted to work collaboratively with families and create what Michael Frisch termed ‘a shared authority’, rather than merely sharing authority in a top-down manner. Family participation added a richness to the blogs through the exchange of first-hand memories, photographs, correspondence, and other memorabilia, and then through the creation of videos. After speaking with the families, I wanted to understand more deeply the people I was researching so I visited wartime family homes in Chertsey, shops and houses in Lambeth, and graves in Beckenham, Brookwood, and Chertsey.
Three blogs involved significant input from family members. The Dyos family was already known to Chertsey Museum from the 1914-18 centenary, and Marc Dyos who is a great-nephew of Charles and Ernest Dyos indicated that he was keen to be involved. Marc shared his own research, we spoke via Zoom, and Marc agreed to my request to meet in Chertsey to film a short video. I suggested potential filming locations, we collaborated on the script and filmed early one Sunday morning.
Stephen Raftery shared his research about his great-great-grandfather Richard Hunt and other family members. When I examined the Hunt story further, I decided to focus the blog not on the soldier brothers but on the women. Eleanor Hunt lost two of her sons within five days and two young widows from Ireland were left with infant children, so this offered an opportunity to explore loss from a female perspective.
One of the project highlights, because it was so unexpected, came on 16 June 2021 when I received the following email from Roger Wells about his father Herbert Wells:
Your email has been forwarded to me via various descendants of Private Wells. […] In reality, his is quite an interesting story in that he lied about his age, enlisted aged 16, injured in the Battle of Loos, after 48 hours was captured, and treated well by the Germans. He then spent the rest of the war in Mürren, Switzerland as part of a wounded prisoner exchange. His mother […] actually visited him in Switzerland.
I had not anticipated finding anyone with such a close connection to the people I was researching, especially not a son who was in his 60s. The email from Roger opened up lines of enquiry about the prisoner internment scheme in the Swiss Alps, which I discovered was the subject of a recent book by Susan Barton, and a story involving a mother who travelled to visit her son whilst he was interned. I spoke to Roger via Zoom and in the latter part of the conversation he began showing and talking about photographs, postcards, and other items, mainly connected with his father’s internment in Switzerland. On revisiting the Zoom recording, I determined that what was extraordinary about the conversation was the spontaneous and enthusiastic way in which Roger shared his family memorabilia with me. I went back to Roger and suggested filming and interviewing him at his house with the items to hand, and he agreed.
Ideally, I would have involved members of other families but not all of my efforts were successful. I made appeals via social media, in an article in the July issue of Chertsey Life magazine and by leafleting at the town’s annual Black Cherry Fair. Two people responded to Facebook posts indicating they were related to men I was researching but despite my repeated attempts to engage them, I did not receive responses. In two other instances I received approaches from relatives about men I was not researching and, following message exchanges, it became clear that the relatives were unable to provide me with sufficient information to develop a narrative for a blog.
During the course of my research, I received support from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s media team who facilitated my filming at Brookwood Military Cemetery. I also had dialogues with several museums and archives, one of which was the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain as part of my investigations into Frank Parton, a conscientious objector who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This followed a message sent by Paul Snell which said:
Hi just wondering would a Frank Parton be included as he served as a medic but was also conscientious objector read his story in museum and his father was Director of Herrings foundry in Chertsey town.
Up until that point I had not heard of Frank Parton but from newspaper articles, I was able to establish Parton had much in common with a soldier I was already researching called Edward Lees. As they were less than two years apart in age, lived in the same road, and were both sons of foundrymen, I decided to write a blog about men who chose different paths. I had concerns that combining the stories of a soldier named on the memorial and a conscientious objector could be considered disrespectful to the former, and early drafts of the blog included an ending which was almost apologetic. By the publication version I had changed this, instead setting out how service personnel and conscientious objectors are commemorated so differently in Britain.
In advance of all Zoom interviews, I sent participants an outline of the project and a consent form which obtained their permission to record the interviews. Because the short videos would be hosted on Chertsey Museum’s YouTube channel, I also asked video participants to complete the museum’s oral history recording agreement. All face-to-face activity was conducted in compliance with the Covid regulations in place at the time and for the interview with Roger Wells at his home, we agreed the precautionary measures to be followed in advance and again when I arrived.
I recognised that I would be drawing upon existing research, especially that conducted by family members and local historians which had been freely shared with me. To avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, I sent the draft text to the relevant researchers so they could review my work at the pre-publication stage.
In evaluating the project, I considered the reaction from the audience and from participants. This project was always likely to appeal to a select audience as the subject matter was specific to Chertsey, and by focusing on one memorial, it did not directly involve people in neighbouring towns. This effectively excluded a sizeable proportion of Chertsey Museum’s existing audience, but I did not have the capacity to extend the project to the wider borough. I discovered however that by remaining focused on Chertsey, I could more easily identify links between people; for example, Frank Parton and Edward Lees growing up in the same road, and Herbert Wells replacing Ernest Dyos at Morton’s boot shop when the latter moved to the firm’s store in Devon. Extending the project to achieve a greater audience reach would have also negated the timeliness ahead of the centenary of the Chertsey memorial.
My preference would have been to publish the blogs between September and November 2021 when public interest would have been heightened in the lead up to the Chertsey memorial centenary and the United Kingdom’s annual remembrance events. This was not an option due to the project submission deadline. The project period (effectively June to August 2021) and the memorial’s centenary (30 October 2021) were slightly out of alignment. I was able to lessen the impact of this on audience members, especially those who subscribed to email announcements about new blogs, by agreeing with my supervisor a delay in the publication of two blogs until September.
Due to the project’s local focus, engagement rates were higher on Facebook than Twitter, with engagement peaking for Facebook posts requesting information about local families. I tried to engage and inform without talking down to the audience or making assumptions about their existing knowledge. What I found more challenging was creating suitably enticing titles for the blogs. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, and that in most cases the stories involved premature deaths, I was wary of using headline-style titles that might appear frivolous. This highlighted a tension for public historians between making content accessible and respecting the gravity of the material.
I received positive reactions from all the people who worked with me. After sending the text of the memorial development blog to local historian Victor Spink, he replied saying, ‘The draft looks very good, congratulations.’ This was particularly gratifying because, having read Victor’s own substantive research about the memorial development and then perusing over 70 newspaper reports, I had sought to produce my own, distinct, interpretation of events.
Three days after the publication of the Hunt blog, I received an email from Stephen Raftery who said:
…thank you very much for sending this on, a brilliant piece of writing and another chapter in the family tree to share with family, we’re all very appreciative for your work. I have since been in touch with the Ministry of Defence in the hope of being reissued Richard’s medals which were returned, if possible it would be brilliant to have another piece of the man’s story. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your pieces on other Chertsey men and wish you the very best with the project and your studies.
Finally, I asked Emma Warren at Chertsey Museum for her thoughts on how I had conducted this project. Her email began with ‘Your approach to this project has been great. You have shown a very practical and logical approach to your research but also shown a sensitivity to the subject and the individuals involved.’ Emma ended with ‘Thank you for all your hard work and enthusiasm. It’s been a delight.’
After the project was submitted for assessment, it continued as a piece of public history as all the blogs were promoted on social media in the weeks leading up to the memorial’s centenary on 30 October 2021. Chertsey Museum organised an event to mark the centenary which involved the installation of a new bench near the memorial. I submitted an article which was commissioned for the October issue of Chertsey Life magazine and produced a press release about the event and the stories arising from this project. I also addressed a meeting of The Chertsey Society on 25 October. Looking ahead to 2022, the public release of the 1921 census offers the opportunity to find out what happened next to the families featured in the blogs.
This project has highlighted that there are still new ways of engaging with the public about the First World War and its impact on communities like Chertsey. Whilst the names of the dead on the memorial were the starting point for all but the final blog, they generated a range of other topics including the impact on bereaved mothers and wives, those who sought to avoid military service due to conscience or other reasons, the experiences of prisoners of war, and those who served and returned home scarred by the conflict.
Occasionally I wondered whether I would face apathy as the centenary commemorations between 2014 and 2018 were still so recent. Yet, the enthusiastic reaction I received from so many people suggests that the public’s appetite for information and stories about this pivotal period in the nation’s history remains undiminished.
A full list of acknowledgements is on the project blogsite but special thanks to due to Emma Warren, Curator at Chertsey Museum, Dr Edward Madigan, Director MA Public History at Royal Holloway University of London, and Jim Knight who photographed the hundreds of Surrey Herald clippings used to compile the project blogs.