Tag Archives: 20th century

‘Forget Me Not’ – The enduring appeal of WWI silk postcards

 

WW1 silk postcard 'Forget me not'

‘Forget Me Not’

A handful of evocative, one hundred year old embroidered postcards in my possession have always exerted a potent fascination.

The pity is that I found them in a box of my grandmother’s possessions after her death and so I lost the chance to ask her about them. From what I know of my family’s past, however, these must have belonged to her mother and were sent by my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother’s brother from the Western Front during World War One.

Picture of WW1 silk postcard 'Remember'

‘Remember’

Despite their age, the embroidered threads are still vibrant and colourful – a testament perhaps to the quality of work of the French and Belgian housewives who embroidered them onto strips of white organza by means of a home loom before sending them off to a factory to be made into postcards.Picture of a WW1 embroidered silk postcard

I often take out these postcards and look at them. They are undoubtedly sentimental and rather saccharine, with their emotive wording designed to evoke love, duty, patriotism and thoughts of family – no doubt anodyne enough to be proudly displayed on the mantelpiece at home for all to see – but also a visual reminder that a loved one was fighting for King and Country.

The simple greetings, such as ‘Forget Me Not’, ‘Far Yet Near’ or ‘A Kiss from France’ and the small space provided for a short message didn’t require any great eloquence on the part of the sender or allow for any mention of the horrors of trench warfare, which may account for their popularity among the troops.  Back home in Britain, such attractive designs and syrupy greetings were welcomed as they were, after all, infinitely preferable to receiving notification of a death, injury or capture by the enemy, sentiments usually communicated by the feared telegram – the leitmotif of the darker side of the war.

Interior of a WW1 silk

‘To my dear wife and boys from your ever-loving husband Jack’

Each time I hold these poignant mementos in my hands, I picture my great-grandmother doing the same thing during those emotional roller-coaster years of 1914-1918. I wonder what swell of thoughts and feelings must have ebbed and flowed in her mind. She would have found them pretty to look at, of course, and it meant her husband and brother were thinking of her. But it was what they symbolised that would be far more potent.  Here was the proof – wonderful, glorious proof! – that at the time of writing at least, they were still alive. The visceral relief in that moment of opening it and finding that her fears for their safety were assuaged must have been overwhelming.

I can’t truly know what my great grandmother felt; I can only imagine myself back one hundred years as if it were my husband and two sons fighting for King and Country.  It is then that I find there are no words.

WWI Centenary. Lest we forget.

(all photographs © Susan Hughes)

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‘Between tigers. Not!’ Music Hall-A New Interpretation

Happy New Year!

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Auditorium Wilton’s Music Hall (author’s own photo)

Between Christmas and New Year, half-way down an unprepossessing alleyway off Cable Street in London’s East End, I discovered not only a throwback to the old Victorian tradition of the music hall – albeit with a modern twist – but also a gloriously atmospheric, historic building in Wilton’s – the last surviving Grand Music Hall in the world. Time Out called it, “One of London’s most magical historic venues.”

Picture of Wilton's 2014 programme

Wilton’s Programme 2014

‘Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Corker – or Your Goose is Cooked Mr Holmes’ is a lively jape of a show, being a mix of old-fashioned music hall routines of comic songs, with the obligatory audience participation, magic, mentalism, sly humour, cod-ventriloquism, slapstick and a bit of sauciness combined with an irrepressible spirit and a touch of sentimentality.  In the mid to late 19th century, Wilton’s Music Hall would have been ‘Mrs Hudson’s’ natural home.

Music Hall 

At the heart of the Victorian music hall were singing and comedy performers such as Dan Leno, George Robey and Marie Lloyd,  male and female impersonators like Vesta Tilley and character acts such as George Leybourne, whose ‘Champagne Charlie’ (a pretend aristocrat who sang about drinking champagne, gambling and womanizing) became a staple character of the music hall circuit. To provide a contrast, lesser known speciality acts were interspersed between singers and comics – jugglers, magicians, sword swallowers, trapeze artists, animal acts and illusionists among many others.

Picture of music hall programme 1868

Wilton’s Music Hall Programme 1868

On this bill from May 13th 1868, starting at 7.30 p.m., Mr. John Wilton offers a programme including:

comic singers

a lady gymnast on a flying trapeze

burlesque performances

ventriloquists

Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ Overture

a comedy double act

Over time, other famous entertainers were drawn in by the popularity of the music hall, such as the world-renowned Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and the actress, Sarah Bernhardt. The latter was said to have sent a message before a performance which simply stated, “Between tigers. Not,” to indicate she was not prepared to appear either immediately before or immediately after an animal act, as befitted her superior status.

The music hall tradition started out in pubs and taverns and the first music halls were noisy and challenging venues in which to perform as the acts competed with food, drink and audience chatter – and the odd missile in the form of a bottle or boot if the audience took against you.

It wasn’t until the grander, purpose-built music halls came along that auditoriums began to be arranged in rows of fixed seats, like the theatres we frequent today, and the refreshment area was separated off.  Wilton’s was modelled on other successful 19th century music halls of the time and this tradition is continued today with a selection of tables nearest the front of the stage and a nod to more modern theatre tradition in the rows of seats behind.

Picture of Wilton's Music Hall balcony

Wilton’s Music Hall interior (author’s own photo)

By 1875 there were around 375 venues in Greater London alone.  Before the advent of radio and TV, the music halls were the only venues where audiences could see and hear their favourite acts. It was claimed by the working classes as one of their favourite forms of entertainment, although the upper echelons of society were quite partial to it too (but not the middle classes, who considered it rather risqué and vulgar – which was the whole point!).

In Britain, the spirit of Variety gets its annual outing with ‘The Royal Variety Performance’ and music mogul Simon Cowell has attempted to revive the music hall acts of yesteryear in the  ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ TV programme – won variously by a performing dog, a dance group, a mime act and a troupe of aerial gymnasts – acts which modern audiences might be more likely to associate with the circus than a theatre stage – but which could be found performing in the music halls of Victorian Britain.

Wilton’s Music Hall

Picture of Wilton's Music Hall Balcony with fairly lights

Wilton’s Music Hall Balcony (author’s own photo)

In its heyday, Wilton’s Hall had a single gallery on three sides of the auditorium, supported by ‘barley sugar’ cast iron pillars which rose above the large rectangular hall and a high stage.  It was furnished with mirrors and intricate paintwork of gilded leaves and floral decoration. The building had the best heating and lighting system of its time, including a ‘sunburner’ chandelier of 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals which reflected and illuminated the mirrored walls.  It had space for supper tables, a benched area and a promenade around the outside for standing customers. Entrance was via a 6d refreshment ticket.

The First World War

The music hall was given a fillip during World War One, when artists began to rally public support for the war effort from the stage.  At the beginning of the war, Vesta Tilley became known as ‘Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant’ through her impersonations of characters such as Tommy in the Trench and Jack Tar Home from the Sea and by encouraging young men in the audience to join Kitchener’s Army. Patriotic music hall songs such as ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ (1914); ‘Tipperary’ (1914); ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ (1915) as well as the later, notorious ‘Oh! What a Lovely War!’ (1917), were all sung by music hall audiences.

Photo of Vesta Tilley

Vesta Tilley
(creative commons licence)

The Demise of the Music Hall

Eventually,  many of the male performers were conscripted and sent off to fight and many returned home maimed or didn’t return at all and the music hall lost a key section of its talent.  By the war’s end, talking pictures were all the rage and many music halls were converted into cinemas or pulled down and redeveloped. Wilton’s was no exception.

Welcome sign on renovation hoardings on Wilton's facade

Hoarding around the facade while undergoing renovation

Wilton’s history of long neglect is scored into the very fabric and framework of the building’s faded grandeur.  Yet its heart and spirit is intact.  It has survived many transformations such as being gutted by fire, being a Methodist Church, WW2 bombs and being used as a rag warehouse in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the poet John Betjeman and the comedians Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan launched a campaign to save it and in 1971 it was given an historic Grade II* listing. In 1984 it was used as the setting for the pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s video of their controversial single, ‘Relax,” but by 2007 it was almost completely derelict. In that year it was put on the World Monument Fund’s list of one hundred most endangered monuments and so began its rise from the ashes to become the home of ‘imaginative and distinctive work with its roots in the early music hall tradition but reinterpreted for an audience of today.’

Picture of heavy wooden doors

Front Entrance – undergoing renovation

That means anything from opera to ping-pong, puppetry to dance to classical music.  Maybe all on the same programme! Well, that’s the tradition of Music Hall and Variety, right there, isn’t it?

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WW1 Canary Girls: When going to work was an act of bravery

Picture of women munitions workers

Women Munitions Workers (painting by Sir John Lavery [public domain] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

During the First World War a group of British women, who became known as Canary Girls or Canaries, risked their lives every day by turning up for work. Yet they were nowhere near the front line.

So when I wanted to write a novel about women’s lives during the 1914-1918 war, I decided I didn’t want to invent characters who were upper or middle class members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) – essentially extensions of women’s accepted role as carer – but take my inspiration from women who filled the roles which would historically only have been done by men. Step up the Canary Girls!

picture of a canary

Canary (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Canary Girls got their name because they worked in British munitions factories, filling ammunition shells with explosives – the toxic nature of which turned their hands and skin yellow after prolonged exposure.  It sounds like an innocuous nickname but it masked the very real danger inherent in their work. The explosive was Trinitrotoluene (TNT), a very unstable compound of nitric and sulphuric acids mixed with other chemicals. Not only could careless handling of this prove fatal – at least two munitions factories in Britain exploded during the war, killing 400 civilians – it was also deleterious to the women’s long-term health. Yellow skin might be a precursor to anaemia, liver damage, a weakened immune system and an early death.

Yet, despite knowing the obvious risks at the outset,  around 64,000 of the 815,000 British women who went to work in munitions factories during the First World War filled these shells.  Why did they?

They were an ‘army’ of patriotic women. By risking their lives working in the Danger Buildings in munitions factories, the Canary Girls felt they were doing just as much as the men fighting at the Front to help Britain win the war.

Social freedom. Many female munitions workers had been in domestic service before the war, where they led isolated and confined lives of drudgery below stairs with little outside social interaction and no real life of their own.  Other women left home and moved away from the influence of their families for the first time to work in munitions. The war opened the cage door.

Illustration of a Victorian birdcage

Antique Bird Cage (Stampington & Co)

“You might be dead tomorrow,”was the prevailing morality in wartime Britain.  When subjected to enemy bombing from Zeppelins and Gotha planes, taking your life in your hands by filling shells with explosives took on a very different hue.

It was challenging and exciting. It might  have been dangerous, but it was also exciting. Many women relished learning new skills and doing ‘men’s work’.

Economic independence.  Munitions gave many working class women regular, full-time and well-paid work. Earnings as a Canary Girl were three times higher than those offered by domestic service or pre-war factory work.  Many flaunted their new wealth by buying fur coats and silk stockings, luxury apparel previously only worn by women of a higher class.

Many accepted it was only for the duration of the war.  As soon as the war ended, munitions factories began to wind down operations or close and many of the Canary Girls returned to their pre-war roles as homemakers, wives, and mothers or took low paid ‘women’s work’ jobs.

However, their aspirations had moved on.  The pre-war attitudes towards women and work would not alter completely, but their lives would never be the same again.

What do you think? If you were a woman living through the 1914-1918 war, would you have volunteered to fill shells with TNT?

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