The Year of War Memorials

It’s not that I haven’t been researching, but this year turned into a year of war memorials.

I completed my research into the Petersham War Memorial before Remembrance Day, 2013, after which the Church Archivist raised the question of the Scouts’ War Memorial.  Then I was asked to speak about my research into the Petersham War Memorial at one of the events held in Richmond as part of CityRead London. And then I agreed to provide two afternoons’ worth of training to volunteers on a project to research the men commemorated on the Ham War Memorial.

During my research into the people commemorated on the Petersham War Memorial, I photographed the faces of Ham’s War Memorial, in order to resolve some anomalies on the Petersham one, as described in this post. I knew it was egalitarian: an initial (sometimes two) and a surname so I could envisage the challenges.  With four war memorials behind me, I wasn’t keen to take on another.

I knew it would draw me in.  That’s the ‘trouble’ with war memorials.  Another researcher asked me once, “Don’t you find you blub all the time?” Yes, and you fight.  You fight to rescue them from oblivion, even more so when you find them on online family trees and nobody quite knows why they’re related, or anything about them.  You read those last letters home, handle the awful telegrams, shudder at the war diary covering the ‘event’. You end up knowing more about the life behind the bare initial and surname than you know perhaps about the lost lives of your own grandfathers and great uncles, their contemporaries on that sea of red. And still you press on.

It’s time-consuming, particularly when all you have is a Sidney Wilson or an E. Parsons—you have a long road ahead to identify which amongst the rank of Sidneys and Es, matches your Sidney or your E.  E was Ernest (high frequency) Parsons one of dozens of Ernest Parsons in the Army Service Corps, not a native of the parish but employed there for, at the most, three years.  Sidney was one of a number of casualties with this name in his regiment.  He caused a special pang, because enough pages of his service records survived to tell something of his story. Fostered out to the parish, he identified no blood relatives when he enlisted in the Regular Army in, and his foster mother received the medals.  After his death, there was an unseemly squabble over the medals between a woman who identified herself to the War Office as his ‘aunt’ and his foster family, who denied all knowledge of ‘the woman’.  There is nothing in the surviving pages of his service records to explain why the War Office ruled in favour of the ‘aunt’.

So, it’s another own goal and one which leads to a great deal of additional research, double-checking the research of others, responding to queries, breaking down research hurdles, and taking me away from paid research.  And would I do it again?  Yes.  Do I learn from experience? No!

In addition to researching and writing about these war memorials, I have given three talks on war memorials, spoken twice to Scout Troops about their war memorial, shared in an Armistice Day event with local Year 6 pupils, been filmed for TV and contacted and sometimes met ‘missing’ relatives.  I’ve provided training for volunteers on two war memorial projects, conducted research for a museum exhibition, ‘shared’ hard-won resources with the Trustee of a private collection, been filmed for TV, for all of which I have neither ventured to ask, nor received, a fee.

There was also a talk on the history of a significant, often overlooked cottage as one of Richmond’s Know Your Place events—and another, the most intimidating of all in the anticipation, but before a wonderful conference audience, with my participation being in the role of an adult non-singer.

So that’s why I’ve not been writing up much on this blog or taking on much paying research.   The solution is that I’m now ‘block-booking’ weeks for professional, paid research as well as for the research that, I hope, will continue to generate ‘social capital’.

If you’d like to follow developments on my war memorial research, here are links to blogs for three of them:

Ham Remembers

Petersham Remembers

South Africa Remembers


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