Women of Aktion!

Women of Aktion!


Women of Aktion is a play about both the ends of the First World War in Germany, and the early life and politics of the radical theatre director, Joan Littlewood, perhaps best-known for her production of Oh! What A Lovely War at Stratford East theatre in the 1960s. The play has been produced by Bent Architect Theatre Company working with Professor Ingrid Sharp, Professor of German and Cultural History at the University of Leeds, and an expert on working women and pacifism in wartime Germany.  Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and brought to the University of Essex Department of History, the play is sure to be a hit.

Women of Aktion does not just explore untold history, but forces the audience to address questions about how and why we tell our history the way that we do, and the ways that we understand the past from the perspective of the present.  The audience will be provoked to not only consider the events covered in the paly, but the impact of feminism and socialism on our lives today.


When will this be?

At Lakeside Theatre, Monday 15 October. The performance will open a week-long series of events at the University of Essex, organised by the Department of History, around legacies of the First World War, pacifism, feminism, and women’s activism.


What is it?

The project explores and tells the largely unknown story of how working-class German women played a huge part in the 1918 German revolution, helping to bring the war to an end and the monarchy to collapse.  This is a story of the end of the war that is little-known in Britain.

The play revolves around Joan Littlewood’s fascinating time in Manchester and the little told story of the Rusholme Repertory Theatre, and her fraught and furious production of Ernst Toller’s play about the Kiel Uprising of 1918, Draw the Fires.

With a modern style, an all-female cast and live music from an all-female band, the play will appeal to a large audience interested in war, peace, socialism and feminism.  It will appeal to everyone who wants an insight into the untold history of the First World War, its aftermath and into Joan Littlewood’s life.


“Mick Martin’s cracking play… Nothing short of civil war in studs.”

Alfred Hickling, The Guardian (on Broken Time) 



For more information, please contact Nadine Rossol or Lucy Noakes.



Mass Observation and the Centenary of the First World War

Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War in 2014, at the start of a programme of First World War centenary commemorative activities in Britain, the Gateways to the First World War team, working with the four other AHRC Engagement Centres, commissioned a Directive on responses to, and the cultural memory of, the war from the social survey organization, Mass Observation. The Directive proved extremely popular, with 200 people writing about their engagement with commemorative activities, the impact of the war on their own families, their historical knowledge and cultural memory of the war years and its lasting legacies for contemporary Britain. In this blog post, I want to consider some of these responses, and what they mean for the way that the war is viewed in Britain today. First though, I will outline the Mass Observation project of which this Directive is a part.

The poet Charles Madge, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the documentarist Humphrey Jennings established Mass Observation (MO) in 1937 as a means of constructing ‘an anthropology of ourselves’. In this first incarnation MO drew on a range of research methodologies: as well as advertising for a ‘national panel’ of writers who would respond to regular, open ended questionnaires or ‘Directives’ and submit regular diaries, they recruited a team of ‘Observers’ who would observe the British public in the manner of ethnographic anthropologists, interacting with the society they were studying whilst making careful notes on behavior and beliefs. In addition they used more traditional methods of data collection such as interviews to build a picture of British life and popular views that more quantitative surveys struggled to access. As Britain entered the Second World War the unique ability of MO to access this material was recognised by the Ministry of Information, which employed MO to collect information on ‘morale’. Following the war, and the rise of consumerism, MO gradually shifted to become a more traditional market research organization, collecting and analysing data on consumption habits for advertising agencies and their clients.

MO was relaunched by the University of Sussex as an active project in 1981, when a new panel of respondents was recruited to write on a range of different topics, varying from responses to the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982) to the Miner’s Strike (1984), holidays, personal hygiene, wedding presents and genealogy. This material, together with documents collected between 1937 and 1955 is housed at The Keep, the new archive housing historical documents from Brighton and Hove and East Sussex. The two sets of material provide the researcher with an unrivalled insight into the personal lives and views of the British people which, although they make no claim to representativeness (being composed as they are of a self-selecting group of people who are largely older, more female, more white and more Southern than the population as a whole) nonetheless give us a rich source for the voices, views and life experiences of a range of people who otherwise often remain unrepresented on the public stage.

So, what do the responses to the Directive indicate about the British people’s understanding of the First World War at its centenary, and their relationship to commemorative events? The first activity that we asked the respondents to do was to quickly note down ten words or phrases that they associated with the war. With the exception of a small number of people, one of whom refused to do this as he considered it ‘a pointless exercise’, the majority of the responses indicate the strength of the cultural memory of the war as a futile tragedy, marked by sacrifice and pointless suffering. The words that conjured up the war for a 55 year old woman – Death, blood, mud, futility, young men, uniforms, nurse, bandages, gas, trenches – were strikingly similar to those given by a 70 year old man: mass slaughter, mud, trenches, horses, the cenotaph, Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth, war poets. These are remarkably analogous to those that the second year students at the University of Brighton who take the course on ‘Europe at War, 1914-18’ list when asked to perform the same exercise at the start of the academic year. The cultural memory of the war, described by Dan Todman as being almost entirely negative, remains a powerful descriptor of the war amongst both MO respondents and University students.

However, despite the frequent references to Blackadder Goes Forth, and to the war poets, War Horse and Birdsong amongst the respondents, this memory is not simply or simplistically drawn from popular culture. Instead, many of those who chose to write on the topic for MO movingly described the impact and multiple legacies of the war for their own families. Family history seems to be emerging as one of the key ways in which people are engaging with the centenary of the war. This should not be surprising: the popularity of genealogy, enabled by websites such as Ancestry.com and demonstrated through the success of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC One, has been evident for several years. Several respondents enthusiastically explained how they had researched their ancestor’s experiences, and some were editing diaries and letters for publication, or writing articles for local newspapers. Others described pictures of male veterans that sat proudly on their mantelpiece, and the meaning of these photos for their families, one 49 year old man explaining that his Grandfather’s photo, and the knowledge that he was gassed and taken prisoner, meant he collected money for the British Legion and watched the Cenotaph ceremony on television each year. For these respondents, the experiences of their ancestors were directly shaping their actions in the present.

Other respondents touchingly described the more immediate impact on their families: a 90 year old woman opened her response with a simple sentence – ‘my father’s sadness’ –whilst another recounted her mother’s struggles after her first husband died, leaving her a widow with a small child. Several recalled unmarried aunts, neighbours and teachers, whose lovers and fiancées had died in the war, and 53 year old woman reflected on the returned men, explaining that her grandfather returned from the war ‘a totally different person’ as ‘he suffered from shell shock and was broken’.

By this point I would expect many academic historians to be shaking their heads and muttering darkly about ‘the Blackadder effect’ lambasted by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2014 when he complained that the war was a ‘just war’ mistakenly perceived as a ‘misbegotten shambles’. Revisionist histories of the war years, led by but not confined to military historians, have rightly and sometimes provocatively reminded us that more survived the war than died, that the war had some positive and long lasting social and political impacts, and that British military strategists did have some good ideas, and were not all ‘donkeys’ leading ‘lions’. However, to oppose these histories to the enduring cultural memory of the war, and to somehow see each as lessened by the presence of the other is, I would argue, to miss the point about cultural memory. The memory of the war is not a zero sum game, and one does not have to cleave to one position or the other. Instead, the war can be understood as both an eventual military success for Britain (albeit one with a far higher attrition rate than would be acceptable today), a long-term political disaster for Europe, and as a tragedy for many thousands of individual households. The continued emotional resonance of the war for many of the MO respondents, often articulated through a consideration of the impact of the war on their families, demonstrates that historians who seek to dispel this ‘myth’ through academic analysis and argument are unlikely to succeed. Instead, academics and members of the public engaged in commemorative activity, whether it be responding to MO Directives or participating in some of the HLF activities supported by Gateways and the other Engagement Centres, need to be in dialogue with one another, and historians need to pay careful attention to the enduring legacy of the war in many families. Historians would do well to remember that the memory of the war articulated in Blackadder Goes Forth has survived in large part because of its continued resonance and meaning for many of those whose families were profoundly shaped by the war years.

Dr Lucy Noakes is the Rab Butler Chair in Modern History at the University of Essex. She leads the AHRC project ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War’.

For more information please see the ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War’ website.

For all enquiries about the Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War project, please contact the Project PI, Professor Lucy Noakes: l.noakes@essex.ac.uk.


The Essex Girl: Unintelligent, Promiscuous and Materialistic

Nadine Rossol, Senior Lecturer at The University of Essex, previously ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were given the task to write a blog which was based on women, their lives and the general issues which women face. In this three part series, the last student, Sarah Ryder, explores the stereotype of Essex women!  Happy International Women’s Day !
Essex Girls have always had a stereotype. Just Google ‘Essex Girls’ and click on the images, and you receive the standard picture you would expect. High heels, big hair, small dresses and fake tan. The Oxford English Dictionary definition isn’t exactly any better, describing Essex girls as variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.
With TV shows such as TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex) perpetuating this image, it’s not hard to see why this is the stereotype that has stuck out in people’s minds. Older TV shows such as ‘Birds of a Feather’ also helped to ingrain the stereotype early on. Recently, the rise of social media has contributed to the outdated stereotype. According to Artefact, a Google search produced 1.7m result, and the most popular term amongst teenagers on Instagram is #EssexGirl and #EssexBabe.


The typical ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype
Towie Girls
However, this stereotype isn’t anything new, and has been around for as long as anyone can remember. My Mother is a born and bred Essex girl, and has dealt with the stereotype and assumptions made that come with it her whole life, answering questions from ‘Where’s your white stilettos?’ to ‘Oh god not an Essex girl’. People are often shocked if you don’t fit into the ‘stereotype’ of what an Essex girl should be. Essex women have had to endure this unfair and ridiculous stereotype for years. No other regional group have had a stereotype placed upon them that has become as synonymous as the term ‘Essex Girl’.
So what is with this ridiculous and untrue stereotype?


Essex Girls Petition
The whole debate around the use of ‘Essex Girls’ and ending the stereotype was the petition started by Julie Thomas and Natasha Sawkins.
They were ultimately unsuccessful, with Oxford Dictionary response being they would ‘never change a definition in response to a petition alone, although the petition was signed by over 9,785 people which indicates to me a change is needed. But whilst the term may have not been removed from the dictionary, what they did is start a conversation about the stereotype and how demeaning the term is.
The women, who moved to London from Essex and became ‘adopted’ Essex girls, explained to Artefact that it’s important ‘that we finally shake the stereotype on behalf of the next generation of girls from Essex. Girls today have enough obstacles to overcome without throwing this into the mix too’.
The idea that future generations of girls from Essex should not have to endure the stereotype is powerful, as why should girls have to constantly prove themselves or fight against a stereotype, just because of a county they were born in? The petition started a conversation and for the first time people across the UK began to wonder why we used the stereotype in the first place.
As with any campaign, there was some opposition to it, as many wondered why two women who weren’t born or raised in Essex, started causing such a fuss and national uproar. One article commented that the definition of ‘Essex Girl’ is hardly a serious stereotype. But whilst the petition may have been started by two women who aren’t born and bred Essex, it gained traction with those who are, and rightly so.
Having a constant stereotype placed on you due to your birthplace (which you have no control over) is wrong. Women are not defined by where they are born, what they wear or the make-up they put on. So Essex girls, remember, you are more than the stereotype placed on
For more information about the course, please look at the course outline here or contact Dr Nadine Rossol here.
1. Artefact ‘What Being an Essex Girl Really Means’ (Accessed 19/11/2017) http://www.artefactmagazine.com/2016/10/26/what-being-an-essex-girl-really-means/
2. BBC ‘What is the true meaning of ‘Essex girl’? (Accessed 19/11/2017) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-39125171
3. Change. Org (Accessed 20/11/2017)https://www.change.org/p/i-am-an-essex-girl-reclaim-essex-girl-and-remove-it-from-the-dictionary
4. Metro (Accessed 21/11/2017) http://metro.co.uk/2016/10/28/everything-thats-wrong-with-the-petition-to-get-the-term-essex-girl-banned-6215991/
5. Oxford Dictionary (Accessed 20/11/2017) https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/10/25/essex-girl/

The Extraordinary Life of Ordinary Women

Nadine Rossol, Senior Lecturer at The University of Essex ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were asked to write a blog based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three-part series, Sophia Pinheiro Vergara is seond to talk about the extraordinary life of ordinary women!

Have you ever thought about ordinary women in history? Throughout time, writers and historians have mostly focused on leaders, the elite, royalty, celebrities, influencers. And very often, these people were men. It’s very easy to forget about the wives, sisters and mothers of those significant, illustrious people – because most of the time, that’s all they were portrayed as. That’s why I’d like to shed some light on the extraordinary lives of ordinary women. Women who maybe were not famous, leaders or royalty, but still have amazing stories to tell. I think it’s time they were heard and celebrated, as they should be.

This story is about Marcelle Vergara, Marcelle Guillemot and Suzanne Spaak. Marcelle and her husband Paul Vergara were both part of the resistance, and he led a centre to hide Jewish children during WWII called La Clairiere. Though Marcelle was not the leader of this resistance group, she helped her husband and their associates, Suzanne and Marcelle Guillemot. Marcelle Vergara often welcomed and hid Jewish children in her home, and with her husband, they would procure false identification papers to send them to safer places. One of the people she hid was a half Jewish young girl, Yvonne Van Nierop, who eventually became her daughter-in-law (Needless to say, Yvonne Van Nierop’s story is a remarkable one as well).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Suzanne found out that there were threats to the children under the protection of a network and contacted Paul and Marcelle Vergara. It was confirmed on the 12th February 1943 that the Jewish children would be deported from the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France) where they had been placed by the Gestapo. The members of La Clairiere asked people loyal to the cause to take out a Jewish child or two from the UGIF for the day – only to never return them. This mission singlehandedly saved 63 children, aged three to eighteen, who were given new identities and taken to safe homes.

On the 16th of February 1943, only days after the miraculous mission, the Gestapo sent agents to La Clairiere community centre, and Marcelle Guillemot was found. She quickly destroyed all compromising information regarding the rescue of the Jewish children and her links to the Resistance. She somehow managed to flee and escape the Gestapo.

Marcelle Vergara, not long after, was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, a special location used by Germans to hold and question members of the Resistance. She was released later that same year. Her own son was captured and taken to Buchenwald

Suzanne Spaak had to flee and take her children to Belgium in October 1943, only to be arrested later on the 8th of November. She was tortured and sentenced to death in January 1944. On the 12th of August that same year, two weeks before the liberation of Paris, Suzanne was executed.

Suzanne Spaak, Marcelle Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot were all recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”. It’s an honorific used by Israel to recognise non-Jewish people who helped Jews during WWII and the Holocaust by risking their lives.


Plaque of honour for Marcelle and Paul Vergara, “Righteous Among the Nations”

These three women, though not particularly famous, had amazing stories to tell. Their bravery and resilience in the face of oppression is a tale to remember and celebrate, as are other countless women’s stories. Though my goal is to share the extraordinary stories of ordinary women, I have to admit this one is special to me because it’s personal, as Marcelle and Paul Vergara are my great-grandparents. Yvonne Van Nierop (now Vergara), the half-Jewish girl they hid, is my grandmother.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is so much more to these women’s stories to tell, and other women’s stories – which is why I asked at the very beginning: ‘what about ordinary women in history?’ There are many fantastic voices undiscovered, only left to the memories of their families. Most of history has been a world led by men, so much so that women’s history is often cast aside for grander tales of men’s deeds. But women’s lives and stories are no less grand or extraordinary, simply often left to the shadows – they should be celebrated and remembered. To the readers out there, I highly encourage you to share your untold stories for them to never be forgotten, and to remind others that ordinary women have extraordinary lives.






•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Marcelle-Vergara-2753.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Suzanne-Spaak-2591.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/sauvetage-La-Clairiere-121.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Marcelle-Guillemot-1364.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•Yad Vashem, available at: http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/family.html?language=en&itemId=4021460, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

Is the Subject of History Accessible to Young Women?

Nadine Rossal, Lecturer at The University of Essex, previously ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were given the task to write a blog which was based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three part series, Olivia Taylor, questions how accessible History is to young women.

Being the daughter of a history teacher I spent most of my childhood in castles, bunkers and museums and I loved every second of it! I have been given a lifelong love affair but, I couldn’t help but feel I was always learning about what the boys did, and for a young girl growing up in a society that isn’t always on her side, you can imagine that’s not the healthiest thing! So, how can we (you and I) change it?

When I first decided that this was a subject that I wished to investigate further the first thing I did was call my eleven-year-old sister. She’s a keen historian (like her Mum and eldest sister – not the middle one she does geography, we don’t talk about it) so, naturally, it made sense to start with her. We ended up talking for over forty minutes about the history she has studied so far, most of it being empirical or military. But not the broad, diverse cultural history of war time, no. Schools seem to focus solely on the battles, the generals and the strategy. Not a single woman was mentioned throughout the conversation. So, feeling sceptical that the lack of female mention was due to the curriculum and not my 11-year old sister’s memory, I took to the internet to check.

A screenshot of the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum

This is a screenshot of part of the Key Stage Two National Curriculum in Britain. I don’t see how it’s possible for a teacher to portray the lives of women in these time periods. We weren’t allowed to fight or invade or lead. No wonder my sister and I couldn’t see ourselves represented in the subject we love!

However, a more experienced and level-headed opinion came in the form of my wonderful, teacher, Mother. Annoyingly well put, she stated there just aren’t enough school hours to teach everything. She argued that there is no “Women’s History” and “Men’s History”. The only way she can teach history is cause and effect because that’s the reality of the scheme of work and the exam. It’s just too vast and intricate to teach everything in its entirety. But, surely egalitarianism should take priority over chronology?

Before we start pointing the finger at the teachers let’s remember, they’re overworked, underpaid and simply doing as they’re told. So maybe we should turn instead to those in government who write the National Curriculum, and tell our teachers what to do. There are six ministers who sit on the board for the Department of Education and only two of them are female with none of them having ever worked in a school. I’m sure they have the qualifications but, are unaware of the reality. What can we do to ensure the best people are writing our Curriculum? Unfortunately, our choices are limited as to what we can do, but don’t lose heart! Lobbying is here to save the day! The “Fawcett Society” (founded by known suffragist Millicent Fawcett) has been campaigning for gender equality for 150 years. While “UK Feminista” is leading a campaign to end sexism in the classroom. One of the first steps should be to eliminate a gender bias in the course content. Join! Protest! Make a difference!

A table displaying the popularity of GCSE options

History is, in my humble, completely biased opinion, one of the most important subjects taught in schools. It teaches us so much about ourselves, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s also one of the most popular GCSE options available, making this mission of equality even more crucial. Women’s history is vital in showing young girls how their female ancestors changed the very world around them. It would be an insult to some of the bravest historical figures to undermine their influence in the classroom. Every girl deserves the chance to follow in the footsteps of the Women in the Land Army, the Suffragettes, Nightingale, Brontë, Windsor and so many more because, if they do, we will have a generation of strong women.

For more information about the course, please look at the course outline here or Dr Nadine Rossol contact details can be found here.







Screenshot Key Stage 2 National Curriculum. Accessed: 27/11/2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study

Screenshot GCSE Option statistics. Accessed: 30/11/17 https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/aug/24/gcse-results-2010-exam-breakdown

The Fawcett Society Official website Accessed: 29/11/2017 https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

UK Feminista Official website Accessed: 28/11/2017 https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

The Great Poppy War of 2016

Lucy Noakes is a social and cultural historian with specific interests in war, memory, gender and national identity. In this blog, she has written a piece about the Great Poppy War of 2016.

On Tuesday 1 November Britain woke to the news that FIFA had ruled that three of the national football teams (England, Scotland and Wales), playing international matches in early November, would not be allowed to wear armbands with red poppies on. FIFA’s ruling, based on an interpretation of the poppy of remembrance as a political symbol, caused an uproar in the public sphere: newspapers, television and radio, social media and the Houses of Parliament all dedicating time and space to discussion, and usually condemnation, of FIFA’s decision. By Thursday 3 November, according to the Daily Mail, Britain was at war – a Poppy War –which the paper claimed, with a lack of irony, it would fight against FIFA ruling.

At Prime Minister’s Questions the previous day Theresa May had described the decision as ‘utterly outrageous’. So it was perhaps unsurprising that by the 3rd November the English and Scottish Football Associations, playing on November 11, had decided that it would defy the ban: footballers from the three nations would wear a red poppy armband, and accept the penalties imposed by FIFA, most likely a deduction of points from the team’s tallies in their World Cup qualifying groups.

The row focused on whether or not the poppy is a political symbol. First sold by the newly created (Royal) British Legion in 1921, to raise money for the many wounded and disabled veterans who had returned from the First World War, the poppy had its origins in the carnage and chaos of the Western Front, where poppies, thriving in the disturbed earth around the battlefields, grew in their thousands. The Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, based close to the front line in Ypres, wrote the famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915, which opened with the lines:

In Flanders Fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row.

First sold to raise money for wounded troops in the United States, the poppy was bought to Britain by a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin, where they were swiftly taken up as both a symbol of remembrance and a means of raising money for disabled veterans and their families. So far, it might seem, so non-political. What, after all, could be less political than a widely shared desire to help those who had returned from war and were, because of their injuries, unable to find work or to support their families? However, I want to argue in this short article that not only the red Poppy of Remembrance, but the wider traditions of commemoration that grew out of the bloodshed of the First World War, are and always have been, deeply political, if not always in intent, then in interpretation.

As any good student of cultural history will tell you, the meanings of any ‘text’ or object are not entirely embedded in its material form, but are shaped by the views, beliefs and position of its audience and consumers. This was discovered early on in the aftermath of war by the British government, when what was meant to be a victory ceremony became a ritual of remembrance. The first official remembrance of the war took place on 19 July 1919, designated as Peace Day. This was meant to be a celebration of the military victory, with the returning heroes parading through the streets of London. However, the Empire’s dead were also incorporated into this parade, represented by a temporary version of the Cenotaph made out of plaster, cloth and wood.

This was only meant to be a small part of proceedings and the focus of the day was intended as celebration of military achievement. However, this was upset by public reactions. Crowds flocked to the Cenotaph to pay respect to their dead. There were so many people that the parade had to be rerouted and for weeks after people continued to bring wreaths from around the country. What was meant to be a day of celebration was spontaneously refocused around mourning and commemoration.

While the transformation of Peace Day into Armistice Day, first held on the 11 November 1919, with its focus on commemoration of sacrifice and the war’s dead, rather than victory and the living veterans, can be seen as driven by a cultural politics, and, as Jay Winter has reminded us, the needs of the bereaved to find a means to collectively mourn the dead, the first controversy around remembrance took place in the mid 1920s.

The solemn ceremonies of remembrance that took place on the morning of Armistice Day had been followed by often riotous parties and balls, as veterans came together to both remember their colleagues and to celebrate their own survival. By 1925 however, these celebrations were frowned upon by some, seen as ‘out of step’ with the national mood of solemn remembrance, and the continued presence on the streets (despite the annual poppy appeal) of destitute, unemployed and homeless veterans. The Daily Mail led the campaign against veteran celebrations. Its Leader column for 22 October 1925 asked rhetorically ‘Armistice Day Revels. Should they be held?’, answering that ‘such festivities as have hitherto marked the celebration of Armistice Day are not in keeping with the day’s trued character’. The veteran’s desire to celebrate their survival lost out to the dominant politics of remembrance.

As the optimism of the early 1920s collapsed into economic depression, high unemployment and the lure of fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local newspapers began to report on groups of unemployed veterans demonstrating on Armistice Day, wearing their dole papers in place of their medals, using the ceremonies and symbols of remembrance to draw attention to their plight. By the mid 1930s the poppy and its meanings were firmly at the centre of another political controversy. As a wave of support for pacifism swept across Europe, driven by the rise of a belligerent Nazism, intent on defying the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty, by the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia, by the Japanese invasion of China and by the Spanish Civil War, all of which demonstrated that any coming war would be fought against civilians at least as much as against combatants, the White Poppy appeared as an alternative symbol of remembrance.

First created in Britain by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild in 1933 and sold to raise money for the Peace Pledge Union, the largest pacifist group of the decade, the White Poppy acted as a powerful if always controversial means of commemorating both civilian and combatant victims of war across national borders while expressing an opposition to the decade’s slide towards a second, even more devastating, conflict. Some mourners at war memorials, seeing the White Poppy as an encroachment on the existing symbol of remembrance, were reported to have stamped on the wreaths, and to have threatened White Poppy sellers on the streets.

All of this however, was nothing compared to the politics that has surrounded the poppy, and ceremonies of remembrance, since the end of the 20th century. The millennial ‘memory boom’ – the desire to look back at the bloody and violent 20th century and try to make some sense of it – was strengthened by the passing of the last military veterans of the First World War in Britain, and by the ‘War on Terror’ which saw Britain go to war again, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Young veterans, wounded in battle, once again began to appear on British streets, and the heart-broken bereaved once again gathered around war memorials. Armistice Day reclaimed its place on the British collective calendar as cultural, political and commercial institutions chose to mark the 11 November as a moment of commemoration alongside Remembrance Sunday.

Alongside this resurgence of remembrance rituals camea renewed politics of commemoration. Always contentious in the bloody politics of Northern Ireland, where the presence or absence of a poppy in early November functioned as a statement of your political allegiance, poppies became more and more visible in mainland Britain. On television, they became almost omnipresent. The Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow condemned attacks on public figures who were seen without a poppy as ‘poppy fascism’, and the ITV journalist Charlene White was abused on social media for not wearing a poppy on air, as was the actress Sienna Miller. It was not enough, apparently, to support the charity by giving money; your support had to be visible.

What, exactly, is going on here? I don’t think that anyone has ever claimed that the dead of the battlefields died so that we should all wear poppies, yet those who choose not to do so, or who choose to wear a white poppy, or a purple poppy in remembrance of the animals used, and killed in warfare, stand accused of both a lack of reverence for the dead, and – often implicitly – a lack of patriotism.

Britishness, or at least one form of it, has become entangled with the poppy in a way that was never the intent in the aftermath of war. Much of the reaction to the FIFA poppy ban conflated it with a form of Britishness, newspaper columnists and Twitter users queuing up to tell FIFA that it was not a political symbol whilst, at one and the same time, making it exactly that. Tweets from users with names such as ‘UKIP Poole’, Ex EU Serf’ and ‘Leave.EU’ claimed the poppy for a particular form of Britishness, opposed not only to ‘FIFA scum’ but to both Europe and the left.

This emergent and worrying linkage of the poppy with a particular strand of populist politics has, paradoxically, managed to place the poppy – created as a symbol of remembrance for all British combatants, of all and any political persuasion – at the heart of a deeply felt divide in contemporary British society.

The poppy, as a symbol of war remembrance, has always been politicized, even though this was not the original intent; what is new is the venom with which those who choose not to wear one are attacked. If the poppy is to survive as a widely shared symbol of remembrance, perhaps we need to remember that its power as a symbol of remembrance, like respect, only works if it is voluntary.

Mayflower Research Project

On the 24th November 2017, Jake Millar, a current MA student at the University of Essex gave a presentation in the Church of St Nicholas titled ‘Harwich, Religion and the Mayflower’, contributing to the annual ‘Illuminate Festival’ (an event which celebrates the town’s relationship with the ship). Below he shares his experience.


What is the Illuminate festival’?

Illuminate is a multi-genre arts festival showcasing work from the finest up and coming artists. Everything from puppetry to folk music, comedy to spoken word and beyond. Illuminate gives audiences and artists the opportunity to explore something newmay. Affordable, friendly and fearless theatre for all ages. A festival that has something for everyone.

What is ‘The Mayflower’?

The Mayflower was an English ship that famously transported the first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth, England to the New World in 1620.There were 102 passengers, and the crew is estimated to have been about 30, but the exact number is unknown. This voyage has become an iconic story in some of the earliest annals of American History, with its story of death and of survival in the harsh New England winter environment. The culmination of the voyage in the signing of the Mayflower Compact was an event which established a rudimentary form of democracy, with each member contributing to the welfare of the community.

Why Harwich, Religion and the Mayflower?

The question of religion is fundamental if we are to appreciate the ideological importance of the Mayflower’s 1620 voyage. Within Harwich, parishioners and civic officials alike were forced to renegotiate their confessional identities upon a backdrop of profound religious upheaval in the years leading up to the Mayflower’s departure. This discussion will briefly address these issues, and highlight some of the struggles which local men and women often faced.

How do you feel the Mayflower event went?

Overall the presentation was very well received, and the audience asked me a range of interesting questions after the official celebrations had ended.

More information ?

Sarah Mott, MA History student,  has written more about the Mayflower event on the visit Essex blog which is available to view here.

For more information on the Illuminate Festival visit the Harwich Festival website, www.harwichfestival.co.uk

Who to contact ?

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on alix.green@essex.ac.uk.




Caroline Wallace: ‘The Red Cross in Essex 1914-1918: Hospitals, Fundraising and the Contribution of Middle and Upper-Class Women’


Caroline Wallace, current MA History student at the University of Essex, and MA Placement student at the Essex Record Office, has written an article for the most recent issue of the Essex Journal. The Essex Journal focuses on the local history and archaeology of the county.  Caroline’s article highlights the role played by upper and middle-class women during the First World War, and how they used their time and influence to support the Red Cross in the county.


The Essex Journal has been in continuous publication for fifty years and is published twice a year under the management of an editorial board consisting of representatives of the Essex Archaeological and Historical Congress, Essex Society for Archaeology and History, the Friends of Historic Essex, the Essex Record Office (on behalf of Essex County Council) and the Honorary Editor. Its aim is to provide a forum for historical writing for the county of Essex.

Women of the upper and middle classes played an increasing role looking after wounded service men during the First World War. Caroline explores the role they played within the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society and the auxiliary hospitals located across the county. She also looks into how they volunteered their time and efforts to fundraise for these hospitals. Caroline’s compelling and informative take on this hidden history makes the article a crucial contribution to our local history – highly recommended reading.




Have You Thought About Interning or Volunteering?

  ” I want to work in a museum, so volunteering was an eye-opener into the museum world ….”


If you’re interested in gaining work experience in a placement relevant to your history studies, there are so many opportunities within the local area. We’ve interviewed Lauren Ellender and Clare Mooney, who volunteered at the Colchester Resource Centre for Colchester Museum, and were happy to share their experiences. 

What did your jobs involve?

[Clare]The volunteering position was titled a ‘collections volunteer’. It entailed a variety of different little jobs; however, the majority of the time was spent auditing the different collections such as pottery, and metal work, in order to be re-located to new stores. As madeewell as this, the job also involved precisely recording accession numbers and any other information attached to the object, then carefully packaging the objects to protect them for transportation. Due to the extensive number of different objects in the collection we often had to do the easy but essential job of preparing the huge amounts of foam and padding needed to keep the collections protected for transport.  As the move was a big project other jobs included general manual lifting, moving and organizing boxes.


How did you find your posts?

[Lauren] I found this opportunity through Google whilst searching English Heritage/National Trust,. [Clare] I found the position by looking on the website, and finding out that the Colchester Resource Centre volunteering position was accepting applications.


Did you enjoy it?

[Lauren] I particularly enjoyed it, and felt that the time went by very quickly. The only thing I really found challenging and tough was the manual lifting of the artefacts, so for someone not looking to lift loads of artefacts you might want to check with the Resource Centre Staff first about the kind of work you can do.

[Clare] Working here was a good opportunity to find out about the general environmentmade of working in a museum. It gave us a chance to see and hold a variety of objects important for Colchester, natural and in some cases, English, history.

Would you recommend that other students seek out internships?

We highly recommend this experience. [Lauren] I am re-doing my first year of university in England and I now wish I had got involved with more activities such as this and been proactive before.

What have you both learnt?

[Clare] I found that working in a museum is hard and diverse. A lot of effort goes into preserving heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Did this experience help with your future career?

[Lauren] I want to work in a museum, so volunteering was an eye-opener into the museum world and has given me a general outlook on what I could potentially do after her MA. [Clare] I’m now considering the option of an MA in Public History and Museum Studies which would be incredibly interesting.

How did the university help?

[Lauren] Travel reimbursement from the History Department really helped. The University also offers services like the Employability and Careers Centre, for anyone looking to develop their CVs or gain vocational experience.


Continue reading

Olivia Smith’s Account with the Western Front Association (WFA)

Olivia Smith was fortunate enough to have an internship experience with the WFA in Ypres, Belgium. Below she gives her own account of the experience, showing her thoughts and feelings.

“Just before I reflect upon my fortunate historical experience, I would like to quickly thank the University of Essex History Department for funding my trip; as well as the Western Front Association and Andy Tonge for their generosity in giving me such an experience, as well as ensuring I was well looked after.”

10-11/2017 11:54


”The journey down from Colchester to Dover was perfect. Not one bit of traffic stopped my first big drive to the continent. Listening to a BBC Radio 4 debate on why people wear a poppy and what the poppy represents, a controversial topic which I had recently covered in my special subject module. Listening to someone say they don’t wear the poppy because it represents the pointless deaths that occurred in wars after the Second World War, just seemed very ignorant. Personally, I feel the poppy is a form of modern respect, to commemorate those who bravely fought for us today. That being a centenary ago on the fields of Passchendale or right now fighting the war on terror.

Currently sat on the ferry going to Dunkirk and reading my book which my dissertation is based on (Testament of Youth by Vera Britain), I can’t help but feel sombre over the memory of many men who made the journey across the channel a centenary ago, to go and fight on the front line, yet here I am making a safe passage to go to the remains of the front line and remember their sacrifice.”

10 /11/2017.

”Arriving in Belgium was beyond a success; for someone who is just about confident driving at home, yet suffers badly with dyslexia and lefts and rights, I counted driving on the opposite side of the road an achievement. I headed straight into Ypres to meet Andy Tonge (WFA) and embarked on a personal tour around the Northern half of the Ypres Salient. This is something I had thought I’d done before, but how wrong was I. Andy taught me how to perceive a battlefield through the eyes of a soldier rather than the eyes of a book. First of all, it was the skyline, the myth that the Ypres Salient is flat is very wrong. High ground gives you the advantage of being able to view the salient, and mark out the churches which act as landmarks for navigation- Ypres Cloth Hall and Cathedral are usually visual, where we were we had a good view of Langenmark and Zonnenbeke churches.

It wasn’t just the view of the churches as navigational landmarks, these acted as a form of context of the soldier’s life; by being able to see that far you are holding the strong point. The battles on the Ypres Salient can’t be perceived as either side on a rollercoaster xxxxxand both reaching the top trying to push one another off, it was a fight for high ground and then defending the high ground. I found this context so significant for developing my knowledge of the First World War. That evening, a trip to the Menin Gate and the chance to witness a beautiful Last Post ceremony and then back to the Ariane Hotel for a briefing before the events on the 11th. It was a great feeling to know I was going to be a part of a great event, with the opportunity to stand under the Menin Gate during the special service”


Early rise, to get ready for Armistice- 99 years. After the briefing the night before, I soon realised how much detail and work went into organising the poppy day parade. The parade started outside Ypres Cathedral, just behind the Cloth Hall and followed the way through the centre of the town before various groups dispersed in and around the Menin Gate. My job as a marshal was to ensure all who would be taking part in the parade were positioned accordingly in the order Andy had set up. Easy? No. Various school groups turned up, military groups etc, yet that did not stop things starting at 10:20 as the bands led their way through the town.

I was positioned in front of the general public, ensuring they lined in groups of four with the wreath laying people standing to the right. Once all was away it was wonderful to feel a part of the occasion rather than a bystander in the crowd. Upon reaching the Menin Gate myself and the other marshal’s stood to the front left hand side, just tucked into the corner of the entrance but a corner that provided a wonderful view of the gate. Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere in the gate.


Oddly, the bands, the orchestra created a light and sweet atmosphere. The remembrance ceremony started with the prompt, 2 minute ahead of schedule, arrival of HRH Princess Anne, the representative of Britain and the Commonwealth. I must not forgot to mention that this was not only a remembrance for the British, Commonwealth, French and Belgium forces, yet also a remembrance for the German soldiers who fought during those four years. Representatives of a special First World War German force attended the service too. The service began with the symbolic Last Post performed by the buglers, of which each note echoed throughout the 54,000 names embodied on the walls of the Menin Gate.

Follow by various readings, prayers, and then wreath laying by the Royal and political representatives, then by the members of the public. During this part of the service, through the three openings in the roof of the Menin Gate, thousands of poppies started to fall. This is an image I will cherish in my memory, each poppy represented a soldier who had been lost in the Great War and I found it very symbolic that they were falling into remembrance a century later on. Once the poppies had fallen, the final songs were played by the bands and the service came to an end once Princess Anne made her departure to a service at Tyne Cot.

Each military group and the bands began to follow their way back to the centre of Ypres by the Cloth Hall, and we followed just behind them – and what a wonderful atmosphere that was, to really be a part of something special in our history- we ended up outside the Cloth Hall and watched the masses of the general public disappear as the main event of the day was over. Later that afternoon, Andy and Carol were very kind to take me to the main concert in the Cathedral, and what a lovely tribute they paid to ‘Brothers in Arms’, really focussing in on the camarderie and special bond, which I guess you can say is one of the special outcomes of war.

The concert was followed by a wonderful meal at the Ariane, at which I had the pleasure of sitting next to a gentleman who had been at Ypres commemorating the First World War for the past twenty years plus. I realised then how lucky he was for coming for all of those years, as I heard the most wonderful stories, for he was fortunate enough to have such a strong relationship with veterans. This included the famous Harry Patch and his close circle. I too realised that we were keeping them more alive by telling their tales, passing on their experiences and how those first hand accounts of the war really should not be forgotten. From Alix Green’s module focussing on Unquiet Histories, it is those micro unquiet histories that teach a true history.


In Belgium they focus on the day of Armistice itself, rather than in the UK where we have our main day on Remembrance Sunday. So yesterday was another early rise to make the most of the day, and Andy was taking me on another battlefield tour. This time the Hunters were put on after a day of rain, and I got to fully experience the famous muddy fields of the Ypres Salient. Andy first took me along the Menin Road to get some context of where the BEF first encountered the German forces in 1914. From there we went to visit a -very intact- German bunker.

From the bunker you definitely got the impression that the Germans intended to stay in their advancing positions, with the bunker being fortified with concrete and the main part of the bunker underground (with what could be described as an upper floor of concrete simply to take the full brunt of shells). From here Andy took me to Shrewsbury Forest where the Northamptonshire Regiment fought on the Third Battle of Ypres. On the face of it, the forest was stunning, perfectly autumnal and you could not imagine that a century ago the horror that fell here. We left the trail and followed an unofficial path which led us to the German Front line and here, intact, you could see the three German bunkers.

Looking out into what would have been ‘No Mans Land’ above us was Hill 60 where the British held the high ground. I was shown where the entrances to the underground tunnels would have begun, due to the water build up in a square localised area. To my surprise, and interestingly to Andy’s, we found on the back of the final bunker the initials and engravings that had been left by the German soldiers. Coming out of the trenches we followed the IPad which showed us the original trench matches and exactly where we were in correlation to the wood a century ago.

xWe were mainly following the German Trenches and you could see from the high ground how the Northampton boys obtained success on obtaining the wood to then hit an obstacle with the Germans sitting and dug in (another bunker found, this time a machine gun box). We proceeded to go and explore a wood which held a lock hospital, embedded in an unfinished canal.

Clear details of where the hospital had been shelled were evident by gaping holes in the bricks. As the winds picked up the temperature on the Salient dropped and we headed back to the Hooge Crater where we had coffee and explored the museum. To my amazement, I discovered how the exhibitions that had been created there were all using original artefacts. So the mannequins were wearing real uniforms as worn by the soldiers on the front, and it amazed me that such items of clothing have lasted all these years.

After the wonderful morning truly exploring the Ypres Salient, I went off on my own to Plugstreet Wood where one of the main protagonists for my dissertation wrote a beautiful poem whilst he was stationed there during 1915;


Violets from Plug Street Wood—

Sweet, I send you oversea.

(It is strange they should be blue,

Blue when his soaked blood was red;

For they grew around his head.

It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood—

Think what they have meant to me!

Life and Hope and Love and You.

(And you did not see them grow

Where his mangled body lay,

Hiding horror from the day.

Sweetest, it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,

To your dear, far, forgetting land:

These I send in memory,

Knowing You will understand.

Here I found a violet, and explored the area in which Roland lived and provided me with a first-hand account of life on the Salient. In such a peaceful and beautiful place I truly felt connected with my dissertation. Plug Street Wood was close to my wonderful B&B (as was the place where the famous Christmas Truce occurred, that I also visited) and I checked out then making the journey back home. I had never experienced a rough crossing before, but that evening crossing was horrific. The boat was rattling, and felt like it was hurdling across the waves towards Dover.


I was glad to be home, yet sad at the same time. Ypres is truly a wonderful place, it is amazing how one place can hold so much history and keep it alive a century later. If all goes well with an internship I will return there next summer, but for now as Vera Brittain and Edward her brother would write to each other before an attack during his time on the Salient, it was never goodbye it was only ‘Au Revouir’. ”


By Olivia Smith