Last night I was at the launch of the First World War centre at the University of Hertfordshire. There was a great turnout for an evening of soap-boxes, a Roadshow of artefacts and ephemera, and a production of J.M. Barrie’s play, A Well-Remembered Voice (1918). In addition to academics from other universities and representatives from such museums as the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum, there was a wide variety of community groups in attendance.
Our First World War centre is one of five First World War Engagement Centres in the UK funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Each centre has a different focus, and the University of Hertfordshire (in collaboration with the Universities of Essex and Northampton) considers everyday lives: How did war affect daily life between 1914 and 1918? What was the legacy of the conflict?
With this theme in mind, we heard about how soldiers fashioned biscuits into things like photo-frames to send home to their families, and our own Matt Benjamin, who has just finished his undergraduate degree, spoke brilliantly on homes for heroes and the Becontree Estate in Dagenham.
Some of the objects brought in for our experts to examine for the roadshow included a tea-pot, a teenager’s diary from 1917 that actually makes little reference to the war but routinely details daily meals, a collection of photographs and a variety of medals.
For me, the highlight was Barrie’s play, superbly staged by the Io Theatre Company. Barrie — best known as the author of Peter Pan — produced A Well-Remembered Voice in 1918. Unusually, the semi-autobiographical play explores grief from the point of view of a father, challenging the typical assumption that, when a child’s life is lost, grieving is almost the reserve of the mother. At the centre of the story is the family’s son, killed in the war, who appears from the afterlife to his father. Barrie, of course, had suffered the loss of George Llewelyn Davies who had died in the fighting in 1915. (George and his brother Jack had inspired Barrie to write Peter Pan, and when their father died in 1907, Barrie became something of a father-figure to them). The play, which really spoke to the Centre’s research interests in supernatural beliefs, childhood and family relationships, was a perfect way to round off the evening.
The Centre is led by Dr Sarah Lloyd, Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Further details can be found on the website.