During our January visit to The Peace Museum in Bradford we discovered their incredible collection of First World War propaganda and tested out archival systems ourselves. Our New Focus group had gained a foundation of knowledge on the war and was ready to move our project on to the next stage; a trip to the Leeds University Special Collections. The Brotherton Library’s public ‘Treasures Gallery’ shows many samples of their expansive historical and literary collection to the public, including a rare copy of some of William Shakespeare’s early plays.
After being shown around the Leeds University Libraries grand reading room and seeing its stone pillars and old books, we went to view the Special Collections section which we were glad to find out can be used by anyone through booking an appointment. We headed back to view the material Professor Alison Fell and Laura Wilson Learning and Engagement Officer (Treasures Gallery) had helpfully found for us.
We wanted to find out more about women’s perspectives and experiences of the war, and so our concern was with the ‘Liddle Collection’ curated by Peter Liddle, a preacher from Sunderland, who in the 1960s realised that important memories from the First World War were being lost. He collected material relating to five thousand people, including many women. These were recollections as well as contemporary papers, diaries, registrations, and of most interest to us, loose photographs and photo albums. In order to handle the precious material, we were instructed to leave food and drink out of the room and that it was best to use clean, dry hands (a few of us were surprised we wouldn’t need gloves for handling such old paper) and to be as delicate and careful as possible.
The variation in nature and mood of each album was incredible and revealed much about how diverse women’s experiences of the war were. Some albums we found to be sombre and serious where as others contained photographs of uniformed women at work alongside very personal photos of fun days out with descriptions underneath like ‘enjoying the sunshine!’ It was clear that some women were experiencing more freedom than they’d ever had during the war and it was fascinating to see these small moments of happiness of the everyday lives of women. However, other albums were more sombre. Elsie Gledstanes, an artist who became a truck driver during the war, had organised more serious newspaper articles and photos chronologically. It was also sad to see photos of nurses treating men suffering with serious war injuries.
We had found plenty of fascinating photographs for our publication and exhibition! One of the most interesting parts of the day was comparing the style and form of the photo albums. Some had intricate, colourful patterns surrounding black and white, faded images where as others seemed like they were made out of address books and notebooks. Seeing these differing types of albums gave us inspiration for our own publication we will be producing on women’s perspectives of the war which we will be putting together after our next visit to the Imperial War Museum in London.
By Emily Coghlan
This project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Young Roots’ scheme