Grief and the First World War: Student as Researcher

Teesside University runs a Student as Researcher scheme which provides funding for students to undertake research alongside members of staff. In 2014 History at Teesside was given the opportunity to employ two third-year students to undertake archival research into the home front in the Tees Valley during the First World War. This work will form a significant part of the University’s community outreach activities during the centenary period. Ami Becker discusses her research.

The ‘students as researchers’ scheme is something I am incredibly grateful to have been part of. I have just completed my BA (Hons), and the aspect I found most enjoyable on the course was using archives and libraries to gain insight into contemporary experiences, and so instantly I was extremely interested. The areas I explored as part of this scheme were grief and memorial, and I did this by producing a report on letters from and to Mary Pennyman at Ormesby Hall during and after the war, and another report detailing the history of the development of the Dorman War Memorial on Linthorpe Road, both accompanied by primary sources.

Mrs Pennyman, who lived at Ormesby Hall, became the secretary of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers 2nd Battalion Widows & Orphans Fund after the First World War. She wrote to widows offering financial and emotional assistance, ensuring they were comfortable financially, and were aware of the pensions available to them. By reading the incredibly emotional letters written in reply, it is clear the soldiers’ deaths not only mean a sacrifice of one life, but that their wives’, and families’ lives also alter drastically. So often the deaths of the soldiers are the focus of memorial, but this research, both in Teesside Archives and at Ormesby Hall, provided a voice for those at home who had to recover and build a life around this loss.

The letters also make clear the struggle of those who never received any information on their husbands’ death, or anything physical to mourn. Many soldiers remained missing or unidentified, and this proved to be very difficult. Following the greatest loss of fathers in British history, wives had to deal with practical problems such as making sure their children were not distracted from their schoolwork, and earning money to feed and clothe their children. This is regrettably not a point of view I had previously given much thought to, and I am glad that I am able to present this interpretation to the public.

Memoriam card
I also studied the history of the Dorman War Memorial, for which I read War Memorial Committee minute books. It was clear that whilst there was substantial public support for a memorial, the direction in which the memorial went was not particularly supported. It is clear that the public would have preferred something functional, such as a hospital, a crèche, or an art gallery. However, Arthur Dorman donated the land upon which the cenotaph was erected, provided a monetary donation toward the final product and was influenced by the cenotaph in London, and decided that Middlesbrough was to have a cenotaph as well. As a result, it became difficult to raise funds for the memorial. It was particularly interesting to compare the minutes to photographs of the unveiling, which suggest that there was substantial support from the public, in spite of the lack of financial support.

middlesbrough memorialTo provide context to this, I also researched the importance of memorial and the First World War, and realised that I had not previously appreciated the significance of war memorials to those who had lost somebody in the War. The construction of thousands of war memorials following the Great War has been described as ’one of the greatest spontaneous public-sponsored building projects in history’, and some will argue they provide surrogate graves for the war dead.

I have particularly appreciated gaining insight into personal experiences, and exploring alternative points of view. I very much look forward to sharing our reports and documents with the public, and am extremely grateful to have been able to partake in the scheme. It has been invaluable to me both in terms of employability and enjoyment, and it has been very exciting to explore how an international event on such a huge scale affected ‘normal’ people in my hometown.

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