Mere Bodies No More: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five by Felicia El Kholi

During the night of the 30th of September 1888 – almost exactly 131 years ago – two women were struck by a terrible fate that would bind them together forever despite never having known each other in their lifetimes. One of them was Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish immigrant who’d once run a coffee house, and the other was Catherine (Kate) Eddowes, who used to tour the country with her partner, writing and selling ballads.

Today, Elizabeth and Catherine are not remembered for who they’d been during their lives but only – if at all – for the tragic circumstances of their deaths. Everyone, however, will recognise the name of the man who brutally took their lives, Jack the Ripper. The lives of Elizabeth, Kate and the other three women whose murders have been attributed to the Ripper, are rarely considered in any detail, while their killer has been elevated into modern mythology. He has become a legend, and as such still captures the imagination of many, over 130 years after he committed his gruesome crimes. Even in the historiography of the Ripper, the women’s life stories are often little more than a side-note in the quest to uncover the killer’s identity. In death, the women are reduced to mere bodies that serve the sole purpose of illustrating their murderer’s ‘MO’.

Cover of the Five 2.jpgIn her latest book, The Five, Hallie Rubenhold attempts to redress this imbalance, and offers some truly revelatory insights. Most of what is known about the five women is derived from witness statements given during the coroners’ inquests; however, these are superficial and generally unreliable accounts. Rubenhold therefore delves deep into other forms of archival material, tracing the women’s lives through their ups and downs. By reconstructing their lives from beginning to end as best as the records allow, Rubenhold presents the women in their full human experience. They were living, breathing, feeling beings, leading real lives. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, who have been reduced to empty shells by an unjust, sensationalist society. By tracing the lives of the Ripper’s five victims, the author skilfully untangles the “web of assumptions, rumours and unfounded speculation” in which they had been trapped for well over a century.

Rubehold dispels perhaps the biggest assumption of them all when she asserts that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that three of the women killed by the notorious serial killer – Polly, Annie, and Kate – ever prostituted themselves. What’s more, considering the evidence, she convincingly argues that all of the women were murdered while sleeping rough in the streets of Whitechapel, and not, contrary to what we’ve all previously accepted as fact, after they were lured into dark places for sex. It had been established that the women were killed while in a reclining position, and at least three of the women were known to sleep on the streets on nights when they didn’t have the money for a lodging house. This quite ground-breaking claim is strongly supported by the evidence Rubenhold has uncovered. It also simply makes sense. Even though the police were known to be unable to reliably identify sex workers, the narrative about a killer deliberately targeting women of ‘bad character’ suited them as well as the newspapers. But it seems utterly inconceivable that this narrative has been perpetuated for well over a century without anyone really questioning it, until now.

There have been many glowing reviews of The Five, and in my opinion, it deserves all the praise it gets. It is a triumph. Not only is it thoroughly researched, it is also beautifully written. Rubenhold’s careful assessment of the evidence, compassionate and empathetic prose, and incorporation of wider historic context that is detailed enough to really get a good impression of the era, but not so overwhelming as to lose focus, all make for a spectacular micro-history. The Five not only paints an image of life in that ‘human awful wonder of God’ that was nineteenth-century London, but also seeks to give voices to those who can no longer speak for themselves, or indeed never even had the opportunity to do so during their lifetimes. Rubenhold reveals the complex lives of five women who descended into poverty and shared a fate that was not particularly uncommon among their contemporaries. By telling their stories, re-evaluating the evidence and peering beyond the surface, some humanity is at last restored to Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane.

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The ‘Whitechapel Murders’, as reported in the Police News, September 1888

Having studied the Victorian period extensively, I am familiar with the ‘inner circle of hell’ that was the East End of the nineteenth century. I’ve studied many of the sources on which Rubenhold draws to illustrate the harrowing conditions in this part of town, many of which I found difficult to read, leaving me feeling everything from slightly uneasy to utterly appalled and heartbroken. Reading these women’s stories was certainly not the first time I’d been confronted with the fragility of life in this age, particularly for the poor and particularly for poor women. I’ve come across plenty of accounts in which people’s circumstances changed quite literally overnight, usually with catastrophic repercussions. But The Five just demonstrated all of this perfectly, and its sympathetic narrative is deeply moving even to someone who’d been aware of both the lack of structural support as well as the horrendous conditions in Whitechapel, where, by the end of the nineteenth century, 78,000 people lived crammed into lodging houses. Rubenhold invokes these images in a masterly fashion and takes the reader on a deeply immersive journey. Shifting the focus away from sex to issues such as poverty, addiction and social inequality makes the experience even richer. She has once more shown that the values of the Victorian world were male, authoritarian, and middle-class – nothing new for people who’ve engaged with this period to some extent, rendering the fact that this narrative has not been questioned until now even more inexcusable. Indeed, as I read The Five, I felt disappointed in myself for simply accepting the narrative that’s been perpetuated for so long. But apart from making me feel guilty, it’s also been a great inspiration and is exactly the kind of history I would want to write. For me – and I know I’m not alone in this – The Five is a game changer.

Annie Chapman - wedding day
One of the Ripper’s Victims, Annie Chapman, on her wedding day, 1867

Despite all the praise the book has justly earned, one particular group has taken offence at Rubenhold’s claims. A huge wave of negative comments from the Ripperologist community – self-proclaimed Ripper experts – followed the book’s publication. Indeed, even before that point, they were not too shy to voice their grievances. What seems to irk these Ripper ‘enthusiasts’ so much about The Five is that Rubenhold – an ‘outsider’ – dares to question the conventional narrative, revisits and uncovers evidence, and ends up with new conclusions that happen to conflict with theirs. Their reactions have often been extremely hostile; pages upon pages of attacks and abuse have been written in online forums dedicated to the serial killer, seemingly picking apart every page of the book. And many have, rather impressively, managed to do so without actually reading the monograph.

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Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five

Not a member of their community, Rubenhold apparently has no right to challenge the ‘facts’ that were established over a century ago. They clearly feel a strong sense of ownership over the Jack the Ripper narrative, and consequently also over these women’s lives. It’s unsurprising that Rubenhold’s assertion there is simply no reliable evidence that three of the women were professional prostitutes causes particular affront to them. They are unwilling to accept the facts that the author exposed because believing that the Ripper’s victims were sex workers, and, as such, fallen women, somehow means that these ‘bad’ women somehow had it coming, or were people for whom getting killed was an occupational hazard, lending the Ripper’s crimes a certain legitimacy. It’s plain misogyny, really.

Although Rubenhold herself said that she’d anticipated some backlash and has proven to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls – her sparring with the openly sexist Trevor Marriot was particularly admirable – no one could have foreseen the viciousness of these attacks. She has, believe it or not, even been compared to Holocaust denier David Irving. She’s been accused of both pursuing a feminist #MeToo agenda as well as ‘whorephobia’. Not infrequently, it has got very personal. Even as an observer, it’s tiresome to say the least, and I do worry that reactions such as the ones exhibited by the Ripperologist community will deter young historians and writers from re-examining conventionally accepted narratives. But this is important work and a significant part of being a historian. Considering just how well known the Jack the Ripper murders are, and the vast literature and other resources available, it’s shocking that it’s taken this long for a thorough biography of the women to appear. It’s a blatant omission.

Yet, the women whose lives had been considered unworthy of closer investigation have finally had their stories told. And they’re being heard, too. Judging from reviews and comments on social media, The Five has had a huge impact on those who’ve read it. People have organised walking tours that focus on the five women’s lives rather than deaths, teachers have amended lesson content, and many have started conversations about how we view murder victims for our own entertainment. ‘True crime’ shows and podcasts are incredibly popular while serial killers such as, a more recent example, Ted Bundy still exert a peculiar fascination. Rubenhold’s mission to reclaim the women whose disturbing autopsy photos can be easily accessed on the internet from the “pornography of violence” into which their identities have disappeared, and to encourage conversation about this topic is truly inspirational. No amount of online trolling will diminish her achievements, nor will it stop her research from spreading. The truth is out!


Felicia El Kholi is a graduate of the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London and Heritage Intern at the Association of Anaesthetists Heritage Centre.

Hallie Rubenhold with be giving a public lecture on the theme of her critically-acclaimed book, The Five, at Royal Holloway, University of London on 22 October. Admission is free but spaces will be limited so be sure to book your free ticket online.




We need to talk about the Good Friday Agreement … by Sarah Campbell

There has been a lot of talk and speculation recently about Brexit undermining the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA) because it may impose a hard border, and the current peace process is predicated on an open border. Indeed, the bomb explosion in Fermanagh on 19 August has been linked to ongoing negotiations over the backstop and the political stalemate in Stormont. Some of these assertions are problematic. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but GFA is not a buffet. You can’t pick the bits you like (its position on the border, for instance) and ignore the parts that are complex and take more energy to implement (such as cultural rights and transitional justice).

Bono joins hands with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Nationalist Leader John Hume at pro-Belfast Agreement concert, 1998 [Paul Faith]
For the last two decades, both the Irish and British governments, and the media, have congratulated themselves on a job well done, missing the fact that the 1998 agreement was merely the start of the process, not its conclusion. Indeed, what we currently have is more of an armistice than a peace process. There may be a reduction in large-scale violence – and this is a good thing – but meaningful reconciliation seems as unattainable now as it was in the 1970s, and a genuine commitment from the British and Irish governments has slipped far down both of their priorities and agendas.

Members of the Orange Order marching in Belfast, July 2016 [Business Times]
In recent months, I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and political commentators who have warned that Brexit is jeopardising the peace process, and a return to direct rule will ‘put the Good Friday Agreement in the bin’. Without downplaying the impact that Brexit will have in Ireland, North and South, I think it’s time we were realistic about the health of the Agreement. At the risk of stating the obvious, the problems in Northern Ireland predate Brexit. The suspension of the Stormont Parliament in 2017 had nothing to do with the border or Britain’s imminent departure from the EU. The backstop, a soft Brexit, or even the overturning of the 2016 referendum result, will not solve the problems there. Rather, the collapse of power-sharing is the result of two decades of political neglect by the British and Irish governments.

The increase in activity by dissident republicans in the last two years is not due to Brexit, but rather to poverty, inequality and austerity – the same problems that existed in the 1960s. Some may argue that Brexit will exacerbate these issues, and while that may be true, it is disingenuous to put all the blame there. Those who voice these concerns do so because the ceasefire is under threat, not the peace process. In truth, it is arguable that Northern Ireland has even experienced a peace process in the last two decades.

Twenty years on, and the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Consultative Civic Forum, and the North-South Ministerial Council are not working. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has held just two meetings in twelve years and the Assembly has been suspended as often as it has been in operation. Indeed, in 2013 Richard Haass, the American diplomat who was tasked with finding a way forward on the intractable issue of dealing with the past, warned that Northern Ireland could no longer be held up as a model of conflict resolution because, despite some movement in terms of residential segregation and shared schooling, the fundamental divisions remained unchanged: over 93 percent of children are still educated separately, interface walls continue to divide communities, and sectarian riots are accepted as routine annual events. Both unionists and republicans/nationalists remain entrenched in their imagined pasts. Since 1999, there have been annual disputes over Orange Order parades, with a violent standoff at New Lodge this summer, with paramilitary undertones. Dissident republicanism has been on the rise since 2009, when the Real IRA shot dead two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in County Antrim. The latest bombing in Fermanagh may be using Britain’s difficulty over a no-deal Brexit to grasp an opportunity at Irish unity, but dissident republicans would have found other opportunities had the issue of Brexit not developed.

Like other societies transitioning from conflict, Northern Ireland continues to be haunted by legacy issues and the intractable question of how to deal with the past. It has not been for the want of trying. Since 1998, there have been numerous attempts to create the ‘architecture’ needed to deal with the past, including Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s ‘We Will Remember Them’ report, the Eames-Bradley Report, the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations, and the Stormont House Agreement. The main problem is that political parties keep getting bogged down in issues of blame, and the legal, political, and societal strands of the process are entangled. This means that progress on issues like an oral history archive, a timeline of events, and information recovery are log-jammed.

British Soldiers on Patrol in Belfast, 1972 2
British Soldiers on patrol in Belfast, August 1972

It is not denied that both the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement (2006) have prevented the return of large-scale violence; however, the model on offer from the top is peace without reconciliation. It is not just intractable issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past that are hampering progress; there is also a failure to advance ‘bread and butter’ issues such as health, welfare and education, and the region ranks among the slowest in its recovery from recession for the UK as a whole. There has been little change in poverty rates over the past decade, and welfare reforms currently being rolled out by a Tory government, whose economic policy for the last ten years in power has been one of austerity, will have a negative impact on the most vulnerable households and will result in increasing child poverty and destitution rates.

What is jeopardising the return of a functioning Executive to Northern Ireland more than Brexit is the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. Whether this arrangement would have been made if the Tories were not trying to get their Brexit deal through the Commons is debatable, but it confirms beyond doubt that the British government is not a neutral, non-partisan broker between the protagonists in Stormont, and this realisation puts the future of the GFA in doubt. Both the Downing Street Declaration (1993) and the Good Friday Agreement unequivocally stated that Britain had ‘no selfish or strategic interest’ in remaining in Northern Ireland and agreed to the principle of self-determination on the basis of consensus of the people. In January 2019, the British government declared that it would ‘never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union. Our steadfast belief is that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom’. While the language change is subtle, the increased tensions between the British and Irish governments in recent months, as well as Boris Johnson’s dismissal of Sinn Féin’s suggestion that there should be a referendum on Irish unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, demonstrates that this significant advance of the peace process is now in doubt. Not only that, but it is also becoming alarmingly clear that the Irish government is getting cold feet on the issue of Irish unity, despite accepting it as a legitimate political position in 1998.

It is difficult to predict what might happen in Northern Ireland if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. What is clear, however, is that Brexit or not, the Good Friday Agreement is on life support, and it’s hard to see it pulling through.


Sarah Campbell is Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at Newcastle University and author of Gerry Fitt and the SDLP: In a Minority of One (2015).

Operation Pied Piper and Inter-generational Learning: Using Second World War Evacuee Letters to Teach History by Claudine Fortin

During a particularly rainy summer seventy-five years ago, the largest evacuation of people in the history of Britain was being planned. As Europe edged ever-closer to war, the government put its plan to move vulnerable members of society out of harm’s way into action. A strategy for evacuation in the case of enemy attack had been sketched as early as 1931 and the government ultimately opted against forced last-minute evacuation, which officials feared would lead to countrywide panic. Instead, everything was planned to the minute and on a voluntary basis, the authorities circulating multiple calls for the registration of children and their mothers and the elderly. Families were openly informed of ongoing plans and it was decided that the children should be evacuated according to their schools in order to ensure a more orderly process.

Evacuees Photo
Evacuee children from Myrdle School in Stepney make their way to the local station with their parents early in the morning of 1 September, 1939 [IWM D 1939A]
The planning and organisation of the evacuation was left to a sub-division of the Imperial Defence Committee, known as the Anderson Committee, and implemented by the Ministry of Health. The children that were sent abroad were under the supervision of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), a government-sponsored organisation which was ultimately shut down when several ships carrying children were torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic.

The first rumblings of what would become known as Operation Pied Piper began at 4.00 a.m. on the morning of 1st of September 1939, fully two days before the British declaration of war against Germany. During the first few days of that fateful month, more than 3.5 million British people left the major cities to seek refuge in the countryside and overseas. Of this number, at least a million and a half were schoolchildren and mothers with young children, many of them leaving London and the other cities for the first time. An unusual sight, as they carried pillowcases full of essential belongings, while grasping gas masks and wearing tags indicating their name and home addresses,  neither children nor parents knew the final destination, but at least they were with their classmates.

Some children returned to London just a few weeks later only to be evacuated again. Others came home at the very end of the conflict to piles of rubble where their homes had once stood.

One of the key bodies of primary evidence for exploring this extraordinary moment in British history was produced by the evacuated children themselves. Many of the hundreds of thousands of letters they wrote home are easily accessible and offer us a unique insight into the thoughts, emotions and survival instincts of these often very resilient children. Several hundred of these letters have been preserved by the Imperial War Museum and are invaluable as historical sources and fascinating in simple human terms. Not only do these letters give us an idea of life in the countryside at the time, they also tell us what the children understood of the world at war and shed valuable light on the ways in which the conflict affected their everyday lives.

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Poster announcing disruption to rail services during evacuations [IWM PST 3362]
I recently had the privilege of meeting Kitty Baxter, who was herself evacuated on September 1st 1939, which also happened to be her 9th birthday. Along with her classmates, she was told to pack for a little trip, and each day they brought their filled pillowcases to school since the administration did not know the exact date of evacuation. She was evacuated with her two older sisters with the precise instructions from their mother that they should not be separated at any point. Evidently, at the other end of the voyage, this request wasn’t fully respected, and Kitty was sent out with her older sister only, her middle sister, Mary, being chosen first by an influential family who decided they only wanted one child. To make sense of her experience, Kitty assigned one word to each of her three evacuations: the first, horrible, the second, interesting, and the third, fun. She attributes this variety mainly to the basic elements of the environment and the different people with whom she lived. The first family made her work like a servant, the second one didn’t really care for her and let her explore all the time, whereas her third billeting was in a brothel. She tells these stories as though they happened yesterday, remembering small details and forgetting major ones.

A lifetime of experience has passed and Kitty is now in her mid-eighties, but the memories are still there, especially those linked with her senses. With each memory, she conjures a scent, a sound, or even a specific taste. She remembers her mother crying when they left the station the first time and when her little brother died of shelter cough. She remembers coming back home for the second time because her dad was killed in action in Italy. And although she received many letters from her mother during her first evacuation, she never got to read them because the housekeeper didn’t give them to her so as to keep her busy with work. She shares the memory of how her middle sister was crying when they were reunited with her because she didn’t want to go home. Mary had apparently enjoyed a perfect life at her billet, with a whole new family with money. The Baxter sister each had three different stories, and three different narratives of evacuation, and the same could be said of every child evacuee.

Evacuee letter
Letter written in November by 1941 by Alan, an evacuated boy, about what he’d like for his birthday [Lewisham Archives]
Kitty didn’t actually get to write letters during her time away from home, but there is an abundance of material available to us from other children. The archives at the Imperial War Museum are home to numerous boxes of letters that map the individual experience of evacuees. For the final project of my MA in Public History, I decided to drawn on these letters to build a workshop/educational pack about Operation Pied Piper for children aged 9 – 11. The benefit of this type of material is the direct link between the past and the present, since we can access the letters and read directly what the person was thinking. For children today, learning about a dramatic episode of their country’s past through the words of another child presents a wonderful opportunity to create a bridge through time.

They get to learn about what it meant to spend a birthday away from mum and dad, how Alan from Lewisham had to thank his parents from a distance for his birthday presents as it was too dangerous for him to travel in the middle of the Blitz. They get to understand how frustrating it was to have to wait at least two days for the mail to arrive, like Kathleen who had to wait anxiously for news from her parents when their home was bombed. To read these letters is to realize what an extraordinary impact the war had on everyday lives, despite, indeed often because of, attempts to physically put children at a remove from danger. Surprisingly, the letters almost never mention the actual conflict, apart from talking about planes and the V1/V2 rockets that could see in the daytime sky later in the war. This allows the children participating in the workshop to learn about the war on a level that would not have been available in a standard context.

As part of the workshop, 21st century children also get to connect with their past even more with a letter-writing activity, allowing them to fill the shoes of an evacuee billeted in Kent, away from everything familiar and facing the prospect of life on a farm. The next step is to find more former evacuees who would be ready to share their experience of writing home from a strange environment directly with the children in the classrooms, of being sent far from home for reasons that must have been quite unclear to the average eight year-old at the time. The power of oral history can thus be used to create a deeper connection and a broader understanding of the impact of the conflict.

The multiplicity of experiences the evacuated children encountered make this moment in time particularly worthy of study, since it touches on social, cultural, political and childhood history. For now, the evacuations remain very much within living memory, and many former evacuees are willing to share their experiences with the children of today. The 75th anniversary of Operation Pied Piper thus presents a unique opportunity for intergenerational exchange and learning about the past.


Claudine Fortin is a graduate of the Université de Montréal and is currently enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Edinburgh Fringe: Where It Began and Where It Might Go Next by Tasha Kitcher

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of Edinburgh Fringe venues have announced their 2019 programmes. With just three months to go until the city opens its gates once more to thousands of artists and audiences, questions over the legitimacy of the festival have been coming to the fore and I’ve been thinking about the historical origins of this extraordinary event. The Fringe emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, on the outskirts of the high-brow International Festival, with a philosophy of open access woven into its roots. And yet today, it is the biggest arts festival in the world with daunting accommodation costs and an undeniable commercialisation to boot. Are we losing the Fringe?

Billy Connolly Fringe 1972
Billy Connolly and the Offshore Theatre Company performing at the Fringe, 1972 (The Scotsman)

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Edinburgh Fringe festival twice; once as an audience member and the second time (2018) as a front of house volunteer. During my time as a volunteer I was lucky enough to have a pass that granted me free access to a wide variety of venues. In exchange for this, I shared a bedroom with five strangers, in a house with around thirty other individuals. I worked six to eight hours a day, six days a week, and experienced the underbelly of the Fringe. From the hardworking artists, to the vomiting audience members, to the irritated tourists who had seriously mis-timed their visit to Scotland’s city of culture; I saw it all.

At one point during last year’s Fringe, renowned theatre reviewer Lynn Gardner tweeted “Edinburgh is full”, suggesting that the whole thing had simply become too big. It is this phenomenon, of a city that has truly reached capacity, that now threatens the future of the Fringe. My experience alone, in a crowded house with a frustratingly busy commute to work, was definitely coloured by overpopulation.

So it seems worth remembering that the Fringe wasn’t always like this.
The story of the birth of the Fringe festival is, fittingly, a story of uninvited guests. In 1947, as part of a movement to celebrate European culture and provide entertainment for a country struggling after the horrors of the Second World War, an International Festival was formed in Edinburgh; the same festival which still runs today.

While the International Festival invited the some of the world’s best performers to the Scottish capital, eight theatre companies took it upon themselves to reap the rewards of a city overflowing with culture-vultures. Performing in smaller venues around the ‘fringes’ of Edinburgh, these companies attracted audiences that the curators of the International Festival had not expected. Drama had been excluded from the International Festival’s programme because it was considered too low-brow; not cultured enough for their international audience. However, the success of these eight companies proved there was an audience for drama whether the elite thought there should be or not, and the Fringe Festival was born.

1971 Festival Fringe Club Membership Card
Festival Fringe Club membership, 1971 (WikiCommons)

Throughout the 1950s, the Fringe developed its identity. Often defined by what it wasn’t more than what it was, the Fringe was firstly dramatic, not musical, and secondly contemporary, not classical. Crucially, the festival was open to all, with cheap tickets and a friendly atmosphere for anyone who wanted to engage with the arts. A stark contrast to the International Festival, at which artists performed by invitation only.

In the 1960s, the International Festival brought the now famous Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Theatre Group to an event called Beyond the Fringe in an attempt to rival the success of the low-brow upstart. In response, satire boomed at the Fringe and remains an essential element of the entertainment today.

The Festival Fringe Society formed in 1958 and brought a certain amount of administrative order to the annual event. The society provided information to artists, published a programme of events, and created a central box office which still exists (although now with updated technology). In 1971, 78 companies performed at the Fringe – a big step up from the eight that started it all twenty years earlier, but still nothing compared to the huge numbers that take to the Fringe today. By the eighties, it was the largest festival in the world.

Now, all of this seems to be under threat.

Street performer at the 2008 Fringe (Sappybex – Flickr)

Last year there were 3,548 shows at the Fringe; meaning approximately 57,000 performances occurred over the three weeks of the festival. To understand the pressures this puts on the city, you only need to consider that the population of Edinburgh, according to the 2016 census, is approximately 465,000. Last year’s Fringe alone attracted 4,500,000 audience members to the city. It is not surprising that people are pressed for space. I may have slept in a house with thirty people, but, by all accounts, this was a privilege in comparison to the performers’ annual pilgrimage to Scotland. With increased demand for living space, prices are naturally rising and now the festival is faced with a dilemma. Originally a festival designed to celebrate art and make it more accessible, whatever the elite might say about it, the Fringe is now a festival where creatives struggle to make ends meet.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this crisis started. The Herald has suggested that fears the Festival is too big for the city “is a question almost as old as the first posters for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” But, with ticket sales increasing by 5% between 2017 and 2018 alone, it seems that the rate of growth in Edinburgh today is an unprecedented and unsustainable issue. I wonder to what extent the creation of the Festival Fringe Society can be held accountable for the current crisis. After all, the Fringe was born naturally out of spontaneous action and companies ignoring the opinion of cultural and administrative elites. The society formalised the existence of the festival, and today has three goals: to support participants, assist audiences, and promote the festival. This seems to suggest that the group’s primary objective is audience participation rather than artist performance.

The society has tried to avoid influencing the intended spontaneity and open access philosophy of the performances. Indeed their constitution dictates that they should not play any role in vetting the programme.

Rowan Atkinson Fringe 1976 (BBC) 2
A young Rowan Atkinson performing at the Fringe, 1976 (BBC)

I wonder, though, is it enough for the Festival Fringe Society to simply avoid limiting artists’ access to the festival? At a time when the festival has become beyond the reach of so many, should someone be actively trying to make the festival more accessible to performers? If not, I suspect its death might be as sudden as its birth. On March 16th this year, the society launched its “put up a performer” campaign, seeking to place performers in spare bedrooms of residents throughout the city. They claim they want to connect residents with artists, for experience, rather than to pave the way for residents to turn more profit from the transaction. A nice idea, although I must admit I am a little sceptical about it. Last year I met many Edinburgh residents who moved outside the city boundaries during the Fringe, to rent their flat for an extraordinary fee while they simply commuted to work for the month. And why shouldn’t they? While the over-population of the Fringe is clearly a problem, completely overwhelming the city every August, the £280 million of revenue it produces for the local economy is surely enough to enable many residents to see some virtue in the event. The society’s attempts to reduce these profits while allowing the Fringe to continue growing is almost counterintuitive.

Ultimately, the issue at stake here is not really one of overcrowding. The bigger issue is who is forced out once the city reaches capacity. As demand for space increases, only one thing can happen; prices will go up. I doubt the Fringe Society will overcome the economic law that increased demand for a limited resource will create inflation. As prices go up, working-class artists will be forced to find an alternative space to perform and experiment. It is simply too expensive to live in Edinburgh during the Fringe, while facing the costs necessary to put on a show.

And this is the one thing of which I am quite confident – once these groups are forced out of Edinburgh, they will go somewhere else. I think much of the fear-mongering surrounding the Fringe today orbits the idea that if the Fringe becomes too expensive for artists, the art will stop happening. We only need to look to the history of the festival itself to see this is false. If artists are not invited to perform, they will perform somewhere else. Just as the eight companies were not invited to the International Festival in 1947, these artists today will find their own space and their own audience whether the powers that be help them or not.

Art will always find a home, and the Edinburgh Fringe has plenty of years left in it yet. This is not to say that the festival won’t continue to evolve through time. And, perhaps, just like the eight groups that invited themselves to Edinburgh in 1947, a new festival will emerge to rival the Fringe. If it does, I’m sure it will be started by someone you didn’t invite, and made by someone you didn’t expect.


Tasha Kitcher is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Body Worlds: An Open Dissection by Darcy Rae

Upon entry to the Body Worlds exhibition in its new home in London, the dark lighting and vast ceiling only heighten the sense of anticipation at what lies ahead. A short video at the beginning of the exhibition highlights the stresses and strains of a modern-day life and the pressures it puts on our mind and body, and quickly establishes that the exhibition is designed to be an educational, thought-provoking experience. Around the corner, and setting the scene of the true attraction of Body Worlds, the first plastinated body is seated, posing nonchalantly. The skin on the model has been stripped away to reveal the muscles and tendons which stretch over every bone. The information card told me that this was the body from a public dissection performed by Von Hagens in 2002, the first in the UK for 170 years.

I have followed the work of the Gunther von Hagens’, German anatomist and the creator of plastination, for a number of years online and his work was every bit as spectacular as I had hoped when I finally got to see it. His first public dissection in Britain was highly controversial at the time and Von Hagen’s work continues to be just as provocative and contentious today. Over 1,000 people were on the waiting list to view the autopsy in 2002, and, despite being issued with a warning under the 1984 Anatomy Act, Von Hagens boldly declared that he would rather be imprisoned than cancel the display. During the dissection, Von Hagens announced to his audience that he had ‘liberated’ the lungs and heart. This idea of liberating organs is echoed in Von Hagens’ compelling Body Worlds exhibitions where bodies donated to be plastinated are modelled to show the innermost intricacies of human anatomy. These plastinated bodies have been displayed in Britain, America, Germany and the Netherlands, with other touring exhibitions around the globe. In October, Body Worlds found a permanent home in Piccadilly Circus where I was finally able to experience the display for myself.

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Gunther von Hagens poses with one of his plastinates (The Independent)

The plastination process is a laborious one, and it can take up to a year for just one cadaver to go through the many stages. First it is injected with formaldehyde to preserve tissue, then dehydrated in acetone before being submerged in a liquid polymer bath where a vacuum is created to allow the polymer to permeate every cell. The body is then dissected and positioned as desired before the final curing process. After being permanently hardened, the specimen is then ready to be displayed. The plastinates, stripped of their skin and visceral and subcutaneous fat layers, do not reveal anything about the age, weight, or ethnicity of the donor. Only very keen observers or visitors with a background in medicine or forensic science would be able to make rough estimations of these features by analysing the structure of the plastinate’s bones or cranium. Even so, I was struck by how expressive the plastinates could be due to the manipulation of facial muscles, lips and tongue.

Joseph Kahn portrait
Joseph Kahn, 1850s (Wellcome Collection)

The history of anatomy on display extends far beyond Von Hagens, and has always blurred the lines between education and entertainment, the prudish and the perverse. In England, the nineteenth-century public had a complicated relationship with their bodies which was expressed in their disgust and fascination towards anatomy museums. These macabre institutions had been around since the eighteenth-century but were reserved for training medical professionals and were not open to the public. The notorious Burke and Hare bodysnatching scandal in 1828 and the Anatomy Act of 1832 brought the public’s attention to the world of anatomy and triggered people’s desire for a deeper understanding of their own bodies. The self-appointed ‘Doctor’ Joseph Kahn was the Gunther von Hagens of his day; an Alsatian-born, German-educated showman showman touring with collections of anatomy, and embryological and surgical samples. Kahn established his famous anatomy museum in London in 1851 and opened it up to the paying public, including women. Alongside the exhibits, there were lectures on healthy living and displays of venereal diseases, which provided a lower-class population with examples of ‘healthy living’ as well as the opportunity for a method of self-diagnosis.

In many ways, Body Worlds is no different to this museum. Like Kahn’s museum, it uses the body to educate. Every section of the exhibition is about a different part of the body, with examples of healthy and unhealthy organs in striking side by side comparisons. This method of education seems to be effective to public health given Body Worlds’ claim that 68% of the people leave wishing to pursue a healthier lifestyle. There are also interactive stations where visitors can take their blood pressure, measure their stress levels with a handheld biometric ball and learn how to perform CPR on dummies next to a display of two plastinates engaging in the same exercise. A blackboard and pens are provided near the end for visitors to record what they hope to achieve before they die, which seems fitting given the omnipresence of death in the exhibition. There is something deeply chilling about coming face to face with your own mortality, yet these reminders of death serve to encourage visitors to learn about and examine their own lifestyles and bodies. A section about the brain and hormones taught me that only 10% of what affects our happiness is circumstantial – the rest is genetic and depends on our conscious outlook. Another section teaches about behavioural patterns and how we can rewire our own choices and thought processes. There was a certain comfort in these sections that came from the feeling of having the control of your body and emotions being handed back to you through education.

It’s hard to remember that these figures are real human cadavers, as plastination gives the muscles a dull artificial sheen and renders them odourless. The eyes of the plastinates are the only artificial part of the exhibits due to the high water content which makes eyes difficult to preserve. There’s something unsettling about staring into vacant glassy orbs framed by real eyelashes and I almost expected them to blink or to follow me around the room. Another body has been plastinated and sliced into 5-8mm thick sheets. Five full cross-sections of the cadaver hang in a row, suspended by wire like a shower curtain and spectators can see everything from head to toe in a progression of visibility as each sheet shows a deeper cross-section of the anatomy. Whilst some of the plastinates are in glass cases, others are in open view with signs instructing visitors not to touch them, but I wasn’t the only one who felt the need to be as close as I could without coming into contact. And yet some displays are hard to look at, and one section shows the progression of a foetus from the fifth week of development all the way to a new born baby. Personally, I thought the most moving piece was a standing woman with her stomach and uterine wall opened to show a foetus of five months gestation. Her lips are turned slightly upwards in a dreamlike smile and her hands cradle her stomach. In the reflection of the glass casing I found myself lightly touching my own belly in a subconscious display of feminine solidarity. Whilst it was easy to forget that the plastinates had been living people, certain examples were stark reminders of their previous lives.

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Kahn’s Anatomical Venus (JRSM)

There is also a warning sign for the reproductive room which shows a couple engaged in sexual intercourse and is perhaps the result of the substantial backlash to this display at a Berlin exhibition in 2015. But it wasn’t just Germany that had responded to Von Hagens’ work with outcry. The introduction of the exhibition in England brought a sense of public unease, and some commentators were doubtful about what could be learnt from an exhibition that seemed nothing more than a freak show for the macabre. Joseph Kahn’s nineteenth-century exhibitions, in contrast, were initially met with positive responses. Upon encountering money troubles, however, Kahn began selling ‘quack’ remedies for venereal diseases. This turned his previous advocates into adversaries who declared that Kahn was corrupting the minds of the public and encouraging sexual immorality. The lack of bodies for scientific research in nineteenth-century Britain has arguably had a lasting effect through to present day about attitudes towards anatomy. Whilst the public expressed displeasure at both Von Hagens’ and Kahn’s museums for different reasons, there remains a deeply rooted anxiety regarding our own anatomy that has transcended through the centuries.

Indeed, as I walked around the exhibition, I was fascinated not only by the plastinates but also by the responses from other visitors. The attending public ranged from primary school children to the elderly and Body Worlds advertises itself as encouragingly inclusive. The younger students and teenagers showed a detached, clinical interest, without any disrespectful jokes or laughter. There was mostly an absorbing silence throughout as people immersed themselves in their audio guides and the exhibits, and the ban on photography meant that everyone was present in the moment without viewing it though a camera lens.

When Dr Kahn’s museum was closed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and most of his specimens were destroyed at his trial, something of a turning point was established in the public’s perception of the body on display. The medical profession decided to once again monopolize their knowledge and argued that these public and commercial exhibitions encouraged loose sexual morals. Dissection returned to being an activity carried out behind closed doors for the eyes of doctors and paying elites only. With his 2002 dissection, Von Hagens marks the cyclic pattern of restoring the display of human anatomy to the public eye, allowing us an intimate portrait of our own bodies and visually educating ordinary people about their own health. Controversies aside, I think that Body Worlds is a brilliant way to encourage every generation to see past the old taboo of death and open up discussions of health and lifestyle.


Darcy Rae is an MA by Research student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Twelve Angry Men: The Forgotten Militancy of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by Amy Swainston

‘The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics.’

So read the faithful audience of the Suffragette publication Votes For Women one February day in 1912. The words were those of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the message was clear: violence was the only way forward. The WSPU, nicknamed the Suffragettes, had been set up in October 1903. Their more militant tactics marked a definite departure from the peaceful campaigning of the members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), known as the Suffragists.

Westminster Abbey; St. Paul’s Cathedral; The Bank of England; Kew Gardens. The list of national landmarks the Suffragettes targeted with bomb and arson attack sites in the years before the Great War was ambitious indeed. Yet as you approach the imposing Victorian Palm House through the Rose Garden at Kew, there is no commemoration of the fires that were started there in 1913 by two angry female Suffragettes, Olive Wharry and Lilian Lenton.

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Letter from Emmeline Pankhurst to members of the WSPU in which she refers to female militancy as a ‘moral obligation’, 10 January 1913 [TNA]
The sanitisation of the Suffragette image has been criticised by Fern Riddell in her recent book Death in Ten Minutes, which tells the story of Kitty Marion, a particularly radical member of the movement. Riddell explains the way in which the genuine threat posed by the Suffragette campaign to national security has been systematically whitewashed from official narratives – reduced to a few ‘broken window panes’. It is perhaps unsurprising that representations of the morally questionable actions of militants fighting for a noble cause poses a challenge for historians today.

Indeed, I have to admit that, up until recently, I would have been quite sceptical about the notion of commemorating the acts of the militants. Yet surely this is an anachronistic stance to take? It’s perhaps difficult for myself and other modern women to appreciate the impulses that led to Suffragette violence, partly because we grew up in a world in which we take the rights for which the Suffragettes fought for granted. But the story of the campaign for votes for women is often dark and occasionally violent, and if we want to understand the Suffragettes, and not simply remember them, we should acknowledge their radicalism.

And so with the recent centenary anniversaries of the Representation of the People Act and the first General Election in which British women were allowed to vote and run for office, it feels like a good moment to remember all those who fought for the vote. That should include those who were determined to use violence to achieve their political goals, and the current exploration of female militancy really doesn’t seem to go far enough.

*        *        *

The month is June, the year 1913, the scene is a racecourse, the main character an angry militant determined to stop the leading horse. Everyone thinks that they know the ending to this story. But do they? Because this is not the Epsom Derby, and the protester is not Emily Wilding Davison. It is, in fact, the Gold Cup race at Ascot.

And the perpetrator is a man.

Harold Hewitt sustained severe head injuries as a result of the incident and was treated at the Royal Victoria Nursing Home in Ascot. He had been clutching the Suffragette flag and appears to have been an ardent supporter of the cause of female suffrage. Indeed, he had attended Emily Davison’s funeral just four days before his own racetrack protest. And yet an article that appeared in the Daily Mail on 20 June reported that Hewitt’s collision with the leading horse, Tracery, was ‘unconnected with the women’s movement’. The official narrative, it seems, was that Hewitt had been taken up in a ‘wave of folly’ and the most popular broadsheets of the day described him as a ‘madman’, ‘crazy’ and ‘wild’ – a state of affairs supposedly proven by his subsequent internment in an asylum.

But he was by no means the only ‘madman’ who carried out an act of militant protest in support of the campaign for suffrage. Just two months before this copycat incident another attack had been sensationally reported in the press.

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Harold Laski (1893 – 1950): economist, political theorist and supporter of women’s suffrage

As I stood in the bustling foyer of Oxted Station in Surrey recently, I wondered how many of the busy commuters and tourists were aware of its hidden past. In April 1913, a bomb was planted in the male toilets by ‘two well-dressed men’ who escaped into the night. The bomb duly exploded at 3 a.m., damaging the wall and sending glass and wood splinters flying. Contemporaries were stumped as to the identity of the mysterious culprits, but Professor Harold Laski is now widely believed to have been one of them. The Times was quick to assert that ‘no message was found’ connecting the attack to the Suffragette movement, even though Laski was an enthusiastic advocate of votes for women and the bombing followed a string of similar incidents undertaken by Suffragettes at stations across the UK. At Oxted Station today, the male militancy that occurred there in support of the movement remains unrecognised.

And it didn’t stop there. Men were involved in acts of violence throughout the Suffragette campaign. Hugh Franklin was arrested following his attempt to assault Winston Churchill on a London train in 1910, for throwing a rock through the window of Churchill’s Eccleston Square residence in 1911, and for setting fire to a railway carriage at Harrow in 1912. He paid the price during his incarceration at Wormwood Scrubs, where he was force-fed three times each day after fears that his drastic weight-loss would cause his death. Franklin joined Frederick Pethick-Lawrence as one of the first male hunger-strikers. They were, like Hewitt and Laski, ex-Oxbridge students and members of the establishment.

These rather colourful characters merely scratch the surface of male participation in militancy during the Suffragette campaign. Many more in the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Men’s Political Union also resorted to force to make their opinions known. So why has their contribution been forgotten?

article in the times [re. suffrage attack]
Article about Hugh Franklin in The Times, 21 February 1913. No mention is made of his support for the suffrage campaign.
Modern ignorance is a partial reflection of contemporary representations. As we’ve seen, newspapers were hasty to pass off most incidents of male violence as acts of clinical insanity rather than any serious effort to contribute to the Suffragette cause. This was part of the conservative media’s desperate attempt to underplay the true extent of support for the movement.

But the popularised tale of the Suffragette movement as a fight of women versus men – the downtrodden versus the establishment – has led to an over-simplified narrative into which these male militants do not easily fit. Emmeline Pankhurst herself was guilty of encouraging generalisations, declaring starkly in her memoirs that:

‘Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it.’

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Photograph of a man mockingly dressed as a Suffragette. Images like this reinforced the idea that the campaign was a struggle of women against men [TNA]
Despite its strengths, the ‘Me Too’ movement of recent years has in many ways emphasised the need for female voices to be heard in opposition to men’s. It is this mentality which has perhaps provoked a reluctance to associate male militants with the attainment of the female vote, which was such an obviously historic achievement in women’s history.’

It may appear counter-intuitive to highlight that some of the male elite supported women’s suffrage, and hence it is an argument seldom made by historians. A simplified version of the story of the women’s suffrage movement is easy to market; one has only to note the obvious lack of male roles in the 2015 blockbuster ‘Suffragette’ to realise this.

And yet, as I think many historians of Suffragette militancy would agree, we should not cleanse history of its nuances and complexities for the sake of easy-reading. Thus, to make a sincere effort to come to terms with the violent side of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, we must not ignore the angry men who played a vital role within it.


Amy Swainston is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of the London Centre for Public History and Heritage.

Grieving Again: Laying to Rest a Brother Lost to War by Eliza Bichard

Sergeant William Patrick Reidy was on a training exercise from RAF Swannington on 20 March 1945 when the de Havilland Mosquito he was navigating, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Gabriel Hitch Ellis, stalled and span out of control during a manoeuvre and crashed just off the coast of Norfolk. Sergeant Reidy’s family received a telegram telling them he was missing, presumed dead; his death was confirmed six months later. No effort was made to trace the plane, and, over time, it seemed that all hope of locating it was lost.

Sergeant William Patrick Reidy, pictured with his navigator’s brevet.

The names of the dead men were inscribed on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey and their families and friends were simply forced to get on with their lives. Everything changed, however, in 2004 when my grandfather, Michael Reidy, Sergeant Reidy’s brother, read in his local newspaper that the wreckage of his brother’s Mosquito had been found, 59 years after his death. The story has always fascinated me, and following the death of my grandfather last month, I wanted to make sure that his family’s story didn’t die with him. Many families experienced grief in the Second World War, but not many were forced to mourn again almost 60 years later.

Michael was just fifteen when he answered the door to the delivery boy who passed him the telegram informing the family that his brother was missing. He then informed his mother and 18 year old sister Stella of the news; their father was an officer in the army and serving in Germany at the time.

Sergeant Reidy, known as Pat to his family and friends, was idolised by his mother, who never really got over his death. He was over six feet tall, with auburn hair, and his younger brother described him as popular, strong and a fantastic sportsman. He was just 17 when he left his job at Lloyds Bank to join the RAF in 1942, and he was killed less than two months before the end of the war. My Grandad told me the family struggled to join in the celebrations of the end of the war, as they had yet to even receive confirmation of Pat’s death, which came a few months later. The attitude then was to ‘keep your chin up’, and let time heal, but it didn’t.

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Panel 276 of the Runnymede Memorial

In April 2004, during a routine survey of a rarely used shipping channel at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, shifting channels exposed a propeller tip sticking out. Further investigation revealed that it was the wreckage of the missing de Havilland Mosquito NS998, the aircraft that Sergeant Reidy had been navigating on that fateful day in March 1945. RAF records provided the details of the two airmen, but the next of kin information was decades out of date. Local newspapers were contacted to issue an appeal for any information about the men. Luckily, Michael was still living in the area and was an avid newspaper reader. He saw the appeal and once he had gathered his senses, got in touch with the RAF. Very soon after Michael responded to the appeal, on 22 July 2004, the wreckage was excavated as a result of a joint effort by the RAF, a Royal Navy diving team from Portsmouth and a Salvage and Marine’s Operations Unit from Plymouth. During the excavation, it was confirmed that the remains of Sergeant Reidy and Flight Lieutenant Ellis had been found.

Relatives of the two airmen had not heard anything since the accident until this point as no attempt had been made to find the missing aircraft, and they found coming to terms with the discovery quite challenging. They were offered military funerals, and while Ellis’ family chose to have a private burial, Sergeant Reidy was buried with full military honours, alongside the five medals he had been awarded. Grandad said it was what his mother would have wanted. The ceremony took place on 24 May 2005 at the Roman Catholic Church at RAF Marham, and included airmen forming a guard of honour for the coffin, a lone bugler playing the Last Post and a flypast. It was an impressive, emotional and overdue tribute to a brave man, who, like so many others, gave his life too young. Stella, who was 78, travelled from Zimbabwe, where she had moved not long after the war, to attend. Michael, then 75, and his family also attended the funeral, as were my Mum and Dad and some members of the Hitch Ellis family and a number of RAF personnel.

Funeral of Sergeant William Patrick Reidy RAFVR
Stella and Michael following their brother’s coffin

While the discovery was a relief, it also brought up a lot of intense emotions for Stella and Michael, who effectively mourned their brother all over again. Many families experienced grief during the Second World War, but comparatively few are forced to revisit it so directly. The siblings also wished their parents could have known what happened to Pat before they passed away, but the discovery had been 28 years too late for their mother and 18 years too late for their father. The parents had to make-do with memories and a name on a memorial.

The Runnymede Air Forces memorial was unveiled in 1953 and commemorates those who lost their lives in Northern Europe while serving with the air forces of the Commonwealth who have no known grave. It lists the names of over 20,000 airmen and women and provides a place for families to visit to remember their loved ones in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Michael visited the memorial, and later took his wife, my mum and uncle there, never imagining that there would be a grave for them to visit.

Funeral of Sergeant William Patrick Reidy RAFVR
Sergeant Reidy’s Grave at Marham Cemetery in Norfolk

Sergeant William Patrick Reidy is now buried in Marham Cemetery, alongside 55 other casualties of the Second World War, including six Germans. It is perhaps easy to forget that each of the names on a war memorial represents a missing family member and a story of grieving that did not end at the time of the inscription. Indeed, there are a number of other names on the Runnymede Memorial that now also have graves for their family to visit.

I was just seven years old when my great-uncle’s body was found, and while I was considered too young to attend the funeral, my family hid nothing from me. While the seven year old in me did not quite appreciate what was going on, the aspiring historian in me a few years later when I was twelve, wanted to know more. I did a school project on my great-uncle, making sure to seek permission from my mum and Grandad, so as not to upset him. I persuaded my Grandad to tell me all about it, which he did, and made my parents take me to Pat’s grave. It also seems remarkable, but quite fitting, that when I finish my studies at Royal Holloway next year, I will have spent four years of my life, as a history student, less than a mile from the memorial that meant so much to my family.

Eliza Bichard is enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Tokens of Love and Loss: Military Sweetheart Brooches of the First World War by Penny Streeter

Several years ago, while reading through some documents in the Mass Observation Archives at the University of Sussex, I came across a survey of London retailers from 1939 that mentioned increasing wartime sales of gold and diamond ‘sweetheart badge brooches’, a term I had not previously come across.  Shortly afterwards, as frequently happens, I heard the phrase again.  On BBC One’s Antique’s Roadshow (11 March 2011), jewellery consultant John Benjamin remarked that members of the public often brought these brooches to him to identify but that they seldom, if ever, knew what they were or anything about their histories.  Further research revealed that many thousands of these brooches were manufactured, mainly in Birmingham and London, from the late 1880s to the present day reaching a peak of popularity during the First World War, yet they had largely disappeared from public awareness.  There seemed to be a neglected subject here ripe for study and, as it turned out, no-one had looked closely at these emotive, personal objects and the feelings and motivations embedded within them.

2 Soldier of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with his family. Source © British Library.
Soldier of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with his family (British Library)

These little brooches are miniature replicas of the badges of military regiments, naval units, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF, generally known as sweetheart brooches because they were often given as romantic keepsakes by members of the armed forces to their wives and girlfriends before they left for the front.  One Londoner recalled that they ‘were received as gifts, love tokens or symbols to display that one of your loved ones was “doing their bit”‘ and remembered that ‘almost every female seemed to wear one’.  Widely sold in retail and jewellery stores throughout the country and in small shops set up in military camps where last-minute gifts could be purchased before embarkation, families visibly articulated their support for their men as they left for potentially lengthy periods of separation in wartime by wearing brooches that matched the soldiers’ insignia.  In the photograph below, a very young recruit to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment poses in his pristine new uniform before leaving for his posting to France. The whole family wear replicas of his cap badge to support him: his wife wears a brooch at the collar of her blouse and even their baby’s dummy is pinned with another to a length of ribbon.

It had long been customary, of course, for soldiers to adapt pieces of their uniforms into mementoes for their families to wear: metal collar dogs, shoulder titles and buttons were especially popular and army orders had to be issued to prevent the practice.  Hand-made objects, together with items fashioned from battlefield matériel, which sometimes included jewellery constructed from shrapnel or bullets, are known as trench art and often incorporated insignia produced for the purpose: for instance, soldiers could buy printed or embroidered badges to appliqué to pincushions as gifts.  But the first replica badge commercially made as a piece of jewellery for a woman to wear can be traced to a gold, diamond and enamel brooch in the form of the insignia of the 10th Royal (Prince of Wales’ Own) Hussars, commissioned by the Earl of Airlie as a gift for his wife Mabell on their wedding day on 19th January 1886.  Lady Airlie recorded in her diary that she believed she had started a new fashion; she seems to have been correct as no earlier brooch has been identified and by the beginning of the First World War, brooches were available for every regiment of the British army, as well as for units of the Royal and Merchant navies and the Royal Flying Corps, hand-made by goldsmiths and silversmiths at one end of the economic spectrum and mass-produced in factories at the other, in materials varying from brass or paste to costly gemstones. Their material value was always less important, however, than their symbolic and emotive capacity to evoke people and memories.

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The Airlie Brooch (1885 – 1886). White gold replica insignia of 10th Royal (Prince of Wales’s Own) Hussars, encrusted with diamonds (KRH collection, Tidworth)

The brooches’ visible and tangible presence in the quotidian lives of women across all strata of society served as a strong link between front line personnel and civilians on the home front. But these distinctive pieces of jewellery communicated more than simple romantic devotion, expressing sentiments about a range of social and cultural themes, including notions of status, societal solidarity and patriotism.  Contemporary newspaper accounts describe how they were worn as talismans in the hope that they might generate good luck and bring the soldier home safely, thus reuniting the brooch and the original insignia that inspired it.  Photographs from the period frequently depict a uniformed bridegroom ready to leave for the front, while on the bride’s wedding dress can be seen her military sweetheart brooch, a disconcerting visible symbol since it binds the hopeful couple together but also foregrounds the conflict that we understand will soon separate them, perhaps permanently.  Images like these, taken just before the start of the war or during a brief period of leave were sometimes almost the only remnant of hastily conducted wartime marriages of such short duration that they might seem, if the soldier did not return and without even a body for burial, never to have happened.  Many such photographs indicate that women wore their brooches as a constant reminder of a missing husband or son’s absence, often with his portrait in a locket, and that they publicly demonstrated their bereavement in this way.

George Errall Withall enlisted with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and was killed in action at Festubert in Northern France on 16 May 1915.  Before he left he had given his wife Annie the sweetheart brooch she wears, with his portrait, in this photograph:

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Annie Gertrude Withall wearing her Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment sweetheart brooch, with her sons Richard Henry (left) and George Thomas, c. 1915

Before he enlisted, George Withall was a farm worker in Frensham, Surrey and the photograph depicts Annie and her two little boys, George and Richard, probably outside the family’s cottage.  The children’s ages (George would have been about five years old at the time of his father’s death and Richard just three) suggest a probable date for the photograph of 1915.  They are all dressed in their best formal clothes and, judging from their sorrowful expressions, it is likely that this image records a service held in Withall’s memory.  His body was not recovered, so instead of an indentified grave he was commemorated on the le Touret Memorial near Festubert in the 1920s. In common with millions of other women bereaved as a result of the war, Annie was denied the consoling ritual of a funeral. To bereaved women like Annie who had no grave to visit and make the focus for their memories, sweetheart brooches given as tokens of love and affection often became dearly treasured commemorative objects.

The unprecedented death toll of the First World War meant that many brooches originally given in quite happy circumstances inevitably became associated with gried as repositories of memory and mourning.  We should also remember that many soldiers were too young to have established families of their own or didn’t have sweethearts to cherish their memory while they were on active service.  For these usually younger men, their mother was often still the most significant female influence in their lives and she would thus be given a brooch to wear.  The reasons why bereaved women wore the military brooches they had been given in happier times were complex and are difficult to unpick.  For some, the brooch was a straightforward symbol of pride while others felt that only a patriotic display could justify their losses and wore their brooches defiantly. But mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts were strongly encouraged by government propaganda and societal expectations to persuade their men to enlist and to wear a regimental brooch to show they had done so and were thus made complicit in their own bereavement. If women felt anger at the deaths of friends and relatives, however, this was an unacceptable rejection of the code of stoical acceptance to which they were expected to adhere in the interests of maintaining morale on the home front.  For more angry or simply ambivalent women in mourning, the brooches’ military connotations were poignant, unwelcome reminders of the cause of their loved ones’ deaths and a reason for concealing these keepsakes from their families.

This may be one reason why so many sweetheart brooches have become separated from their histories.  Grieving mothers, wives and sweethearts put aside the jewellery given to them by beloved sons, husbands and lovers who did not survive the war because they were embedded with such painful memories.  For example, just before the end of the war, in August 1918, Lt. Charles Bodman of the Durham Light Infantry was killed near Arras. His body was never recovered but the army returned his personal effects, including his photographs, his papers and a sweetheart brooch presumably intended for her, to his bereaved mother in Gloucestershire.  Unable to contemplate these haunting reminders, she put them into a wooden chest and entrusted them to her surviving son, asking that it be kept safe but not opened.  The box was stored in the family grocery shop and only rediscovered in 2015.

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Woman wearing sweetheart brooch of the Prince of Wales Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment, c. 1914 – 1918.

And thus a deeply personal decision to hide away objects with painful associations show us how the stories of sweetheart brooches becomes lost to us as these emotive objects move beyond living memory. Another reason they’ve faded from public consciousness is their status as hybrid objects. From a curatorial perspective, they are neither officially military in design nor simply simply decorative. As such they have largely fallen outside the remit and interest of military museums (where, if they are displayed, their significance is rarely explained to the visitor). Typically, they come into museum collections as part of private donations that include more obviously relevant items such as medals, uniforms and weapons. Whether brooches are displayed or marginalised depends on the importance placed by individual curators (or their trustees) upon the connections between the members of the forces and their families, which is not always accorded much significance.  Neither, however, do they fit easily into the collections of design museums, which perhaps regard them as military items, and no major cultural museum in Britain holds examples. Yet badges and emblems always, or at least very often, convey personal and political messages.

Many, I’m sure, are still kept by their original owners’ families.  Accessing items owned by private individuals is always challenging, but like other wartime artefacts these are fascinating objects with stories to tell about how people lived and felt and memorialised their loved ones at times of unimaginable tension and heightened emotion.  I hope to compile a record of images of brooches, those who gave them and those who wore them, with accompanying stories and any surviving documentation.  If any readers would like to add their family histories to this database, so that they are not lost to history, I would very much like to hear from you.  Please e-mail me at

Penny Streeter is a historian of the First World War. She was recently awarded a PhD in the History of Art by the University of Sussex for a doctoral project that explored jewellery replicating military badges, worn by families of service personnel from the Boer Wars and throughout the 20th century.

Considering Motherhood, Loss and the First World War with 21st Century Women by Sarah Giles

The unprecedented death toll of the First World War led to such widespread bereavement that the loss of loved ones can rightly be regarded as one of the defining experiences of the conflict. Millions of mothers across Europe and the wider world lost sons and, in some cases, daughters serving in the military between 1914 and 1918. They experienced unimaginable loss, yet relatively little is known about them today and, with some notable exceptions, historians haven’t had a great deal to say about loss during wartime. Nor have the centenary commemorations of the conflict over the past four years generally acknowledged the experiences and hardship of these bereaved mothers. To shed light on this much-overlooked aspect of the war, Big Ideas has led a major community commemoration project entitled Motherhood, Loss and the First World War. This project has invited community groups across the UK to discover the experiences of mothers who lost sons or daughters whilst serving in the First World War, to respond creatively to these stories, and to share these with their wider community. The project has encouraged community collaboration, bringing groups together through shared understanding of grief, an emotion that resonates with and connects many of us today.

The project launched on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour just before Mothering Sunday in March of this year, with a call for stories from individuals and community groups about mothers who lost children serving in the military in the First World War. We were greatly moved by the responses, as people shared stories of their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts and other relatives who had suffered the loss of children during the war. Many of these testimonies are now included in our free resource pack, joining a series of heartbreaking stories of mothers whose lives and losses we discovered.

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An epitaph composed by a mother, British soldier’s grave, Ramparts Cemetery, Ieper/Ypres

Given the relative youth of many of the men and women who went to war between 1914 and ’18, a lot of them were unmarried and their relationship with their mother was often one of the strongest and most intimate in their lives. To help community groups explore this relationship, we shared a series of letter exchanges between mothers and their sons who were serving during the First World War. Letter-writing was very much part of everyday life and the main form of communication during the period. An extraordinary number of letters were sent to service personnel from Britain – as many as 12 million each week. Most mothers kept the letters sent by their sons, but in many cases the letters from mothers carried by their sons and daughters did not survive wartime conditions, especially if their child never made it home. These letter exchanges reveal the significance of the everyday, and we find servicemen and women asking their mothers for updates on family illnesses, car repairs and enquiring about the changing of the seasons at home, as well as asking for comforts, such as chocolate, cigarettes and socks, to be sent out to the front. One letter asks for another pack of peppermints. What is revealing in these letters is the way they shed light on the mother’s role as an anchor to the normality and comfort at home, and the degree to which the horrors and general deprivation of war were usually concealed by their children to shield their mothers from the realities of their hardship. The letters kept by mothers often remained in the domestic and personal realm, kept in an attic somewhere, rather than entering official collections.

This is a project with discovery of unknown stories and remembrance at its heart. Community groups are invited to discover these mother’s stories through the resource pack and letter exchanges and respond creatively to them. This can be done through any medium they choose, including music, drawing, painting, sewing, gardening, or creative writing. Importantly, these groups are exploring not only the experiences of British mothers, but also mothers of service personnel from across the world, including Nigeria and the Caribbean. By remembering together within our communities, we have been able to shed light on these stories and commemorate the contributions made from across society.

Beyond Conflict
Members of the Beyond Conflict support group for women affected by the Troubles at a Motherhood, Loss and the First World War workshop in Belfast

To bring the story into the current day, the project connects with women’s groups across the UK through personal advocacy and skills-building workshops, helping them to gain the confidence to share their own stories. As a key part of these workshops, groups discover the stories of the mothers of the First World War, reading the letter exchanges and responding creatively to them. The participants have created care packages of items that they would share with a loved one serving in wartime, crafted sweetheart cushions, created unique postcards with messages of love, realisation and loss. They have cried together as they discovered more of these stories and indeed learned about one another. Each workshop has been unique, yet what has resounded in all of them is the empathy and sensitivity of the participants discovering these stories and sharing their experiences through community and creativity. The workshops have also revealed that, although the First World War was a particular moment in time, the experience of the mothers and their grief remains universal and continues to resonate.

To develop a better understanding of the experiences of mothers during the period, a major collaborative conference has been organised by Big Ideas, the London Centre for Public History and Heritage, and the Institute of Historical Research, which will be held at Senate House on 5 and 6 September. The conference will bring historians and community groups together to explore maternal bereavement as a result of the war, an experience that was understood to be particularly painful and difficult to come to terms with. A dedicated session will showcase the important work of community groups across the country who have give up their time to discover and remember these stories, and to share them with their wider community.

Two free public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme. Professor Susan Grayzel, one of the world’s leading commentators on women in modern war, will deliver a lecture on the experiences of mothers in the First World War on 5 September. On 6 September, a world premiere of a specially-commissioned series of pieces by acclaimed violinist and composer Clare Connors, accompanied by letter readings from the First World War, will bring to life the voices of mothers and their sons and daughters serving in the military.

As legacy of the project, Big Ideas is installing a unique piece of playground equipment in the UK, bearing a message to remember bereaved mothers of the First World War for generations to come. The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project runs until the end of November 2018, yet our hope is that these stories will continue to resonate with communities across the UK.

Sarah Giles is Director of Partnerships at Big Ideas, where she develops programmes, connects networks and helps community groups get involved in historical and cultural initiatives.


To join the Motherhood project and access free resources and funding information, please email the Big Ideas team at

To attend the Motherhood, Loss and the First World War conference on the 5 and 6 September, please follow this link to book your tickets.

Two free, public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme: a keynote lecture by Professor Susan Grayzel on 5 September, and an evening of music and readings exploring the relationship between mothers and their children on 6 September, composed and led by acclaimed violinist Clare Connors. Free tickets can be booked on the IHR website.

The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project is led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with additional funding from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund to work in the Home Nations. The project is part of Remember Together, a series of First World War community commemoration programmes led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), with additional funding for select projects to work in the Home Nations from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund, and RAF100, through the Chancellor using LIBOR funds. Discover more at

Srebrenica Memorial Day: Shattering the Illusion of “Never Again” by Jackie Teale

I don’t remember much of the history that I was taught at school, which is a sobering thought for a history teacher, but I do remember learning about the Holocaust. I remember watching footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and I remember my history teacher, who was visibly moved by the footage, charging us with the responsibility to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. It’s easy to commend her compassion and when you consider the enormity of the crimes that constitute the Holocaust, an emotional response is perfectly understandable. But in that very moment she had unwittingly provided us with a sense of closure; the camps had been liberated, the Holocaust was over and the world had said “never again”.

No mention was made of the physical, material, or psychological challenges encountered by those who had survived extermination in the weeks, months and years that followed, or the more than 13,000 former prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen after liberation. There was no indication that the Nazis had not invented the act of genocide, nor any suggestion of its recurrence after the fall of the Third Reich. When you consider that this was the 1990s, the decade in which approximately 800,000 people were brutally killed in the Rwandan genocide, this omission is all the more striking.

It was also the decade that saw genocide return to the European continent during the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Next week marks twenty-three years since Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, ordered his tanks to advance on the UN-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica, rendering it anything but safe for the Bosnian Muslims who had sought refuge there. Families were torn apart as women and young children were separated from their male relatives. In the days that followed more than 8,000 people (mostly men) were transported to nearby execution sites and murdered. The youngest among them was a new-born baby whose name would have been Fatima had she been permitted to live.

Amel Emric EXODUS
Bosnian Muslim refugees desperately trying to enter the UN safe zone at Potočari (Amel Emric)

In Britain today, crimes fuelled by Islamophobia are on the rise, which is hardly surprising when you consider the persistent misrepresentation of Muslims across some sections of our media. While teachers have limited control over societal prejudices and education may not inoculate people against hate, teaching and learning about genocide does involve a critical engagement with what human beings are capable of and what it means to be human. Teaching students about the historical context in which previous genocides unfolded and encouraging them to think about genocide as a process, gives them the knowledge that the Holocaust was not in fact the epilogue to “man’s inhumanity to man” but simply another chapter. And that’s an important lesson in a world still haunted by the spectre of genocide.

We can’t teach everything, but we can help students make sense of the world they’re growing up in by drawing explicit connections between the past that they encounter in history class and the world outside their window. Whether that means highlighting the legacy of imperialism and the continued impact of the slave trade, pointing to the significance of the Crusades for today’s Middle East, or casting a light on the recurrence and persistence of genocide since 1945, it is incumbent on teachers to make the past appear relevant to their students. Historical anniversaries and memorial days can provide a useful vehicle for this.

In 2009, the EU designated 11th July as Srebrenica Memorial Day and in 2013 the charity Remembering Srebrenica was established to raise awareness of the genocide in the UK. Teachers in particular can take this opportunity to discuss the subject with their students, something that many of them will know little about. Teachers wanting to improve their own subject knowledge, can use the charity’s website where they will also be able to download educational resources for use in both primary and secondary schools. The charity also runs a ‘Lessons from Srebrenica’ initiative and to date they have taken more than 1,100 British citizens to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Earlier this year, I was privileged to be part of an education delegation that travelled with the charity to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we were fortunate enough to meet with some of the survivors of the genocide. As you would expect, the experience was incredibly humbling, but when our tour guide, Suvad Cibra, shared his experiences of the war years with us, we were reminded that the majority of people in Bosnia harbour memories of the war, even if not all of them are willing or able to share theirs. Suvad was just four years old when the war broke out and his testimony was a poignant reminder that then, as now, the ‘Rights of the Child’ mean nothing in a country ravaged by war. It was particularly jarring to hear that Suvad considered himself lucky as he had only lost one member of his family – his father. He was quick to suggest that in eastern Bosnia things had been far worse than where he had been, and he described cases where several generations of the same family had been wiped out, a sad fact borne out by the names inscribed on the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial.

For the survivors of the genocide, 1995 didn’t mark a happily-ever-after any more than 1945 had for the survivors of the Holocaust. And so next week when we commemorate the more than 8,000 individuals whose lives were cut short, we should also consider the impact that their absence continues to have on their family members who survived them. Not all of the bodies of their relatives have been, or ever will be, fully recovered. This is because several months after the Bosnian Serb forces executed and buried the victims, they uncovered the graves to remove and rebury the bodies in an attempt to hide the crimes they had committed – the final stage of genocide. This led to a situation in which the bones of one victim could be found strewn across several graves. To this day 782 bodies remain missing and the partial remains of hundreds more lie at the Podrinje Identification Project forensic facility in Tuzla. The remains of at least 25 victims will be buried this year in the annual ceremony held on the 11th July at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Complex. It has already been reported that Peter Ivancov, the Russian ambassador to Sarajevo has been refused permission to attend this year’s ceremony on the grounds that he denies the genocide, reminding us of another burden the survivors have to bear – the denial of this crime by the perpetrators and their allies.

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Podrinje Identification Project at Tuzla, where the remains of hundreds of victims are stored in plastic bags and netting while the identification process continues (Jasmine A: Wikimedia)

Remembering Srebrenica hopes that educating people in the UK about the consequences of what can happen when hatred goes unchecked will help to bring about a better and safer society for us all. This seems particularly salient in the current climate, where both at home and internationally evidence of racism, xenophobia and intolerance abounds. The real power to prevent genocide, or to help the 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, rests with politicians, individual states and the international community and not with students. But precisely because those with real power are far more adept at invoking the rhetoric of “never again” than they are at promoting policies in the spirit of that idea, it’s important for teachers not to close the book in 1945 and allow students to leave the classroom armed with the illusion that “never again” meant precisely that.

For ideas about how you could mark Srebrenica Memorial Day with your students or in your community and to find out more about the important work being done by Remembering Srebrenica you can visit their website

Jackie Teale is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is supervised by Professor Dan Stone and focuses on the ways in which press photography has shaped public responses to genocide.