As a folk singer and songwriter, I am interested in cultural memory and the way stories are passed down through the ‘oral tradition’. Since September 2016 I have been touring ‘No Petticoats Here’, a one-woman performance of original music and storytelling which I wrote in response to my own frustration at the absence of women’s First World War experiences I had come across since the start of centenary commemorations in 2014. As a former history and citizenship teacher, I recall only too well the disappointment of students who could not see themselves in the history books available to us as teaching and learning resources.
Working with Portsmouth based charity The Urban Vocal Group, I designed the project ‘Never Had They Ever’ to engage a younger audience with the stories of First World War women in the hope that they would pass on this heritage to their communities and peers to generate further interest. Participants were aged 13 -19 years and through their words the heritage is placed in a modern context, making it relatable and accessible, demonstrating its relevance today.
Never Had They Ever brought together young researchers from Salisbury and Portsmouth to explore women’s experiences of work during the First World War in order to compare the experiences of these two cities with strong military connections. Urban and industrial, located on the coast, Portsmouth’s position as a Royal Navy base during the First World War drew increasing numbers of women into both civilian and military roles. Situated in neighbouring Wiltshire, the market city of Salisbury served a sprawling rural hinterland whilst Salisbury Plain hosted large numbers of soldiers. We were interested to explore how these local differences impacted women’s experiences of the First World War.
Young researchers were recruited to the project by contacting schools in the Salisbury area. We had one false start and I spent one evening, instead of delivering our first workshop, re-designing a poster which I could send to every peripatetic music teacher and every music /history /humanities /media teach and pastoral leader whose email address I could lay my hands on whilst following up with numerous phone calls. Slowly but surely a group was formed.
The project took place through a programme of workshops with visits to the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Explosion! Museum and a visit from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre’s Heritage Education Officer Ruth Butler, who brought materials and artefacts from the archives to Salisbury. We borrowed costumes and handling boxes from Salisbury Museum containing a mixture of replica and original items ranging from ration books and postcards to tins of bully beef. One aim of the project was to open up public archives, collections, museums and record centres and to encourage young people to engage with these resources with additional literature and online research in taking a back seat.
The young researchers were supported during the research process to identify the aspect of women’s First World War experience interested them most, to undertake more detailed research on this area and then to respond to this heritage through song by writing lyrics, melody and musical accompaniment. The songs were recorded and each young person was given a number of choices so that they could enhance the storytelling in the way they felt best expressed the story behind their song. The young researchers also wrote and recorded a ‘Heritage Track’, outlining the heritage at the heart of their research and analysing its relevance today.
We will be celebrating the results of this project with a public performance at Salisbury (details TBC) when there will be a temporary exhibition outlining the heritage explored and how we researched and developed the materials. We invite those working in education, heritage, the arts and the wider community to come and enjoy the results of our work. Please contact Louise Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be kept up to date as details are confirmed.
The songs, heritage tracks and a resource book (containing lyrics, details of the project and a scheme of work with resources) will soon be available to access online free of charge (available on The Urban Vocal Group website) and we encourage you to share these more widely. Limited copies of the resource book and CD will be available to schools and heritage organisations, please contact Louise Jordan for more information.
We hope that these resources will help those involved in teaching and sharing First World War history to make women’s First World War experiences an integral part of this transformative part of our heritage.
Louise Jordan, Salisbury based songwriter, performer and musician
Never Had They Ever was made possible by money raised by National Lottery players and awarded through Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War: then and now’ programme.
Images © The Urban Vocal Group