Researching the First World War: Introducing Tommy Atkins

By Patricia Dark, Archivist at Southwark Local History Library and Archive

This is the first post in a series exploring ways to find out more about the part your family, school, workplace, or neighbourhood played in the First World War.

War memorial, Mill Pond Bridge. October 1921 (PB01254)100 years ago, our ancestors would have known the First World War as simply the “Great War”. It changed the lives of almost every family in Britain, and around the world. Men and women saw active duty as military personnel – in the slang of the time, a “tommy” – or served as civilians in medical aid units overseas or working on the home front. Millions of people were taken prisoner of war, interned as enemy civilians, or fled their homes as refugees.

In the UK, nearly a million service personnel died and more than half again were injured. In addition, more than 100,000 civilians died in the conflict – most of malnutrition and disease brought on by the war, but nearly 15,000 members of the Merchant Marine died at sea, and about 2,000 from air and naval attacks. In fact, there are only 52 communities in the UK – all in England and Wales – where all the service personnel who left for the front survived; they’re known as “Thankful Villages”. France, which saw nearly a million and a half combat deaths has only one such village without a war memorial – Thierville, in Normandy.

The First World War touched every family and community in Britain – which means that it’s an indelible part of the history of every community in Britain today. You may be interested in finding out more about the part your family, school, workplace, or neighbourhood played in the Great War: we aim to explain what information you may be able to find, where it is, and how to access it. We’ll also tell you the information you will need to know find out more.

Places to start

The First World War was the first truly global war, and so is the commemoration of its centenary. If you are looking for an overview of the Great War, or information on its impact and aftermath, the UK national First World War centenary website or Wikipedia may be able to help. However, if you’re interested in more specific stories – for instance, the experience of your neighbourhood or members of your family – you will probably need to look in surviving archival records; to do that effectively, you will need to have specific information that will help you weed out false leads.

Generally speaking, there are a few critical pieces of information you will need to pick your tommy out of the pack. These include their full name (maiden surname for women, who usually left wartime service on marriage), date of birth, and (for military personnel) service number. The more you know about someone – date(s) and place(s) of service, call-up date(s), occupation(s), unit name(s) – the easier it can be to match records to the person you’re looking for. In some cases, knowing details of someone’s religious/philosophical beliefs, occupation, and nationality can be extremely helpful.

One excellent place to look for clues is in your own family’s records and collections of heirlooms. Uniform items, medals, and souvenirs from the front can give you information about dates, places, and units where someone served – this information is vital to find out more. Collections of family papers may contain official paperwork (like call-up, recruitment, discharge, or pension papers) that provide leads, or diaries, personal letters, photographs, and other documents that open a window into life in wartime.

To take these leads further – to discover what your ancestor did during the First World War, or how it affected your neighbourhood, you will often consult other surviving records; if you are interested in fleshing out a story, you may find objects surviving from the period very useful.  Heritage institutions like archives and museums hold records and objects, and are invaluable for following leads. There are almost as many archives and museums as there are organisations (and what they hold and how they operate varies by country), but some are especially useful for researching the First World War. We’ll take a look at these in the next post in this series.

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Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Getting to know the Local History Library and Archive

Southwark’s rich and diverse history is told through surviving documents. These historical sources, along with information on changes in the borough today, have been gathered at Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

If you are researching your family history, or just curious to know more about how your local area has changed over the years, then you can find a wealth of information waiting to be uncovered in the library and archive on Borough High Street.

LHL Film Footage

Stills from film footage in the archive

Around 20,000 photographs, prints and topographical watercolours provide a vivid visual record of Southwark over the last 200 years. And a range of films reflecting life in the borough, from 1899 to the present day, let you join residents as they celebrate everything from Christmas parties and sports days to Royal visits.

Written archives include press cutting, periodicals, parish registers, Post Office directories and some of the records of the former civil parishes going back to the 16th century, including vestry minutes, taxation records and poor law records. Some local organisations have also deposited their records, including businesses, non conformist churches and early schools.

The archives continue to grow and if you have material that you would like to donate please contact one of the archivists who can determine whether it would be a suitable addition to Southwark’s holdings or be better suited to another institution.

Inspired by historic films from the collection, young people from the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel created three short films on the theme of Growing Up in Southwark. This included a short introduction to using the resources at the Southwark Local History Library and Archive.