Gordon, one of our fieldworkers, wrote in with the following question.

One of our local WW1 memorials is called The Greytree Shrine. I had never come across this title before and wondered how common it was in the UK. Looking at your excellent data base I was surprised to find 326 shrines. 138 of them were in Kingston upon Hull. Can anyone offer an explanation as to why the use of shrine was so popular in this town and other areas during WW1. Nationally ‘shrines’ were not used for WW2 memorials.

According to my dictionary, a shrine is a casket holding sacred relics, altar or chapel with special associations, a place hallowed by some memory.

Perhaps some of your readers and especially from Hull might have a view on this.

As I’ve mentioned previously The Greytree Shrine is now being refurbished. When finished it will be rededicated. I am in touch with the grandson of one Greytree soldier who lost his life in 1917. I shall keep you informed of any developments to this story.

The word shrine in this context usually refers to ‘street shrines’. These were typically wooden boards with the names of those serving from the local area, a crucifix in the centre and shelf below for flowers. They were erected in the street by local communities. If someone serving died, their name would be marked (e.g. with a red cross).

They start to be seen around late 1916, initially in London (particularly East London), but also in Kingston-upon-Hull. They don’t really appear to have taken off anywhere else.  Much research has been done into the Kingston-upon-Hull shrines, which is why they are relatively well known.

As they were of a temporary nature (in intention and materials) many have been lost. Some were lost when streets were demolished in slum clearances or bombing in the Second World War. Others would have been taken down when a permanent stone or metal memorial was erected.

As well as being the anniversary of the founding of the Imperial War Museum, today is also an important anniversary for us.  Twenty years ago today, the then Director General of the Imperial War Museum, Dr Alan Borg, wrote a letter responding to an article in The Times.  The article had pointed out that church sculpture was at risk from vandalism and other threats.  The chairman of the Friends of Brompton Cemetery had then suggested the establishment of a national inventory of funerary monuments.

Dr Borg, responded with the following letter, published on 5 March 1988.

Sir, Mr Bendixson’s plea (February 24) for a national inventory of funerary monuments deserves wide support but there is, I suggest, an even more urgent national requirement for an Inventory of war memorials. Every town and virtually every village in the country has at least one memorial to those who have died in the conflicts of the 20th century.

These memorials were erected by the state by local communities, by companies, by schools, by individuals and by other bodies. They are in the care of a similarly diverse range of authorities. Most are well looked after but many are suffering from the ravages of time and pollution, with inscriptions becoming illegible and details of sculpture destroyed.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is no inventory of war memorials and hence no way of telling how many require restoration or are in danger of destruction. Various bodies hold partial records, notably the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, and this museum. However, such records relate to only a small percentage of extant memorials and I have long believed that a national database should be established.

The task is finite, manageable and (comparatively) inexpensive; unfortunately, however, it is no one’s responsibility and hence virtually impossible to fund from established sources. Yet if we, after more than 40 years of peace in Europe, allow even a part of our heritage of war memorials to be lost through neglect, we shall rightly be censured by future generations.

Yours faithfully,

Alan Borg,
Director, Imperial War Museum,

Dr Borg’s letter clearly struck a chord with The Times readers, for a dozen responses were published over the next two months. Among them was one from Derek Boorman, later to become the author of books about war memorials, and another pointing out that there are war memorials such as hospitals that are not sculpted.

Following this enthusiastic response, a meeting of interested organisations was held in June and the UKNIWM was founded as a joint project by the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England.  The following year, 1989, the project appointed its first Project Coordinator and work began to record every war memorial in the UK.

Dr Alan Borg recently retired as chairman of the UKNIWM charitable company.  He must surely be proud of what his letter to The Times twenty years ago initiated.

One enquiry we receive from time to time is the request for help identifying where a memorial originally came from.  This is not always as easy as it sounds.  Last year we reported about a memorial found dumped on a beach in Christchurch, Dorset.  The rather cryptic inscription, “To the men of this Parish…” does not not exactly aid identification of which Parish!

Recently we received a letter from a curator at Grantham Museum in Lincolnshire.  She was trying to research a memorial with the following inscription.

“1914-1918 Memory of Brothers who fell in the Great War Loyal Mystery of Providence Lodge M U” 

The curator’s first thought was that this was a memorial to a Freemasons group, but she had been in touch with the local branch and they had no record of a ‘Providence Lodge’.  One of our volunteers then suggested that it was a memorial to the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows.  The Oddfellows is an organisation that began in the late 17th Century, founded out of Medieval London trade guilds.  The Manchester section was formed in 1810 as a social group and Friendly Society.

Today we received the good news that the memorial did indeed commemorate members of the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and that the memorial is now going to be cleaned and put on display at their headquarters building in Manchester.

 Tag cloud

We’ve just set up a ‘tag cloud’ for this blog, which will give you a new and useful way to browse the entries.

The tag cloud is a list of key-words describing different topics the blog entries cover.  The bigger the word, the more times that topic is mentioned.

Some of the more popular key-words are WW1, WW2, New, Names on memorials, Restoration, Family History.

Simply click on a word to see all entries on that topic.

The tag cloud can be found on the right of this screen, beneath ‘categories’. 

Why not try it out?

This post is prompted by a newspaper article, sent in by member of the public, which appeared earlier this month in the Yorkshire Post.  The article deals with plans to add the names of those who died in the two world wars to Featherstone’s war memorial, as these were not included when it was built after the First World War.  (Click here to read the whole article).

Despite the comment in the article from a local historian, “No one knows why the memorial has no names on it, even the smallest village memorials always seem to have names,” it is actually not that uncommon to find memorials with no names.  There are several possible reasons for this, including the follow:  

  • There may have been a shortage of money (inscriptions were paid for by the letter), which is the same reason initials are often used rather than full first names.   
  • There might have been a desire not to accidentally exclude anyone.  Names were collected in a variety of ways and often someone who might have been included was missed.  This is one of the reasons we regularly receive enquiries from people seeking to add missing names (often relatives) to their local memorial.
  • The memorial may not have been large enough to bear all the names.  You are actually more likely to see names on memorials from smaller communities.  Larger communities often had a memorial without names but collected them together in a Book of Remembrance that was kept on display in a prominent location, such as the town hall.

The second interesting point from the article was the following:

“One soldier will be omitted. His details were traced from the single fact that he was known to have a brother called Norman. From that sliver of information, his identity was eventually unearthed.

But he fought in the Spanish Civil War and rules dictate that only those who died serving the Crown should appear on war memorials in this country.

There are many commonly held assumptions about who can and can’t appear on war memorials, but the simple truth is there are no national rules (or even guidance) about this.  Whoever erects a memorial can decide whom they wish to commemorate.  Among the enormous variety of war memorials in this country are memorials to the following: those who served but didn’t die; women; civilians (including babies); animals; foreign nationals (including those from enemy countries); and memorials to those who fought in conflicts abroad in which the UK played no official part, such as the American Civil War and Vietnam.

This also includes 44 memorials to the Spanish Civil War.

As well as memorials that still exist, we also record ‘lost’ memorials.  These can include those that have been destroyed, stolen or simply disappeared from public view.  It’s not unheard of for lost memorials to turn up in someone’s garage!  Some memorials were only ever intended to be temporary, such as the snow memorial from Pateley Bridge, and we record those as well (click here for article on temporary memorials).

Memorials can often be put at risk if the building in which they are located changes use or is demolished.   We came across an rather unusual example of this yesterday.  In 1972 a church in Manchester was demolished and the land sold for housing.  Rather than move the war memorials to another church, the church secretary (who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War) threw them out.

We had an enquiry today asking if special permission is needed to move a war memorial.  In this case there is a dispute between the council and local residents about relocating the town’s war memorial.

The simple answer is that there is no automatic legal protection for war memorials, although it is possible for freestanding memorials to be listed monuments.   Click here to read a help sheet about listing war memorials.

Having said that, town and village war memorials were usually paid for by subscriptions from the local community so, although Local Authorities may assume custodianship for them, they can still be said to be community-owned and councils should be sensitive to residents’ opinions about relocation.

In a few cases it does prove necessary to move memorials.  The free booklet ‘Guidance for Custodians’, (by the Ministry of Justice, formerly the Department for Constitutional Affairs) includes some advice about removal or relocation of memorials.

“It is not always possible or appropriate to keep a war memorial in the place in which it was erected (or is now located); for instance, if the ownership of buildings and land in which it is situated changes, or the memorial needs to undergo major structural or other alterations. In these exceptional circumstances, custodians may need to consider whether the war memorial could be moved.
If the war memorial is primarily associated with a particular organisation, it may be appropriate to relocate the war memorial elsewhere within that organisation’s building or land, even if it will result in removal from its original site.
If a war memorial has a particular association with a geographical area or community which would be lost if it were removed elsewhere, the custodian should consider offering the war memorial to be relocated with another local organisation (or into the care of the local authority).
If it is not practical or feasible to relocate the war memorial and it is not possible for it to remain in its current location, the custodian may need to consider removing the memorial completely – but such action should be considered only as a matter of last resort.
Where it is proposed to relocate or dispose of the war memorial to a new owner or location, custodians should give at least six weeks’ notice to The War Memorials Trust, who may be able to help in finding a suitable new location if required.
Once a war memorial has been relocated, custodians should advise the UK National Inventory of War Memorials and produce a new up to date record of the war memorial and establish who has responsibility for its future upkeep.”

Private Robert Burns, killed in action on 1 July 1916 at the start of the Battle of the SommeWe recently answered an enquiry from a member of the public who wrote to tell us that she had started what she hoped would become a tradition with her young daughter on Remembrance Day.  They walk to the local war memorial and leave a poppy with a message.  Each year they will pick out one name and try to find out more information  about that person.  

She wrote to us because she was looking for advice on how to go about this.

The first thing we do is check our records to see if we hold any information about the people named on the memorials. Unfortunately in this case we didn’t yet have that information. 

The next simple thing to do (if the memorial is to the First or Second World war) is to try to find the individual on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Debt of Honour database.  This would then give you useful information such as age, service number and regiment, which can be used in further enquiries.

CWGC Debt of Honour database

However, if the only information you have are surname and first initial (which is very common on First and Second World War memorials) then it could be very hard to identify which of the many people with the same name is the one on your local memorial.  Obviously, it’s easier with more unusual surnames.  Even with common names it might still be possible.  Sometimes next-of-kin were listed and you may find someone with family who were living locally.  A word of warning regarding the regiments though, don’t assume that just because someone is listed as serving in a local regiment that they lived there.  Men could be recruited for any regiment and sometimes moved between regiments over the course of the war.

Another very useful thing to do is to contact your local history society.  It’s possible that someone has already done this research.  If that draws a blank, you might try looking through the archives of old local newspapers.  These should be in a local studies centre – usually stored on microfiche. Try to find a newspaper report for the unveiling, as these sometimes listed the full names. If you can find out the full first name, you’ll have a better chance finding him on the CWGC database. Most First World War memorials were unveiled sometime between 1919 and 1925 so start with those dates and expand from there. 

The other thing you can look for in local newspaper archives are obituaries and reports from soldiers at the front which were often printed. These can provide interesting information about the person you are looking for and others serving at the time.

Once you have positively identified the individual there are other sources for research, such as unit war diaries and service records. Below is a link to some useful downloadable PDF leaflets on how to get started.

Click for information sheets about tracing service personnel

While the UKNIMW records all UK memorials to all conflicts, there are some projects that focus on a narrower field.  One of these is the Anglo-Boer Memorials Project, which was established to record, catalogue and photograph all Anglo-Boer War memorials in the world.

There is a very interesting essay available on their website entitled ‘A Survey of Memorials to the Second Anglo-Boer War in the United Kingdom and Eire’, by Meurig Jones.

This includes details such as the following;

“Memorials take many forms; cross, statue, building, plaque/tablet, book , fountain and so on. Over two thirds of memorials are indoor, mostly in churches and are plaques or tablets. These are the most traditional form of memorial and perhaps the most cost effective. Very few memorials (about 6%) can be considered of a practical nature; buildings, drinking fountains and furniture.”

“…memorials for only one person form nearly 52% of the total memorials recorded. The majority of  these are to men of officer rank [because] their family, work, club or fellow officers were richer or had easy access to the sums of money needed to create a memorial.”

“Almost all the regular army units erected memorials to their dead, as did many of  the volunteer units.”

“Cottage homes were a popular form of memorial because they were practical and could directly benefit soldiers invalided  from the War.”

“During the war British women were employed as nurses, not a new role, but their employment was on a more formal basis than ever before and received greater official and public recognition than before. Approximately 1,800 women served in south Africa as nurses. Twenty-nine nurses died during the war, all succumbed to disease in one form or another.”  Their names appear on both unit and local town memorials.

“There are nine memorials which celebrate the peace that brought the war to an end. These are different types of war  memorials in that they look forward, post-war, to peace, and do not remember people and events that occurred in war.”

Click here to read the full essay