Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas in the Trenches in WWI


Letters home give an insight into the experiences of soldiers on the front line during WWI, including reflections on Christmas in the trenches. Some such letters were written by Rev John MacRae, Rector of All Saints Worcester, who volunteered as a chaplain and wrote back to his congregation to tell them about Christmas 1915 out in France with the soldiers.
Rev John MacRae


MacRae had only recently arrived, after being appointed in October. As well as leading services and supporting soldiers’ spiritual needs chaplains also chose to muck in and help in the practical tasks and carried out many of the same jobs as the soldiers. This included helping to build shelters, cooking, and transporting supplies. Being with the soldiers in the trenches meant they were exposed to many of the same risks from shellfire and snipers, and exposed to many health risks, and a number of chaplains died during the war.


At Christmas MacRae led two services for the men, adapting to what conditions he could find. One was held in a barn for his own Company, and he then carried out another in an orchard for another group. He would have liked to have led more for other soldiers but could not find the transport to travel further afield.

MacRae was elected mess president, and tried to obtain geese or turkeys for Christmas dinner, although when they arrived they were rather small and insufficient to feed a group of hungry men. However, they managed to get a pig too to help feed everyone. Cooking in these primitive conditions must have been a challenge.

Presents from home were always important to soldiers, particularly at Christmas time. At All Saints they were working hard to support the troops and over Christmas MacRae received a parcel containing 26 pairs of socks, 8 pairs of mittens and cuffs, and 17 mufflers to distribute, plus a body belt for their Rector. 20,000 cigarettes arrived shortly after too.

Weather conditions were also hard, and MacRae related the problem all soldiers suffered from, which was being wet most of the time with little opportunity to dry themselves or clothes once they got wet. 

We know from the Museum of Army Chaplaincy that MacRae was interviewed for the role in September 1915 and appointed Temporary Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class on 18 October 1915. The interview cards have been digitised by the Museum, and included is information that he passed his medical, could ride a horse, lived at 104 Bath Road, was married with 2 children, would be free in two weeks, and had references from the Bishop and Dean of Worcester.



The Museum also holds the personal notebook of the Rev Harry Blackburne DSO who was the Assistant Chaplain General to the 1st Army.  He records his impressions of the Anglican chaplains who served with him in 1st Army.  The entry for Rev J E Macrae reads:



MACRAE J E – 19th Division.

A large man with a strong personality.





Rev John MacRae left the army on 23 October 1916 and returned to All Saints, Worcester. In late 1919 he chaired the first few meetings of the parish War Memorial Committee before leaving to return to his native Scotland.



You can read more about the role of chaplains in WWI on the BBC website here.
You can also search for records of other chaplains at the
 
Chaplains Museum site.  




Letter from Worcester Chaplain

Rev.J Macrae's experiences on the Western Front [published Worcester Herald 16 Jan 1916]



     In a letter to his parishioners, apparently written on Ne Year's Eve, the Rev. J.E.MacRae, Rector of All Saint's, Worcester, who is serving as an Army Chaplain in France, says,

     "This is to wish you everything good for the New Year. We had no festivity last night for we could not procure anything to be festive with, and dined on some rather ancient beef, which as the newly installed mess president, I had to contrive into a stew: boiled rice and a pound of prunes completed the modest meal. Afterwards we visited the sergeants mess – to wit twelve of them in a wash-house behind the farm: planks on boxes for a table, candles stuck in bottles et tout cela. Fortunately, we had procured a turkey for them: they supplied at 9pm. We made cheerful speeches and hoped all would be ended before another twelvemonth: then to bed, expecting the guns, which had been silent most of the afternoon, to salute the New Year. They didn't, and the night passed without a shot, so far as we could hear, for the wind was from the north."

     In another passage, relating to the obtainment of supplies, Mr MacRae says, the 22 geese we ordered from E Force canteen could not be got: so I was promised turkeys instead. Last night S came back with turkeys, small birds only 8lbs each – no good – so we sent him to buy a pig as well for our men’s Christmas dinner. Tonight we have found a large oven, and the 'grub' and beer will be consumed in the barns in their groups – a rough and not very ready picnic, but the best we can do.

     "I wonder if people at home can picture the condition under which we actually live here? The newspapers, one and all, have told such tales of marvellous organisation, comfort in abundance, and so forth, that the real facts of crowding in barns – lucky if straw if handy – and everything being done in field and orchard, with the roughest food that a man can eat and keep healthy, are lost sight of. The men go for a fortnight or more without taking clothes off, day or night, till somehow, when in reserve, getting in one of the wash-houses some miles distant. Can anyone at home picture what this means in winter time? When we get wet – and that's often – nothing can be dried, and we just go on and hope for a little sunshine in the course of a week.

     "January 4th – We shifted down here yesterday again into huts and the mud. These shifts are days of strenuous toil for each and all – pack, lift, sit down, and rearrange everything – a job that cannot be completed in daylight anyhow. A scrimmage for food, tumble in as best we can, and on the morrow try to contrive means of existence for unknown days ahead of us. My job as chaplain, of course, has to go on one side for a day or two, and I help to get our men's various necessary affairs along, that we may live. Today I cut drains all around our hut, and built a brick and mud Kitchener for rough cooking, as our stove is worn out.

     "Yesterday, by a great stroke of luck, my parcels at last arrived. W's box is A1. A parcel of comforts too, from ladies of All Saints Parish came – quite an unexpected boon. Tell them (I will write also) that, for men just out of the trenches, socks, etc, are an absolute Godsend. Those sent will be given to Worcester men. I had also 20,000 cigarettes from L.I.S's sister. It was a lucky day for me. We got all our belongings in dry – a blessing only those who live in the open will appreciate.

     "On Sunday I had two very interesting services. One for a company from the other battalion of our diocese, in an orchard behind a shattered church; the other in a barn for our company. Christmas hymns – as we stood round as best we could, crowded together. The French women of the farm peeped across their yard, and seemed impressed with our singing, which was certainly very effective. Had my horse been available I would have had two more services.


     "You do not seem to have had all my letters. Can the Censor have been busy. I also sent a dozen others to people in Worcester. I am quite fit and well".

Rev Rich Johnson, All Saints Worcester




We showed the letter to John's present day successor at All Saints, Rev Dr Rich Johnson, to see what he thought of MacRae's experiences. He said:



“This wonderful story of the life and service of one of my predecessors makes me wonder what I would have done in his place. This story is a reminder that the church exists to make a difference in the mess and pain of our broken world.  The message of Jesus does not offer us an escape from the world or some nice ideas which to deny the reality of it, but rather calls us to wade in deep and bring hope and love, both with our words and our actions.  The Rev John MacRae exemplified this, leaving behind the relative security and comfort of life in Worcester, to serve those serving on the frontline.  That is in fact, the call on the whole church; to put the needs of others before our own.  The example and inspiration of my predecessor lives on in the parish of All Saints to this day, for instance, as we partner with others to run Worcester Foodbank, a debt centre and help find homes for children in care."  

Friday, 23 December 2016

1870s Christmas Decorations

In the 1870s local newspaper used to have a write up of the Christmas decorations put up locally, including the local churches. Sadly we don't have any photos of these decorations in the archives from this period, but the descriptions help us to image them. Christmas decorations had only recently come back into fashion, along with the general increase in popularity of Christmas, being described by the reporter as a 'recently revived art of modern culture'. That people could recall a time when decorations were not put up ties in with the theory that there was a boom in Christmas celebrations from the 1840s and 1850s, coinciding with Dicken's Christmas stories.

The first set of reports we include are from Berow's Worcester Journal of 27 December 1873. The majority of decorations were combinations of flowers (including Christmas Roses) and traditional evergreens such as holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew, alongside Bible verses. Wool and cloths were also used for decorations.

St Helen's


At each church the reporter lists the people involved, and there appears to have been teams of dedicated women and some men at each place helping to create festive decorations. Old St Martin's is described as being strikingly beautiful. All Saints was decorated with Christmas roses, flowers, yew and evergreens along with red and white woollen banners. Perhaps favouring 'less is more' a number of churches are praised for simple and tasteful decorations.




St Swithun's




The second set are from the Worcester Herald of 1877. Decorations at each location seem to be similar. Once again the reporter is appreciative of the efforts of each church. St George's Barbourne was described as being one of the best, with a centre piece of holly and white lilies. St Stephen's in addition to the usual decorations and texts had verses from O Come All Ye Faithful featured. The reporter praised a number of churches for their simplicity, such as at St Nicholas where their decorations are described as plain but neat. Others appear to have struggled, with St Alban's, a very small church, only managing simple decorations with few people to help, although the reporter is very sympathetic.

St Nicholas


300 years of Worcestershire newspapers are available on microfilm in our Self Service section on level 2 in The Hive. What will you discover?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Update on Clara Bauerle and the Bella in the wych elm story

Earlier in the year we posted a blog 'Who put Bella in the wych elm' as part of our Monthly Mysteries series.  In it we hinted that the link with Clara Bauerle, the German singer and actress, was one which was still being actively explored.  We can now reveal that the researcher who was following this lead believes she has finally laid this story to rest. 

Giselle Jakobs recently published a blog in which she stated that she had finally traced a copy of Clara Bauerle's death registration.  This indicated that Clara died on 16 December 1942 from veronal poisoning in a Berlin hospital so could not be the mystery woman discovered in Hagley Wood in April 1943.

For details of Giselle's discovery and a copy of the death registration please see her original blog post
  
Maggie Tohill
Cataloguing Archivist

Friday, 9 December 2016

Embroidering the Archives – more than books and paper

In September 1963, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened an exhibition entitled Opus Anglicanum which celebrated the international reputation that England had developed for during the 13th century for luxury handmade embroideries that were sought by Kings and Queens, Popes, Cardinals and Bishops across Europe.

Included within the V&A exhibition was the Salwarpe Purse held by Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (WAAS). The purse is a highly ornate late 13th or early 14th century piece of embroidery belonging to the parish of Salwarpe, Worcestershire.  It is believed that the bag was constructed from an earlier piece of work that was made up into a bag in the 14th or 15th century. 

When the Salwarpe Purse was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1963 the catalogue described it as, 'embroidered in silver gilt thread and coloured silks, with a lion, dogs, unicorns and foliage with a lattice formed of eight point stars and crosses'.

Now, more than 50 years on, the V&A is holding another exhibition of Opus Anglicanum, bringing together many stunning examples of medieval embroidery from across England and Europe to be seen together for the first time.



The highly embroidered Salwarpe Purse
Reference 850 Salwarpe BA8650/18 


In preparation for this exhibition WAAS was approached by the exhibition curator with a view to including the Salwarpe purse in the current exhibition. However, it was felt that in the subdued lighting required for the proposed four month exhibition the full beauty of the Salwarpe purse would be lost.

In recognition of the national and international significance and beauty of this unique piece of embroidery, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service have decided to honour it with our own exhibition – for a limited time only! 



Silk embroidered postcard sent by Maud Lyttleton to her parents at Hagley Hall 1918-1919.
Reference 705:104 BA15492/3.


To complement the Salwarpe purse other pieces of embroidery held by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service are also on display, showing there's more to archives than books and paper.



Embroidery Sampler by Jane Newman 1866.
Reference b468 BA9484/4(ii)


Gloves and Headdress worn by Mrs Thora Williams at her wedding in 1943. 
Reference x899:1249 BA12687. 



Star shaped badges [from the epaulettes?] of the uniform of the Powick Patients Band.
Late 19th-early 20th cent.
Reference x499:9 BA10127/96(ii).


Rhonda Niven,
Conservator 

To find out more about the Salwarpe purse check this post.

The exhibition of embroidered items from our collections is on display now on Level 2 at The Hive. To find out more about our service, including our opening hours, check our Visitor Guide

Friday, 2 December 2016

River Severn Frozen at Bewdley 1895


Wow. You loved this image of the River Severn frozen at Bewdley in 1895 (we'd misread it at first as 1898). It has been viewed over 35,000 times on Facebook, liked over 1500 times, shared over 300 times and received lots of comments.

We've had a look to see what the newspapers said about this event but there is nothing specifically on the river freezing at Bewdley. The county papers do talk about the bad weather, but rather than fun on the ice it was mostly in relation to the amount of help being given to unemployed people. Bread, coal and soup were given to the poor, 200 gallons of soups being distributed in Bromsgrove alone. There was already a lot of unemployment, but the hard frost meant that a lot of outdoor work was impossible, causing a lot of hardship for people paid by the job. In 1890, and probably other years, many craft on the river at Bewdley were badly damaged by the ice, including the floating swimming baths, something not usually considered. However it wasn't all negative news, as the Worcestershire Chronicle of 9th Feb 1895 reported people down the road in Droitwich were skating on the pond in Westwood Park for 3d.

We widened our search to see what was said about other big freezes. Back in December 1892 the Severn was frozen in Worcester for the first time for many years, up to 4 inches thick in places. Due to the importance of the river to trade a tug went up and down trying to keep a channel open, but many canal barges were stuck. Skating took place on local ponds such as at Spetchley, Perdiswell and Boughton, including in the evening by moonlight, although some who tried to do this on the Severn at the bottom of Newport Street ended up falling through the ice, with a rather cold bath, although it wasn't very deep at that point so were ok.

Worcester Herald 27 Dec 1890

Two years later came another big frost over Christmas. The Worcester Herald of 31 Dec 1892 reported
   The keen frosts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday gave quite a seasonable appearance to everything outdoors, and to the delight of those who are fond of skating, it was perfectly safe to indulge in the favourite pastime upon the various ponds in the vicinity, in some places on Sunday as well as Monday. There was a large company at Spetchley Park, as a still larger one at Perdiswell, where the pond had been partially drained for mud-clearing purposes, thus considerably minimising the danger in case of immersion. Northwick Pool had also been partially drained, to allow repairs being affected to a culvert crossing the road, and consequently there were comparatively few visitors. 


It was also mentioned on the Facebook comments that there may be an inscription of the bridge commemorating the river freezing over. There is indeed one, and it relates to when it was so thick a sheep could be roasted on the ice. The full inscription reads:
  In memory of a Sheep roasted on the ice by Charles Lloyd.
  Labour in Vain. Feb 21 1855

Checking the Worcestershire Chronicle for 28 Feb 1855 we came across this report

  SHEEP ROASTING ON SEVERN – Two sheep were roasted on the Severn on   Wednesday, having been purchased by subscription, the money being collected by Mr   Lloyd, of the Labour-in-Vain and the Dog and Wheel public house, and were distributed to   the poor. It is now 41 years since a sheep was roasted on the Severn at Bewdley. One of the animals was carved and eaten in a barge opposite Owner Lloyd's public house, and the other was carried off to the Dog-Wheel in Dog-lane. The visitors, after satisfying themselves with the sight of the large fire burning on the ice, took themselves to skating, sliding, football etc. On walking beneath Telford's beautiful arches we found that several ambitious persons had recently carved their names deeply upon the stone with the date 1855. Under the centre arch there is the following inscription, but it is wearing away from the influence of the water:- "In memory of the hard frost. Sheep roasted, Jan 22, 1814"

If the river freezes over again we'll keep our eyes open in case the roast on the ice is revived again!