The Great War: Stories from a Neighbourhood

Claire Adler, Heritage Consultant
Heritage consultant Claire Adler talks about the HLF-supported The Great War: Stories from a Neighbourhood project, which investigated the impact of the First World War on South Cambridge.

The Friends of Rock Road Library (FRRL) applied to HLF for a grant to create an exhibition that investigated the impact of the First World War on their local area in South Cambridge.

It was never going to be easy. FRRL is entirely run by volunteers and a new project commemorating the First World War would have to fit alongside our various tasks including running community events, looking after the garden and campaigning against government cuts.

However, we came together in 2009 to support the library when cuts looked likely to force it to close – and we are used to facing challenges together.

One of the many ideas we had was The Great War: Stories from a Neighbourhood. We wanted to create a project that would explore the lives of people who lived in the houses around the library during the First World War. Our part of Cambridge has a significant migrant population with many people moving to the area over the past 20 years – many of whom may not know anything about its history.

“The project has offered a number of opportunities to the participants and increased the confidence of the FRRL committee in what they want to see happen at the library.”

Using our grant from HLF, we organised three stages of activities over two years:

  • In 2014 a group of volunteers researched the soldiers who came from our area and were directly involved in the military aspect of the war. The first exhibition included a map showing where the soldiers lived and some of their stories. It also included a timeline of international and local events during the war and a world map showing where some of the local soldiers fought around the world
  • In 2015 volunteers recorded the stories passed down by families who had lived in the area during the war and researched the businesses that were prevalent in the area
  • We are planning to reuse some of this material this year in an exhibition about local hospitals and we are also intending to develop an English Heritage-style ‘Blue Plaque’ in the shape of a red poppy that will be displayed in people's windows in the streets around the library

Making links

In addition to HLF-supported work, we have made excellent links with our local community radio station, which turned the oral histories and the research into two radio programmes which were broadcast over Christmas 2015. The radio programmes can still be listened to on Cambridge 105's website. As a result of this work a local artist, Veronica Thornton, has also been running a wonderful project to create a huge embroidered banner about the war in our area, and another project based on research into the history of the participants’ own homes. Personal collections of postcards have also been lent to the exhibition by a member of the community and one of the volunteers.

We’ve brought people together through annual events about local history which have been attended by up to 50 people at a time. There have also been more than 20 people volunteering to support us already and an increase in the number of people joining the FRRL. As a result of the project, and other projects that are currently being run at the library by FRRL, the council have changed the commitment they have to the library and can see that it is an important part of the local community.

Lessons learned

In retrospect, running a three-year project in two years was too much! There were three exhibitions which had to be researched, written and put up over two years. There are no paid members of staff so the research, gathering of oral histories, exhibition and project management generally are carried out by people volunteering their time. 

In addition, people’s workloads and priorities change, meaning they can no longer commit the time they were able to when they were completing the application form! We thought we had solved this problem in the application by hosting the 2016 exhibition about the hospitals in the area, but the person who carried out this research has since left and therefore we may not be able to pull together the final exhibition. 

However overall the project has offered a number of opportunities to the participants and increased the confidence of the FRRL committee in what they want to see happen at the library.

Further information

  • If you would like to do a First World War Centenary project and want to know what’s possible, take a look at the First World War programme page, for project ideas, frequently asked questions and advice on applying
  • Grants are available through First World War: Then and Now, Our Heritage, Young Roots and Heritage Grants. Find out more on our Looking for Funding? page
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