Descendants of Chapel Street and Eamonn O'Neal, High Sheriff of Greater Manchester, at the 'Chapel Street' Project Book Launch in September 2018.
Our first project for this latest blog instalment is ‘The Bravest Little Street in England – Chapel Street, Altrincham’. This was organised by the Trafford Local Studies and Archives, Trafford Council.
We spent more than four years researching the lives of the First World War soldiers who lived on Chapel Street in Altrincham (Greater Manchester). The research culminated in a book called ‘The Bravest Little Street in England’, but the project was also about so much more than the finished product. Contributing to ‘Mapping the Centenary’ allows us to tell the story of the staff, volunteers and family members who brought this history to life.
Personal, moving, surprising, collaborative, informative.
In 2013, the Greater Manchester Archives and Local Studies Partnership launched a collaborative project designed to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. As part of this project, Trafford Local Studies recruited a team of volunteers to research the period and better understand how the war affected the lives of the people in the Trafford area - both in the field of conflict and at home. Using original council archives, personal family records, local newspapers, online resources, and photographs, it quickly became apparent that there was a great deal of primary source material available, especially for Chapel Street. In order to capture and preserve this unique information for future generations, it was decided that a book would be published, which would tell the whole story of Chapel Street and its residents; from its early construction in the 1790s to its demolition in the 1950s.
What was particularly satisfying was the connection we had with the volunteers. They threw themselves into the research with gusto and through this, both staff and volunteers became a team who worked well together - it wasn’t a 'them' and 'us' situation. We additionally formed a good relationship with the descendants of those who lived on Chapel Street. They were only too happy to know that their ancestors would be remembered in this way, and so provided us with lots of additional information and photos.
In 2013-2014 the volunteers began looking through historical newspapers, books and council documents, recording information about the First World War which was both factual and interesting, but all very impersonal. It was only when we began to delve into the backgrounds and lives of individual soldiers, and the people of Chapel Street, that we gained a greater understanding of the devastating effect the war had - not just for the men fighting, but for the people at home, particularly those living in the poorest areas of society.
Have an open mind at the beginning of your project. What started out as a broad venture covering the First World War within a local area grew into a project all about Chapel Street - after we found that we held so much material, and because so many individuals in that local area had connections to the street.
A screenshot of the interactive 'Visualising the Iolaire' project app.
Our second Case Study comes from two academics based at Abertay University and the University of the Highlands & Islands, who co-ordinated the ‘Visualising the Iolaire’ project.
We had both been involved with projects involving commemoration from different perspectives. As a historian and game developer, Dr Iain Donald’s previous project ‘Loos: The Fallen Fourth’ had explored the impact of the Battle of Loos on the city of Dundee. As a historical geographer, Dr Iain Robertson had explored landscapes of social protest and commemoration in the Highlands. Supported by the ‘Living Legacies 1914-18: From Past Conflict to Shared Future’ First World War Engagement Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, we put together a project to investigate how a rural Scottish community was impacted by a single event.
By working in collaboration with various communities of interest on the Isle of Lewis - most notably the Kinloch Historical Society - we created a digital visualisation of the impact of the sinking of HMY Iolaire on Hebridean island communities. This was the UK’s worst twentieth-century peacetime maritime disaster, after the RMS Titanic. Our visualisation both ‘mapped’ the breadth of the impact and the ways in which communities sought to memorialise and recover from this deep collective trauma.
As a digital database in its own right, ‘Mapping the Centenary’ allows us to share our visualisation work and project findings with a broader online audience.
Challenging, Poignant, Digital, Community, Memorialisation.
The loss of the Iolaire had a profound impact on the Lewis and Harris, yet the disaster is not widely known throughout Scotland, or the United Kingdom more generally. We wanted to do something for the centenary that would partly address this deficit. In particular, the local historical societies with whom we worked reported a lack of awareness of the cross-island impact. They knew much about their own locale but much less about the wider communal nature of the disaster. So working collaboratively, the project team wanted to offer a fittingly twenty-first century commemoration, through exploring incredible stories of islander resolve in the face of such adversity.
A project strength lay with the tradition of citizen historianship that exists, in the form of oral histories, in the Gàidhealtachd of the western isles. Working with the community was a fantastic experience; our project was able to record these oral histories and present them for future generations by creating an interactive visualisation of the disaster. This was based on digitally mapping the locations into the wider community of those that lost their lives and then current tangible (graves and monuments) and intangible (collective and communal memory) memorialisation.
There were challenges. Intensely localised senses of place and identity gave rise to as much disharmony as it did harmony around questions of who ‘owned’ the Iolaire disaster and who had the ‘right’ to its memorialisation. And despite adopting collaborative working principles, there were some expectation mismatches between researchers and community practitioner participation - mainly in terms of the power dynamic of decision-making and direct benefits.
This project shaped our perspectives deeply. We both found ourselves drawn to the village, town, workplace, church, school or other community memorials, where the scale of loss was made more real. Where some communities lost one in ten of their men to the conflict, Lewis lost almost one in five. As academics at different institutions, we’ve additionally been fortunate to enjoy a fantastic working relationship with each other, but more importantly the community organisations that made the research possible.
Ask the community, listen to what they have to say and work with them to create new ways of communicating commemoration for the digital age.
Our thanks to these two project representatives for their generous insight.
If you have been inspired to submit a listing for your own First World War commemorative project, please visit the ‘Add Your Project’ section on ‘Mapping the Centenary’.