The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Insight Into Their Experience; The Letters Home Display.

Putting the Regimental Casualty Book in place

Putting the Regimental Casualty Book in place

A series of temporary First World War displays in the Castle Rotunda started last month with “Letters Home,” a moving display of personal letters and diaries which I curated for the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum (RNRM). I wanted to show what life was like for both soldiers and their families at home during the First World War and how essential written communication was at that time.

Not just letters - an souvenir sent home from the Western Front

Not just letters – an souvenir sent home from the Western Front

“Letters Home” draws on the RNRM’s archive of soldiers’ personal material, looking at various significant points during the experiences of men and their families throughout the War. I wanted to give a sense of what it was like for families waiting for news, the communications they would have received and the different ways in which they would have found out about aspects of a soldier’s life and death in the First World War.

Installing objects in Letters Home

Installing objects in Letters Home

Written communication at this time was vitally important. Letters were an essential means of keeping families and service personnel in touch with one another. Around 12 million letters were sent to the front lines each week and it took, on average, two days for a letter to reach the Western Front from England. When lines of communication were hindered, for example for Prisoners of War, many soldiers kept diaries to record their thoughts and experiences. Private Robert Sheldrake kept his prison camp diaries hidden in the false bottom of a cardboard box filled with books and keepsakes to avoid detection by the guards at Zwickau PoW camp in Germany.

Letters Home display in the Castle Rotunda

Letters Home display in the Castle Rotunda

The value of letters is revealed in a collection of correspondence kept by Captain John Hammond, a company commander in the 7th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment. Like many officers serving at the front, it was his duty to write to next of kin, offering information and comfort in their loss. Unusually, he kept the letters that families sent in return. These poignant letters show the distress that wives and parents went through and the great uncertainty that they faced.

This will be the first time that much of this material has been on public display, giving an insight into the personal experiences of people with a local connection in the First World War. I hope that it will demonstrate the depth of information that we hold in the museum’s collection and will inspire visitors to start researching their own military family history.


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A Simply “Top-Hole” Soldier is Remembered.

 

In my role as the First World War Centenary Trainee, I spend a lot of time reading the letters and diaries of the men of the Norfolk Regiment that we have in our collection. I feel like I really get to know the soldiers and their characters – most are very likeable, others are heart-breaking, and some can be really humorous.

One particular likeable and completely hilarious character is Robert Millington Knowles. His eternally optimistic letters home are full of anecdotes, and he has a tendency to describe everything as “topping” or “ripping” – apart from the Germans and their “whizz-bangers”!  Staff and volunteers here at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum are very fond of Robert, and a lot of  research has been carried out over the years about him and his story. However, the museum had never been able to track down any of his descendants, so could never get definitive answers to their many questions.

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Robert Millington Knowles’ letters in leather-bound book

Robert served as an officer with the 1st Battalion on the Western Front and it was from here that he sent almost daily letters back home to his mother and sisters, with whom he was very close. As an officer in the trenches, Robert’s experiences were rather different to those in the other ranks. His mother regularly sent him Fortnum & Mason hampers, and in April 1915 Robert thanks her for the plover’s eggs which were “simply topping.”

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Fortnum & Mason catalogue front cover

On June 1st 1915, Robert wrote home to ask his sister to send him his golf club and some golf balls as he intended “practicing Mashie shots into the Deuchers trenches.” In the same letter Robert describes two humorous incidents. In the first, the officer he shared a dug out with suddenly exclaimed “I can smell it!”. Robert rushed to his respirator fearing a gas attack, when the officer told him “Oh! I didn’t mean ‘gas,’ I meant the soup!”. In the second incident, Robert and a soldier named Borton went sniping in a lettuce field and decided to disguise themselves – “we stuck lettuces in our caps etc, but we laughed so much that couldn’t hold my rifle steady… can’t you imagine me disguised as a lettuce?!”

When the Theatre Royal contacted the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum earlier this year looking for local characters to feature in their First World War school’s programme, Robert Millington Knowles was an obvious choice. The Theatre created this fantastic website [www.toendallwars.co.uk], which has a wealth of information about each of the six men and women they selected. Unfortunately, the museum could only find one image of RMK for the theatre project to use, taken from a newspaper article.

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Robert Millington Knowles in a newspaper article

So it was really exciting when we were contacted a month or so ago by RMK’s grandchildren! They had found the “To End All Wars” website while researching their family history and had no idea that such a rich collection of letters resided here in Norwich. The family got in touch with the museum, came in and chatted to us about Robert, and very kindly allowed us to take copies of the many photographs they had of Robert with his family, dogs, and prized motorcars which we can add to our display.

RMK's family with actor John Hurt

Robert Millington Knowles’ family at the Theatre Royal

 We were all pleased to think that one hundred years later, this man’s enduring sense of humour in the face of the atrocities of war was being remembered and commemorated.

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From Pigs to Puttees: How I Came to Work in Museums

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to work in museums. As a child I would number and catalogue my large collection of pig ornaments, keeping rigorous records of their every movement and making sure that nobody touched them but me!

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Outside the Imperial War Museum.

This management of my pig-shaped knick-knacks was no doubt inspired by my membership of Museum Club at Norwich Castle, run by Katrina Siliprandi. I loved the monthly club meetings, the peeks behind the scenes, and the visits to other museums and heritage sites. I always enjoyed getting hands-on with objects, and hearing from staff about their roles at the museum. I completed my work experience with the learning team at the Castle and became a volunteer, most memorably helping out with the annual Summer School for looked after children.

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Measuring objects for the “Letters Home” display.

While at school, I was part of a small group that our history teacher brought to the Regimental Museum every week. I remember being moved by reading soldiers’ diary entries and letters and amazed at how heavy their packs were. These childhood museum experiences made learning so exciting, and I began to think that I would love to work in an environment where I could learn something new everyday about such amazing objects and stories.

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Accessioning objects into the Regimental collection.

Fast-forward ten years, and here I am working with the same Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum collection that fascinated me as a fourteen year old. I was fortunate enough to be selected as the First World War Centenary Trainee, working alongside the curator Kate Thaxton. It is a very exciting year to be here, as August 4th 2014 will mark one hundred years since Britain entered the First World War.

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Delivering a session for the Norwich Community History Club.

My job means that I get to read those letters and diaries again which first inspired me a decade ago. One of the major parts of my traineeship has been to kick off our programme of First World War themed temporary displays by curating “Letters Home”, a display looking at communication between the front lines and home during the war. This will be in the Castle Rotunda from September.

A miniature trench art cap for display in "Letters Home."

A miniature trench art cap for display in “Letters Home.”

The international focus on the centenary has inspired many people to look back and research the men on their local war memorials, or ancestors who served in the war. A big part of my role is providing support to researchers and answering enquiries. We are running monthly WWI workshops for researchers to explore the collection and find out more about the Norfolk Regiment. If you are interested in coming along then please call 01603 493640 for more information.

The past six months have been varied, challenging, exciting, and inspiring. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with such emotive and meaningful objects that tell such an important story. I have come a long way from the girl who tried to turn her bedroom into a pig museum!