On 5 and 6 September historians and community groups came together for the Motherhood, Loss and the First World War conference at Senate House to explore maternal bereavement and the impact of the war on mothers. The conference was led by Big Ideas in partnership with the London Centre for Public History and the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and the project was funded by the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government and the National Lottery Fund.

The conference uniquely brought together academics and community groups exploring this subject. 

Several community groups attended and exhibited work, including Believe in Me CiC, Scottish Storytellers, Harrow Women’s Group, Yoruba Language Group, United Anglo Caribbean Society, Write-London and Heddwch Nain/ Mam-gu – Our Grandmothers’ Peace.

Day 1: Opening remarks before the first session came from Edward Madigan of the London Centre for Public History at Royal Holloway and Virginia Crompton, CEO of Big Ideas.

Attendees then listened to three fascinating talks exploring grief and loss. Jane Potter of Oxford Brookes highlighted Susan Owen (Wilfred Owen’s mother), maternal grief and Wilfred’s posthumous reputation; Penny Streeter of University of Sussex considered public displays of maternal bereavement through military jewellery in the First World War; and independent researcher and writer Andrea Hetherington examined the hierarchy of grief and Britain’s forgotten First World War widows.

The second session began with Lynelle Howson of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) speaking on mothers requests and experiences with CWGC during and after the war. Brian Feltman of Georgia Southern University discussed the experiences of German Mothers and the visual culture of mourning during the First World War manifested in prints, postcards and household memorials. Cameron Stewart of the University of Aberdeen finished by speaking on the history of loss within Aberdeen’s fishing families during the First World War.

The evening brought about a keynote public lecture by Susan Grayzel from Utah State University. She delved into the cultural politics of mourning mothers during the First World War, and the diverse experiences mothers had of national and personal sacrifice. This was a fantastic opportunity for the public to learn about the project.

Day 2: Opening remarks were given by Sarah Giles of Big Ideas.

These were followed by a presentation from Michael Roper from the University of Essex on his oral histories of children and the legacies of loss in interwar Britain. Linda Maynard from Birkbeck then looked at fraternal love and filial love in the First World War. Eve Haskins from the University of Leeds finished the first session by focusing on the history and impact of the Bradford Women’s Humanity League and maternal activism between 1916 and 1918.

Three community sessions were then held in the afternoon chaired by Sarah Giles.These gave attendees an opportunity to introduce their groups, present their work and creative responses to the academic community and to each other and to answer questions. These sessions brought performance, art and creativity to the conference and were a fantastic opportunity for many community groups to present their wonderful work to a new audience.

The first panel focused on creative writing responses. Sania Sehbai from Harrow Women’s Centre described how they got involved with the project. Harrow Women’s Centre (HWC) was founded 26 years ago in recognition of a need for a safe, women-only space in which to offer services that could support and empower local women in need, hardship and distress to reach their full potential. Lainy Malkani talked about the creative writing workshops she did with the group, who responded to the letter exchanges. Group member Pertiba then read a letter that she wrote as part of the workshop.

Tom Mallender from Write-London introduced his community-based literature project working with people who aren’t traditional targets of literature projects; those with a diverse range of learning difficulties, disabilities or acute mental illness. Tom talked about the creative writing workshop he led responding to the letters and stories of mothers in the First World War. Three members of Write-London read work that they created as part of that workshop.

Kiran Sahota from Believe in Me CIC is going to lead a group of young women as part of her HLF-funded project exploring lesser-known histories of the First World War. She explained that as part of the group’s trip to the Western Front this autumn, the group will read the letter exchanges between mothers and their sons/daughters, and write letters home to their own mothers.

The second panel was dedicated to community representatives who are sharing the stories of local mothers. Mary Ann Pledge is an individual who responded to the call-out for stories on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. She shared the story of her great-grandmother, Sophie Bennett, which is featured as a case study within the Motherhood resource pack.

Janet Brown is a Scottish storyteller who is working with women’s groups in Scotland. She began by telling a story of a local group of mothers. Janet explained how she will be leading creative writing workshops with women’s groups, researching and writing creative stories, sharing these stories with two further women’s groups and inviting them to create their own responses to them. This work will be shared at a public event on 10 November in the National Library of Scotland.

The third panel comprised community group representatives that looked into the stories of mothers from across the world. Yewande Okuleye spoke about how she started a group called Reclaiming Absent Voices of Yoruba Mothers by introducing a Yoruba language group led by Kola Ogunbayode to other community members that are interested and active in Yoruba cultural activities. This group responded to the stories of British mothers by creating a counter narrative that highlights the forgotten pain of Yoruba mothers during the First World War. These stories are not documented and there are no archives of these women’s experiences; there are no letters between soldiers and mothers, no postcards, no diaries. This group came together to give agency to these women and their stories.

Lainy Malkani talked about her work with the United Anglo Caribbean Society (UACS), a Caribbean community group based in Acton. Established in 1971 the UACS was set up to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between the local community of that time and people of Caribbean and African descent. Today the UACS provides for all people of all nationalities providing opportunities for members to socialise, keep active through exercise and nutrition workshops as well as health and wellbeing programmes. This group took part in a creative writing workshop with musician and calypsonian Alexander D Great. They created a selection of letters and a song. Alexander performed the song they created at the end of the communities session, and everyone had song sheets so they could sing along.

Day 2, and the conference concluded with a free evening event to which the public were also invited. Through newly-composed pieces by acclaimed violinist and award-winning British composer Clare Connors and powerful readings by Justina Kehinde, the voices of mothers and their sons and daughters serving in the military were brought to life. The performance explored their relationships and the experience of a mother losing their child.

In the process of creating this piece Clare Connors looked in to her own family history and discovered letters between her great aunt and her son Oswald that were written during the First World War. Along with the stories of the mothers highlighted in the project resource pack, these pieces were inspired by the very personal exchange of Connors’ great aunt and her son.

Thank yous

Jo Bradley and Matthew Shaw at the Institute of Historical Research and Edward Madigan at the London Centre for Public History for organising the conference with us. Also to all attendees and participants for making it such a fascinating and worthwhile conference and to Senate House for hosting.

Take part in the project

Groups can still take part in the Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project. Free resources and an expenses scheme for small-scale funding are available. Women’s groups can take part in workshops which help develop confidence in communication as well as exploring the experiences of mothers and responding creatively to them. There are also opportunities for groups to take part in research and creative commemoration.

Email us at mothers@big-ideas.orgfor further information and to take part. Read more about the project on the Motherhood project page.

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