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Stories of First World War service and hardship inspire Durham artists

An exhibition in Seaham draws on the stories of men and women who suffered at home and overseas during 1914-18

Jean Spence, Jean Lowes and Jac Howard with their artworks inspired by the First World War
Jean Spence, Jean Lowes and Jac Howard with their artworks inspired by the First World War

The First World War broke out 100 years ago today but it is still possible to feel the ripples of sadness it unleashed.

You will see what I mean if you visit The Pity of War, an exhibition opening today at the Art Block in Seaham where members of East Durham Artists’ Network (Edan) display their work.

Edan members were invited to produce work inspired by real-life stories of the 1914-18 conflict which claimed so many lives.

The work, as became clear when I talked to member artists Jean Lowes, Jean Spence and Jac Howard, has revealed many aspects of life in uniform and on the home front.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time and we’ve done a lot of research,” said Jean Lowes, who lives in nearby Murton.

“We had a historian in to give us a talk about World War One and we have constructed this exhibition around families.

“We tried to make it specific rather than general, focusing on particular stories, and people have been very interested because the First World War is still alive in so many families.

“So many people still have memorabilia in their homes, stuff that belonged to their parents or grandparents.

“The exhibition is about how the war affected people’s lives and some people used their own family as the starting point.

“We’ve all got these stories but making art is a way of sharing them rather than have them stay in a shoebox in the garden shed.”

Jean took as her inspiration the letters and documents left to her by her grandmother, Jane.

“She had three children and she lost her husband in the First World War – and she kept everything. It was all kept in a tin, stuff like the notice she got from the pension people saying she was allowed to have £5.

“Everyone who was killed, the family got £5. She had to send her identity card otherwise she couldn’t have the money.

“I’ve handled these things since I was a small child and she used to talk about it. She was very sad and, I think, very angry about it.

“She couldn’t go near the sea because she associated it with him. If you’ve had something like that happen to you, it’s hard to deal with.”

Jane got married again, to another soldier, George Bell, and had two more children, including Jean’s mother.

Jean said: “My grandfather had been in a prisoner-of-war camp in France. He had worked at the pit and he lived in a cottage with his sister. When he came home, he found they had chucked his sister out.”

Jean says there are photos and letters relating to her grandmother’s first husband, Robert Jackson, but none to her grandfather. She wonders why. “I think doing this has made us ask questions.”

Jean has made a series of collages based on photocopies of her grandmother’s mementoes, including a fragment of a letter sent home by her first husband: “But we are in the trenches and we can’t get letters away as we’d like...”

Among the papers Jean inherited is another letter sent to her grandmother after her husband’s death by a soldier who had known him.

“He said he had seen them together at Durham station. He wrote to say how brave he was and what a lovely chap he was.”

Lance Serjeant Robert Jackson, of the 8th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, was mentioned in despatches and is “remembered with honour” on the Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium.

He is remembered back home in Seaham, nearly a century after his death, in this exhibition.

Jean Spence, from Seaham, has produced a book based on research she has been doing into the Lambton Street Boys’ Club in Sunderland.

She has studied the minutes of the organisation which was also known as the Waifs’ Rescue Agency, its aim being to feed and clothe poor boys and arm them with a trade.

The organisation, a form of early social work, also set up one of the very first Boy Scout groups.

The minutes, said Jean, amount to “fragments of lives”.

She found that several boys joined the Army as professional soldiers before war broke out because it provided them with a living. But others enlisted amid the euphoria of August 1914.

“They didn’t think it was going to be very serious,” said Jean who was also interested in “the lack of recognition of them as human beings when they were children but suddenly, when they go to war, they are lauded as heroes.”

Among the Lambton Street boys was Martin Finn who came from a “seriously poor” family but was given second hand clothes and helped into work.

In February 1912 he went to work for the printing firm of Summerbell, owned by the family of Thomas Summerbell, Sunderland’s first Labour MP, but injured a finger.

Jean learned that the Lambton Street Boys’ Club managed to win him £30 in compensation – “a huge amount” – but insisted on taking control of the money.

Finn joined the Durham Light Infantry but died of wounds on August 16, 1918.

One of the most poignant stories told in Jean’s book is that of Michael Quinn who died with his last letter from his mother in his pocket. The letter was later returned to her, heavily bloodstained.

Jac Howard, also from Seaham, has created an artwork made from a “rescued” printer’s tray.

“It’s based on a memory I have of walking with my grandmother in the 1960s. As a kid you ask a lot of questions and she always used to refer to The Plough (the constellation) as ‘Charlie’s wagon’.

“I thought that was what it was called. But people used to say to me, ‘Do you mean The Plough?’

“It turned out that when my grandfather was away in the war, they used to write to each other and say they were looking at Charlie’s wagon. My grandmother had a young brother called Charlie and The Plough looked a bit like a toy he had. I think it brought my grandparents closer together.

“I have liked making that memory into a solid, real memento.”

The printer’s tray now resembles something you might find at a Post Office sorting office with ‘penny red’ stamps and fragmented photographs of Jac’s grandparents, Richard and Margaret Ashcroft. It is a symbol of their love, their need to communicate and their disrupted lives.

“My grandfather did come back but he died very young,” said Jac. “I never met him. He must have died when my father was about 14 because he mentioned that he’d had to give up his place at the local grammar school to go down the pit. People had hard lives then.”

The Pity of War is to be opened at 11am today during Seaham’s Frst World War commemoration which includes a parade and a picnic. It runs all month at the Art Block, 74 Church Street, Seaham, County Durham.

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