New Discovery Museum exhibition tells Tyneside's First World War story

When the Lamps Went Out is the title of a new exhibition which opens at Discovery Museum in Newcastle on Saturday and runs until June 28

Recruits gather in the Great Hall of The Co-operative Society in Newcastle, now Discovery Museum
Recruits gather in the Great Hall of The Co-operative Society in Newcastle, now Discovery Museum

The words of Northumbrian landowner and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey have echoed down the last century.

On the eve of the First World War, he said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

When the Lamps Went Out is the title of a new exhibition which opens at Discovery Museum in Newcastle on Saturday and runs until June 28.

It provides an insight into what life was like on Tyneside during the First World War.

By Christmas 1914, swept up in a rush of patriotic fervour, over 21,000 men had enlisted in Newcastle.

Without fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, life for many Tyneside families would change beyond recognition.

During the build up to the war, Tyneside was booming. In 1913 the River Tyne boasted 14 shipyards, and exported 20 million tons of coal and coke plus other goods worth over £3.5 million from Newcastle alone.

The exhibition looks at changes which occurred across various industries, including retail.

Fenwick’s store on Northumberland Street embraced the national campaign of “business as usual’” but introduced patriotic activities including competitions best rationed recipes and appeals for war charities, plus colourful window displays to lift people’s spirits.

Troops leaving Newcastle
Troops leaving Newcastle

Women’s fashions saw a noticeable change with knee length skirts becoming fashionable due to material shortage.

The exhibition displays a number of costumes from the First World War including a wedding dress which was worn in 1914.

It is cut from the bride’s mother’s dress which she wore on her wedding day in 1884.

Another trend from the war was heraldic china with thousands of different models made. They were immensely popular and by 1914 were an integral part of the souvenir trade.

The purchase of such items meant that not only did people have a souvenir but also customers were supporting the war effort.

There were china models of weapons like tanks and a percentage of sales went to the military.

The exhibition features a collection of this type of china, which is probably one of the largest of its type, and is on loan courtesy of collector John Shipley.

As Newcastle became a military recruitment centre many buildings took on new roles.

A stand at St. James’ Park became a temporary home for new recruits as did Tilley’s Dance Hall in Market Street, while Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School served as the headquarters for the Newcastle Citizen’s Training League, with its games field turned into a drill yard and rifle range.

Gun batteries were established at Tynemouth and South Shields.

Trains entering the region at night had to have their blinds drawn and factories were instructed to switch off lights at night if a Zeppelin raid was anticipated. Householders were asked to turn off lights and gas and head to the lowest part of the house for shelter in the event of raid.

Three raids happened on Tyneside during the war including one in June 1915 which saw Wallsend, Hebburn and Jarrow hit.

The North East was a major supplier of munitions and equipment during the war.

Arms company Armstrong Whitworth is explored in the exhibition with particular attention on the additional pressures placed on the business which saw the workforce rise from 20,000 in 1913 to 60,000 in 1918 at their Elswick Works in Newcastle.

Munitionettes from the Armstrong Whitworth factory in Newcastle
Munitionettes from the Armstrong Whitworth factory in Newcastle

This was to cope with an increase in production as the Army was demanding 188,000 tons of ammunition per month by the middle of 1918, up from 3,000 at the beginning of the war.

Armstrong Whitworth employed large numbers of women who were commonly known as munitionettes. One of the more unusual consequences of the war on Tyneside was the creation of a Belgian community in Birtley, Gateshead.

Known as Elisabethville, after the Queen of Belgium, it came about after a flood of Belgian refugees came to the area.

Elisabethville became home to a new munitions factory, built in 1915.

The village grew and included a school, hospitals, church, shops and a police station. At its peak over 8,000 Belgians lived there and the community was enclosed by a high perimeter fence and governed according to Belgium law and regulations.

As the war ended, over 3,000 people packed into St Nicholas Cathedral for a thanksgiving service.

To coincide with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles a Victory Festival was staged on the Town Moor.


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