War Widows’ Stories: A Celebration

After launching War Widows’ Stories a year ago and travelling all over the country to conduct oral history interviews with widows and their children, on 10th November 2017 we hosted a celebration of the project’s achievements to date, its volunteers, and its supporters. The event, held at the Royal British Legion headquarters in London, marked an important milestone: the publication of the first fourteen stories in print and online.  The evening was a chance for us to introduce this first volume of interviews to members of the public, academics, war widows and their families, and representatives of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministry of Defence.

Mark Heffron (third from right), Mary Moreland (second from right), and David Whimpenny (right) with War Widows’ Assocation trustees, War Widows’ Stories volunteers Rita Armin (third from left), Glenda Spacey (left), and Ruth Maxwell (fourth from left), and the project leaders, Dr Nadine Muller (back middle) and Dr Ailbhe McDaid (second from left).

Even during Remembrance Week, war widows remain war’s forgotten women. Most people are unaware of the shocking circumstances they have had to face in Britain, or of the challenges they still encounter today. Next to explaining the project’s background and methods, we were pleased to be able to give a preview of the common themes of the interviews so far and play poignant clips that represent this first body of stories of loss, sadness, love, and resilience.  You can find our PowerPoint presentation here.

There were tears, laughter, discussion, and reflection. The evening clearly highlighted the importance of the War Widows’ Stories project to war widows and their families, to members of the public who were unaware of the issues war widows face, to cultural organisations who to date largely ignore war widows’ stories, and to government and third sector organisations responsible for the support and welfare of veterans and armed forces families.

We were privileged to have among our attendees several of our interviewers and interviewees and their families, including Christina Claypole. We interviewed Christina and her mother, Christiane Kirton, in June 2017, but sadly Christiane did not live to see her or her daughter’s story published.

Throughout our first year, we have been generously supported by our gatekeeper, the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, whose trustees and members turned out in force to help us mark this special occasion. Mrs Mary Moreland explained the value of War Widows’ Stories from the Association’s point of view: “War widows often live in the shadows of veterans and heroes, but they are amazing and unique,” she said. “They all have impressive stories in their own right, and these deserve to be told. The War Widows’ Stories project is important because it ensures that these otherwise forgotten women are given the recognition they deserve.”

We were also honoured to have in attendance Group Captain Mark Heffron, Head of Welfare Policy at the Ministry of Defence. He reflected: “This was a thought-provoking and powerful occasion, to which I had the honour to be invited. Meeting those who had given and conducted the interviews was both moving and inspiring, and it showed a resolve to support all those who suffer as a loss of loved ones through war. Dr Nadine Muller and Ailbhe McDaid led the evening in the most fitting manner and demonstrated the power of these stories. We can all learn from the memories, experiences and feelings of our war widows. At this time of year, we cannot and will not forget those who gave their lives in war, nor the sacrifice made by their widows in keeping alive all for which their husbands stood.”

Our interviews capture war widows’ stories in interviews that feature tragedy and sadness as much as they contain memories of happiness, love, and fulfilled lives. These interviews will help raise public awareness of war widows’ experiences and dispel prevalent myths. The project constitutes an important step toward improving the support services available to war widows today.

We are grateful to the Royal British Legion for hosting this moving celebration. This is only the beginning of the project, and we remain committed to recording war widows’ stories and raising awareness of their lives past and present.

To order a hardcopy of the first volume of War Widows’ Stories, please visit the LJMU Online Shop, or to download an electronic copy of the publication, simply click here. You can also listen to all War Widows’ Stories interviews in full as podcasts or listen to a selection of soundbites.

War Widows’ Stories Interviewee on BBC Radio 4

During the their coverage of the Ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London, BBC Radio 4 featured a short interview with War Widows’ Stories’ volunteer Wendy Hutchinson and producer Helen Lee. Wendy met her husband Tony in 1987, when he was a serving in the British Army. Tony left the Army in 1992, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Order after serving on seven tours of Ireland. Wendy’s and Tony’s story illustrate both the lack of support for veterans and the complete neglect of war widows. While Tony struggled to get help for his mental health problems, Wendy’s need for support remained equally unrecognised. Tony died by suicide in 2015, and you can find Wendy’s and his full story here.

Buy Your Copy of War Widows’ Stories Vol. 1

You can now purchase your own bound hardcopy of you the first fourteen War Widows’ Stories Interviews, thanks to Liverpool John Moores University. Simply head to the LJMU Online Shop, where you can order your copy for £12.90. We do not make a profit from this, and the price exactly covers our production and postage costs.

To read a summary of each interview and learn what this volume covers, take a look here.  Like our online transcripts and audio files, this print publication is distributed under a Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 licence.

The First Fourteen Interviews

Now that our first fourteen interviews are available to read and listen to online and to order in print, we wanted to give you an idea of what each of these stories covers. Below, you can find a summary of each interview. Many of them are richly illustrated with photographs and images of letters, telegram, medals, and news cuttings, and as all of our resources are published under aa Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 licence you are free to redistribute and reuse them (without modification) as long as you credit War Widows’ Stories.

So, if one piques your interest, why not head to the full page and download the audio file or transcript to read later?

Rita Armin’s husband Henry Armin served in the British Army during the Second World War. He sustained serious injuries after a botched parachute jump, leaving him seriously disabled for the rest of his life. He died in 1998. Rita describes how she met Henry and their happy marriage, including the birth of their son Philip. She outlines the struggles to receive financial and practical support while Henry was alive. Rita talks about her successful career working for British Airways, her current role as an award-winning Police Service Volunteer, and her love of travel.

Bernice Bartlett talks about meeting and marrying her husband Harry Golding aged 17. She remembers how Harry was reluctant to join the Army as he did not want to leave Bernice and their first-born son, Bernard, and how Harry never met their second son, Barry, born in 1943. Bernice talks about living in Maidstone with her mother (also a widow) during the war, and recounts the day she received the letter telling her that Harry had been killed by a booby trap near Florence in Italy, as well as visiting his grave 40 years after Harry’s death. Bernice describes her life running country pubs with her second husband, her large family including four children, eight grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, and her many hobbies, including playing bridge and whist.

Jeannie Benjamin recounts the story of her mother Margaret Benjamin who was widowed when her husband (Jeannie’s father) Eric Benjamin was killed in action during the Second World War. Margaret was left with two young daughters, Jeannie aged 18 months, and Sally, just three weeks old. Jeannie describes her parents’ loving relationship and shares letters and poems written by her father, as well as extracts from her mother’s memoir. She remembers her mother as a strong, lively personality who profoundly influenced Jeannie’s development as a feminist and an activist. Jeannie reflects on the impact of losing her father as a young child and the processes of recovering his memory in later life through researching and writing a book.

Christina Claypole was born in South Shields, and was evacuated as a child during the Second World War to Upton with her brother Ron and her mother, Christiane Kirton, who was widowed in 1942. Christina’s father John was killed when the submarine HMS Olympus was blown up in Malta. Christina describes life as an evacuee, and remembers her happy childhood despite her mother’s financial struggles. She recalls taking her mother to visit Malta and lay a wreath in the ocean, and describes her mother’s active life as a widow, including a visit to Buckingham Palace.

Joan Eggmore met her husband, Dougie, in London after the war, and they had one son, David, before Dougie passed away as a result of his service. Joan talks about their courtship and wedding day, about Dougie’s role as a draughtsman in India and Burma, and about his chronic health condition which was exacerbated by his service. She describes her early working life, including in the fur department in Harrods and as a staff nurse, and outlines how she went back to education in her forties to train as a teacher. Joan details the social and financial challenges of being a widow, including her application for a War Widows’ Pension.

Sylvia Elliott talks about her childhood in Derby during the Second World War and about meeting her husband. Bill, who had been badly injured in Korea. She describes her forty-year marriage to Bill, their two daughters, Carol and Dawn, and his commitment to the British Legion. Sylvia outlines her life since Bill’s death, including moving to Skegness, travelling around the world, and marrying again to her second husband, John. Sylvia also details the difficulties she encountered applying for a War Widow’s Pension. 

Maggie Goren’s grandfather, Lance Corporal Matthew Evans, died in the First World War, leaving behind his wife, Annie, who was pregnant with their fourth child. Maggie talks about her father’s experience growing up the son of a widow, and about the financial, educational and emotional repercussions of his father’s death. Maggie reflects on the intergenerational effects of bereavement and shares some of her writings about war.

Denise Haddon’s father, Ronald King, was killed in Malaya in 1942, when Denise was an infant. She tells the story of her parents’ relationship and describes life for her mother, Elizabeth Cooper, as a widow. Denise details the hectic early years of the war which her mother spent in Ireland before returning to Hounslow in 1947 where Denise was raised by her mother, grandmother and aunt. Denise talks about travelling to Singapore to visit her father’s grave in Kranji Cemetary, and about the implications of losing her father as a baby.

Brenda Hillman and her husband Terry, who was a pilot, were living on a service base in Malaya, when Terry was killed in a helicopter crash, leaving Brenda with their eighteen-months-old son. Brenda describes the challenges of returning to the UK, returning to teaching to earn a living and the support she received from family members. She also talks about her mother’s widowhood and remembers her father who was killed in an air-raid in West Malling.

Wendy Hutchinson was born in Kent and met her husband Tony in 1987, when he was a serving member of the British Army. Wendy talks about their busy family life with seven children and details how Tony left the Army in 1992. She describes Tony’s experience of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, and outlines the lack of support Tony and Wendy received before Tony’s death by suicide in 2015.

Christiane Kirton’s husband, John, was killed when the submarine HMS Olympus was blown up in Malta in 1942 when Christiane was just 21. She describes her early life, her jobs in domestic service and her financial difficulties bringing up two children on her own. She talks about moving from South Shields to Doncaster during the war, struggling to make ends meet and her pride in her children and grandchildren.

Ruth Maxwell’s parents, Joyce and William, met in Ashridge Convalescent Home in 1945, Joyce recovering from suspected TB and William as a repatriated Prisoner of War. Ruth details the circumstances of William’s death as a result of renal failure in 1950, leaving Joyce with two young children and pregnant with their third child. Joyce was a founding member of the War Widows’ Association and Ruth describes her mother as a spirited, determined woman who established her own typing business to support the family. Ruth reflects on how the death of her father has impacted her throughout her life.

Mary Moreland is from Kilkeel, Co. Down in Northern Ireland. Her husband John served in the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and was killed in 1988. Mary is currently Chairwoman of the War Widows’ Association. Mary talks about the circumstances of John’s death, breaking the news to her children, her own experience of serving in the UDR, the experience of being a widow in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, developing her career, and her role within the War Widows’ Association.

Anne Rickwood’s father, Gordon, was killed in the Battle of Arnhem during the Second World War, leaving Anne’s mother, Patricia Starr Vicary, with a small baby. Anne describes her mother’s precarious financial situation and the challenges she faced as a war widow. Anne talks about her own awareness of her father’s death and how it impacted on her mother. She outlines how she visits Arnhem on an annual basis, and explains the importance of National Memorial Arboretum as a space of commemoration for her mother.

Listen to War Widows’ Stories

We are excited to announce that the first fourteen War Widows’ Stories interviews are now freely available on our website. Our interviews tell the life stories of war widows and their children. They are intended to raise awareness of war widows’ lives and to dispel the myths and stereotypes that currently define war widows’ identities in the public imagination.

War widows have been shamefully neglected across all aspects of British society, culture, and politics. Their stories remain excluded from school curricula as well as from the cultural institutions whose responsibility it is to tell the stories of war, including the Imperial War Museums. In fact, at present there is only one war widow in the entire exhibitions of the Imperial War Museum London.

The majority of the British public are under the impression that war widows are, and always have been, well looked after by state and the Armed Forces, but this could not be further from the truth. Britain’s 18,000+ war widows are a diverse body of women of all ages, facing challenges that, for most of us, are unimaginable, with support often difficult to access.

You can now listen to, read, and download each of our first fourteen interviews in the Stories section of our website and learn about war widows’ lives before and after the death of their husbands as well as finding out what it is like growing up as the child of a war widow. All our interviews are published under a Creative Commons licence, and you are welcome to redistribute and use them accordingly as long as you credit War Widows’ Stories. They are stories of tragedy, sadness, and outrage, but also of love, community, family, and courage.

War widows’ stories matter. Help us raise awareness and ensure that war widows are no longer war’s forgotten women.

Join Us! War Widows’ Stories Launch Event

It was almost a year ago that we launched War Widows’ Stories live on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with the aim to start recording and raising awareness of war widows’ lives and experiences in Britain. With the help of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Liverpool John Moores University, since then we have trained six volunteer interviewers, and conducted fifteen oral history interviews with war widows and their children. Their stories are full of persistence, strength, despair, and grief, as well as fond memories of love and laughter. No two stories are the same, and yet there are unmistakable parallels between them.

In Remembrance Week 2017, we will publish these first fifteen life stories on our website in the form of audio files and/ or transcripts. To mark this special occasion, we warmly invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating the lives of Britain’s war widows past and present, to listen to their stories, and learn about their experiences on Friday, 10 November 2017 from 6-8PM at the Royal British Legion in London.

Places at this event are free but limited, so please click here to find out more and book your seat to avoid disappointment. We are grateful to the Royal British Legion for providing us with the space for this event, which will be fully accessible.

We hope you consider joining us! If you have any questions about the event, or if you would like to know more about the project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at info@warwidowsstories.org.uk.

War Widows’ Stories Volunteers Complete Oral History Interview Training

On 25 January 2017, we organised a training day for our War Widows’ Stories volunteer interviewers at London’s YHA St Pauls. Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to the Oral History Society, our interviewers had the chance to learn about oral history and its roots, as well as becoming familiar with how to conduct good oral history interviews.

Our oral history trainer, Sarah Lowry, was recommended to us by the Oral History Society, and we couldn’t have asked for anyone more knowledgable and in tune with our project. Sarah has a lot of experience in carrying out interviews that rely on people sharing painful memories, and one of the key points of our training day was to think through the ethical and emotional dimensions of our project and to understand what they mean for our interviewers and interviewees.

The reason it’s important that war widows and their relatives are trained as oral history interviewers for the project is simple: we want War Widows’ Stories to last. Giving volunteers the skills and equipment needed to continue recording war widows’ stories means the project is much more likely to have a lifespan that surpasses any academic involvement or external funding and is a way to make sure it serves the needs of those most affected by it.

Now that our volunteer interviewers are trained, the work can begin! Over the next couple of weeks, we will begin matching interviewers with interviewees, arranging interview dates and locations, and continue recruiting volunteers who would like to tell their stories.

If you’re considering becoming a volunteer for War Widows’ Stories or would simply like to know more about what this involves, do get in touch with us via the “Talk to Us” section of the website. We’d love to hear from you!

War Widows’ Association Annual Service of Remembrance

Today, on 12 November 2016 at 12.30PM, members of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA), their families, friends, supporters, and guests will gather for the War Widows’ Association’s Annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph. We will meet in King Charles Street at noon to walk the short distance to the Cenotaph, where the WWA’s Padre Rev. John Harrison will conduct the service, accompanied by music from the Southern Highlanders Pipe & Drums, and the RAF Halton Volunteer Band.

When the Nation comes together on Remembrance Sunday, it will be to remember all those who have suffered or died in war, but it is essential that those left behind are not overlooked. We have a duty to ensure that Britain’s forgotten women and men, war widows and  widowers, are remembered.

The War Widows’ Association’s Chair, Mrs Irene Wills BEM, remarked: “most Remembrance customs originate from the First World War, and yet it is so hard to believe that it took around 80 years for war widows to be allowed to take part in the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph. The ladies that formed the Association had a long struggle to ensure war widows and widowers have rightful recognition; it is through their efforts that the Association’s remembrance service has become an established part of the nation’s remembrance calendar.”

Mrs Wills also explained, “our Service is a very important and emotional day for our members. Remaining true to our foundation as a campaigning organisation, the Association has moved forward and can now be summed up in three words: campaigning, caring, remembering. Our service is very much about remembering, and while we remember all who made the ultimate sacrifice, each member here today has very personal memories; there are so many stories to be told. For example the member who never got to celebrate her first wedding anniversary; the member who has to explain to their children why they will never know their father. It is so easy to focus on current conflicts and forget the many that have gone before. Each story is different, and yet we are each united by a common bond.”

WWA members will also attend the National Service of Remembrance on Sunday, 13 November.

War Widows’ Stories Launches Live on Woman’s Hour

Today, on Armistice Day, Mary Moreland (WWA Chair Elect) and Dr Nadine Muller officially launched War Widows’ Stories by appearing live on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Talking to Jenni Murray at the BBC’s Old Broadcasting House in London, Mary and Nadine shared the motivation behind the project and explained why War Widows’ Stories is such an important venture. If you missed the live broadcast, you can listen back on BBC iPlayer here.