War memorials are a starkly poignant part of our heritage. They are found everywhere, and link the tragic impact of world wars with local communities.
First World War memorials represent the greatest wave of commemoration ever experienced in Britain. Tens of thousands were created during and after the war – no-one knows the exact figure, so widespread was the nation’s grief. Virtually all were funded by public subscription. There is hardly a town or village across the land without a memorial, with many taking the form of a simple cross or obelisk.
Here are 9 unusual memorials and how they came to be:
Captain Lubbock’s Aeroplane Memorial, Bromley, London
Captain Lubbock, a Royal Flying Corps pilot, was killed in action when his Sopwith Camel bi-plane was shot down over Belgium on 11 March 1917. His grieving mother commissioned a stone replica of his plane to be erected as his memorial in the family graveyard at High Elms, Bromley, London. Lubbock was the son of Lord Avebury, a figure of great interest to the heritage sector as he was the MP who introduced the Ancient Monuments Act in 1882, the nation’s first legislation to protect archaeological remains.
When the family sold their estate in the 1930’s, the gravestones were moved and Captain Lubbock’s plane disappeared. Decades later, a vigilant member of the public spotted the memorial in a stonemason’s yard in Wiltshire. The mason refused to relinquish it, but eventually the plane was put up for auction. The family bought it back for £8,000.
The restored memorial was re-sited in 2010 near its original location in what is now High Elms Country Park.
Chilwell memorial, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire
This concrete memorial, flanked by actual artillery shell cases, commemorates workers from the local National Shell Filling Factory. Many people were killed in accidental explosions there during the First World War, including the colossal explosion of 1 July 1918 when 134 workers died. Only 32 could be positively identified. 250 were injured.
As well as names of the dead, the carved inscription is unusual in detailing the achievements of the factory, which employed 10,000 people and produced nearly 20 million high explosive shells during the war, over half of Britain’s total output.
Altar in St Edmund the King & Martyr church, City of London
St Edmund the King & Martyr church was bombed in a German air raid 7 July 1917 and eventually became derelict. Later restored, it was reborn in 2003 as the London Centre for Spirituality, under the leadership of the Reverend Dr Andrew Walker.
Reverend Walker commissioned a work of art using the original 1690s altar, but with shrapnel from the bomb visible within a central transparent box. The box is engraved with words from a 16th century saint, creating beauty out of ugliness and encouraging reflection on peace and the destructive nature of war.
The Memorial in St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Middleton-on-the-Hill, Herefordshire
No names are recorded on this memorial as Middleton-on-the-Hill was one of only 54 villages in Britain – known as ‘Thankful Villages’ – whose men fought in the First World War, but who miraculously all came safely home.
The stone column of the memorial is topped by a lantern. Part of the inscription reads:
…“At evening time it shall be light ”
for the safe return of all the men from this parish
who fought in the Great War…
The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, Postman’s Park, City of London
This late 19th century memorial was founded by Victorian artist George Frederck Watts (1817-1904). The shelter houses fifty-four ceramic memorial plaques – dating from 1863 to 2009 – that commemorate acts of heroism, from saving people from drowning, to courage on the home front during the First World War.
One such hero was London police constable Alfred Smith who was killed on 13 June 1917 during a German air raid on Finsbury. The women and girls working in a local factory had run in panic into the street. PC Smith led them to safety, but was fatally caught by a bomb blast.
1-30 New Court Flats, Hampstead, London
This block of 30 artisan’s dwellings was built by a philanthropist in 1854 and is the second oldest example of such flats built for the Victorian ‘deserving poor’. They feature a First World War memorial plaque that, unusually, honours the fifty men who lived in the buildings, and served in the war. Forty returned safely. The 10 who died have a cross before their name.
The 20% fatality rate was much higher than the the First World War’s national average, which was around 12%.
Peace Bench, Peace Garden, Alexander Park, Hastings
Memorials do not remember valour and loss alone. This memorial bench was donated by the Local Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Hastings, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
150 blacksmith-forged white feathers form the back rest. During the war white feathers symbolising cowardice were forced on men in the street who were not in uniform to denounce and shame them.
The words ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ – a biblical quote from Deuteronomy, chapter 30 – are carved on the front edge of the seat.
Islington Green War Memorial, London
Memorials have their own after-life. The original concrete war memorial obelisk on this site, erected in 1918, was always intended to be temporary. However it stood for decades, gradually deteriorating, until 2006 when it was demolished as part of the regeneration of Islington Green.
In its place, modern creativity was brought to bear on the past with an 8 tonne, twisted continuous ring (a “Moebius loop”) of stone, symbolic of a wreath, and an historical echo in inscribed stone of words from the old memorial: ‘In Memory of the Fallen’, and ‘Land’, ‘Sea’, ‘Air’, ‘Home’.
Memorial Stained Glass Windows, St Mary the Virgin church, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire
The church’s memorial stained glass windows uniquely depict images from the First World War; from weapons and war scenes – including a Zeppelin, tank, German bi-plane, trench warfare and women munitions workers; to peaceful scenes of harvesting and animal husbandry. Each is accompanied by a relevant Biblical text.
Swaffham Prior lost 23 men in the war. The eccentric local squire and churchwarden, Charles Allix, wanted a memorial within St Mary’s to honour the fallen. The village Non-Conformists strongly opposed this and refused funding. The squire simply paid for the windows himself. Along with his daughter Cecily, he chose the images and texts based on newspaper cuttings, and the glass maker’s drawings.
You can learn more about our work to record the legacy of the First World War on England’s home front, and find out how you can help to protect your local war memorial here.