The Ephemera of Remembrance in the Wake of War and Disaster, c.1899-1939

What is a memorial? Is it a stone monument in a village? Poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London? How about a pincushion?

My research is focused on the ways in which families and individuals grieved after war (such as the Boer and First World Wars) and disaster (mining, rail, and sea), thus exploring patterns of mourning which emerge in relation to sudden death during the early twentieth century.

The common perception of a memorial is of a large monument that stands in villages and towns and is visited on Remembrance Sunday. Historians have produced excellent work about the multiplicity of their meanings; from their resonance to those who lost a loved one, to their political significance. Running parallel to these stone monuments were other items: framed remembrances, photographs, objects and ephemera. These were used by families and individuals as personal memorials to the dead.

Photograph of Ann-Marie Foster, copyright Naomi Smith.

Those who grieved did so in a range of public and private spaces. The first was wholly private: people kept memorial objects from public view, perhaps by hiding them in special places, or in hand-made repositories. Others simply read the letters of a lost loved one behind closed doors. The next space occupied was quasi-private: individuals and families shared the memory of their loved one with visitors to the home, by mounting medals and placing them in the hallway, or reading letters on a certain date aloud with friends. Transcending the physical space of the home, notices were placed in local newspapers. Deaths and ‘In Memoriam’ notices in subsequent years were used to declare familial grief in the quasi-public arena of print. Similarly photographs of the deceased would appear in the press, creating a highly personalised memorial. An even more public act would be visiting a local memorial, at a time in the year personal to the family visiting, or organising a church service in memory of the deceased.

Disasters provide a useful theoretical framework for examining experiences of loss in the Great War. Much like the loss of a Pal’s battalion, an explosion in a colliery could decimate a mining community. Miners often lost close friends and relatives, and newly created widows grieved using largely the same artefacts and ephemera as those who lost a loved one in war. Similarly, for those directly involved in the disaster, men who volunteered for rescue parties would have had to confront the mutilated remains of their companions, if the disaster was such that bodies could be recovered at all.

Understanding how people used to mourn tells us how people still do. It is a big public event like the shutting of the DLI Museum, or the popularity of Europeana 1914-18, that causes us to realise that the majority of remembrance is privately carried out by individuals and families holding onto memories of their loved ones. These remembrances only come to public attention when something major happens that forces families to speak out and claim their heritage: most of the time those who died are quietly remembered at home. My research historicises this and seeks to put memorial practices back into their proper context, while creating a conversation with local people and groups about what a memorial is and how they are still important today.



Ann-Marie Foster is a 3rd year PhD candidate at Northumbria University, working on a thesis titled ‘The Ephemera of Remembrance in the Wake of War and Disaster, 1899-1939’ funded by the AHRC Heritage Consortium and supervised by Dr James McConnel and Dr Jenny Macleod. She was awarded a 2017 Gerda Henkel scholarship by the Historial de la Grande Guerre. In 2016 she catalogued First World War ephemera for the British Library as part of their PhD placement scheme.

E-mail: ann-marie.foster[at]

Twitter: @AMFoster_