Tag Archives: 20th century

Linking the Past to the Present

WW1 memorial

Upper North Street School Memorial.

On this day, 23 June 1919, a memorial to eighteen London school children killed during a German Gotha raid during WWI was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, London E14.

Such memorials are each unique pieces of public art which link the present and the past and form part of our common history and belong to our collective memory.

I came across this striking memorial as I was walking along the East India Dock Road in London’s East End.  The angel statue stands on top of a four-sided pillar upon a white stone stepped base. The inscription reads:


The date of the tragedy also marks the first day of German aircraft daylight bombing raids on London during WWI. Prior to this, most air raids had taken place under cover of darkness. Poplar was near the commercial docks – a frequent target during enemy air raids in both world wars – and Upper North Street school may not have been the intended target when Gotha airplanes dropped their bombs on that day, but the school suffered a devastating direct hit.

Most of the dead were infants, aged between four and six. It caused a huge international outpouring of public grief and sorrow as well as outrage and outcry, inciting widespread rioting against German owned shops and premises in Britain. It prompted questions in the House of Commons about the pressing need for a more effective air raid early warning system.

Some of the schoolchildren's names

Some of the schoolchildren’s names

Before the 1914-1918 war,  most war memorials were of famous generals who won celebrated victories in battle. After the slaughter in the trenches and deaths from air raids on the Home Front, there was a change in public mood and this change is reflected in the many and varied public memorials commissioned in its aftermath. These are visible in our cities, in town squares, on village greens, in local churchyards, in parks, at railway stations and in the designs on church windows. They speak to us of commemoration and sacrifice – of civilians as well as service personnel – not celebration.

Above all, they allow us and future generations to remember. And hope for peace. Always.

What about you? Are there war memorials in your home town? How do you feel about them?


WWI Centenary. Lest We Forget

Quote from de Toqueville "When the past..."






Photographs © Susan Hughes


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Poster Girls of WW1

Picture of women munitions workers

Shell-making Edinburgh

I was pleased to be invited by Helen Hollick to write a piece for her Tuesday Talk slot on her blog, Let us Talk of Many Things; of Books and Queens and Pirates, of History and Kings…

On it I talk about the WW1 female munitions workers (known as munitionettes) who inspired my novel, A Kiss from France.  You can read it here:-


Helen Hollick is the author of piratical and royal tales and Managing Editor of the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews.

image:  painting  by Sir John Lavery (Public Domain) via Wikimediacommons

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A Backdrop to Drama

20th century living room

Early 20th century living room at The Geffrye Museum

I wanted to re-imagine a particular domestic interior which would be witness to confessions, secrets, and dangerous passions for my first novel. It had to be a middle class London town house, the sort a well-to-do manager in charge of a large, WWI munitions factory might live in.  This was to be the room where the central drama of my heroine’s life would play out.

From research, I learned that by the first part of the 20th century, the drawing-room had given way to the sitting room or living room. It was now furnished for everyday use and for comfort. It was much less formal than in previous eras. Electric lights were installed and the fireplace was still a focal point in the room. Furnishings and upholstery complemented each other but didn’t necessarily match. Reproductions of 18th century furniture were all the rage and less fussy wallpapers in light colours became fashionable.

You can find some of the settings and furnishings which inspired me on my Pinterest board, here http://uk.pinterest.com/hughes7584/inspiration-early-twentieth-century-house/

From these emerged my vision of an elegant room, with tall windows leading onto the rear garden (a ‘war patch’ of vegetables mainly replaced flower beds during the first world war). In the mornings, letters and cards would be written sitting at an 18th century reproduction escritoire or table; in the afternoons, visitors might take tea from Wedgwood tea cups; of an evening the room’s ambient lighting would come from one or two art-nouveau inspired lamps and a shellac record of popular songs of the day would be playing on a HMV gramophone.

I was helped in creating  the imaginary room by a visit to The Geffrye Museum of the Home  www.geffrye-museum.org.uk in East London, where a number of period rooms have been recreated. Attendant mood boards showing soft furnishing and flooring materials provide extra details. There is a small library holding relevant reference books for further study.

Book research is a useful starting point when I am trying to ‘get inside’ a period. Seeing a fully furnished room adds an extra dimension.

Any photographs are the author’s own.



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‘Forget Me Not’ – The enduring appeal of WWI silk postcards


WW1 silk postcard 'Forget me not'

‘Forget Me Not’

A handful of evocative, one hundred year old embroidered postcards in my possession have always exerted a potent fascination.

The pity is that I found them in a box of my grandmother’s possessions after her death and so I lost the chance to ask her about them. From what I know of my family’s past, however, these must have belonged to her mother and were sent by my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother’s brother from the Western Front during World War One.

Picture of WW1 silk postcard 'Remember'


Despite their age, the embroidered threads are still vibrant and colourful – a testament perhaps to the quality of work of the French and Belgian housewives who embroidered them onto strips of white organza by means of a home loom before sending them off to a factory to be made into postcards.Picture of a WW1 embroidered silk postcard

I often take out these postcards and look at them. They are undoubtedly sentimental and rather saccharine, with their emotive wording designed to evoke love, duty, patriotism and thoughts of family – no doubt anodyne enough to be proudly displayed on the mantelpiece at home for all to see – but also a visual reminder that a loved one was fighting for King and Country.

The simple greetings, such as ‘Forget Me Not’, ‘Far Yet Near’ or ‘A Kiss from France’ and the small space provided for a short message didn’t require any great eloquence on the part of the sender or allow for any mention of the horrors of trench warfare, which may account for their popularity among the troops.  Back home in Britain, such attractive designs and syrupy greetings were welcomed as they were, after all, infinitely preferable to receiving notification of a death, injury or capture by the enemy, sentiments usually communicated by the feared telegram – the leitmotif of the darker side of the war.

Interior of a WW1 silk

‘To my dear wife and boys from your ever-loving husband Jack’

Each time I hold these poignant mementos in my hands, I picture my great-grandmother doing the same thing during those emotional roller-coaster years of 1914-1918. I wonder what swell of thoughts and feelings must have ebbed and flowed in her mind. She would have found them pretty to look at, of course, and it meant her husband and brother were thinking of her. But it was what they symbolised that would be far more potent.  Here was the proof – wonderful, glorious proof! – that at the time of writing at least, they were still alive. The visceral relief in that moment of opening it and finding that her fears for their safety were assuaged must have been overwhelming.

I can’t truly know what my great grandmother felt; I can only imagine myself back one hundred years as if it were my husband and two sons fighting for King and Country.  It is then that I find there are no words.

WWI Centenary. Lest we forget.

(all photographs © Susan Hughes)

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‘Between tigers. Not!’ Music Hall-A New Interpretation

Happy New Year!


Auditorium Wilton’s Music Hall (author’s own photo)

Between Christmas and New Year, half-way down an unprepossessing alleyway off Cable Street in London’s East End, I discovered not only a throwback to the old Victorian tradition of the music hall – albeit with a modern twist – but also a gloriously atmospheric, historic building in Wilton’s – the last surviving Grand Music Hall in the world. Time Out called it, “One of London’s most magical historic venues.”

Picture of Wilton's 2014 programme

Wilton’s Programme 2014

‘Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Corker – or Your Goose is Cooked Mr Holmes’ is a lively jape of a show, being a mix of old-fashioned music hall routines of comic songs, with the obligatory audience participation, magic, mentalism, sly humour, cod-ventriloquism, slapstick and a bit of sauciness combined with an irrepressible spirit and a touch of sentimentality.  In the mid to late 19th century, Wilton’s Music Hall would have been ‘Mrs Hudson’s’ natural home.

Music Hall 

At the heart of the Victorian music hall were singing and comedy performers such as Dan Leno, George Robey and Marie Lloyd,  male and female impersonators like Vesta Tilley and character acts such as George Leybourne, whose ‘Champagne Charlie’ (a pretend aristocrat who sang about drinking champagne, gambling and womanizing) became a staple character of the music hall circuit. To provide a contrast, lesser known speciality acts were interspersed between singers and comics – jugglers, magicians, sword swallowers, trapeze artists, animal acts and illusionists among many others.

Picture of music hall programme 1868

Wilton’s Music Hall Programme 1868

On this bill from May 13th 1868, starting at 7.30 p.m., Mr. John Wilton offers a programme including:

comic singers

a lady gymnast on a flying trapeze

burlesque performances


Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ Overture

a comedy double act

Over time, other famous entertainers were drawn in by the popularity of the music hall, such as the world-renowned Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and the actress, Sarah Bernhardt. The latter was said to have sent a message before a performance which simply stated, “Between tigers. Not,” to indicate she was not prepared to appear either immediately before or immediately after an animal act, as befitted her superior status.

The music hall tradition started out in pubs and taverns and the first music halls were noisy and challenging venues in which to perform as the acts competed with food, drink and audience chatter – and the odd missile in the form of a bottle or boot if the audience took against you.

It wasn’t until the grander, purpose-built music halls came along that auditoriums began to be arranged in rows of fixed seats, like the theatres we frequent today, and the refreshment area was separated off.  Wilton’s was modelled on other successful 19th century music halls of the time and this tradition is continued today with a selection of tables nearest the front of the stage and a nod to more modern theatre tradition in the rows of seats behind.

Picture of Wilton's Music Hall balcony

Wilton’s Music Hall interior (author’s own photo)

By 1875 there were around 375 venues in Greater London alone.  Before the advent of radio and TV, the music halls were the only venues where audiences could see and hear their favourite acts. It was claimed by the working classes as one of their favourite forms of entertainment, although the upper echelons of society were quite partial to it too (but not the middle classes, who considered it rather risqué and vulgar – which was the whole point!).

In Britain, the spirit of Variety gets its annual outing with ‘The Royal Variety Performance’ and music mogul Simon Cowell has attempted to revive the music hall acts of yesteryear in the  ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ TV programme – won variously by a performing dog, a dance group, a mime act and a troupe of aerial gymnasts – acts which modern audiences might be more likely to associate with the circus than a theatre stage – but which could be found performing in the music halls of Victorian Britain.

Wilton’s Music Hall

Picture of Wilton's Music Hall Balcony with fairly lights

Wilton’s Music Hall Balcony (author’s own photo)

In its heyday, Wilton’s Hall had a single gallery on three sides of the auditorium, supported by ‘barley sugar’ cast iron pillars which rose above the large rectangular hall and a high stage.  It was furnished with mirrors and intricate paintwork of gilded leaves and floral decoration. The building had the best heating and lighting system of its time, including a ‘sunburner’ chandelier of 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals which reflected and illuminated the mirrored walls.  It had space for supper tables, a benched area and a promenade around the outside for standing customers. Entrance was via a 6d refreshment ticket.

The First World War

The music hall was given a fillip during World War One, when artists began to rally public support for the war effort from the stage.  At the beginning of the war, Vesta Tilley became known as ‘Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant’ through her impersonations of characters such as Tommy in the Trench and Jack Tar Home from the Sea and by encouraging young men in the audience to join Kitchener’s Army. Patriotic music hall songs such as ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ (1914); ‘Tipperary’ (1914); ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ (1915) as well as the later, notorious ‘Oh! What a Lovely War!’ (1917), were all sung by music hall audiences.

Photo of Vesta Tilley

Vesta Tilley
(creative commons licence)

The Demise of the Music Hall

Eventually,  many of the male performers were conscripted and sent off to fight and many returned home maimed or didn’t return at all and the music hall lost a key section of its talent.  By the war’s end, talking pictures were all the rage and many music halls were converted into cinemas or pulled down and redeveloped. Wilton’s was no exception.

Welcome sign on renovation hoardings on Wilton's facade

Hoarding around the facade while undergoing renovation

Wilton’s history of long neglect is scored into the very fabric and framework of the building’s faded grandeur.  Yet its heart and spirit is intact.  It has survived many transformations such as being gutted by fire, being a Methodist Church, WW2 bombs and being used as a rag warehouse in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the poet John Betjeman and the comedians Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan launched a campaign to save it and in 1971 it was given an historic Grade II* listing. In 1984 it was used as the setting for the pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s video of their controversial single, ‘Relax,” but by 2007 it was almost completely derelict. In that year it was put on the World Monument Fund’s list of one hundred most endangered monuments and so began its rise from the ashes to become the home of ‘imaginative and distinctive work with its roots in the early music hall tradition but reinterpreted for an audience of today.’

Picture of heavy wooden doors

Front Entrance – undergoing renovation

That means anything from opera to ping-pong, puppetry to dance to classical music.  Maybe all on the same programme! Well, that’s the tradition of Music Hall and Variety, right there, isn’t it?

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