Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, North Northumberland Group

Meldon, Northumberland's Thankful Village
Meldon, Northumberland's Thankful Village

Janet Brown, from The North East War Memorial Project, was the guest speaker at the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society’s North Northumberland Group.

Janet spoke to us on this topic about 10 years ago and it is amazing how the project has grown in the intervening period. Her talk refreshed our memories and contributed a great deal of new information.

There are over 6,000 war memorials between the Tweed and the Tees and these include many different formats – hospitals, parks, playing fields, bird baths, bookmarks, as well as the traditional monument.

The project was initially suggested by a letter to anewspaper in 1988. It was begun by mainly local history societies but Janet has continued work on the north east project since then.

The scope, detail and accuracy of its information are envied by many groups including the Imperial War Museum. The last couple of years have been particularly busy since communities began commemorating the First World War.

Although the Government of the time had no plans for a permanent memorial to the First World War and the Cenotaph in London was originally constructed only of wood and plaster for peace celebrations in 1919, local communities felt differently and wanted their own permanent memorials.

People felt they needed a place for grieving as it was policy not to bring bodies back to the UK and so a war memorial became a surrogate tombstone. Whether this should be a statue, monument or something practical and useful was decided at local level.

Some communities raised more funds than required, eg, Acklington where there was sufficient not only for the plaque in the church but also a lych gate and donation to the Memorial Hall.

At Amble, land for a garden was donated by Mr Lawson whose sons were killed in the war.

Coal owners at Ashington had already provided a hospital and added two more wards to extend the building.

The general feeling was that people wanted a place where they could go at any time and lay a wreath and this sometimes resulted in more than one memorial in the same place.

Usually names of the dead appear on the memorial. The order varies, sometimes with rank taking precedence, at other times alphabetical order is preferred. Groups such as schools, shops, churches, Masons, working men’s clubs provided memorials for their members.

By the 1950s the country’s mood had changed and there was a feeling of out with the old, in with the new.

Many memorials were put in storage during demolition and new building work and unfortunately some were lost in the process. One even re-emerged after being found overseas.

By the millennium there was a resurgence of interest in the past with genealogy being one of the most popular hobbies. This has resulted in many memorials being restored or added to as in Belford’s War Memorial Well in West Street.

People often wonder why names are missing from memorials. There are many reasons for this. Often families refused to believe that a relative was dead, some said the name was engraved on their heart and no memorial was needed, and in some cases families knew they would lose their tied cottage if they admitted a relative was dead. Widows remarried and tried to put the past behind them and focus on the future.

Northumberland has only one ‘Thankful Village’ where all men returned safely home after the First World War. This is Meldon, near Morpeth.

Sir James Knott had lost two sons in the war and he provided a house, called Mercy Beaucoup in which relatives of wounded soldiers could stay whilst visiting them.

Other contributions from donors include church bells, hearing aids and a stuffed dog now in the Northumberland Fusiliers Museum at Alnwick Castle.

A recent gift has been made by Jilly Cooper of a memorial in Park Lane to animals who served in wars.

This was a most interesting talk, full of information, some of which was surprising, all of it now brought to public notice through this valuable project. The website is www.newmp.org.uk

Our next meeting will be on Saturday, May 16, at 10 am and is the last one before our break for the summer.

There will be a short agm followed by a members’- led session on Picture Postcards from the Past. Bring along any interesting picture postcards you have in your family.