Incredible war stories discovered through soldiers’ letters to Hackney

Historian Rayem Gutierrez looks at the letters displayed at the Hackney Museum exhibition, "Writing

Historian Rayem Gutierrez looks at the letters displayed at the Hackney Museum exhibition, "Writing Home - letters to Hackney during the First World War." - Credit: Archant

The incredible stories of soldiers fighting in the First World War have been discovered through their letters home to loved ones.

Historian Rayem Gutierrez looks at the letters displayed at the Hackney Museum exhibition, "Writing

Historian Rayem Gutierrez looks at the letters displayed at the Hackney Museum exhibition, "Writing Home - letters to Hackney during the First World War." - Credit: Archant

The subject of an exhibition at the Hackney Museum, Writing Home: Letters to Hackney during the First World War, the penned accounts give intimate insight into life on the front line.

Niti Acharya, museum manager said: “The idea came around last summer. We were approached by the Fusilier Museum which had a selection of items from a man called Joseph Hughes, including postcards he had written to his sweetheart in Hackney, dating throughout his training to his time at the front.”

The Hackney Archives had another collection of letters from a young serviceman called Alexander Dyall who was writing to his family based in Clapton throughout his training and combat.

Niti said: “He was describing every day life at the front, saying things like ‘don’t send me more socks, I have enough’ and ‘I can’t change my money here; send me francs.’ Sometimes he can’t say exactly where he is.”


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She continued: “What is most moving though is he seemed really young from his photos. We have one letter from his family that just got sent back to them.”

Alexander, it appears, went missing after the battle of Passchendaele, his body never recovered.

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The poignancy of this is highlighted by the banal details described in his letters - lice cream, cigarettes, and socks - juxtaposed with the glaring silence of his disappearance.

In contrast, Joe Hughes made it through the war and returned to marry the addressee of his letters, Hackney sweetheart, Elizabeth Shillingford.

Niti said: “He was in the Royal Fusiliers and he was lucky which is probably the only way to describe it. His battalion fought at the Somme and only one of them came back.”

Joe’s grandson also contributed to the exhibition, reminiscing about how his grandfather’s experiences in the war shaped his family life.

Niti said: “The letters are the main focus of our display, and help us tell different stories about the writing process. If you were writing from the Western Front, your letters were censored.

“We have seen letters by people that fought in the Middle East which were not censored. There did not seem to be a unified approach.”

The exhibition also focuses on people’s experiences at home in Hackney, with the increase of manufacturing and the impact on immigrant communities.

Niti said: “We are really interested in finding people in Hackney to help us develop information or people that live here today that may have been somewhere else in the world affected by the war.

“For example there was a sizeable German population and we have a large Turkish population. Gallipoli was really a flashpoint.

“I think it is really important because the impacts are still felt today. If we forget about it we can lose something of our understanding of the world.”

The exhibition runs until August 30. For more information, call 020 8356 3500.

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