TPYF - Huge Public Response To Kent Exhibition Of WWI Portraits

By Adam Bambury | 31 October 2008
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A portrait photgraph of a soldier in uniform posing next to a seated woman.

Florence and Cecil Blinkhorne married at the Parish Church in Ightham in 1918. Cecil was in an Australian regiment. He and his wife settled in New Zealand in 1919. © The Centre for Kentish Studies

There has been a tremendous public response to the recent portrait exhibition at Sevenoaks Library of photographs depicting First World War soldiers and their families. Exhibition-goers even managed to identify and provide details on some of the anonymous sitters, who were photographed in Sevenoaks, Kent, between 1914 and 1918.

The 500 images, originally glass-plate negatives, were discovered by accident at a shop that had once been a photographic studio of the Essenhigh-Corke family.

The Centre for Kentish Studies then digitised the portraits in a project supported by the 'Their Past Your Future Programme', which aims to engage a new generation in the understanding of conflict.

The portraits feature many soldiers of different ranks and regiment, as well as nurses, couples, and families. While researchers from the Centre had managed to identify some of the men and the regiments they belonged to, they also hoped to learn more about the people in the photos. They were not to be disappointed.

A photograph of a seated soldier with his cap off.

Charles William Wells. © The Centre for Kentish Studies

“I happened to be killing time in the Sevenoaks Library,” relates Gillian Long, “and visited the gallery where the Facing the Great War exhibition of photos is being shown. I walked around studying the various faces and came across the photo of my grandfather. I recognised his photo since I have a copy of it in a frame on my wall.”

Long noticed an error on the portrait’s caption, and so restored Charles William Wills to his rightful surname of Wells. She was also able to provide further information about the soldier.

“He died of pneumonia in a French hospital on 6th November 1918 and is buried in Rouen," she explained. "Poignantly his widow, my grandmother, was notified of his death on 11th November 1918, Armistice day.” Wells’ son now lives in Sevenoaks, aged 91.

A photograph of a man in a suit amusedly pointing at the camera.

Cecil James Blinkhorne, aged 53. Courtesy of Selwyn Blinkhorne

Not everyone could visit the museum in person, however. Selwyn Blinkhorne from New Zealand had been on the Internet reading about his son’s snowboarding exploits when he absent-mindedly typed his grandfather’s name into a search engine. To his surprise he came across an English article about the project, that mentioned Florence and Cecil Blinkhorne.

“Florence and Cecil were my grandparents,” he said. “They actually returned to New Zealand in 1919 and they had eight children, the oldest of whom was born in England before their departure. My grandfather served with the Australian army but was in fact a 20-year-old New Zealander.”

Slightly closer to home, Carol and Mary Horncastle spotted their Uncle Donald as the groom and lieutenant from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps featured in a wedding photograph. He went on to become president of the Royal Veterinary Society.

A photograph of a soldier standing with a woman in a wedding dress who is holding flowers.

Donald and Flossie Tutt. © The Centre for Kentish Studies

The inclusion of nurses in the exhibition was welcomed by attendees, young and old alike. “I liked looking at the photos of the nurses and the hospital. They were all brave people,” remarked one seven-year-old in the visitor book, while an anonymous adult added, “I’m so glad women are included as they played such important parts. The nurses aren’t always depicted.”

A follow-up event is taking place this Saturday (November 1) at Maidstone Museum, with the Kent Orders & Medals Research Society on hand to provide an expert opinon on any medals or badges brought along. In a move inspired by the library exhibition, participants will get the chance to take their own 'WW1 portrait photographs' in a specially designed booth.

The booth will contain a canvas backdrop resembling the one in the Essenhigh Corke studio, as well as props that often featured in the original photographs. The museum is supplying military uniforms and paraphernalia, such as officers' 'swagger sticks', to complete the look. A selection of the portraits exhibited at Sevenoaks Library will also be on display.

The World War I Living History at Maidstone Museum event is on Saturday 1 November 2008, 10.00am- 4.00pm.
A Wreath Laying and Commemoration will take place at the Cenotaph, Brenchley Gardens, at 11.00am.

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