Europeana project aims to save more forgotten First World War family histories

By Culture24 Reporter | 24 July 2014

Do you have a box hidden deep in the attic that holds your great grandfather’s diaries from 1914-1918 or a photo with a special story behind it? If so, it could be part of a unique European First World War project

Image showing a woman with red hair holding an open diary to the camera while a man stands behind her
Jeanette Payne holds the diary of her great-grandfather John Henry Fisher with husband Michael standing beside her© Gareth Buddo
The British Library is working with Europeana, Europe’s most important online cultural resource, to gather and share people’s family stories from 1914-1918.

The stories, which will be shared on the Europeana 1914-1918 site, add to a portal packed full of contributions from more than 10,000 people across Europe.

The project is calling on people in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the surrounding counties to bring photographs, letters, diaries, film or audio recordings, together with the stories of whom they belonged to and why they are important to their families, to a Family History Roadshow at the British Library's Boston Spa site on Saturday August 2.

Fascinating local stories have already come to light, including one from British Library COO Phil Spence. His grandfather, John Spence (who died before Phil was born), volunteered for the ‘Hull Pals’ 10th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment after training as a school teacher in York.

He served in Egypt, France and Belgium, but was badly injured at the battle of Oppy Wood. He survived in a shell hole with one leg mostly missing until he was found during a cease-fire two days later.

Image of a sepia-toned photograph showing a young man in uniform
Photograph of John Spence© British Library
He then spent two years recovering at the Duchess of Connaught Canadian Military Hospital at Cliveden, where he collected copies of the Chronicles of Cliveden, a newspaper produced by the patients.

Spence embroidered a cover for this collection as part of his recuperation, and the family has now donated the Chronicles to the Library. It has been digitised as one of the many ‘trench journals’ the library has contributed to Europeana 1914-1918.

These kinds of objects can sometimes reveal hidden secrets from a family’s history. Until three weeks ago, Jeanette Payne, from Leeds, had no idea that anyone in her family had played any part in the First World War at all.

She was amazed when her mother gave her a diary written by her great-grandfather, John Henry Fisher. He worked as an Infantry Labour Boy in the Lincolnshire Regiment - the equivalent to the modern day army Logistics Corps.

These men are amongst the unsung heroes of the war, digging trenches, repacking shells and testing gas masks - important but largely unrecognised work. 

The diary also has a moving epitaph:
"And now closes a diary, which I have pleased to be able to write & I hope the occasion will never arise for another. I have had some glorious times in the Army & some very bad times, terrible hardships, & narrow escapes.

“War is too dangerous for everybody."

On the Europeana roadshow day itself, historians and experts from the York Museums Trust, Lancaster University and local history societies will be on hand to talk about the significance of finds, while staff from the British Library will professionally digitise the objects before they are uploaded to the dedicated Europeana 1914-1918 website.

There will also be a range of First World War-themed activities, including local curator talks from experts at The Castle Museum, York and film screenings from the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The Family History Roadshows have been held in more than 20 countries across Europe in the lead up to the WW1 Centenary, digitising more than 100,000 images of family memorabilia to sit alongside national WW1 collections.

Through this archive, stories from countries across Europe will be shared online, accessed by others worldwide and saved for future generations.  

Anyone unable to attend can find online advice on how to scan, photograph and upload material at home.

  • The Family History Roadshow runs 11am-5pm. Visit the Boston Spa Reading Room online for directions.

Image showing an embroidered book cover entitled Stand Easy: Cronicles of Cliveden, with a man wearing a blue jacket and brown cap leaning on a pair of crutches.
Embroidered cover for the Chronicles of Cliveden© British Library
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