Peace – A residency in Newcastle-under-Lyme

One hundred years on from the First World War, it is still a moment in history that in many ways defines our country. Between 2014 and 2018, thousands of events were organised to mark the various centenaries. These ranged in scale from Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, which saw hundreds of actors appear silently in towns and cities across the UK to mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme, to my own personal pilgrimage to tell the story of one forgotten soldier. The Apedale Valley Light Railway held a series of ‘Tracks To Trenches’ re-enactment events, and artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper brought their ceramic poppies to Middleport Pottery.

Lochnagar Crater, The Somme

Our view of the FIrst World War is shaped by the words of those who wrote at the time or immediately afterwards. Since the 1960s, our view has been framed by the War Poets being taught in school – Siegfired Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and their contemporaries were almost forgotten before becoming widespread in schools. 

As we have listened to the voice of the soldiers, we cannot hear the voice of the women, but they were there. Women from every social class served their country, in a variety of different roles. The Munitionettes, the young girls working in factories whose skin was dyed yellow by the chemicals, are remembered, but women took many more ordinary roles in factories to fill the places left by men going to the trenches. The Women’s Land Army, better known from the Second World War but 23,000-strong in 1918, helped to run farms and forests. The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, driving and maintaining trucks, drove war materiel across the country and out to the fighting fronts. 

And then there are the women grouped together as ‘nurses’, the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD), First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade. These women weren’t just passive helpers at the hospitals set up across the UK (locally, there were hospitals in Stoke, Leek, Stone, and Shelton), but were driving ambulances right up to the front line. 

One of the volunteer nurses was Vera Brittain. She was born in 1893 into a very wealthy family who lived in Newcastle-under-Lyme (her house is still there, on Sidmouth Avenue, with a blue plaque to her memory). Her family owned a papermaking business, with mills in Hanley and Cheddleton. 

Vera and her brother Edward were given a ‘good’ education at Uppingham School, founded in 1584 by the Archdeacon of Leicester. When war came, Edward – like others of his social class – was made an officer. So too was Vera’s finance, Roland Leighton, and their closest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Vera joined the VAD, and served as a nurse at hospitals in Buxton, London, France and on the island of Malta. She was the only one of the group to survive the war.

Vera Brittain

Vera wrote a memoir of the war, Testament of Youth, which was published in 1933 and has in many ways framed our view of the war ever since. It gives us a very Middle Class view of the war, inevitably, and perhaps more than any other text spoke of a ‘lost generation’. The total strength of the British Army, including over 1.5 million Indian Army and ‘coloured soldiers’, was 8,689,457.

956,703 were killed. 89% of soldiers survived the First World War, albeit with 2,272,998 of them wounded (64% of whom returned to carry on fighting – my Great-Grandad was both shot and gassed, but served until armistice in 1918). For Vera, to lose everyone in her close circle, was both exceptional and incredibly unlucky.

Unsurprisingly, given her experience, Vera became a fighter for peace, at a time when Britain was considering rearmament and faced another European war. Chamberlain, doing everything to maintain the peace, is now seen as somehow out of step, and Churchill’s rush to fight seen as the right thing. But in the 1930s, it was more complex. The First World War was very recent – closer then, than we are to the Spice Girls and Cool Britannia today. There were wounded veterans in almost every family, and war memorials had replaced the maypole on the village green or the market in the town square. 

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the No More War Movement, the Service Civil International and the Peace Pledge Union all formed and were active in this period. The first white poppies were worn in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, to remember everyone who died in the war (the British Legion’s red poppy is only for remembrance of the military) and as a commitment to peace. The Labour Party was led by a pacifist (who also chaired the Peace Pledge Union), and at the 1933 Labour conference in Hastings it resolved unanimously to “pledge itself to take no part in war”.

Vera was a member of the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and through the 1930s she spoke at peace rallies and other events. She wrote for Peace News. During the Second World War, she spoke out against the area bombing of German cities, but did serve as a fire warden and raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. In the 1950s and 1960s, she campaigned against apartheid and colonialism, and in favour of nuclear disarmament. She died in London, in March 1970.

As Lead Artist for Appetite’s Newcastle Common, I’ll be carrying out a two week residency, based around the project’s shopfront space. Having previously made work with the Lochnagar Crater Foundation, an organisation who maintain a Somme battlefield site as a centre for peace and reconciliation, having worked with the history of print and papermaking in Kent, and having spent 20 years finding ways to bring craft and manufacture back to town centres, I want to use that residency to explore Vera’s story through her connection with the town.

Peace, 1st-14th November, Newcastle Common

And of course, Vera’s connection to Staffordshire isn’t just through pacifism, but also through papermaking. The Cheddleton Paper Mill closed in 1979 (and is now remembered in … er, gin!) and the Ivy House Mill, Hanley closed in 2006, and is now only remembered by a street name.

So to remember Vera and her paper-making ancestry, I’m planning to set up a paper making workshop in the shop, to let people make their own paper. They’ll be able to add their own material to the pulp – a letter from somebody they feel wronged them, a souvenir of a terrible time – as an act of reconciliation as they create a blank page to start something new. After it’s dried, they’ll be able to keep the paper and invited to use it creatively.

I’ve also commissioned a very limited number of sheets of paper from the Paper Foundation one of the few papermills still manufacturing in the UK. I’ll give sheets to selected artists, who make work around themes of peace and reconciliation, and bring what they make together for an exhibition in the Newcastle Common gallery space. I’ll exhibit the work by local people, on the pages they made in the shop, alongside the invited artists.

I’ll create a programme around the themes, talks and presentations about peace and papermaking. And I’ll publish a gazetteer or UK sites, memorials, and gardens dedicated to peace.

The project, rooted in the history of local industry and shaped by a war a hundred and more years ago, will be about the future – the future of our town centres, as places of making again, and as we discuss peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness, about the future of our country.

Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour and the Slave Trade

Sir William Curtis is the man who brought the ‘Royal’ to Ramsgate’s harbour. In 1820, King George IV stayed with his friend and drinking companion Sir William, at his house on West Cliff, before sailing to the continent. A year later and in recognition of that stay, King George gave Ramsgate the Royal Harbour designation and Sir William formed a committee to commission a monument to mark the moment – the obelisk that still stands today. But Sir William’s  wealth was built on the slave trade. 

Perhaps the kindest way to describe Sir William Curtis is a ‘colourful character’. After a life as a city banker, financier to the slave trade, businessman, freemason, and MP, he died in Ramsgate in 1829. He was known for throwing wild parties and for his love of a good drink. By the time of his death aged 77, Sir William was massively overweight, and was suffering from gout so severe he couldn’t even walk from his front door, so had to be carried by his servants to a waiting carriage for rides around the town. 

William was born in Wapping in 1752, the son of a successful businessman. His father, Joseph, had built a business supplying sea biscuits – rock-hard food for sailors establishing the Empire’s trade routes to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, North America, China, and through the Mediterranean. William became known as Billy Biscuit. 

He did poorly at school but in 1771, on his father’s death, he inherited the family business. From warehouses in Wapping, they supplied provisions to the Royal Navy and the East India Company. William introduced industrial manufacturing processes to the company’s sea biscuits, and sealed barrels which ended the problems of weevils in the rations, and was soon buying his own ships and investing in other’s businesses.

William become closely connected to the Camden, Calvert and King shipping partnership, as an investor and supplier. They transported at least 20,000 people into slavery, making them the largest slaving company in London. 8.5% of their slaves died on the way. Another close friend of Curtis, Peter Thellusson, also traded slaves and built up a portfolio of slave plantations in Granada and Jamaica. William invested in slave companies, supplied them, and owned ships used by them. William would later claim he had never owned any slaves – but his wealth was unquestionably made from the slave trade.

In 1788, WIlliam became Sheriff of London and after 10 years of trying, in 1790 he became an MP, for the City of London, a seat he held for the Tories for 28 years. He used his position to fight in Parliament for slavery. In 1807, he led the opposition to William Walberforce’s Slave Trade Act. He frequently represented the shipping industry in Parliament, and spoke up for British fishing.

A year after becoming an MP, William became a partner in the founding of a bank – Curtis, Robarts, & Curtis of Lombard Street. William used it to support his business interests and those of his friends: the bank would loan money to plantations and slave traders, before eventually becoming part of Coutts, known today as ‘The Queen’s Bank’. 

William probably owned a house in Ramsgate by this time. By about 1810, the Ramsgate to Ostende steam packet was named the Sir Willliam Curtis, suggesting he was well connected to the town. She sank off Ostende in 1815, and William gave money to support the families of those killed in the disaster. 

In 1818, William lost his seat as an MP, and he was offered a peerage which he declined. He briefly became MP for a rotten borough, returned as MP for the City of London but then abandoned a campaign before Polling Day, and was briefly MP for Hastings in 1826 – winning the election, then sailing home to Ramsgate in his yacht Emma.

William had owned Cliff House in the town for some years. In 1820, his friend King George IV stayed at William’s house on West Cliff, before sailing to the continent. The pair had been friends for some years, and there were suggestions that the King had an affair with William’s wife Anne. A year after his visit, King George gave Ramsgate the Royal Harbour designation.

William died in Ramsgate in 1829, leaving the Cliff House to his wife. The sale of the contents of his Middlesex home took five days, with nearly 4500 bottle of wine, port, claret, and beer sold. 

In 1833, less than ten years after he had left Parliament, The Slavery Abolition Act passed. William’s brand of politics and business was ended. 

In 2015, the UK Government finished paying back a loan it had taken out 180 years earlier. The 1833 loan, £2.4billion in today’s money, allowed the government to pay compensation to slave owners, for having to free their slaves. The former slaves received nothing. Among those compensated was Timothy, William’s son. He had owned 206 enslaved people in St Vincent and was paid compensation worth nearly £1 million in today’s money. The Curtis family continue the baronetcy to this day.

This is a short version of an essay written for Recognising Ramsgate’s Heritage, to be published by Swell Publishing, 2022. Reproduced with their kind permission.