Over 100 years have passed since the guns of the First World War fell silent over the battlefields of Europe. This week, I always think about the terrible loss of life – in both the First War and all wars.
I wrote extensively about the First World War after making it a personal mission during the centenary years to research and remember those who fought for King and country during that bloody war.
In the past, I’ve shared; a family story and a recipe for Trench Cake, a tragic and harrowing story of one Shetland soldier, killed at Arras, and a three-part series that looked at the role of women in the war who kept their minds and hands busy as they knitted woollen garments for troops overseas.
This year, to mark Remembrance Day and pay homage to those who gave so much for our freedoms, I thought I would share a book review of a recent publication based in Shetland and focused on the First World War period.
I always ensure that I read a book related to Remembrance in November, and this year was no different – In fact, I’m now on my second wartime read of the month. I’ve just started When I Heard The Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John Macleod, which looks at the tragic loss of the Iolaire off Lewis. Around 200 men were drowned at the dawn of a New Year as they returned home from war. The men were within view of home when the ship sank at the harbour entrance – a tragic and cruel blow to the community who had endured four long years of war.
But that’s for another day. The book that I’m looking at here, A Family at War, was published by the Shetland Times earlier this year and offers a tantalising glimpse at Lerwick during the First World War. The book focuses on the family of Mr & Mrs Charles Brown Stout of the Medical Hall on Lerwick’s Commercial Street. The Stouts were a wealthy, well-connected family which, in itself, offers a fantastic look at some of the ‘Lerwick elite’. So much of the literature of Shetland focuses on crofting communities and the traditional way of life of rural communities. We’re very rarely offered any insights into the lives of Lerwick’s middle and upper-class families, and people may be mistaken in thinking that Shetland lacked any sort of cultural scene. As well as documenting a family at war, this book also demonstrates the rich tapestry of social events and concerts in Lerwick during this time of great social change.
The book looks at the lives of various family members engaged in the war, both at home and abroad, and is lovingly told by descendant Margaret Stuart. We look at Charles Brown, who ran the pharmacy and chemist shop at 92 Commercial Street. Not only was the premises a business, but it was also the family home where Charles and his wife Margaret raised their eight children.
Life at the Medical Hall was busy, filled with social events, concerts, fundraisers and the whirlwind of visitors, high days and holidays that you would expect from an influential and well-connected family in any Edwardian town.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the book was the Shetland aspect of the war. Shetland was an important naval port, and as many as 70 per cent of those serving from Shetland were at sea, either in the navy or merchant navy. Lerwick, and the window of the Medical Hall drawing-room, had a unique view of harbour activity that saw more tonnage in the 4,500 vessels passing through than any other UK port in 1917
The book itself was inspired by the photographic archive of Charlie Stout, the author’s uncle. He photographed much of the wartime activity around Shetland, providing a unique insight into a strategically important island at war.
While reading the book, one thing that struck me was the “tourism” that followed the war, as people flocked to the battlefields to witness the scene of all the action. Two of the Stout sisters, Elizabeth and Anne, extensively toured the battlefields on their free days away from the charitable work they were engaged in on the continent.
Their narratives provide a unique and firsthand account of the situation in the immediate post-war period. Margaret, another sister, also took a holiday there in 1921 to see where all the action had occurred.
As an observer, this seems strange over one hundred years later, but to those who had lived through the war years, it likely provided closure of sorts.
When I read about the young Margaret Stout offering lectures on food economy, I wondered how well this would have gone down outside the bright lights of the well-heeled Lerwegians who made up the town’s middle and upper classes. I wondered how my great grandmother would have reacted to the ‘new notion of food economy’ as she tried to divide up meagre rations among a growing and hungry family.
(I wrote about my great grandmother here and shared a wartime recipe for Trench Cake – sent to the men in the trenches of the First World War and baked in the loving kitchens of home).
Although sometimes repetitive in parts, this book is a particularly poignant and timely read for Remembrance Day.
It would also make a fantastic Christmas gift for that family member that is notoriously difficult to buy for. It’s a great addition to the coffee table. The numerous photos are interesting to flick through, showing images of a bygone Lerwick, now forgotten to living memory.
Anyone wishing to buy a copy of this hardback that’s illustrated with the family’s wartime photos can do so here.
Hello from Laurie
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