Belgrade Ghosts

While the UK was imploding, I was enjoying a very sunny weekend in Belgrade and trying not to think about the political situation. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be a member of the public during such a momentous, disastrous occasion as a declaration of war. In the course of little over a week, the world as you know it seems to crumble, and yet everyday life carries on very much the same. Okay, so hopefully (I’m not ruling anything out here) Brexit (or the threat thereof) doesn’t precipitate total war in Europe. But uncertainty over the political situation has me paralyzed with anxiety, and the news from distant climes (many of which places I’ve never heard of) is almost unbearably tragic. I feel helpless; I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And I’m a historian, so I see parallels everywhere.

It’s been ten years since I first heard the call and made my way to Serbia, following the footsteps of my heroines from ninety years earlier. A lot has changed over those ten years. The hipsters have arrived, and more tourists, too. Belgrade looks cleaner, tidier, more commercial. Memories of the “NATO aggression” seem more firmly relegated to the past, less a part of the living memories of the city. But I can’t be the only one seeing ghosts of European wars everywhere I go. Walking beside me through the streets of Belgrade are not only figures from history but characters of my own imagination, as they lived, loved, and (some of them) died. And a lot of things feel the same to me. I love the monument to France in the Kalemegdan fortress, though it’s looking a bit worse for the wear. Whatever else has changed, I’m drawn to it every time I go to Belgrade.


Also relatively unchanged in the military museum, a dungeon full of relics in Kalemegdan. Though some parts of the museum have been updated here and there (a poorly functioning app invites us to step inside Serbian military history for ourselves), it begins with a dusty, practically indecipherable display on Belgrade in pre-historic times and stops rather abruptly after the Second World War, with an added, modern bit on the so-called “aggression” (offset by a section on Serbia’s military contributions to the UN; passive-aggression at its best).  So much to read into, with the museum’s communist undertones showing through the more modern “lick of paint” interpretations and spotty English translations. Excellent value at 150 RSD.

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I can’t help but love the museum. Studying such an obscure part of history, it’s rare to find someone else who cares as much as I do, and the First World War galleries of full of interest. Here are some of my favourites:

Ooh, what’s that, in the far right of the last picture? American flags? Could this be the US diplomatic mission, in Belgrade 1919?

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The story goes on, as ever, and I wonder what will happen next.


Not in my name: Hackney’s FWW Conscientious Objectors

On Saturday I went to visit a little exhibition at the Hackney Archives on local Conscientious Objectors. There’s been a lot of interest in COs lately; possibly because the politics motivating many of them are coming into fashion.
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Hackney had a history of radical political and much of the population were Jewish refugees from Russia who refused to be allied with the country that has persecuted them. Others were motivated by their Christian belief in the commandant “thou shalt not kill.” As always at these local history exhibits, I found it fascinating to see the streets and buildings I’m familiar with taking an active role in a history I’ve also studied.

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I was especially pleased to see featured one William Knott, who also pops up in my research! Though this placard doesn’t mention his service in Salonika…
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“Not in my name” is running until October at Hackney Archives in Dalston. It’s a great little exhibition to pop to during your lunch break if you work nearby, or it’s open on Saturdays for those with a special interest in Hackney history or Conscientious Objectors.

Art and War in East London

On Saturday I went on a little outing to the Hackney museum (a bite-sized gallery attaching to the library at Hackney central) to check out a free exhibition on Art, Propaganda and the First World War.

The propaganda aspects of the exhibition were fairly standard, but I did spot a few posters I’d never seen before.

What interested me the most was seeing photographs and artifacts about the war in Hackney. I’ve lived in East London nearly the entire time I’ve been in the UK, so seeing these places I know so well is a special way of connecting the past I study with my own past and present. Here’s a picture of the opening of the  war memorial hall in Stoke Newington Library, where I spent many afternoons in the early days of my PhD: 

Flag (above) and badge (below) artifacts from North Londoners

Crowds outside one of the first sites to be hit by Zeppelin raids in London, around the corner from where I used to live.

Allotments in Clissold Park, which I have run through countless times:

I was especially interested by this panel about my favourite East London bakery, Percy Ingles!

The exhibition is on until 28 May with slightly anti-working people hours, but it is open on Saturdays and late on Thursdays. It’s worth a special trip if you’re interested in propaganda or East London and the First World War, or it’s the perfect lunchtime stop if you work near Hackney Central.



Soldiers and Suffragettes: Review of the Christina Broom exhibit

I went to see the Christina Broom exhibit at the Museum of London Docklands which is SO GOOD and also FREE, and such an interesting peek into a fascinating era (I would say that, as a historian of the early twentieth century, wouldn’t I?)


Although not much is known about her personal life or political views, Christina Broom was best known for photographing royalty, the armed forces, and the suffrage movement. She started her photography business as a way to support her family when her husband was injured in a cricket accident and could no longer work. What a woman! As a southwest Londoner, she established a connection with the Chelsea barracks by serendipitously passing by during a Guards sporting event and, being invited in, naturally took a few photographs. Thus a life-long connection with the army was established, which in turn led to opportunities to photograph royalty – first their horses, then their persons.

Broom was a savvy businesswoman and sold her photographs as picture postcards. The suffrage movement was very popular in the Edwardian era (except where it wasn’t) and as postcards depicting suffrage events and suffragette heroines sold well, Broom took more and more of them. Her ability to frame photographs and command the attention of subjects indicates the degree to which she was accepted and known among suffragettes. Although it would be natural to assume that her prolific and sympathetic portrayal of suffragists indicated that she supported women’s suffrage, Broom stopped photographing the movement as it became more militant — possibly because she didn’t want to risk her military or royal patronage, which were essential to her success.

Broom’s photographs of the military in London during the First World War are absolutely fantastic. Though she is careful to always portray the army in the best light (she wrote that she would smash the glass plate of any negative that had accidentally captured a uniform or posture in not absolutely correct military form), her pictures capture a casual, almost domestic sense of soldiers going about their daily lives. She also offered a portrait service to soldiers in uniform but insisted on natural rather than studio lighting. Photographing them in a familiar outdoor location allowed her to capture her subjects while more at ease.

Colonel G T Forestier-Walker, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, and Colonel Paul Kenna VC. © IWM (Q 66151)
Colonel G T Forestier-Walker, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, and Colonel Paul Kenna VC. © IWM (Q 66151)

There is some very familiar about Broom’s photography, making the connection between the viewer and the subject casual, almost personally, despite the 100 years between us. I find it fascinating and wonderful that a woman could have learned photography and within a few years have made a successful business out of it, photographing royalty and the most important events of her time. I’m so pleased that she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

I would highly recommend going if you can, it’s open until 1 November.

First World War Hospital & Troop Ships: exhibition in central London

HQS WellingtonI love working in London! Yesterday during lunchtime I met a friend down at Temple steps for an exhibition on WWI troop ships and hospital ships on the HQS Wellington. It was a really interesting exhibition about life and work on the ships, complete with interesting props, first-hand accounts, and a short film about the role of troop ships and hospital ships during the war.

Troop ships and hospital ships

I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric propaganda and the historical picture of a cat. It’s a perfect lunchtime jaunt (though not really long enough to get your “sea legs” as I found. It’s only open for the next two weeks, so hurry and see it if you can!