By Jane Wilson, volunteer
The Durham Light Infantry Stores and Research Centre in Spennymoor recently hosted a small group from the Bowes Museum, for a behind-the-scenes tour and object handling session. Our group was met with a friendly welcome by Naomi, a Learning Support Officer, Lt Col John Heron and Steven Pearce, both veterans of the DLI, and Les, a Newcastle University student, on a placement at the Research Centre.
During a brief introduction to the Research Centre, it was explained that while a small DLI Collection Gallery is on show at Palace Green in Durham, the Stores and Research Centre was the main base for object conservation and storage, archives made available for research, and co-ordination of educational lessons and resources being made available to the wider community.
As part of our tour of the storage area, we were shown a wide array of sporting trophies won by the DLI, a wooden WW1 Battlefield cross, a display of military weapons, framed Victoria Cross citations and artwork completed by soldiers while on duty. For means of preservation, and awaiting conservation, their Regimental colours and flags are all kept wrapped in acid-free materials, and hung from rails were hundreds of coat hangers holding ghostly white acid- free garment bags, with the colourful yet old and fragile uniforms suspended within.
We saw more intimate and personal items that had belonged to those serving with the DLI during WW1, such as a beaded and embroidered pin cushion, a fragment of glass from the Cloth Hall in Ypres, an autograph book belonging to a nurse with photos and letters from DLI soldiers, and even a hardened Jacobs biscuit with a pencil message and date written on the reverse.
We were shown examples of items that are used in the handling sessions held in schools etc. and could touch and feel items that had genuinely been around during WW1. The items included hand grenades, tunics, a military bugle, and one of our group even tried on a protective military helmet and face shield. We probably had just as much enjoyment out of handling these objects as a class of school children would!
Our session finished off by looking at objects, items and contemporary source materials belonging to three North-East people who had been connected to war in various ways. We learnt about a lady who had to give up her job on the buses when she married and how she fared in life when her husband died in the war. We discussed the information about Major Harry Sell, a British Prisoner of War in Germany, looking through what his British Red Cross ration pack may have contained, and learning about his daring escape from one Prison Camp. Lastly, we learnt of the heroic exploits of Jarrow boy-scout Alan Wilkin, who suffered severe injuries while on firewatch duties but was later awarded an honour for his bravery.
Our visit certainly brought the Durham Light Infantry to life for us, and encouraged us to consider the Research Centre for further research, knowing that many experts and DLI veterans assist at the Centre and can share their knowledge with the public
We are now looking into arranging a visit by DLI staff and volunteers to the Museum . Perhaps we could develop this into a drop-in session, with an opportunity to handle some of the material in the stores. Trying on helmets, holding an officer’s pistol, feeling the weight and sharpness of a shrapnel fragment gave a whole new dimension to reading about and imagining the wartime experience of the hundreds of men whose names are currently on the project’s Roll of Honour. Are there any other aspects you would like us to consider in such an event? Contact Judith: Judith.email@example.com or Alison: firstname.lastname@example.org