Raid, Rations and Rifles: Exhibition brings “Islington’s home front” to life
PUBLISHED: 10:57 12 November 2018
A Clerkenwell exhibition remembers what life was like “on Islington’s home front” during the First World War – it’s an essential experience ahead of Sunday’s centenary.
Islington Museum, in St John Street, is showcasing its Raids, Rations and Rifles collection to commemorate the sacrifices made by soldiers and “the civilian force” during the war.
Museum-goers will gain an insight into what life was like when bombs peppered Balls Pond Road and Finsbury Park, as well as learning about a prisoner of war camp and aircraft repair shop.
“We wanted to show the story of Islington on the home front,” said Mark Aston. “We have focused on the western front too, of course, but we wanted to tell the stories of the civilian force.
“This brings our five year commemorative period to a close, although we will continue to remember people’s sacrifices long after 2018.”
More than 16 million people died between 1914 and 1918 and some 10,000 of these were linked to Islington.
The display will showcase memorabilia, including artefacts bequeathed from the public, which document what life was like for people in the former boroughs of Islington and Finsbury.
Mark, the local history manager at Islington’s heritage service, said: “One of the most interesting things for me is the fact that there was an alien internment camp in Archway, where German, Hungarian and Austrian men were kept.
“At the time they were seen as the enemy, but keep in mind a lot of these people had lived here for decades.
The internment camp was in Wallace Road and could hold up to 750 “aliens” at any time. It was open from 1915 to 1919.
“But it wasn’t a normal prisoner of war camp,” said Mark. “Because people could go and work during the day but had to come back at night.
“People were suspicious, but many of these guys were normal law-abiding citizens.”
There were also a number of air raids in Islington.
One such attack came in May 1918, when bombs fell on the north east of the borough.
Mark said the assault started in the sky over Stoke Newington but explosives were soon landing on Newington Green, Balls Pond Road and beyond.
He added: “The last raid came in May 1918 and bombs were dropped in the Essex Road area, Packington Street was hit.
“All this is interesting to learn more about because we know the blitz was really bad.
“But this brought menace and devastation into people’s homes – it was almost like bringing the battlefront to our doorsteps.”
Islington’s Royal Agricultural Hall, in Upper Street, which is now the grade II listed Business and Design Centre, also played a part in the war effort.
It was claimed by the government as a postal centre, where Mark says the censorship of letters took place.
“But towards the end of the war, it was turned over to the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a repair shop for aircraft parts.
“The workforce was predominantly women, who stood-in for a lot of jobs.
“Women also worked at a gas mask factory in Holloway, in the police force and in transport.”
The exhibit also explores the experiences of conscientious objectors, of whom there are a number of documented cases in Islington.
Mark said: “There were brave people who stood up for their beliefs against the majority. “Often they were heckled and threatened violently.
“Some objectors refused to pick up a rifle but would join the ambulance core and dig trenches.
“But others completely opposed the war in any shape or form, so that’s another side to the story.”
The collection will also delve into the lives of children who lived off rations and played in the rubble of smouldered houses.
“It’s about remembering who fought and the challenges they faced,” said Mark.
“But it’s also about this history of our area and encouraging people to find out more about what their ancestors were doing in WW2.”