Remembrance Sunday 2018

This year, Sunday, November 11 marked the centenary of the end of the First World War. I went to Hamilton Square in Birkenhead where the cenotaph saw the Mayor of Wirral Councillor Geoffrey Watt joined by service men, women, their families and armed forces representatives at 10.55am for the start of the remembrance service.

At 11am, Birkenhead fell silent as the hundreds who turned out paid their respects. It was difficult to get any good photos given the size and depth of the crowd. The sizeable crowd marked the two minute silence impeccably.

The service on Sunday was the final act of remembrance this year. Across the Wirral a number of events had taken place to mark the 100 years since the end of the First World War and poignant ceremonies to remember those who had fallen had been taking place for more than a week.

In local churches, ‘Tommy’ silhouettes were placed to mark those who lost their lives from individual parishes while in Little Neston, a remembrance bench was unveiled.

The annual Remembrance Cavalcade took place in Thornton Hough which saw 100 horses meet to mark the centenary in which eight million horses gave their lives besides soldiers, acting as cavalry, ambulances, artillery carriers and transportation.

Many schools held events to mark the First World War and as part of a nationwide campaign, Bidston and Leasowe lighthouse lit up to mark the end of Remembrance Sunday.

An event of more national significance saw the unveiling of a statue by local actress Patricia Routledge and MP for Birkenhead Frank Field on November 4 to pay tribute to Wilfred Owen on the centenary of his death on 4 November 1918 – just a week before Armistice was announced on 11 November 1918.

The statue, based at one corner of Hamilton Square, was adorned with poppies after residents placed them there as a mark of respect.

The statue is named after one of Owen’s many war poems, ‘Futility’. It was cast in bronze at a Liverpool Foundry by sculptor, Jim Whelan. The statue represents an exhausted World War One solider. Frank Field said that “The height of the soldier is extremely important to me. It is not just a sculpture, it is a soldier that we can touch, and I think we should do that.”

Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC was one of Britain’s most celebrated war poets. His short career was directly inspired by the conflict and the horrors of war – he composed nearly all his works from August 1917 to September 1918, many published posthumously.

Owen has strong links with Birkenhead. Whilst he was born in Oswestry on the Welsh borders he was brought up in Birkenhead and later Shrewsbury.  Owen’s grandfather had been a successful business man and the family had a good life in Oswestry however they suffered hard times and their substantial house at Plas Wilmot near Oswestry had to be sold to pay off his grandfather’s creditors. The family went to live in a much more modest home in Birkenhead in 1900, when Owen’s father managed to secure the job as stationmaster at Woodside rail terminus in the town.

Wilfred was seven when the family arrived in Birkenhead, and he was enrolled at Birkenhead Institute, where he remained a pupil until the he left the town. Wilfred flourished at the school, working hard at his studies (excelling especially at English and French) and winning several prizes. The family lived initially lived at 7 Elm Grove and then 14 Willmer Road in Tranmere before moving to 51 Milton Road, in Higher Tranmere. This would be the family home until 1907, when they left Birkenhead after his father gained a promotion to a more senior post with the railway company in Shrewsbury.

After the family moved from Birkenhead Wilfred continued his education in Shrewsbury and worked as a pupil-teacher and a private tutor in France before enlisting in 1915, a year after the outbreak of war. He joined the Artists’ Rifles before receiving a commission in the Manchester Regiment in June 1916 leaving for France in December 2016 with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

In March 2017 he suffered a head injury and, diagnosed as having shell shock, was sent to a hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an important influence on Owen’s work.

He returned to France in September 1918. In October he was listed for the award of the Military Cross for gallantry during an attack on a well-defended position that caused so many casualties among officers that he took command and held the line. However, he was killed in action a few weeks later on 4 November during a battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors, a week before the end of the war. The news of his death reaching his parents on Armistice Day. In 1919 he was posthumously awarded a Military Cross. Owen knew before his death he had been recommended for the award which he had welcomed as he thought it would add authority to his anti-war views. These, and the poems that express them with such vividness and power, are much admired now, but this recognition only came after his death. Only five poems were published during his lifetime, and the first collection of his poems did not appear until 1920.

The statue in Hamilton Square was made possible by the efforts of the Birkenhead Old Boys Institute. 600 men from Birkenhead were sent to fight in World War One
with 88 Old Boys of Birkenhead Institute losing their lives in the conflict. Following the war the Ingleborough Road playing fields in the town were dedicated in 1926 as a War Memorial to the 88 Old Boys of the School who did not survive the Great War and then subsequently those who lost their lives in later conflicts. Tranmere Rovers the local football club who subsequently became the owners of the playing fields obtained planning permission to build houses for sale on the site with the proceeds going toward the creation of a state-of-the-art training facility for the club elsewhere in the Wirral. This meant removing the memorial status of the playing fields. As part of this arrangement the football club agreed to work with the Birkenhead Institute Old Boys to replace the memorial playing fields with a fitting tribute to all those that sacrificed their lives during the war. This has culminated in the creation of the new memorial which was unveiled on the corner of Hamilton Square which is dedicated to the 88 Old Boys of the School including the school’s most celebrated Old Boy, Wilfred Owen. The statue now speaking to a wider audience about the futility of war.

During the 1918 – 2018 commemorations Wilfred Owen had become a major focus on both regional and national news channels. Owen had links with another area which was featured in the 100-year commemorations. Film-maker Danny Boyle marked the 100 years since Armistice and the end of the First World War through a live exhibition of art called ‘Pages of the sea’. On selected beaches around the UK, over the course of several hours, a portrait of an individual from the First World War was sketched out in the sand. And then, as the tide came in it was washed away as the crowds of spectators took a moment to say a collective goodbye.

Owen first left for the front from Folkestone on 29 December 1916, having written a letter in the Metropole Hotel the previous day. In the final hours before his embarkation from the town in 1918, Owen swam in the sea and described the experience in a letter home. So, to mark Wilfred Owen’s contribution to our remembering of the First World War his picture was marked out on Sunny Sands, in Folkestone in Kent one of the thirty two beaches across the UK to feature in ‘Pages of the sea’.

Wilfred Owen’s family’s three houses all survive however the Birkenhead Institute, was demolished in the 1970s when the school moved to Claughton, but that too has now gone, replaced by houses and a new road called Wilfred Owen Way.

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Birkenhead Town Hall

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On a bright St George’s Day I ventured down to see part of Birkenhead’s most impressive architecture around Hamilton Square most particularly the town hall building.

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Birkenhead Town Hall is a Grade II listed building and was built as the main civic building for the former County Borough of Birkenhead.  It continued to be used as council offices by the town’s successor council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and up until 2010 it housed the Wirral Museum.  It still remains the location of the town’s register office.

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When Hamilton Square was designed in the early 19th century, a plot of land was made available for the erection of a town hall between Hamilton Street and Chester Street. However, it wasn’t until 1887 that the current building was completed after four years of building.  It was designed by local architect Christopher Ellison in 1882 and was constructed using Scottish granite and sandstone from the now filled in local quarry at Storeton which I have written about in earlier blogs.

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The building consisted of a council chamber, offices, with a concert hall and function rooms known as the Assembly Rooms. Birkenhead’s magistrates’ court chambers are located in a separate building of the same design to the rear of the town hall.

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The clock tower is 200 feet in height and consists of four faces. After a fire in 1901, the upper part of the clock tower was rebuilt to a design by Henry Hartley. The rebuilding included the installation of a stained glass window by Gilbert P Gamon representing Edward I’s visit to Birkenhead Priory in 1277.

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The County Borough of Birkenhead was abolished on 1 April 1974 with the creation of the larger Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and nearby Wallasey town hall became the main civic centre for the new combined borough. The Birkenhead building continued to be used as council offices until the early 1990s, when work was undertaken to restore the external stonework and many interior decorations and features, including the former council chamber.

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The Wirral Archives Service was based in the building until 2008, when it transferred to the council’s Cheshire Lines Building nearby.  The service collects and stores all types of historical documents relating to the Wirral area, its people, businesses and institutions.

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Between 2001 and 2010, the Wirral Museum occupied a significant portion of the building.  It featured both themed and permanent exhibits such as the history and development of Wirral, the Cammell Laird collection, the Wirral Silver and Mayoral collections, Della Robbia Pottery and a detailed scale model of the historic Woodside area in 1934.

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Birkenhead town hall continued to house many council staff until the 1990s, but departments were then moved out to other buildings in the area and the town hall was only used as the museum and archives service together with the registry office for births, marriages and deaths.  However the civic building has also continued to be used as a venue for local and national elections and for the celebration of notable occasions as well as the town’s focal point for annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.

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In 2009 Wirral Council put the town hall on the market but found there was relatively little interest and the council found no suitable options were put forward.  The Council therefore decided to keep the town hall and it is again being used as offices.  Now there are more than 100 staff based at Birkenhead town hall, mostly transferred from former council offices at Acre Lane which has been closed and is being sold off.  There are plans to bring many more staff to the town hall as the authority sells off unwanted buildings across the borough to save cash.

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The town hall has a rich history in itself.  Throughout the First World War the Mayors and Mayoresses who were in office arranged a number of fundraising events and relief funds. Funds were used such as buying ambulances for the Birkenhead Red Cross. With the vehicles touring the town, starting at the Town Hall then travelling to Birkenhead Park, where at times there were practical demonstrations given to the public by the Borough Fire Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

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In September 1914 the Mayoress of Birkenhead started an appeal for Belgian Refugees, who were heading to the area after fleeing from the German invasion.

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The recruitment of the Birkenhead Bantam Brigade started at the Town Hall before moving to Bebington Showground.  Over 1000 men were expected to attend ready to enlist and have a medical examination. Other large recruitment events were also held at the Town Hall.

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From 1915 for the duration of the war a party was held before Christmas and in January for the children of soldiers and sailors who were serving in the HM Forces being paid for by the Mayor’s Annual Relief Fund.

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The first Annual Meeting of the Birkenhead Branch of the National Union of Women Workers was held at the Town Hall. At this meeting the authorities gave permission for patrols of women to be formed, with the support of the police, to maintain order as so many girls appeared to be loitering by the newly formed camps for soldiers.

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In 1916 concerts were held here to raise funds to provide comforts to men serving in the War and in November 1918 a Thanksgiving Supper Dance was held for American soldiers who were billeted in the area.

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The town hall looks out onto Hamilton Square which is surrounded on the other three sides by Georgian terraces. No two sides of the square are identical.

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Hamilton Square was one of the first residential areas for business people and the growing professional classes to be built in the newly formed town of Birkenhead, following the introduction of steam ferries across the River Mersey from Liverpool in the nineteenth century.  Whilst there is still some residential accommodation in the square, many properties are now used as offices and for commercial uses.

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The land on which the square was developed was purchased in 1824 by Scottish shipbuilder William Laird (1780–1841).and he commissioned Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham, to lay out a square and surrounding streets, in a similar style to Edinburgh New Town.  Gillespie Graham envisaged vistas of long, straight and wide avenues lined by elegant houses. Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s wife’s family, was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of the regular street layout.  Nearby Hamilton Square railway station opened in 1886.

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The private gardens within the square were acquired by the local council in 1903 and were subsequently opened to the public. Features of the square include the town’s cenotaph immediately in front of the town hall, a large Queen Victoria Monument at the centre of the gardens and a statue of John Laird, the first Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and the son of William Laird. Laird’s house, at 63 Hamilton Square, is a Grade I listed building.

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Between 1995 and 2002 Wirral Council had access to around £80m of public funding through the then government’s ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ to rejuvenate the area around Hamilton Square in what became known as the Hamilton Quarter initiative.  This saw shop front renewals, conservation and landscaping works which included the installation of the ornate ‘moon and stars’ lamp posts which are found all around the square.  The Hamilton Quarter intiative also funded initially the Wirral International Guitar Festival which still goes on today.

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It may be a surprising statistic but Hamilton Square is second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.

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Poppies Weeping Window

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Weeping Window is part of the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands of Seas of Red’ which was originally shown at the Tower of London in November and December 2014.  The original display captured the British public’s imagination – it is estimated that the Tower of London was visited by over five million people whilst the Poppies were on display.  It was named Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red after a line written by a Derbyshire soldier who died in Belgium.

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Weeping window has now been installed on St George’s Hall in the heart of Liverpool.  It is on display from 7 November through to 17 January 2016.  It was the centre piece of the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Liverpool on 8 November.  It is a cascade of several thousand handmade ceramic poppies which pour out from high up in St George’s Hall to the ground below.  The thousands of ceramic flowers represent the lives of the many military fatalities lost in the First World War.  World War 1 style sandbags cordon off the poppies from the public viewing them.

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I went along to try and capture some images in the rain. Some shots have been affected by the very heavy rain that fell this weekend.

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The sculptures are by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper and they take elements of their installation from the Tower of London to create another work of art here in Liverpool.  The event is part of the UK wide 14-18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commission’s aim to commemorate, across the country, the hundred years since the First World War.

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Over the period the original installation was housed at the Tower of London poppies were added each day until there were 888,246 poppies representing each one of the deaths in the British and Colonial forces between 1914 and 1918.  The last poppy was planted at the Tower of London on Remembrance Day 2014.

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The Backstage Trust bought the Weeping Window section of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red artwork following the closure of the event at the Tower of London last autumn.  The Clore Duffield Foundation secured the Wave section of the installation.  Both works, together totalling more than 10,000 ceramic poppies, are being showcased at locations around the country between now and 2018, before finding permanent homes at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester.  Most of the poppies were sold to the public, raising about £9m for military charities.

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Weeping Window spent two months on show at the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland before moving to Liverpool for Remembrance Sunday.  The Wave was installed in September at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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St George’s Hall was built in 1854 and is regarded as one the finest examples of neo classical architecture in the world.  The plateau outside the front of the hall is meeting place for great celebrations and commemorations in the city.  During World War 1 St George’s Hall was the rallying point for the famous Liverpool PALs, when Lord Derby and Lord Kitchener appealed for 100,000 local men to form a new army battalion.

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Thousands of men travelled to these rallies and they signed their attestation papers in St George’s Hall.

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Lord Kitchener was Secretary of State for War and he organised the largest volunteer army that both Britain and the world had ever seen.  His commanding image appeared on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!” across the land.

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By September 1914, more than 30,000 men had enlisted at St George’s Hall.  In 1915 Lord Kitchener returned to Liverpool to inspect nine battalions on the plateau outside the great hall.  However, by the end of the war more than 13,000 men from Merseyside had died in the conflict.  The plateau now features the Liverpool cenotaph, established in 1927 as a memorial to those who fell in WW1.

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