How did Shakespeare help keep WW1 soldiers safe and healthy?

Shakespeare Hut lounge. YMCA image supplied courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

 

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to reveal history of iconic YMCA Hut.

A forgotten building that opened 100 years ago and which was a safe haven for nearly 100,000 First World War soldiers, is to be remembered this summer.

Digital Drama, a UK-based media production company, has been awarded a £49,700 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the project Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut, in partnership with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and The Mustard Club.

The project will commemorate the lives of the servicemen who used, and the women who worked at, the Shakespeare Hut, which was erected on the grounds of what is now the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Keppel Street site in Bloomsbury, in August 1916.

YMCA Huts were a regular sight in England, France and on all the fighting fronts during the First World War, providing a ‘home from home’ for soldiers to rest, recover and be entertained. However, the Keppel Street hut was built with a special purpose - to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and to entertain the troops through the playwright’s work, keeping them away from the dangerous London streets.

The project aims to introduce the public to the Hut’s fascinating history for the very first time and preserve its heritage for future generations to enjoy. On Wednesday 6 July a special installation will open at the School, providing visitors with a chance to go back in time by stepping into a replica room designed from a photograph taken inside the original building. Rarely seen images showing the Hut in action will also be on display as well as audio and visual exhibits recounting local residents’ family memories of the First World War.

Engaging with the community and bringing people together is an essential element of the project. Digital Drama will work with volunteers to capture local stories, and 90 students from local schools will receive valuable research and media experience by developing blogs, animations and web pages. The Mustard Club is also looking for local volunteers to work on a dramatic re-enactment of the opening ceremony on the centenary day itself, Thursday 11 August.

Rebecca Tremain from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is leading the project. She said: “We are thrilled to have received funding for this wonderful project. In the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and with the ongoing commemoration of the First World War Centenary, this is the perfect time to resurrect the Shakespeare Hut.

“The project will lift the lid on what life was like for those who used the building, and relive stories of those who fought and lived through the Great War. After the installation closes, photographs and recordings will be on display at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre where they will be stored to cement the legacy of the Hut, ensuring the public can enjoy its fascinating history for many years to come.”

During the First World War the YMCA erected over 4,000 huts to provide soldiers with food and a place to rest, either on the frontline or at home in military camps and railway stations. For the duration of the War, 35,000 unpaid volunteers and 26,000 paid YMCA staff ran the huts, serving 4.8 million troops in 1,500 canteens.

Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson from the University of Brighton uncovered the Shakespeare Hut and is an expert advisor on the project. She said: “It’s fantastic that the School is celebrating the history of this forgotten but wonderful building. London was a dangerous place for recuperating servicemen. Soldiers, especially those so very far from home as the Anzacs, were lost in London and faced many dangers. The YMCA aimed to offer a safe place for the men to sleep, socialise and enjoy a little home comfort.”

“Up to 100,000 servicemen sheltered, rested and recuperated in the Shakespeare Hut, many will have experienced disease such as malaria. With its mission to improve health in the UK and worldwide, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine was a fitting institution to replace the hut after it was demolished in 1924.”

Stuart Hobley, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said: “In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, this is an ideal moment to celebrate how Britain’s most famous playwright inspired troops during the First World War. Thanks to National Lottery players, the Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut project will record and exhibit the hidden heritage of the forgotten YMCA building and share the stories of servicemen and women during the Great War.”

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is a world-leading centre for research and postgraduate education in public and global health. School experts are working on providing healthcare in conflict settings around the globe, as well as playing a key role in combatting some of the major health issues of our time including mental health, malaria and meningitis.

The Installation will be part of The Changing Face of Keppel Street display and run from Wednesday 6 July to 18 September. It will be open to the public from 9am to 5pm weekdays and for the Open House weekend – 17 and 23 September.

For more information visit shakespearehut.lshtm.ac.uk