By Liam Heatherson
The Home Front Legacy Project is a national survey organised by the Council for British Archaeology which has sought to map heritage and historically-important sites to the home front during the First World War. Coinciding with the final year of the centenary of the conflict, it is surprising how the history of the Great War on home soil still commands a great deal of room for further research. Whilst we are all familiar with the dramatic impact that the Second World War had on our local environment and societies; following the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, it has struck me how much of a pronounced impact the previous global conflict had on the country also. Southend in particular was a contentious area in a war which otherwise saw German air raids occurring few and far between in their infancy. Because Southend was a large settlement at the mouth of the Thames; a gateway to London, it was hit heavily from the air since it was an alternative to the better-defended capital. This gave rise to anti-aircraft defence in the area; both from the ground and by the Royal Flying Corps who met the attacker in the skies. Southend’s coastal position also meant that it was a valuable position to receive and dispatch troops and prisoners to and from the frontline via its established railway and maritime connections.
Ever since I was a young teenager I have been fascinated by lesser-known local heritage; and I run the organisation BeyondthePoint.co.uk dedicated to exploring and photographing similar historic places in my free time. When I was shown Southend Museum’s advert to geographically map the impact of the First World War in and around Southend by a friend, I decided to get involved. Not only has the Home Front Legacy Project allowed me to draw on my previous skills and knowledge, it has enabled me to investigate an era of local history I was less familiar with and to learn about recording heritage in a more professional formal manner than what I had done previously. I began by meeting with Ellie Broad from Southend Museums who oversaw its involvement with the national project. I was given some information from local history books on Southend in the First World War as a starting point, and we decided the best approach would be to simply read into what geographic sites had been mentioned. Whilst more well-known establishments reoccurred; such as RFC Rochford aerodrome which would later become Southend Airport, and the Palace Hotel’s use as a military hospital, these overviews from local history books also mentioned less thoroughly-recorded South-East Essex wartime sites. I proceeded to follow-up these mentions by looking through the local history section of Southend’s Forum library. I managed to find some excellent books both old and new which had studied the topic in a level of detail unavailable online. Whilst it can be argued that the internet is replacing books in the information age, local history is an area in which I feel most discourse still hasn’t made the transition. The hard research of previous generations can sometimes only be accessed by digging through the dusty tomes in which it was first written! On the HFLP online map, a handful of sites such as flying grounds at Bowers Gifford and Bournes Green were already briefly entered by Chris Kolonko; officer of the Home Front Legacy Project. With help of ‘Fields of the First’ by Paul A. Doyle I was able to expand the record of these sites in much greater detail to describe exactly what used to lie on what is now a couple of inconspicuous fields. As well as using books, online community archives and informal local history websites were very useful. Some of the places that emerged were quite surprising; such as the British War Dog Training School established at Shoebury Garrison in 1917. I also managed to draw from my own knowledge and personal adventures in order to add more sites to the project’s map. Kynoch’s Explosives Factory was an enormous munitions works where Coryton Oil Refinery now stands today, and it produced a large portion of the standardized .303 ammunition used by the British during the Great War. Whilst it is now widely believed to have been completely demolished following the oil refinery, I actually set out to explore the perimeter back in January. Using contemporary maps of the factory alongside Google Earth satellite imagery, it seemed some original structures of Kynoch’s works still survived just to the north of the refinery site. Stumbling through the undergrowth, I managed to find the remains of several mysterious structures including a blast-mounded building which as far as I am aware has never before been rediscovered. It has been great to officially map these remains on the Home Front Legacy Project and get them the recognition they deserve, which might even contribute to their eventual protection.
After adding my sites to the HFLP online map, I was contacted by Chris Kolonko who was extremely grateful for my research and wished to make me a Home Front Legacy Champion. I was more than delighted to receive the certificate! As well as gaining personal gratification from the project by being able to educate others on the past, there is also a sense that I have done some justice to the lives and stories of those who gave so much all those generations ago. I think that mapping local heritage sites into a national database such as this is a really important process. It can add a sense of geographic place to the history of the First World War – sometimes you realise just how important or pivotal your own local area was to the conflict’s wider development. For instance, Southend saw the worst air-raid of the Great War in 1916; when Germany launched nimble Gotha bombers on the town which could avoid anti-aircraft defence better than zeppelins. The process has helped to connect the findings of small-scale local archives with academic discourse, and bring it together via a national database. This is valuable to commemorate the past moving forward when considering how fragmented local history can sometimes be; often scattered across a large variety of sources. Research like this also helps to not only unite the nature of the First World war with space and place, but emotion too. Reading descriptions of the horrific 1916 air-raids outside Southend Victoria station, or the memoir of a wounded patient at the hospital set up inside the Palace Hotel, you realize how these all connect in a way that relates close to home, removing the distance created by time. The process has been as fascinating as it has been enjoyable, and has definitely changed my view of how the First World War was experienced by Southend and had a surprisingly profound impact at home.
For more information about the project and to see Southend’s involvement in the Home Front, visit https://www.homefrontlegacy.org.uk/wp/