Last week something unusual happened to me; I cried while reading a collection of primary sources. I had come across a bundle of photocopied obituaries taken from the Toynbee Record (the institutional periodical of the university settlement house Toynbee Hall) during the First World War. I stumbled on these documents by chance. I had actually forgotten that I had photocopied them. They were tucked amongst the personal testimony, autobiographies and biographies of settlers that I have collected over the years.
I am not cold hearted and neither am I one of Herbert Butterfield’s objective scientific historians. I cry regularly and feel history frequently. Yet I was surprised by my tears, mainly because I had read these obituaries before. My failure to grasp their emotive power the first time around probably lies in the haste to complete my PhD and the subsequent haze that has followed from quick, stressful and, at times, lonely temporary lectureships. It is only since the end of last term that I have had both the time and mental composure to return to my dusty PhD files. I also have new research questions. I am no longer intent to discover if university settlement houses were sacred spaces. Instead, I want to know what it was like to live in these homes. I want to know more about the boxing matches that took place in the quad before breakfast between Thomas Hancock Nunn and a willing opponent, the spelling bees that bemused locals in the drawing-rooms, and the reading groups banned from settler bedrooms by the housekeeper because of dirty sheets and wandering guests upstairs during the daytime.
Having read the autobiographies and biographies of setters who lived successful lives, it was a jar to come across a batch of obituaries for settlers who did not return after the First World War. Their publication in the Toynbee Record shifted the tone and nature of this institutional periodical. Whereas in the nineteenth century it was more of a celebration of Toynbee Hall and its works, during the First World War the Toynbee Record became a commemorative space for fallen soldiers and war workers. At times, the number of obituaries were simply too many and they had had to be ‘held over till our next issue’. They were also, at times, highly personal reflections, revealing the everyday aspects of the ordinary settler’s life.
To commemorate the life of Francis Gordon Shirreff, Edward Clare Blight had to ‘reconstruct a period that seemed very distant now’. Blight wrote of Shirreff that ‘his friends will proudly hold him among the most exalted memories that they inherit from Toynbee Hall’ (Dec 1916). Shirreff was the Secretary of the Children’s Country Holiday Fund Committee, played board games with school children and took disabled children to Epping Forest, to the Zoo, and brought them to Toynbee Hall to partake in afternoon tea. He was instrumental in the running of Toynbee Hall, working tirelessly as editor of the Toynbee Record, and Secretary of the Grand. One of his letters to Toynbee Hall from the trenches noted after one particular bombardment that ‘I think out here is the only place that the Army becomes tolerable’. In another ‘I am enjoying my bit of it as much as ever’. He was killed in action on July 1st 1916 when, as one of his soldiers recalled, ‘Mr Shirreff…was gaily leading us’ over the top. ‘“Gaily” indeed! Well then Shirreff’, concluded Blight, ‘we will respond to the thrill of that word and greet you with a cheer’ (Dec 1916).
‘One did not think of Langdon as solider’ noted Eldred Fredrick Hitchcock ‘and when at the outbreak of war he joined the Forces, Toynbee Hall men who knew him admired and was proud of him. His death in France came as a blow to many who saw in Langdon a man of brilliant parts and singular promise’ (Dec 1916). Similarly, Charles Waddilove was not thought to be a natural solider. He was prevented from joining the Army on numerous occasions. His poor eye sight was to blame. He was later accepted as a stretcher bearer for the Royal Army Medical Corps and killed instantly a year later in 1917 from a piece of shell. The Toynbee Record wrote ‘The War will end some day, and we will make some new friendships, but there will always stand out in the memoires of the Toynbee men who lived with him the lovable, humble, and almost saintlike figure of Charles Waddilove’ (July 1917).
Most of these men were unmarried and childless. As the obituary of Gilbert Anderson Ramsay commented on his death in July 1915 ‘he was struck by a shell, and instantly killed. So died, in his thirty-sixth year, childless and unmarried, one of the most gifted, and surely one of the most lovable of Toynbee men’. Ramsay was instrumental in the decorative schemes of Toynbee in the Edwardian period and he worked tirelessly at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. His weekend jaunts with fellow settlers to Essex were remembered with fondness together with his ability to cook chops. For Francis Gordon Shirreff, Ramsay’s death forced him to ‘look upon an empty world’ and ask ‘Can anything, however, high and holy, repay the loss of such a life? So we ask ourselves in our utter desolation? But the measure of our loss, is in reality, the measure of our reply. All we loved is in the dust: all we loved has laid it there’ (December 1915). Little did Shirreff realise when writing these concluding lines that he would join his friend and fellow Toynbee counterpart almost a year later and that is the real sadness of these obituaries. For they reveal the many empty spaces left behind by this Toynbee band of brothers who fell in the First World War and how loved and admired they were by those that were left behind. And I think that might have been why I shed a tear in my office last week.