This project uses the Books of Remembrance, Cenotaphs and memorial boards of Rochester and Borstal as a gateway for current residents to explore the experience of the First World War in the town. Building on work done by Patricia Allen, Dr Alison Robinson and the Revd. Anne Bennett in 2014 on the parish of St Matthew’s in Borstal, volunteers will compile by crowd-sourcing a biographical database of all the men from Rochester and Borstal who died. This will inform an interactive online map of where these men had lived. In the longer term, this biographical database will be a valuable community asset.
Rochester and Borstal form an important site for study as they are located on the outskirts of what had been a major military and naval centre since the mid-sixteenth century when the Royal Naval Dockyard opened in neighbouring Chatham. To date, the experience of the Medway Towns in the First World War has only been explored through the lenses of the towns’ military and naval history, for example, by the Valour, Loss and Sacrifice exhibition hosted by the Historic Dockyard in late 2014. Whilst this is a story of local, national and indeed international importance – Chatham was literally a gateway to the First World War for those who passed en route to the Front – it overlooks other important dimensions of the experience outside the dockyard or garrison walls. The industrial and military history of Rochester and Borstal is less readily accessible to current residents, partly through the prominence of the Historic Dockyard and partly through the strong emphasis by the local tourist industry on emphasizing Rochester’s links with Charles Dickens (see Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 1994). Rochester was home to the Short Brothers seaplane works from 1913 until 1948, and important non-military industry included its port and the Aveling and Porter engineering works in Rochester and neighbouring Strood, whilst its Borstal area was home to a thriving cement industry, which collapsed just before the First World War. This project will examine the ways in which participation in the conflict related to the industrial and economic life of Rochester: as the Book of Remembrance in St Matthew’s demonstrates, those streets which had sprung up to house cement workers were also the ones which suffered intense losses. In this way, the project will contribute to our understanding both of the conflict, but also to the overlooked social history of heavy industry in southern England (see Ben Jones, The Working Class in Mid Twentieth-Century England, 2013, p.2).
Through the creation of this community resource, current and future residents as well as academics will have fresh and vital insights into the experience of the First World War in the Medway Towns. It will also support existing community building work by the Church and other groups in the area, and provide educational and personal development opportunities for residents.