A Tenacious Escapee

Intriguing insights into the lives and escape attempts of World War 2 German prisoners in Canadian camps can be gained from a selection of files, brought together in the 1950s, held here at Kent. They were accumulated by Harry Kendal Burt, better known as Kendal Burt, joint author of ‘The One That Got Away,’ a book detailing the successful escape of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra from a Canadian prison camp. These records were brought together to write a book about another escapee, Egbert Brosig, who failed to return to Germany despite numerous escapes from prison camps. Unfortunately, it seems the book was never published, but the information in these files, including several letters from Brosig himself, makes for fascinating reading.

Excerpt from a 1943 Montreal Gazette article describing Brosig as a leader of a mass escape.

Excerpt from a 1943 Montreal Gazette article describing Brosig as a leader of a mass escape.

Leutnant Egbert Brosig was captured early in the war, and, along with most other people at the time, expected it to be over quickly. In a letter to Burt in October 1956 he observes that initially his escape attempts were made in order to ‘harass the enemy’, which seems to suggest he wanted to feel he was making a contribution to the fight over in Europe, even whilst imprisoned in Canada. However, as the war dragged on and he was still held in Canada, his escapes were often made in an effort to relieve the monotony of day to day life.

The amount of detail that went into planning an attempt is often staggering. Brosig obviously had good English, and in a letter from March 1957 he says he learnt most of it by conversing for hours with Canadian stokers at the camp, and working with the dentist who treated the prisoners. He found this particularly important as he could pick up Canadian slang, which would have assisted him in blending in when out in public. He also attempted to escape as a Russian soldier, and planned escapes as Spanish or Greek. However, as far as language was concerned, he had a plan to fall back on. Should someone question his ‘imperfect English’, he would say he was brought up by a German speaking mother in a neutral country (such as Switzerland), or German speaking area (like Blumenau in Brazil), after his English, Spanish, Greek or Russian father passed away when he was very young. He studied Russian and Spanish whilst in captivity, and even taught himself Japanese, but gave this up in 1944 after developments in the war made him believe it would not be an asset.

His plans for disguising himself, or not as seemed appropriate, go in to a similar amount of detail. In one letter he stresses the importance of not looking like an escapee, or like he had refused to take part in the war, as doing so would definitely draw attention to himself. In his first escape he wore an army uniform. His prison uniform was particularly useful in this, as his trousers were the same shade of blue as the air force wore, and his trousers couldn’t be confiscated, ensuring he always had half of a uniform available. In his second escape attempt he had two halves of a leg cast which he held together with bandages. However, on his third and fourth attempts he relied simply on falsified hospital papers.

A selection of items from this collection

A selection of items from this collection

In a letter from September 1956 he details a plan he made to escape disguised as a girl. He describes how he had the camp tailor make him a dress and matching hat from a purple bath robe he owned, and picked up heels from the shoemaker and a wig from the barber, and planned on using tennis balls to pad out his chest. He even bribed camp guards to get him suitable hosiery and makeup. In the end he never made this attempt, and donated all these items to the camp theatrical group.

Brosig gives anecdotes of events that took place whilst he was on the run. In 1943 he attempted to escape by train, hiding in mailbags, and was accused on recapture of having stolen parcels. He was cleared of this charge in 1944 by the Supreme Court of Ontario, but later received an official notice that the Attorney-General planned to appeal against this decision. In another escape attempt by train, two civilians asked him to take care of a ten year old girl who was journeying to her grandparents. This he did, and even persuaded her to share some of her food with him, ensuring his own rations and limited money would last a little longer.

Some people went to extremes to attempt escape. Brosig describes how he met a man in one camp who had feigned madness for months. He was moved to an asylum, where he planned to escape. In the meantime he kept up the pretence, even enduring solitary confinement and electric shock treatment so he wouldn’t be discovered.

A selection of items from this collection.

A selection of items from this collection.

One interesting insight that can be gained from reading these letters is the relationship between camp guards and their prisoners. As seen above, guards were perfectly willing to be bribed, but they seem to have had positive relationships with the prisoners aside from that. Brosig observes that he never gave details as to how he escaped when he was recaptured in order to avoid incriminating those who helped him, which he believed made him popular among the camp guards. He even recalled a time when a camp leader asked him to attempt an escape again, in order to enforce arguments made to the camp authorities concerning security.

Look out for another post using more from this intriguing collection, coming soon!

Rachel.

The urban phone box

It’s not uncommon that we’ve used this blog to look at how little things have changed over the past century – and sometimes more! Charlotte Daynton’s work looking at the Muggeridge Collections drew this out in terms of everyday objects she revealed in uncatalogued boxes of material, while a long time ago (or so it seems!), I was struck by the similarities between politics of the early twentieth century and that of today. Perhaps it’s just our nature to try to find links with the past (thought I wouldn’t necessarily argue that this happens more today than in previous generations) – it certainly reminds you that even if something is now in an archive, once it was a ‘working’ item, and meant a lot to its owner.

Historian Hugh Gault, currently working on the second part of his biography of Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, has drawn my attention to some interesting items in the press cuttings through which he’s been wading as part of his research. These particular cuttings are pasted into enormous scrapbooks which take at least two people to lift: quite why Wood had these created, or how he used them, remains a mystery. But what could be more relevant today than the ideas of preserving natural beauty spots, political debates in the media and the questionable ‘issue’ of ladette culture?

Heading of The Times newspaper articlesFew people can have failed to notice that we’re just a few weeks away from the next General Election – and it would have been hard to miss the issue of who should be included in the next round of televised political debates. While this has caused quite a stir in 2015, in 1933 there were claims that ‘independent’ views were being deliberately censored in upcoming wireless debates on the BBC. Three politicians (none particularly unknown to the Establishment), Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain, wrote to the Corporation complaining that, despite the assurance that ‘minorities should have their place’ in the radio debates, those not nominated by Party Whips were effectively being discriminated against (‘Politics on the Wireless’, The Times, 11 September 1933). J. H. Whitely, chairman of the BBC, responded by arguing that space necessitated a careful selection of speakers. He added that, while the Corporation had no desire to ‘curtail freedom of speech…it cannot guaranteed that…room will be found for the expression of all shades of opinion’.

The complainants found this response unsatisfactory, responding via a letter subsequently published in The Times, that ‘a precedent is established’ which they considered would result in the ‘effective exclusion from the broadcast’ of anyone holding ‘non-official’ opinions.

Small KW19-7-11cIn the same year, a different branch of the BBC, under the guidance of Wood as Post Master General, announced its ‘biggest drive against radio pirates’ (‘Biggest Drive Against Radio Pirates, Daily Mail, 25 September 1933). This would be undertaken by means of ‘new detector apparatus’ installed in detector vans and set on a pilot scheme from 1 October. The key intention of these new measures was to catch the ‘pirates’ who were listening to programmes without paying their license fee of 10 shillings a year. Wood himself championed these measures, according to an article in the Daily Mail, ‘realising that the autumn drive by the B.B.C. for better and brighter radio entertainments will attract thousands of new listeners…’

The scale of this drive was expected to be monumental, beginning on the north-east coast, before spreading across the country. The article adds that, in the past, some had considered the detector vans ‘a gigantic bluff’, but quotes an unnamed source assuring readers that  they should not ‘call’ the supposed bluff:

This so-called bluff will be an even more dangerous one to “call” than formerly, as engineers have for the past year been carrying out exhaustive experiments with new apparatus.

Wood visiting the Hull Telephone Exchange in 1935

Wood visiting the Hull Telephone Exchange in 1935

Advances in new technology were, of course, alarming to some, and nothing was so noticable as the impact on ‘England’s Beauties’ (‘Preserving England’s Beauties’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 6 September 1933). Wood felt a duty to preserve beauty spots such as the Peak District and the Derbyshire Dales, issuing instructions to his engineers putting up overhead wires to expand the reach of telephone systems advising them to ‘give careful consideration’ to any proposed lines which might ‘spoil a view’. Indeed, concerns had also been raised about the new telephone boxes: ‘originally designed for urban [settings], these boxes are not always appropriate in a village’. The bright red of the boxes was felt, by some, to be ‘out of harmony’ with its surroundings, and plans to paint some ‘a dull green colour’ had been put forward. It’s strange to think that the red phone box is often only seen in rural areas, now – if at all!

Agnes Wood, in 1923. Agnes was an independent woman prior to her marriage, and wrote articles to support her husband's cause to new, female voters in 1918.

Agnes Wood, in 1923. Agnes was an independent woman prior to her marriage, and wrote articles to support her husband’s cause to new, female voters in 1918.

Finally, a perennial ‘problem’ has been the perception of the younger generation. In 1933, Wood was in his fifties, and the younger generation now coming to adulthood would have known little of the First World War through which their parents had lived. According to the journal ‘Queen’, there was disapproval of ‘modern girls’, supposedly ‘chiefly employed in drinking cocktails in nightclubs’ (untitled article, Queen, 20 December 1933). Given the changes in the legal and social status of women, particularly after women (over 30) were given the right to vote in 1917 and  the vital role women played in the War, perhaps these ’employments’ were considered detrimental to this new-found status. However, Wood was reported as their ‘doughty champion’, saying:

The young woman of to-day…is no longer a clinging vine or the mental inferior and the dutiful handmaid of mere man. But she is self-reliant, tenacious and courageous, and is taking her part more than ever in the world’s work. I do not doubt that the younger generation will provide men and women able to rise to any emergency…. It is quite possible that they will do even better than their parents.

This generation of women would have been the first to grow up with the right to vote from the age of 21 (from 1928), unlike their predecessors who had fought for enfranchisement. It’s rather tragic to think that, six years after Wood’s ‘unquestionably true’ statement, this generation was indeed called upon to rise to an emergency, as their parents had been forced to, with the outbreak of another World War.

The Kingsley Wood Collection consists of 25 scrapbooks of press cuttings, four albums of photographs and a number of loose typescript materials. The first part of Hugh Gault’s biography of Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, ‘Making the Heavens Hum: Kingsley Wood and the Art of the Possible’ is available now; the second part is due to be published in 2017.

Beyond the trenches

On 11 November 2014, Armistice Day, Special Collections & Archives was involved in an outreach event which explored the themes of the First World War through the theatre of the time, going beyond the trenches to discover how theatre can tell us more about the past. Starting off with the sources (as we always do), we then had a great opportunity to explore the theory and get to see some World War One plays of various kinds. This event was a new and exciting opportunity for us to talk to researchers, from school age to retirees, interested in all kinds of disciplines.

The event’s leader, Dr. Helen Brooks, tells us more:

“It is easy to get bogged down (excuse the pun) in the Battles of Trench Warfare, but now I see that plays of the time are an insight into the culture of the time, which to me is equally as important in understanding the reasoning behind the Great War. This new insight has opened up a whole new perspective”.

Lindsay Kennett, who wrote these words in an email to me last week, was just one of the 30 plus participants who took part in our public study day on First World War theatre, on Tuesday, 11 November at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. The aim of the day was to raise public awareness about how looking at theatre can shed new light on ideas about, and responses to the war: for Lindsay and the many other participants who echoed her sentiments in their feedback, it was clearly a great success.

SONY DSC Over the course of the day we got stuck into a diverse range of activities, all of which were facilitated ably by a team of fantastic student, and ex-student helpers from the Drama Department in the School of Arts – Rebecca O’Brien, Rebecca Sharp, Kinga Krol, and Charlotte Merrikin. Beginning with a brilliant workshop run by Jane Gallagher, from Special Collections at the Templeman, participants had a chance to get ‘hands on’ with sources from Special Collection’s archives (including newspaper clippings, scripts, programs and playbills) and to interrogate them in order to answer questions such as ‘how did the theatre “do its bit” for the war effort?’, SONY DSC‘what impact did the war have on the theatre industry?’, ‘in what different ways was the theme of war treated in performance?’, and ‘how did audiences change during the war?’. This last question then led us into Professor Viv Gardner’s (University of Manchester) stimulating talk about audiences during the war. Reminding us that audiences were made up of diverse groups and that their responses changed depending on the context of the performance, Viv also drew on some moving stories about individual spectators which brought to life the experience of theatre-going during the war.

After a delicious lunch, courtesy of the Marlowe, and an opportunity to chat to each other about our diverse interests and backgrounds (participants included students from the Langtons schools, members of the Western Front Association, and local historians, to name but a few) the afternoon began with rehearsed readings of three First World War one-act plays: The Devil’s Business by J. Fenner Brockway (1914); God’s Outcasts by J. Hartley Manners (1919); andSONY DSC A Well Remembered Voice by J.M. Barrie (1918). It was quite something to see these plays brought to life, the first two quite probably for the first time ever. The actors, including three current Drama students, Zach Wilson (PhD) , Alexander Sullivan, and Louise Hoare, all did an excellent job, especially as the plays were quite distinct in tone and style, and as the actors had only had two and a half days rehearsal in total. After a stimulating discussion about the plays, with some excellent insights from audience members, the day was then rounded off nicely with a thoughtful talk by Dr Andrew Maunder (Reader at University of Hertfordshire) about his own experience of staging ‘lost’ WW1 plays, and in particular A Well Remembered Voice.

This wasn’t the end though! After just a few hours break – during which it was exciting to see our pop-up exhibition on WW1 theatre in the Foyer attracting a lot of attention from audiences waiting to see the RSC – many of us were back at the Marlowe for the evening rehearsed readings. It was great to see an almost entirely SONY DSCnew audience for this. As well as a number of Kent students people came from as far as Dover to join us for this exciting performance. Three of the one-act plays we shared were the same as in the afternoon (although the performances were quite different in energy, something the actors reflected on in the questions afterwards) and we also added an unpublished short play about the Belgian experience during the war entitled There was a King in Flanders (1915) by John G. Brandon. With these four pieces we therefore covered not only the chronological breadth of the war but also a number of different responses to this world event. From The Devil’s Business (1914), a biting satire on the arms trade and its place in fuelling conflict, which was banned in London during the war; to There was a King in Flanders (1915) with its focus on a dying Belgian soldier; and finally to God’s Outcasts (1919) and A Well Remembered Voice (1918) both of which offer sharply different responses towards grief, the plays as a whole offered new insights into the diverse ways in which theatre treated the war between 1914 and 1918. And with insightful comments and an enthusiastic response from the audience, it seems there’s certainly potential to hold similar events in the future.

SONY DSC If you’d like to find out more about Theatre of the First World War, contact Dr Helen Brooks at h.e.m.brooks@kent.ac.uk. Our pop-up exhibition on Theatre of the First World War is available for free loan to theatres, schools and other public institutions. If you would like to host this exhibition simply get in touch with gateways@kent.ac.uk. There is no charge for hosting or delivery.

This study day was one of a series of events being run by Gateways to the First World War, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded centre for public engagement with the First World War. To find out more about Gateways and how we can help you with activities, advice and expertise, visit www.gatewaysfww.org.uk.

With thanks to Leila Sangtabi for provision of photographs.

An unforgettable year: 2014

A very happy new year; on behalf of the Special Collections & Archives, I’d like to wish you a successful, peaceful and happy 2014. We finished 2013 in celebratory style, with two book launches for the ever talented students of Simon Smith’s The Book Project module, and a festive get together for our volunteers. Now back at the Templeman Library, we’re getting back into the flow of things, with the reading room back to our normal opening hours, ahead of the start of term on 20 January.

And what a term it’s likely to be! To start with, we have our first exhibition of 2014 opening in just a week’s time, on Friday 17 January. ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot‘ will explore cartoons of political assassinations, in collaboration with The Beaney, who are 15884 croppedhosting Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’, as part of a season looking at political assassination, as far back as Thomas Becket. Drawing on a wide range of cartoonists’ work since the Second World War, ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot’ will be on display in the Templeman Gallery until the end of February. Dr. Nick Hiley, Head of Special Collections and Curator of the British Cartoon Archive, will be giving a talk about British cartoonists and political assasinations at the Beaney on Thursday 20 February.

Exhibition launch 2013We’ll also be heavily involved in teaching this term, particularly with the Drama department, whose ‘Victorian and Edwardian Theatre‘ module has become a huge success. This involves intensive teaching in Special Collections, encouraging students to analyse the rare and unique performance materials we hold, and culminates in an exhibition curated by the students in the Templeman Gallery in April. I’m sure I will be blogging much more about that as we get closer to the time.

With the Templeman Development Project now well under way (foundations and ground floor level now visible), we’re starting to see our planned changes coming into effect. The first impact is going to be the closure of the Templeman Gallery space in the summer of 2014. This means that our final major exhibition, for the time being, will also be our first public presentation of the Kingsley Wood papers, in May 2014. The exhibition will open with the launch of historian Hugh Gault’s new book Kingsley Wood: Making the Heavens Hum. We can’t wait to see the results of all Hugh’s hard work, and many hours spent poring over cuttings in the reading room!

Section of Kingsley Wood's election poster for 1918.

Section of Kingsley Wood’s election poster for 1918

In addition, we still have two talks to come in this year’s Special Collections & Cathedral Library Lecture series – in February, Diane Heath will be telling us all about the monsters and beasts in medieval books, followed by Olly Double guiding us through the giggles of popular comedy, from music hall to standup in June.

Of course, we’ll also be doing all of our normal work cataloguing, processing and caring for collections, helping you with enquiries and research and in particular preparing for the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations next year. And that’s not to mention the start of the 4 year World War One centenary commemorations, or the exciting prospect of watching the Templeman extension – and the new Special Collections basement, offices and research and teaching space – take shape.

All in all, I think it’s going to be a very exciting and busy year!

Women and warfare

A couple of days ago, on Tuesday 14 May, we were delighted to host the launch of the new Templeman exhibition, Wild Woman to New Woman: Sex and Suffrage on the Victorian Stage.This has been curated by Alyson Hunt and brings together the Mary Braddon Collection of Canterbury Christ Church University, costumes from the Gulbenkian costume store and parts of our own Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collections.

wildwomen1The launch was started with a lecture by Professor Kate Newey from the University of Exeter, who spoke about the subtle protest in suffragette parlour dramas and the deliberate inversion of the female stereotype by campaigners for womens emancipation. The event then moved to the gallery space in the Templeman Library, where everyone enjoyed this rare opportunity to see such different collections side by side.

In the course of preparing for this exhibition, Alyson discovered a few treasures in our own archives – such as a copy of Ibsen and the Actress inscribed to George Bernard Shaw by playwright, actress and activist Elizabeth Robins, as well as Robins’ own, annotated copy of Both Sides of the Curtain

wildwomen2This exhibition really is an intriguing and entertaining look at the way in which perceptions of women and society as a whole were being challenged a century ago and is only on until 31st May, so please do come and have a look around when you’re next in the Templeman.

HB lecture pub001

 

Not content with supporting this new exhibition, Special Collections also has the last in its annual series of lectures next Thursday, 23 May. Keeping the theatrical theme, our focus changes as Dr Helen Brooks discusses Theatre of the Great War (1914-1918), her initial findings in a research project which will span the centenary of World War One. Much of Helen’s work thus far has focussed on our very own Melville Collection, looking at rarely used and sadly undiscovered materials. Do join us to find out more!

The talk will start at 6pm, with refreshments provided from 5.30 in the Templeman Library, TR201. All are welcome – please note that visitors can park in the University car parks for free after 5pm.

We hope to see you there!