Untold War Stories

In advance of her bite-size talk at Brighton Museum tomorrow, War Stories curator Jody East discusses one of the untold stories she discovered during her research for the exhibition.

Gertrude Coggins. Courtesy  of Gerald Wheatley.
Gertrude Coggins. Courtesy of Gerald Wheatley.

The exhibition War Stories: Voices from the First World War focuses on 13 individual stories. These are 13 of many of the experiences and lives we explored when researching the exhibition over the last few years. They represent a snapshot of life 100 years ago, during the First World War.

As curator of the exhibition, one of the hardest parts of the planning was not being able to include all of the stories we discovered. The researchers and I spent many days talking to families who had been exploring their family histories, reading through old copies of the Brighton Graphic and Pavilion Blues magazine and searching Brighton Museum’s collections.

We found a fascinating mix of detailed stories and memories passed down through generations, but with no accompanying material objects to display within an exhibition; and some interesting objects but very little known about the person they had belonged to.  For an exhibition where the focus was very much on the individual, it was important for us to combine a personal stories and personal objects.

Photo of Gertrude Coggins' autograph book
Gertrude Coggins’ autograph book

One of my favourite stories not included in the exhibition is of Gertrude Coggins, who became a train ticket collector at Brighton station in 1915. She was previously in domestic service and this is one of the many jobs that women took on during the war. In 2014, her son brought in her autograph book to show us, which she had kept from 1912 and contains poems and an interest in fashion. From 1914 the war features heavily, including cartoons about the Kaiser. Although Gertrude gave the job up in 1919, her son remembers that for many years after they would catch the train through Brighton and his mother would always stop and chat to the other ticket collectors because they all knew each other. It is a poignant example of the life changing effects of war combined with the carrying on every day life.

To discover more of these untold war stories I will be doing a gallery talk in the War Stories exhibition on Tuesday 3 February at 1pm. It is free and open to all.

Jody East

Creative Programme Curator, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery


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