Newbury museum hosts final digital collection day to preserve WWII memories
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” – John F Kennedy.
More than 30 people visited West Berkshire Museum last week to share their family artefacts and recollections relating to the Second World War.
A team of volunteers ran the digital collection day for Their Finest Hour – one of the last planned in the country.
Some volunteers ran the welcome desk and digitisation area while others interviewed and recorded testimonies in the Cloth Hall upstairs.
West Berkshire Council culture and libraries volunteer officer, Gemma Taylor, has led the project on the ground.
“Visitors have expressed thanks for the opportunity to document their stories and objects for future generations.
“We’ve preserved history and feel honoured so many people chose to share their stories with us.”
Supporting the volunteers with notetaking and interviewing were St Bart’s sixth formers Laura, Ella, Eva, Astrid and Jemima.
Speaking after the event, Year 12 student Jemima Kerr, 16, said: “I hadn’t heard of the project before, but I’m really glad I got involved with it.
“It was really interesting to hear what real-life people have to say and to have a history lesson outside the classroom.
“As people start talking, they remember more, even if they haven’t got much to say at the beginning.
“It’s so important to preserve the memory of what happened because it impacted so many people for such a long time, and still does.
“We can’t forget about it. I’m proud to be a part of something like this.”
And when asked which testimony stood out to her most, she replied: “There was a lady whose mum was in the WRENS (Women's Royal Naval Service) in Malta.
“I think when you think about people in the war, it’s usually the men who went off to fight, so it was really interesting to see it from a female perspective.”
The event drew plenty of local faces and many from further afield as well.
Newbury town crier, Brian Sylvester, shared his personal recollections on the day.
“I thought was a brilliant and ambitious project,” he said after the event.
“I was actually alive during the period and have my own recollections of rationing, Americans, air-raid shelters, gas masks, and more.
“There’s no doubt about it, Newbury is a unique, close-knit town with much to offer, thankfully an indelible interest in the past, and a wealth of memorabilia and mementoes.”
Newbury WWII veteran, Donald Wright, also shared his story.
His wife, Jennifer Wright, said: “We both enjoyed talking to so many people and hearing the memories they had.
“We decided it was a good thing to do because if these things aren’t recorded, then they’re lost.”
They brought Mr Wright’s war journal with them to be photographed and a wooden bird carving gifted to Mrs Wright by a German prisoner of war while she was living on a farm in Kent.
Mr Wright served in the Pacific campaign against Japan. He told his full story to newburytoday in 2021.
And as the collection phase nears its end, principal investigator, Stuart Lee, and his project team at the University of Oxford will now be processing the thousands of responses they have received in time for their online archive to go live on June 6 – coinciding with the 80th anniversary of D-Day.
Project manager, Matthew Kidd, said at the Newbury event: “This is very much a voluntary project.
“We’re very impressed with how everything’s been organised down here. We haven’t had to get too involved.
“It’s only at this stage now when we’re starting to collect the stories; that’s where our work really starts.”
Dr Kidd said his team has collected around 2,500 stories and 20,000 images so far — surpassing the 800 submissions they received for their previous First World War project, Lest We Forget.
But this time, he said they have a bigger team and more time for the mountainous task which lies ahead.
In case you missed the chance to attend a collection day, please visit https://shorturl.at/bpBY5 to submit your stories and objects.
The deadline for online submissions is Friday, April 5.
Images can be attached, and people are welcome to submit multiple contributions.