Street Shrines

There’s an interesting article in the Telegraph about street shrines, in London and elsewhere, mostly commemorating the fallen, but sometimes simply honouring all those who went to fight.

I like this snippet of information:

This did not come without controversy. Prayers for the dead went against the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. J H Kensit of the Protestant Truth Society said that the shrines inspired idolatry, and he made a protest at the unveiling of a shrine at St Bartholomew the Great in 1917. Kensit was taken for a pacifist and nearly set upon by the crowd.

All this suggests that the process of memorialisation began before the Armistice, and that it was a grass-roots movement, later taken up officially to produce the memorials and cenotaphs that adorn every town and village in the country.

6 Comments

  1. The Shadow
    Posted June 20, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    The Ian Hislop series NOT FORGOTTEN suggested that the reason for the sudden proliferation of street shines (and ultimately the huge memorials and cenotaphs) was the Government’s decision not to return the bodies of the fallen. A street shrine at least gave some sort of focus for mourning family members who didn’t have a grave site to visit.

  2. Posted June 20, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Good point. I wonder, though, whether there are any earlier examples – from the Boer War, maybe, or commemorating sites of accidents.

  3. The Shadow
    Posted June 20, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    But isn’t it the case that before the twentieth century, wars were what you sent other people to deal with? When mass conscription became a reality in WWI, I suppose that it was the first time that the public had had to deal with loss on that scale. It might also be the case that until widespread literacy became a reality, history tended to be oral history. If you couldn’t read, what was the point of a written tribute?

    As for the accident memorials…It does seem to be an almost instinctive reaction to tragedy. A young girl was killed in a road accident close to our house, and within days the street lamp at the scene was covered with flowers, cards, expressions of sorrow, cuddly toys. There was no spoken decision, but once the first card was put there, the avalanche started.

    I’ve seen a window and plaque from, I think, the 18th century. It was in a Church, and commemorated the loss of members of a congregation who had died when the building was struck by lightning. I’ll have to see if I can remember anything more about it, but it does seem sort of relevant to this discussion.

  4. kirosl
    Posted November 29, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s fair to say that memorials were and remained primarily a grass-roots movement. There were several hundred in place before the end of the war, commemorating men who were still serving, as well as those who had died. The earliest stone war memorial I’m aware of is in Rawtenstall, erected in 1915 with the following inscription (n addition to the names)

    THIS CROSS WAS ERECTED BY CARRIE WHITEHEAD, SEPT 1915,/ THAT IT MIGHT BE SOME COMFORT TO THOSE WHO LOST MEN VERY DEAR TO THEM

    The Boer War was the first time we see large scale memorial building, and indeed memorials to people other than officers, who have always had their memorials. It also coincides with the army becoming an increasing respectable occupation. These were loved sons, rather than a bunch of louts seen as barely better than criminals. There were also large numbers of casualties and no repatriation of bodies. It very much set the scene for what was to come a decade later.

    An interesting pre-WW1 war memorial is the 1900 Watts Memorial to heroic self sacrifice in Postman’s Park.

  5. Roger
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “The Boer War was the first time we see large scale memorial building, and indeed memorials to people other than officers, who have always had their memorials. It also coincides with the army becoming an increasing respectable occupation.”

    The Boer War was also the first where there was a memorial to the horses that died as well. Certainly there seems to have been a change in attitude in the nineteenth century: most of the bodies at Waterloo were left where they lay. When they had become bones an enterprising merchant gathered most of them up and took them away to make fertiliser from them. Southey’s “After Blenheim” relies on the fact that many years later the dead of the battle would still be lying unburied on the field.


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