Lest we Forget: Sacred Heart’s War Memorial – Barbara Vesey

The centenary of World War One may be behind us, but it is essential to continue to remember lives affected by war. Barbara Vesey describes The Society of the Sacred Heart’s distinctive war memorial, and the project to unearth stories about the people behind the names and dates.

On the campus of Digby Stuart College at the University of Roehampton there is a War Memorial that is distinctive in having been erected several months before the war ended, in May of 1918. The Memorial is also unusual in that some of those whose sacrifice is honoured are women and others who had non-combatant roles, including six Catholic chaplains.

The Society of the Sacred Heart War Memorial

The Memorial is comprised of over 300 individual plaques. Most commemorate those who died in the First World War, but there are also later plaques honouring those killed in the Second World War and the war in Korea. Each person was – or was related to – a student or teacher at a school run by the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart, and/or was a friend or relation of one of the nuns. The Society of the Sacred Heart is a teaching Order of women Religious, who in 1874 had founded what was to become Digby Stuart College.

The Sisters began raising funds for the Memorial in August of 1917, when there were already over 180 lost sons, brothers and fathers – and in one case, a daughter – whose families donated between £1 and £5 (the equivalent of £55-£275 in 2019) for a commemorative plaque. The plaques are made of marble and attached to a Portland stone background. The names, dates and dedications are etched in lead. The wording on each plaque, written by the families and friends of those commemorated, is more evocative and detailed than is usually found on Memorials of this period. Examples include ‘killed in action in Belgium whilst leading his men, aged 19 and 11 months’, and ‘worn out by work in her hospital and heartbroken by the loss of her sons Hugh and Henry’.

Between 2014 and 2018, students and staff of the University of Roehampton began researching in the Society Archives, based in Barat House on the University campus, to learn more about the stories behind some of the names on the Memorial. The resulting exhibition at the University Library opened on 9th November 2018, marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. Display panels told the stories of those commemorated, from medical personnel and the first pilots of the Royal Flying Corps to the Irish nationalist politician Willie Redmond and the diplomat Hugh O’Beirne. O’Beirne died alongside Lord Kitchener when the ship HMS Hampshire, taking them both on a diplomatic mission to Russia, sank after hitting a mine 3 kilometres off the northwest coast of Orkney in June, 1916.

George Archer-Shee, the naval cadet at the heart of the real-life legal case dramatized in Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Winslow Boy’

In 2000 the Memorial was registered with the Imperial War Museum’s National Inventory of War Memorials, whose representative described it as ‘a magnificent war memorial, absolutely unique’. In 2017 the Memorial was given Grade II listed status. In its report, Historic England described the Memorial as ‘especially poignant for the individual tales of loss and their honest unmediated expression’.

The Memorial is open to the public, and can be found on the perimeter wall just south of the main entrance to the University of Roehampton. If you are interested in learning more about it, or about any of the collections held by the Society of the Sacred Heart, please contact the Provincial Archivist at rscjenwarchives@gmail.com

Barbara Vesey – Provincial Archivist, Society of the Sacred Heart

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