The Beechey letters: Community history and commemoration

During the First World War, all eight of Amy Beechey’s sons enlisted in the British Army, but unfortunately only three survived the war; Barnard and Harold were killed in action, Frank, Charles, and Leonard died of wounds, and Christopher was invalided from the army after being badly wounded. In April 1918, aware that two of her sons were still in danger, Mrs Beechey was presented to the King and thanked for her sacrifice. She is reported to have told the Queen ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma’am. I did not give them willingly.’ The Beecheys regularly wrote home to their mother and their five sisters, and over 400 of their letters survive in the Lincolnshire Archives. Together with their sister Edie’s unpublished memoir held in the local library, and Michael Walsh’s history of the family, Brothers in War, these letters were recently used as the basis for community history projects, ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ to commemorate the war’s centenary.

Beechey family memorial
Beechey family memorial ©Dan Ellis

‘Leaving Home’ was a collaboration between BBC Radio Lincolnshire and the University of Lincoln’s School of Performing Arts. To mark the beginning of the war, a radio play concentrating on the story of the eldest son ‘Bar’ was recorded and broadcast. Local children played the roles of two of the Beechey children in early life. This was followed by two concert performances which were also broadcast on local radio. The concerts, in Lincoln’s Arboretum and the village of Friesthorpe where the family lived, were accompanied by the Royal Anglian Regimental Band, and a Military Wives Choir. As well as engaging with a broad spectrum of the community, the location of the performances in places important to the Beechey family helped to create an emotional attachment and a poignant geographical connection with the past. Rather than focusing on the impersonal stone of traditional war memorials, the everyday became sites of remembrance. In ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’, local audiences were reminded of the humanity of those who walked the same streets a hundred years ago.

Written and directed by members of the Lincoln Mystery Plays Company, and with a large cast of local people, the play ‘The Last Post’ was performed in Lincoln from 11 November. The play used Edie, the youngest Beechey girl, as a framing device. In the opening monologue set in 1968, the character of ‘Old Edie’ directly addressed the audience and discussed the foibles of memory. She explained that while many believe that memory is unchanging ‘like a cine film’, she had edited her memories of her brothers over time, and only the letters she kept from them were unchanging. The letters represent a fixed point in time. Like ‘Leaving Home’, throughout ‘the Last Post’, actors spoke the men’s words as if they were writing the letters, and through them we know more about the men at the front than those who remained at home. Apart from one example when ‘Bar’ had replied on the back of a letter sent to him because he had no paper, letters to the brothers were not saved.

© BBC Radio Lincolnshire
Members of the cast of Leaving Home © BBC Radio Lincolnshire

The letters are eloquent, detailed, and highly descriptive; although the correspondence includes the inevitable Field Service Post Cards, with ticks acknowledging ‘I am quite well’, because the eldest brothers were well educated but served as privates and NCOs, they reveal details of life in the trenches from the perspective of those in the ranks. In one letter ‘Char’ extols the virtue of the sandbag, as ‘the one and only really useful thing… [they were] supplied with’ and explains its many unintended uses. Through the letters, the play reflected the different characters of the brothers, and their changing opinions of the war, particularly as their siblings euphemistically ‘went under’ and they learned of their deaths.

The tone of some earlier letters is optimistic and full of jingoism, while bitterness and fears can be discerned in later correspondence. In 1915, Chris wrote from Gallipoli: ‘Tell all the women and girls you know to send their men… I would rather perish or hang than live under the German Kultur’, and Harold told those at home: ‘This is worth it. We shall finish this affair up finally this time.’ However, the experiences of being ‘a bit crook’ at Gallipoli and wounded at Pozières, changed him. In November 1916, Harold complained about the ‘miserable spitefulness’ of the military, and asked his mother to write to his commanding officer in the hope that he would be granted leave before being returned to the front.

Through the letters and imaginatively reconstructed characters of Mrs Beechey and Edie, both projects focused on the loss and grief the Beechey family suffered, but their ‘messages’ about the war remained open to interpretation; it is likely that watching them reaffirmed whatever opinions about the war the audiences took with them. The plays about the Beechey family successfully engaged people with their local history, and the commemoration of the First World War, but also the functioning of memory. ‘Leaving Home’ and ‘The Last Post’ were imaginative and effective examples of community history projects, and as ‘history from below’, it was the human story of life and death that was important and resonated so strongly with the people of Lincoln. All those involved, both those who participated in the performances, and those in the audiences, experienced a new connection with their history and others in the community.

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