AHRC Leadership Fellows Award for War Widows’ Stories


I have been awarded one of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellows grants. These grants are awarded to “research leaders and potential future research leaders” to support “high-quality, world-leading research” paired with collaborative activities that “develop capacity for research leadership in the arts and humanities”.

Centred around War Widows’ Stories and starting in September 2018, the Fellowship will allow me to substantially develop the project through further research on the history of war and by continuing my work with the war widows’ community and museums in an effort to raise public awareness of the lives of war’s forgotten women past and present.

These are exciting times for the project. Next to enabling me to research and write a book on the literary and cultural history of war widowhood in Britain since the First World War, the award also funds participatory and creative ways of allowing war widows to tell their stories in their own words.

Continuing the work I began with Dr Ailbhe McDaid and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project will train more volunteers as oral history interviewers and conduct more interviews with war widows. Oral history is a great way for women to tell their life stories, and training volunteer interviewers from the war widows community is one of the means by which we hope to ensure the success of the project beyond our academic involvement. For many women, speaking to us is the first time they feel their stories are heard and, indeed, matter:

At last I was being listened to […] There was relief to be able to talk about what had happened. For years no one wanted to know […] I now feel a sense of closure … of peace … knowing my dear husband and his comrades, through this book, will never be forgotten.

But I also know that an interview – even when conducted by a member of the war widows’ community – can be a difficult and daunting prospect. This is why I wanted to find new and creative ways for war widows to share their experiences, and I’m delighted to say that as part of this Fellowship the project will team-up with amazing community artists Lois Blackburn and Phil Davenport from arthur+martha. By working together with members of the war widows’ community in dedicated arts workshops, Lois and Phil will help women express their experiences of war widowhood in the form of poetry and quilting. Take a look at Lois and Phil’s inspiring, beautiful recent work on the “Stitching the Wars” project.

Arthur+Martha, “Stitching the Wars”. © garrylomasphotography.co.uk (2016)

Creative outputs convey aspects of a story that conventional written or spoken sources cannot, and, equally, they can engage audiences in ways that may not be possible through more traditional means. As Lois explains, “Art making allows the maker to frame their experience in new ways, to see themselves differently, to hear themselves differently, to form new narratives and new perspectives”. The exhibition-standard war widows’ quilt and the collection of poetry that will result from these activities will articulate many individual, personal stories as well as making those stories part of a collective, shared history of war widowhood. A key component of the Fellowship is to pass on these participatory research skills to other early-career researchers.

By combining my academic research with oral histories and collaborative art making, War Widows’ Stories will take an major step towards creating an accessible, intricate history of war widowhood in the UK. Perhaps even more importantly, the AHRC’s decision to fund this project is a much needed and long overdue acknowledgment that the stories of war’s forgotten women matter, and that they make a crucial contribution to our understanding of the effects of wars past and present.If you would like to stay up to date news and activities about the Fellowship and about War Widows’ Stories, you can follow the project on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to the mailing list by sending us a message. Please consider sharing the project’s work both online and offline. If you would like to know more or learn how to become involved, please get in touch with me – I would be delighted to hear from you.

I am very grateful for the support of our partners in this endeavour – the Imperial War Museums, Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Memorial Arboretum, and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain – as well as for the invaluable continued support of Liverpool John Moores University.