Stoneham War Shrine     Discovering the Park

A WW1 street shrine in East London: for some, such shrines were seen as 'a green oasis' bringing 'beauty and fragrance into many a grey life and many an unloved street'.

The Shrine from St Paul's Church, Brighton. The names are handwritten on paper. Photo: Steve Larkinson.

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The War Shrine Movement

During the First World War there was a popular movement for making wayside shrines, which was distinct from the retrospective parish and civic war memorials erected later. The first street shrine was built in mid 1916 in South Hackney in London. The subsequent movement was prompted by a series of articles in the London Evening News, and by the support of Selfridges department store. The wartime evangelism of the Church of England played a significant role. After Queen Mary visited the East End shrines, the movement spread rapidly thoughout the country. So popular was the concept, that standard shrines were soon commercially available.

These wayside shrines, at first makeshift, were often sited away from the usual places of worship, and were most common on city streets. Significantly - and unlike, for instance, later civic war memorials - the shrines commemorated men from small geographical areas, and from very close-knit communities. The shrines usually comprised fresh flowers, the Union Jack and other flags, a cross or crucifix, and sometimes appropriate patriotic or sentimental engravings cut from magazines. But the most important component was the Roll of Honour, listing those who had died and also those who were serving in the forces. For the latter, the shrines offered protection - both religious and superstitious. The shrines were a spontaneous phenomenon, perhaps tapping into folk memories of flower-decked holy wells. In looking for an origin at the time, one writer suggested that soldiers fighting overseas in Catholic districts had been impressed by how providence seemed to preserve many crosses and shrines amidst the devastation of war, leading them 'to desire for their own land the blessing of similar wayside crosses.' But the shrines were conceived and created by those at home, and were understood to be in the charge of the community's women. From the outset, the shrines were controversial, charged by some as being manifestations of 'popish superstition' or showing 'affectations of ritualism'. Following the desecration of a shrine in Ilford in 1916, a correspondent wrote to the Christian Recorder magazine in favour of the action.

The shrine movement culminated in the Great War Shrine in Hyde Park, built up of floral offerings laid by - it was claimed - 200,000 people between 4 and 15 August 1918. If this is remiscent of the mass of floral tributes following Princess Diana's death in 1997, then as expressions of grief, the shrines of the Great War have strong parallels with the growing contemporary trend for street shrines, spontaneously generated by local communities in response to present-day events - such as the remembrance site generated at King's Cross following the terrorist bombings in London in 2005.

Lost war shrines of Hampshire: at Brockenhurst, Hamble, and Hartley Witney. At Brockenhurst, although the brick structure does not survive, the interior shrine, which resembles a standard design commissioned from architects Bodley & Hare by the London Evening News, is now in the local church. Photos: Steve Jarvis.

Arts & Crafts Influence

It is extremely desirable that [war shrines] should be of seemly form and of the best available materials and workmanship.   Edward Warren, architect

Not everyone agreed that the war shrines brought 'beauty' to the streets. An exhibition of shrines hosted at Selfridges department store did 'not give any great encouragement to those who look for a revival of art in daily life', said one critic. In 1916, the missionary Civic Arts Association was formed out of the Art Workers Guild, to promote 'the utilization for Civic purposes of the Arts and Crafts throughout the country'. This self-appointed 'committee of taste' was concerned during WW1 that war shrines and memorials should be well designed and of good quality and materials. The CAA organised a competitive exhibition of war memorials in 1916 (in which the sculptor Eric Gill won second prize), and published two pamphlets providing guidance for the making of shrines, written by the architects Edward Warren (1856-1937) and George Jack (1855-1931).

Suggested design by George Jack for
'a war shrine on a moorland road'.

Jack's pamphlet gives a number of design principles for war shrines that could easily apply to the Stoneham War Shrine and its twin: the value of using materials "as may be common to the locality in which the shrine is to be made"; "stone ... in roughly dressed blocks, large rough slabs, without too much neatness of finish"; the temporary rolls of honour to be later replaced with "panels or shields of cast lead"; "woods should be left clean from the tool, and nothing whatever done to darken or otherwise improve them, as a short time will give them a beautiful silvery grey hue."

Pathetic war shrines, lovingly tended for years afterwards, had, rather ironically, by World War II succumbed to weather and neglect. Like old soldiers they faded away.   Catherine Rothwell

It is telling that the war shrine phenomenon has not been particularly well remembered or documented, and that few war shrines survive. Many people found the emotionality of the shrines uncomfortable, as well as the mixture of superstition and religion they evoked. The shrines were a dynamic force, allowing people to express anxiety and a sense of loss; as the rawness of the grief and circumstances of war receded, so did the resonance of the shrines. The post-war war memorials were more commonly derived from the, often secular, 'cenotaph' (the empty tomb) rather than the shrine.

In 1916, the Civic Arts Association had invited competition entries for designs for 'Inexpensive Memorials for "The Home"'. This idea was properly realised by the Goverment in 1918 with the bronze 'Next of Kin Memorial Plaque', or 'Dead Man's Penny', a momento given to the families of every soldier or sailor who died in the war, sent out with an illuminated scroll and printed letter from the King. Perhaps these items were born out of the shrine movement. If so, then it is appropriate that many people made domestic shrines around these plaques, arranged together with the deceased's medals and photographs.

Further information
Two full accounts of the war shrines built in city streets are given in the following books, on which the first part of this article heavily draws:
Mark Connelly, The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London 1916 -1939, Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 2001.
Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain, Berg, 1998.