Most of us will pass a war memorial every day, as we drive or walk to work; as we take a leisurely stroll on a sunny Sunday morning – they are part of our community and our heritage; they are a focus for personal remembrance and a public record of gratitude for sacrifices made by our ancestors not that long ago.
They come in all forms from small brass plaques to a set of memorial gates in a churchyard; obelisks and columns, crosses and sculptures. When spending time in their presence, particularly around moments of public remembrance, they can help take us back into the past – maybe even feel some of the grief our forebears shared with each other as they stood in silence to remember those they’d lost.
Every November we might gather around these memorials, lay our poppies and wreaths in an act of remembrance. Yet how do we remember something that we have never had direct experience of? How do we imagine what a gathering of people might look like in fresh grief? Did they have poppies, did they pray or sing, just who was there at the very first unveiling?
This is where Archives come in; dipping into a box holding carefully preserved records – be they photographs, ledgers or reels – can evoke a time and place; breathe life into our imagination as it takes us back into the past. This time our journey will take us to the unveiling of the Radcliffe War Memorial on Saturday 25th November 1922.
Who to unveil?
There was a rumour that Lord Derby had promised to perform this duty. It was he who carried out the ceremonious task for the cenotaph in Whitefield; it was done with such feeling that the people of Radcliffe were disappointed that Lord Derby’s duties in the recent general election prevented him from being in Radcliffe on the 25th. What about someone from the District Council? Someone who had served in many spheres of public work and was well-respected in the town? Look no further than Dr George Scarr. His devotion to the education, health and well-being of the community was well documented in the Radcliffe newspapers. Everyone decided that Dr Scarr was a worthy replacement for Lord Derby!
Who will attend?
This is the community’s memorial, paid for in part by public subscription; a sizeable space must be allocated for the next of kin of those who died. An enclosure will be constructed on the Heber Street side of the memorial for relatives of the deceased soldiers and sailors. In they will flock bearing their invitations – a mourning army of mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. They will welcome the procession of ex service men accompanied by the Radcliffe Brass Band who will have walked from Radcliffe Bridge Recreation Ground. Those who have fought and survived the war and cannot take part in the procession will have their own space on Spring Lane. The seven steps that lead us to the memorial will provide an elevated platform for the clergy; members of the District Council; high-ranking military representatives and, of course, our very own Dr Scarr.
How did it go?
The morning hung heavy with fog. What if it was the same damp and misty conditions that took over proceedings when opening the Ambulance Drill Hall? Fears were unfounded and by afternoon the fog had lifted – a clear view of a crowd of thousands could be seen by the photographer whose job it was to preserve these memories. The Unveiling and Dedication Ceremony was set for 3pm but spectators had assembled long before then. The fine weather had made it possible for children to sit, huddled together in a neat, warm row upon backyard walls. Through the open upstairs windows of houses and upon the rooftops of nearby shops people gathered for a better view; waiting patiently for Dr Scarr to pull the chord which brought away the Union Jack. The crowds were silent as the falling flag revealed the bronze symbols of Victory, Liberty and Peace while Dr Scarr read out his dedication:
I unveil this Memorial in proud and grateful memory of those from this town who fell in the Great War … this memorial to the gallant lads of Radcliffe …
These words formed only a small part of what turned out to be a truly memorable speech reproduced for all to see in next Saturday’s newspaper. On finishing the Lord’s Prayer, official wreaths were laid at the base. The ‘Last Post’ was sounded by the 5th Battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers before a vote of thanks was given to Dr Scarr. Thousands of voices then joined in to sing ‘Abide with me’.
And what can we say about the flowers?
Bearers of floral tributes had been arriving since the foggy early morning. More and more arrived throughout the day, so many that they had to be laid in the Congregational school hall until the crowds had subsided. Someone tried to count the wreaths, bouquets and garlands as they were handed over but admitted to being “completely overwhelmed”. It was said that they came from every “mill, work-shop, church, school, club and public-house in the town”. The sight of all these flowers may have prompted others to contribute the next day; on Sunday thousands of people visited the cenotaph where children could be seen carefully placing bright posies on the steps. Someone saw a woman carrying a ring of red and white chrysanthemums and heard her say, “Aw’ve paid some brass for this, more thon aw con really afford, but aw couldn’t let other folks be showin’ what they thowt abeawt thur lads and me not do anythin’ for eaur Jim”.
So now you know, with the help of archives held here at Bury, just how people gathered on a weekend nearly a century ago to remember their dead. The 612 gallant lads of Radcliffe, in the immortal words of Dr Scarr, “who suffered and died in the Great War” have a memorial “worthy of their sacrifice and of the ancient town which the majority of them claimed as their birthplace”.
Inspiration for this piece is taken from:
a miscellaneous private collection of Radcliffe publications and photographs donated earlier this year catalogue number RMX/9.
Reports in the Radcliffe Guardian, November 25th, 1922 and December 2nd, 1922.
A portrait of Dr Scarr taken from Stand Grammar School Collection; Catalogue Ref SSG/12/2/6