Tag Archives: Classics

Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18

I was interested to come across the Reflections of Newcastle project, which seeks ‘to explore the intellectual, cultural and social life of Newcastle during the First World War, concentrating in and around the Lit & Phil.’ It has a lot of resonance with my researches into Christina Keith’s life immediately before she set off for France.

I visited the Lit & Phil building in Newcastle as part of my research for War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. Christina’s first job was as Classics lecturer at Armstrong College, Newcastle, but as soon as she took up the post in 1914, war was declared. The College was requisitioned for use as a military hospital and the department decamped to the Lit & Phil building. Christina lived and worked in Newcastle all through the war years until 1918, when she set off for France to take part in the army’s education scheme under the direction of Sir Henry Hadow, who had been Principal of Armstrong College.

There’s more information about Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18 here.

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The entrance stairway of the Lit & Phil, Newcastle

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

2014

2014. The year seems familiar already as this date has been discussed so often. And whatever happens in the independence referendum, we know that 2014 will be a year we’ll always remember in Scotland.

Strange then, that it’s also a year which will itself see a great deal of remembering, as events take place to mark one hundred years since another unforgettable year, 1914. There will be debate about the nature, tone and purpose of such events. For me, there’s an interesting synchronicity in the fact that 2014 will see the publication of my great-aunt Christina Keith’s memoir of her time in France towards the end of the First World War, lecturing to the troops.

I hadn’t particularly planned it that way, but I’m glad now that Christina’s story will join all those others, as it explores a very different aspect of life on the Western Front from that which initially comes to mind.

When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, Christina was 25 years old and about to take up her first position as a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle. Life in the College, as elsewhere, would soon be thrown into turmoil by the sheer scale of this conflict. As part of my research into Christina’s story I read the diaries of her Professor in Newcastle. On August 5 1914, while on holiday, he wrote:

We wake to find ourselves a nation at war with Germany. Germany would not agree to guarantee the inviolability of Belgium to which she is pledged by treaty like Britain; and so late last night Britain announced that a state of war existed between her and Germany. Arnold and I fished for a time in heavy rain.

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Christina’s classes took place here in the Lit & Phil Society building as Armstrong College was requisitioned as a military hospital.

Christina’s memoir is not primarily a story of blood and guts and glory – but then, not everyone fought on the front line, but everyone was affected by the war. Christina’s memoirs tell a fascinating story of an extraordinary few months in her life which, while being laced with the sorrow and weariness of four years of conflict, were unexpectedly liberating.

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front will be published on 3 March 2014. For me it’s another reason that this should be a memorable year!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.