In 1919 and the early 20s, shortly after the end of World War One, virtually every town in Britain demanded and got its own war memorial.

The idea of commemorating "the fallen" was a new and unusual concept, but it was a desire that gathered pace during the war years and has never gone away.

Before World War One such shrines had been almost unheard of – there was the odd plaque or commemorative monument, usually to officers, but generally speaking that was it. In the Victorian age many of the rank and file professional soldiers had enlisted either as an alternative to prison or were fleeing an unhappy and often dangerous past.

In the eyes of the general public such soldiers were paid to put their lives at risk. So to praise or commemorate them if they died was neither expected nor desired. But the casualty figures of what was then known as the Great War made people stop and think.

 

In the wake of the Battle of the Somme, makeshift shrines began to appear on street corners or in church porches right across Britain. They were to be found on pavements and in fields, churches and schools, places where flowers could be laid and a list of the dead recorded.

These people's shrines, as they became known, were not officially sanctioned but they were symbolic of a national outpouring of grief and sorrow. And the government noted their popularity and marked them down as a way of remembering the fallen once the war had ended.

The seaside town of Penarth, like so many other communities across Wales, had lost hundreds of men in the conflict and the people of the town wanted to remember their dead.

At the end of 1916 a roll of honour was created at St Augustine's Church on the hill above the town docks. The roll was a piece of carved Italian oak, which is now on show at the back of the church. It was designed by John D Batten and was only finally finished in 1920.

St Augustine's Church displays a roll of honour designed by John D Batten

In the autumn of 1918, at All Saints in the town, a calvary was erected in the church grounds. This was to commemorate the 23 members of the congregation who had lost their lives in the war.

All Saints Church in Penarth

A brass plaque in Albert Road Methodist Church remembered the 16 members of that particular congregation who were also killed in the war.

Penarth war memorial

These were unofficial memorials but the Penarth District Council, noting their popularity – and the simple collections of flowers and wooden crosses that people had laid outside the houses of the dead – soon appointed a committee to decide on the best way to commemorate the town's casualties. A war memorial of white granite was commissioned, designed by Goscombe John, and erected in Alexandra Park. It was unveiled on Armistice Day 1923.

The memorial was designed by Goscombe John

Yet the unofficial memorials continued to arrive and take their place in Penarth. In June 1919 the National War Savings Association donated a demobilised tank to the town. It was placed in Alexandra Park and survived for many years as a symbol of the suffering inflicted on so many until, with another war looming, it was finally sold to a firm of scrap merchants in 1937.

In 1929 a memorial clock was presented to the town and mounted on the outside of the pavilion on the town pier. It was donated by Mrs Esther Harries in memory of her late husband Hyman and her son Solly who had been killed during the war. A memorial tablet in Hebrew and English was erected at the same time. The clock remains there to this day.

Gladys Gibbs bought this building in 1917 to operate as a children's home

Perhaps the most unusual war memorial of all, however, came in the shape of the JA Gibbs Home in Paget Place. Formerly the hotel of the Taff Railway Company, the building was bought by Gladys Gibbs in 1917 and converted into a children's home/nautical training school.

Named in honour of John Gibbs – of the Cardiff shipping firm – who had been killed leading his battalion into action on the Menin Ridge, Mrs Gibbs presented the building to the National Children's Homes and Orphanages. It ran as a nautical school until 1936 and still operates as a school for children who have difficulty learning as a result of challenging behaviour.

The JA Gibbs Home – now known as Headlands School – was an unusual but more than effective type of war memorial. It was not just a piece of sculpture or a roll of honour but a place where useful service could be carried out.

A plaque to Guy Gibson, leader of the Dam Buster Squadron

After World War Two, inevitably, other names were added to the town war memorial. But, again, private memorials were also erected. Guy Gibson, leader of the Dam Buster Squadron, had stayed at the home of his wife's parents, 2 Archer Road, on many occasions. According to legend, the first she knew of the famous raids was when she opened the paper one morning to see Gibson's face staring at her from the pages.

A plaque now adorns the wall in Archer Road, recording the fact that Guy Gibson stayed there. Gibson was elected life member of Glamorganshire Golf Club – the location of a memorable party when news broke about his VC – but he played there only rarely, being killed in action on 19 September 1944. He is commemorated in yet another unofficial war memorial on the wall of the clubhouse.

Penarth is not dissimilar to many other small communities across Wales. It lost many people in the various conflicts of the 20th century. It is only right that those casualties should be remembered.

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