BBC News

Recreating a WW1 picture involving thousands

By Martin Vennard
BBC News

media captionHilly Fields in 1918 and in 2015

Enthusiasts have recreated a World War One photo of a crowd of thousands supporting the efforts of the troops.

Ninety-seven years ago thousands of people posed for a photograph on a hillside in south east London. They were at Hilly Fields park in Brockley to take part in a rally in support of the World War One effort.

The day was Sunday 4 August 1918, the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, and similar events were taking place across the UK, as they had done on that date throughout the conflict.

Newspaper reports say that year's Hilly Fields rally was the biggest one in the area to date. It drew together local politicians and churches, St John Ambulance brigades, scout and guide troops and military veterans.

The local mayor, Lt Col Sir William Wayland, was quoted as saying such events "were a vital necessity when they came across people who were ready to give up".

The result of the rally was an intriguing panoramic photo.

Now it has been recreated. On Sunday thousands gathered to recreate the scene, but with slightly different sentiments from the simple patriotic message of the earlier photo.

"I feel fantastic and am really proud," says South African-born Clare Cowen, who is chair of the Brockley Society, which organised the event. They believe around 6,000 people were in the original photo and estimate that around 5,000 took part this time, but are analysing photos and films to get a more accurate figure.

"I think every part of our community was here - the old, the young, Africans, people from Asia, the Middle East and from Europe."

The society found a photocopy in their archives of a contemporary newspaper report and the picture of the 1918 rally. They decided to recreate the photo to tie in with the current World War One centenary commemorations.

The report tells how the rally started with a procession behind the union jack from Deptford town hall to Hilly Fields, the main public park in the then borough of Deptford. It paraphrases the speeches given to the crowd.

One was by the Rev J W Niven: "Today the pacifists were standing quietly by, looking on, and reading homilies as to how the ruffian could be turned into a gentleman and the murderer into a Christian, but what Germany wanted was not a homily, but a hammering, not a tract but a jolly good thrashing."

The mayor was quoted as saying those who sought peace at any price "forgot such things as the sinking of the Lusitania, the use of poison gas, the murdering of women and children, the plundering of towns and villages, and all the other miserable habits of an enemy whose one delight was to hit below the belt".

For the recreation, the sentiments were a little bit less fiery.

Shazia Saleemi, who lives next to Hilly Fields and whose family are of Indian origin but came to Britain from East Africa, was also in the crowd. "I don't think there would have been any non-whites here, looking at the original picture. It's quite mixed now. There's a lot of mixed race couples."

So far the Brockley Society has been unsuccessful in its efforts to find anyone who was in the original photo or their relatives. One of the oldest participants on Sunday was 90-year-old Arthur Guidotti who has lived near the park all his life.

"The local population has changed a lot. My street, Wickham Road, was very posh when I grew up. You couldn't live there unless you had servants," he says.

The Brockley Society commissioned a photographer, Simon Terrill, to take panoramic pictures of Sunday's event. They will be released on 15 August.

To view the complete picture from 1918 in greater detail, click here

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Related Topics

  • Brockley Hill