Ann-Marie Foster

The Ephemera of Remembrance in the Wake of War and Disaster, c. 1899-1939.

What is a memorial? Is it a stone monument in a village? Poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London? How about a pincushion?

Photograph of Ann-Marie Foster, copyright Naomi Smith.
Photograph of Ann-Marie Foster, copyright Naomi Smith.

My thesis is about uncovering small personal memorials to those who died in disaster or war. The common perception of a memorial is of a large monument that stands in villages and towns and is visited on Remembrance Sunday. I want to explore beyond that, and work out how people were memorialised in their homes, by their friends and in small community groups. Often this happened by their loved ones producing small objects to remember them by. They can be as varied as postcards, a memorial glass or even a pony hoof made into a snuff box. By looking at these objects I hope to gain an alternate reading of how people memorialised the dead, one that complements and challenges the official version.

Alongside this uncovering of previously hidden memorials is the idea of continuity. I’m looking at how these small objects were used throughout a forty year period, from 1899 to 1939. A lot of current work on memorials sees the First World War as a point in time when mass memorialisation became popular. I argue that a lot of the forms of memorial produced during the First World War were very similar to those in pervious wars and disasters. My start date for this research is the Boer War (1899-1902) as it was the first war that mass-mobilised British citizens as fighters, so is comparable to the First World War. Similarly, I will look at mining, sea, and industrial disasters as events where people suddenly died. By comparing these different types of loss, similarities and differences should begin to emerge. I’m hoping that by examining loss, the First World War will begin to be put back into context and be seen as a part of a longer memorial history.

To do this I will look at objects placed in archives, and newspapers in Record Offices, but also some more ‘non-traditional’ research. I would like to interview people who have family stories of memorials being in their parent’s living rooms or of people who were remembered on particular days. I would also like to try and work with the public to record their objects – not to take them away and put them in a museum – but to simply record their stories and take a photograph of the memorial for my own research.

Issues of memorialisation are very much alive today. Take for example the newspaper reports about the DLI (Durham Light Infantry) Museum closing. Over 3,500 people signed a petition to try and keep its doors open. In part this is because of the rich local heritage associated with the regiment and the idea that a lot of families donated items to the museum to be displayed for the public good, not to be put away in storage. Some soldiers’ ashes are spread throughout the grounds and families are worried that the land will be sold and their memorial site vandalised.

Understanding how people used to mourn tells us how people still do. It is a big public event like the shutting of the DLI Museum that causes us to realise that the majority of remembrance is privately carried out by individuals and families holding onto memories of their loved ones. These remembrances only come to public attention when something major happens that forces families to speak out and claim their heritage: most of the time those who died are quietly remembered at home. My research historicises this and seeks to put memorial practices back into their proper context, while creating a conversation with local people and groups about what a memorial is and how they are still important today.


I spent both my undergraduate and master’s years at Durham University, graduating with a BA (Hons) in History and an MA in Modern History. My undergraduate dissertation won the Gibson History Prize for local history. Both dissertations (supervised by the ever patient Dr James Koranyi) explored memory of the Great War in County Durham and how it changed and evolved over time.

I am now based at Northumbria University, having been awarded an AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD Studentship, and am very lucky to have Dr James McConnel (Northumbria) and Dr Jenny Macleod (Hull) as my supervisors.

I’m always happy to discuss my research, or listen if you have a family story you would like to share, please get in touch:

Follow me on Twitter: @AMFoster_

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