How did Shakespeare help keep NZ soldiers safe and healthy during WW1?

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Shakespeare Hut lounge. YMCA image supplied courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

A forgotten building that was a safe haven for thousands of New Zealand soldiers during the First World War and which opened in London 100 years ago, is to be remembered this summer.

The project will commemorate the lives of the servicemen who used, and the women who worked at, the Shakespeare Hut, which was erected on the grounds of what is now the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Keppel Street site in Bloomsbury, in August 1916.

Digital Drama, a UK-based media production company, has been awarded a £49,700 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the project Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut, in partnership with the School and The Mustard Club.

YMCA Huts were a regular sight in England, France and on all the fighting fronts during the First World War, providing a ‘home from home’ for soldiers to rest, recover and be entertained. However, the Keppel Street hut was built with a special purpose – to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and to entertain Anzac troops through the playwright’s work, keeping them away from the dangerous London streets.

Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson from the University of Brighton uncovered the Shakespeare Hut and is an expert advisor on the project. She said: “It’s fantastic that the School is celebrating the history of this forgotten but wonderful building. London was a dangerous place for recuperating servicemen. Soldiers, especially those so very far from home as the Anzacs, who probably felt very lost in London. The YMCA aimed to offer a safe place for the men to sleep, socialise and enjoy a little home comfort.

“In the context of remembering the relationship between Britain and New Zealand during the War, the Shakespeare Hut is vital. Not only was it a huge, conspicuous statement of British charitable support of Anzac troops, but it was the only physical memorial to Shakespeare built in London to mark his Tercentenary in 1916.”

The project aims to introduce the public to the Hut’s fascinating history for the very first time and preserve its heritage for future generations to enjoy. On Wednesday 6 July, a special installation will open, providing visitors with a chance to go back in time by stepping into a replica room designed from a photograph taken inside the original building.

Rarely seen images showing the Hut in action will be on display as well as audio and visual exhibits recounting local residents’ family memories of the First World War. There will also be a dramatic re-enactment of the opening ceremony on the centenary day itself, Thursday 11 August.

Rebecca Tremain from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is leading the project. She said:

“We are very excited to be involved in this wonderful project. In the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and with the ongoing commemoration of the First World War Centenary, this is the perfect time to resurrect the Shakespeare Hut.

“The project will lift the lid on what life was like for the brave Anzac soldiers who used the building. We would love to hear from those who had relatives who stayed there and look forward to welcoming New Zealand visitors to London this summer.”

The Shakespeare Hut was one of the largest YMCA huts in London. Originally the land was acquired to build a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre to mark the playwright’s tercentenary, but when war broke out it was deemed unsuitable to be using funds for buildings not connected with the war effort. It was therefore decided that a YMCA Hut should be built, mainly New Zealand servicemen, and named as a memorial to Shakespeare.

The YMCA built thousands of huts but the Shakespeare Hut, with its purpose-built stage to entertain and educate the troops, was unique and iconic in its design, scale and dedicated theatre. Some of theatre’s leading lights, including Ben Greet and Ellen Terry, were regular performers for the troops there, with Shakespeare central to the entertainment.

Dr Grant Ferguson said: “The Shakespeare Hut was popular and well-loved by the NZ Anzacs and those left behind in New Zealand. In fact, after peace was declared, a group of NZ former servicemen attempted to raise the funds to build a replica of the Hut back in New Zealand as a servicemen-led war memorial project. The building was in fact central to Anzac experiences in London, key to the public face of the relationship between Britain and New Zealand during the war and integral to burgeoning NZ Anzac identity during the First World War.”

The site is now home to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, a world-leading centre for research and postgraduate education in public and global health. School experts are working on providing healthcare in conflict settings around the globe, as well as playing a key role in combatting some of the major health issues of our time including mental health, malaria and meningitis.

Stuart Hobley, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said: “In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, this is an ideal moment to celebrate how Britain’s most famous playwright inspired troops during the First World War. Thanks to National Lottery players, the Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut project will record and exhibit the hidden heritage of the forgotten YMCA building and share the stories of servicemen and women during the Great War.”

The Installation will be part of The Changing Face of Keppel Street display and run from Wednesday 6 July to Friday 23 September. It will be open to the public from 9am to 5pm weekdays and for the Open House weekend – 17and 18 September.

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