Devon, 1917, and communities across the county are working harder than ever to bring food to their tables and having to find the time and energy to do their bit for the war effort, too. Women, children, key workers and older men all mucked in together while the county’s young men were away at the Front.
Blackberries and Bandages tells the story, in songs, of what life was like on the Home Front in Devon during the First World War. The concert has been produced by Devon’s community music charity, Wren Music, who were asked to create the musical element of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project, which is running for four years to mark the centenary of the 1914-18 war.
Working with their community choirs and orchestras across the county, Wren have written several songs that reflect what day-to-day life was like for folk back home.
The concert is coming to Holy Trinity Church, Barnstaple, on Saturday 24 June at 7.30pm. Tickets are £5; £3 for Under-16s.
Marilyn Tucker from Wren Music explained: “We did a lot of research during the winter, sifting through old documents at the Devon Heritage Centre and various museums around the county, finding out about the Home Front in Devon.
“We looked through newspaper cuttings, people’s diaries and other historical material and we’ve come up with about 10 songs. But we couldn’t discover the folk songs that were being sung at the time because nobody seems to have written that down anywhere and we decided that if there was no evidence that particular songs were sung on the Home Front in Devon, then we wouldn’t include them.”
Blackberries and Bandages is therefore a concert of largely new songs, with place names and people’s names in them, so the concert is really located in Devon. “The songs are all informed by the research we did,” said Marilyn. “For example, we found a poem with the theme of ‘this week’s menu’ which was quite derogatory about the food people were getting so we’ve put that to music.
“There’s also a scurrilous little verse about Dad’s Army, from the Sampford Voluntary Training Corps in Sampford Peverell. And we’ve got reports of a concert party in Exeter where there was a famous concertino trio, so we’ve chosen one of the tunes they played.”
From the research, Wren learnt more about the role that nature and natural remedies played on the Home Front, which is why the concert is called Blackberries and Bandages: “People spent a lot of their time foraging,” said Marilyn. “Many of the women who went into nursing had never worked before, they were quite genteel, not like the women who had to work on the land during the First World War. The nurses would use foraged sphagnum moss which was then dried and used for bandages because the moss has healing properties. They’d use these bandages for injured soldiers that came home but they also sent some to the Front as well.”
One of the songs Marilyn has written is called ‘The Lilies of the Valley’: “These flowers were used medicinally and they were thought to counteract the effects of mustard gas by flushing out toxins. So the flowers were foraged and used by nurses in the VAD (voluntary aid detachment) hospitals.
“The children did their bit too. They’d collect conkers to make cordite for ammunition. Anything that could be foraged was foraged, and of course all the fruit like blackberries would be made into jams and sent to the Front.”
The role of women working the land is celebrated in a song Wren have written called ‘Bidlake Girls’, about the women’s co-operative that was set up at a large farm near Bridestowe: “Up until then, they used to say ‘women can’t work on the farms, they’ll curse the land!’ Well, they had to forget about all that nonsense,” said Marilyn.
Wren found cuttings about the conscientious objectors being held at Dartmoor Prison and learnt that Devon as a county was reluctant to go to war: “We didn’t sign up like the rest of the country in the early days of the war, when it was a volunteer army,” said Marilyn. “It wasn’t until conscription was introduced in 1916 that men from Devon went to the Front in large numbers.”
Marilyn added: “It’s a concert, not a story, but at the same time I think we’ve covered most of the main themes. And we’ve tried not to be too downhearted about it; everybody knows about the First World War don’t they? So we’ve looked at it and asked, ‘What was the effect on people’s lives on the Home Front?’ ‘What about the lesser-told stories, some of the things we don’t know so well?”
The first half of each concert features a repertoire from 50 members of Wren’s community choirs and orchestras local to that area; the second half is Blackberries and Bandages, bringing together the 20 members from across the groups who have worked on the concert.
The groups involved in the Blackberries and Bandages concert are the Rough Music Orchestras of North and East Devon and Torbay, and the Voices in Common folk choirs from West, North, East Devon, Exeter and Torbay. Marilyn is the concert artistic director, with Paul Wilson and David Faulkner sharing musical direction.
The opening concert slots are being performed by the Folk Choirs of West and North Devon and The Folk Orchestra of North Devon in Barnstaple; the Folk Choirs of Torbay and Exeter and The Folk Orchestra of Torbay in Paignton; and East Devon Folk Choir and The Folk Orchestra of East Devon in Honiton.
For tickets to the Barnstaple concert, call 01837 53754.
The concert tour in full: All start at 7.30pm, tickets £5; £3 for Under-16s. Holy Trinity Church, Barnstaple on Saturday 24 June (for tickets, contact 01837 53754); Palace Theatre, Paignton, Saturday 1 July (01803 665800); and Beehive, Honiton, on Saturday 8 July (01404 384050).
PHOTO: Newly recruited nurses with Sphagnum moss, Princetown, 1917. Courtesy Halsgrove Publishing.