London ‘home’ for New Zealand’s World War 1 soldiers brought back to life

July 25, 2016 11:00 am

New
Zealand troops relaxing in ’s Shakespeare Hut lounge. Photo /
YMCA image, courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of
Birmingham

A forgotten London building that acted as a sanctuary for thousands
of troops away from the death and destruction of World War 1
battlefields has been resurrected a century on.
In August 1916,
as war raged on the Western Front, the Shakespeare Hut opened in the
heart of Bloomsbury, designed as a “home from home” where mainly New
Zealand, but also Australian, soldiers could rest, recover and be
entertained.
There were about 4000 troop rest centres across
Britain provided by the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) during
the Great War.
But the mock-Tudor Shakespeare Hut stood out, as
it was dedicated to the great bard, William Shakespeare to commemorate
the 300th anniversary of his death.
The Anzacs were entertained by some of the era’s biggest stage stars as they performed the playwright’s work.

The hut was demolished in 1924 and the site became home to the
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is still there
today.
Now, a century after it was built, the Keppel St hut has
been rediscovered in a project designed to commemorate the lives of the
100,000 servicemen who sheltered, rested and recuperated at the huts
during the war.
A -based media production company was awarded a
$100,000 grant from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund for the
Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut project, in partnership with the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the artists group The
Mustard Club.
“It’s fantastic that the School is celebrating the
history of this forgotten but wonderful building,” said the project’s
expert adviser, Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson.
“London was a dangerous place for recuperating
servicemen. Soldiers, especially those so very far from home as the
Anzacs, were lost in London and faced many dangers including being
robbed or beaten up.
“The YMCA aimed to offer a safe place for the men to sleep, socialise and enjoy a little home comfort.”
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 then decided that a YMCA Hut should be built, mainly
for New Zealand servicemen, and named as a memorial to Shakespeare.
London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Rebecca Tremain, who is
leading the project, described it as a “wonderful project”.
“The
project will lift the lid on what life was like for those who used the
building, and relive stories of those who fought and lived through the
Great War,” she said.
“After the installation closes, photographs
and recordings will be on display at the Camden Local Studies and
Archives Centre where they will be stored to cement the legacy of the
Hut, ensuring the public can enjoy its fascinating history for many
years to come.”
The installation is open to the public on weekdays until September 18.

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