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Their Finest Hour: u3a's contribution to a project preserving the memories of the Second World War

13 June 2024

u3a member Alun talks about u3a members' involvement collecting memories of the Second World War as part of the 'Their Finest Hour' project.

A Their Finest Hour memory collection day in Liverpool library

u3a members around the country have been contributing to “Their Finest Hour”, an online digital archive of the everyday stories and objects of the Second World War, funded by the HLF, based at the University of Oxford. 

Since the u3a magazine featured this Heritage Lottery Funded project in Summer 2023, not only have our members submitted their own stories online, but some u3as, including Bognor Regis u3a and the Isle of Sheppey u3a, have run memory collection days.

By doing this, more tech-savvy members helped their colleagues who might not be used to uploading images and stories on the Internet. Of the 74 digital collection days, Dr Matthew Kidd from the University of Oxford enthused that “Bognor Regis was the most well-attended event for the project with more than 80 stories recorded”. Valerie Owens, Bognor Regis u3a says that “I hoped to help as a volunteer at an event near me. Unfortunately there were no local events being organised at the time. I felt passionately that these stories and objects should be recorded for posterity, so the obvious solution was to organise our own event!”

Most significantly, Matthew continues “The Liverpool digital collection day in March 2024 was a huge success thanks to the dedication and initiative shown by local u3a members. Responding to a call for volunteers just days before the event, u3a members worked tirelessly for several hours, welcoming visitors and interviewing those who came along to share stories and artefacts relating to their family's wartime experiences.”

“By ensuring the success of the event, u3a members in Liverpool and the surrounding areas underscored their commitment to preserving and sharing the stories of the Second World War for future generations.”

Ian Parnell, a u3a volunteer at the Liverpool day expresses what many of us were thinking: “I found the day quite moving and the people were amazing."

Another volunteer, Helen, remembers, “One story that stood out was that at the insistence of the contributor’s sister the family went to the street’s public Air Raid Shelter, rather than the Anderson Shelter in their garden in Bootle - the one that they had always used. This saved their lives as the house and the Anderson Shelter were destroyed by a parachute mine. It's as important to hear about the people left behind, as the people who went away to fight.” 

u3a members did not only volunteer to support the University of Oxford. They felt it is vital that we preserve these stories, particularly social histories and objects before they are lost forever. Member David explains, “By recording the personal and everyday aspects and individual experiences of life in wartime communities, it broadens the historical coverage of the period and shows the true consequences of war from a very close and intimate perspective. It counterbalances the more usual national consequences of war described in most history books and national records.” 

By participating our members benefited in many ways. Member Ian says, “I enjoyed the day and some of the stories were amazing. These were the first times some people had spoken the stories out loud, and they became quite emotional telling them”. 

Another member Liz says, "Recalling the story of the evacuee who stayed with my parents for the website prompted my son to research more. By looking through family diaries the lad I knew only as ‘Johnny from Bootle’ now has a full name and an address - maybe I can get in touch with him one day.” 

Member Caroline says, “My local library used my material for a display alongside a ‘yarn bombing’ project that is making a D-Day equivalent of the Bayeux tapestry. The library manager told me that local schoolchildren were fascinated by how young the men and women were.” 

Member Iain says, “These objects and photographs all mean so much to the owners. One day these will end up in the refuse and the story, the names on the photographs etc. will be lost forever without this record.”

The Their Finest Hour archive is now live. Find out more on their website. 

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