SIXTH Sense Theatre for young people has teamed up with 45 Swindon primary schools to create a living history project marking the centenary of the First World War.
The school pupils were asked to research their family history, in order to discover the part Swindon people played in the 1914-1918 conflict.
War broke out on July 28 1914 and lasted for more than four years. Many local men went away to fight in the notorious trenches of France while others fought a different battle on the homefront, confronting food shortages and rationing.
The Sixth Sense project is in conjunction with The Imperial War Museum as part of its centenary programme marking the First World War. It is based on real war heroes fighting at the front, and the women and children of Swindon who all contributed to the war effort.
Each school submitted a story, which was read by the theatre company and used as an inspiration to write a play called The Pig Town Kids. Sixth Sense, based at the Wyvern Theatre and funded in part by Swindon Council, will be touring the play around primary schools until March 28.
Benedict Eccles, artistic producer at Sixth Sense, said: “We wanted to be ahead of the curve to introduce the centenary before the date, so that the Swindon children of today would understand its importance and significance in their lives.”
The research threw up some fascinating stories, including a pupil at King William Street school who discovered his family had fought on the Russian front.
There was also a story of a real life war hero, Jack Eyres, who himself was a pupil at Lethbridge School. Today his great granddaughter Skye Cawsey, nine, attends the Old Town school. His great grandson Ellis Cawsey has just moved up to Commonweal School, but he wrote Jack’s story for the project.
Jack was a Lewis Gunner fighting in the trenches in France. He was only 17 when he joined up. He put his own life at risk by returning in the heat of battle to save a fallen comrade who was shot and left for dead in No Man’s Land, between the trenches.
Jack’s diary of his war years survived and extracts have been added to the living history project.
David Tanner, a teacher at Lethbridge, said: “We will be holding a history day on the Friday before the play comes to the school and we will feature Jack’s story.
“We wanted to join the project firstly as an opportunity to reach out to the local community and forge links with the school, and secondly because there will be so much coverage of the centenary that it is important for us to get in early.
“We wanted to look at the historical happenings and find the links between Swindon and the First World War.’’ Along with the production, Sixth Sense has created an internal schools website including the stories written by the pupils, photos and memorabilia such as Jack’s diary entries, plus lesson plans that were worked out jointly with the teachers.
The website will stay online for the next four years as a teaching aid and an introduction to Swindon history.
After the tour the theatre company will upload a film of the play as a lasting memento online.
Bob Buckley, headteacher at Abbey Meads School and chairman of Swindon Association of Primary Headteachers, said: “It was clear that this project was going to be an impressive and invaluable way of raising awareness and bringing the issues surrounding the events of 1914 and the First World War to our younger citizens.
“The project combines the use of real events from Swindon in the form of stories and an opportunity to be inspired by a superb piece of drama written specifically for the project. A hundred years on, it is important that we don’t forget the importance of this period in our history.’’ Abbey Meads School’s story is based on the experiences of William Alfred Sharman, who survived the First World War and served again in the Second World War, despite losing a few fingers.
At East Wichel School the story for the project focuses on the hardships of life for a Year 2 pupil’s great great grandmother, who was a child living in Stratford, London, during the war. The children are currently participating in a First World War topic which runs alongside the Sixth Sense project.
Benedict said: “These stories sum up the live timeline and what the project is all about. Little Johnnie can go back to his home and ask his parents about their grandparents. It is a living link.’’
Play features two friends torn apart
THE play is not based on any one of the stories but it has a flavour of all the experiences of Swindon men away fighting and the women and children battling through on the homefront.
It is written by playwright Mike Akers, who has had his work performed on BBC Radio Four and t the Bristol Old Vic.
The Pig Town Kids is a two-hander starring Joseph Mann and Claire-Marie Seddon. They are known actors and also professional musicians, as there is live music throughout the production. The actors play the parts of two friends who have a ‘great plan’ to change their lives, but the war comes along and one goes away to fight and the other stays in Swindon.
The play has storytelling, physical theatre and an innovative set designed by Laura McEwen, which will travel to all the schools. After the show the company has a talk-out workshop for the audience.
How the theatre in education project started
The Sixth Sense project is in conjunction with The Imperial War Museum as part of its centenary programme marking the First World War. It is based on real war heroes fighting at the front, the women and children of Swindon who all contributed to the war effort
Benedict took the idea of the commemoration to Bob Buckley, chairman of Swindon Area Primary School Heads Forum and he arranged for all 45 schools and 1,000 pupils to get on board. The research, writing, website and production process has been an ongoing project since February 2013.
Sixth Sense Theatre Company
Suxth Sense has a professional touring arm and it runs the Swindon Youth Theatre. The company also becomes involved in one-off community projects or takes up a residency in a school, going along every week to take a drama class.
The company was founded in 1986 and is funded by Swindon Council and the Arts Council of England.
The main aim of Sixth Sense is to produce professional theatre for young people. It is based in Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre complex.
For more details call 01793 614864.
Excerpt From Jack Ayres' Diary:
- 4 July 1918: Embarked for France.
- 30 July: Marched through Cassell to Mordfeine and went into barns, but my chum and I slept out. Jerry came over and dropped quite a lot of bombs in the village.
- 31st July: Marched to Seques, weather very hot and we marched 12 miles. Had the night in barns by the canal. Frank nearly drowned. Went fishing, caught a few. Serious air raid at night, lot of damage done but none of our boys hurt. Marching made my feet sore.
- 6th Sept: We arrived at 11 O'clock and had to march two miles to the trenches under shell fire. No casualties. Several gas attacks but we were too quick for Jerry.
- 19th Sept: Took over from HLI after they had run over and taken a ridge. This time we had a very hot time indeed. Shelled to blazes and it was miraculous we did not have a lot of casualties, but it was only four after all.
- 20th Sept: We were relieved by HLI to go back and get everything ready to go over. That night we had our first issues of rum and we needed it too. We are all issued with bombs, spades and shovels and all the necessary things we should need.
- 21st September: Took over from Manchester Regiment in their outpost line. We are fairly snug in a decent dug out. Friday 12 o'clock we go out in front of Jerry wire and take up our positions. Our team goes over with the first wave. 5 o'clock we have a good rum issue and get all ready. Barrage has opened and we are off. Our Corporal is hopelessly drunk but manages to keep up with the last man. My pal and I are leading. I have ammunition. All goes well until we reach the crossroad where we begin to lose formation a bit, meanwhile we get a few prisoners and a gun. Jerry has got the wind up and begins to put a barrage over us but we don't mind much we are all intent on taking our objective which is about 200 yards hence. We come to a field, being fired at with open sights. These we capture and take more prisoners in dug outs. Some seriously wounded here and my chum has a small bit of shrapnel in his arm but carries on. We begin to dig in, have gained our objective and advanced 1000 yards.
Schools taking part
East Wichel Primary
Even Swindon Primary
Ferndale Community Primary
Goddard Park Community Primary
Haydon Wick Primary
Gorse Hill Primary
Holy Family Catholic Primary
Holy Rood Catholic Junior
King William Street CE Primary
Orchid Vale Primary
Red Oaks Primary
Robert Le Kyng Primary
Rodbourne Cheney Primary
Seven Fields Primary
Shaw Ridge Primary
St Catherine's Catholic Primary
St Leonards CE Primary
St Mary's Catholic Primary
St Francis CE Primary