Volunteering

London Cadet’s First World War Centenary Project

Museum of the Order of St John Amie Hampsheir-Gill, Upminster and Hornchurch Division

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, the Museum of the Order of St John secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and invited 12 intrepid cadets into its realm. From Romford to Highgate, Hackney to Westminster, cadets travelled from all around London to be a part of this important centenary project. The cadets were tasked by the Museum with the creation of a digital learning resource based upon the scrapbook of Veronica Nisbet, a St John Ambulance volunteer during the First World War.

A photograph of Veronica Nisbet
Veronica Nisbet

Upon arrival, we were greeted with the friendly, excited faces of the Museum staff, who were eager to begin work upon the project however, first we needed to know more about the First World War and of course, Veronica… Who was she? Where was she from?  What did she do? In order to discover more about Veronica and the Order of St John’s role in the First World War, staff at the Museum had already done a bit of research which they shared with us on our first day, as well as taking us on a tour of the museum.

A tour for the cadets of the Museum Of The Order Of St John on the first day.
A tour of the Museum on our first day!

Veronica Nisbet was a St John VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse who, between 1917 and 1919, worked alongside other St John men and women in the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France. What made Veronica really stand out to us were the many wonderful cartoons and sketches she drew within her scrapbook, which was kindly donated to the Museum of the Order of St John by her close friend Joan. Contained within Veronica’s scrapbook are wonderful memories taking the form of entertaining cartoons, photographs and sketches, mostly relating to her daily life in and around the hospital.

By examining the scrapbook, we all made many discoveries about Veronica and the ‘Great War’, for example, from her quirky cartoons we were able to ascertain that a rivalry existed between the VAD nurses and the ‘professional’ nurses who were stationed at the hospital. We also learnt about the numerous rules imposed on the VADs by the Matron as well as the types of training that the VADs had to undergo.

As well as lots of historical research, we also needed to learn how to interpret all of our research for the public so that we could tell Veronica’s story to as many people as possible. To help us understand more about the role of museum interactives in exhibitions as well as the level of information required, we went on an excursion to the Imperial War Museum with some of the Museum staff and Steve Slack a freelance writer. Looking at the new First World War exhibition in the Imperial War Museum provided inspiration for our own project; personally, I loved the layout of this exhibition and my favourite bit was the area designed to imitate ‘No Man’s Land’, complete with barbed wire, darkened skies and even a realistic interpretation of war-damaged materials! This new knowledge obtained certainly made a great impact upon the design for the interactive, since the entire group realised the need to refine and prioritise information – we couldn’t say it all and this was a much needed lesson!

A visit from Veronica’s great niece Eva was also an incredibly inspiring method of extending our research concerning Veronica and her activities. Eva was able to tell us what Veronica’s personality was like, as well as what she did after the war. Returning to England to work as an artist, it seems Veronica lived a life of extravagances (even when she couldn’t afford to!) which proved to be a really positive end to her story. We were also visited by Michael from Armadillo Systems, the company employed to transform our ideas for the scrapbook into the touchscreen interactive. Talking to Michael definitely proved to be a good idea, as we were informed in detail about the capabilities of the software – some of the things we wanted weren’t possible, but other things we hadn’t even thought of doing were.

A discussion between the cadets and Veronica's great niece.
Meeting Veronica’s great niece Eva

After copious amount of cake, research and heated historical discussions, it was time to begin planning the interpretive plan. Once this was done and the scrapbook was broken down into chronological sections, each cadet chose a topic  (for example I chose ‘Veronica’s Training as a Nurse’) and was given a double page spread to fill with cartoons, photographs and other memories from Veronica’s scrapbook, as well as relevant documents from the Museum’s St John Archive.

A heated historical discussion between a selection of the cadets present.
Heated historical discussions…

Putting pen to paper, gradually each double page spread grew in a race to meet the deadline. Complete with photographs, cartoons and archival documents, every document was smothered with annotations and instructions, ensuring that no historical or technical details were missed. Finally it was complete! The whole group sent in their fantastic work to the company, and now hold their breath awaiting its return ready for the launch of the Museum’s new First World War display on 7th September 2015, the 100th anniversary of the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples receiving its first patients – a convoy of 57 seriously wounded stretcher cases.

As one of the cadets participating, I am proud to say that I was honoured to be a part of such a fantastic project commemorating the brave St John men and women who volunteered to serve their country. I would like to take the time to thank the staff of the Museum of the Order of St John for their constant support, as well as the other cadets who participated and assisted in this project!

Photo of eleven of the cadets who took part in the Museum's First World War Project
First World War Project Team!
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