A world so close and yet so far away...
Some reflections on the Sport and General Press Agency collection at The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.
Every picture tells a story.
If that is true then I have just been inundated by story after story after story. I have been cataloguing hundreds of photographs of The Salvation Army taken by the Sport and General Press Agency. The majority, but not all, were taken during World War Two. The photographs cover a wide range of subjects and activities. Here are some examples.
In order to conform to wartime security requirements a number are tantalisingly entitled “an aerodrome somewhere in Britain”. Fortunately, the post-war custodians of the photographs have often scribbled the location on the back: Dishforth, Lyneham, for instance. A number are of the great and the good opening new Red Shield centres or visiting exhibitions of Red Shield work: the most eminent being senior members of the royal family. A small number are of children being evacuated from London: waiting by rows of charabancs or waving from the windows of steam locomotives.
The blitz is recorded by two broad groups of photographs. One group records the area surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral. The devastation, including the complete destruction of The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, stands in contrast to St Paul’s Cathedral – defiantly standing tall amidst the rubble. The second group is of bombed out homes including a school. The second group is not as eye-catching as the first group but far more challenging to dwell upon.
William Booth Training College in Denmark Hill – the temporary wartime home of the bombed out International Headquarters – is well represented. Countless new Red Shield mobile canteens are on site awaiting dispatch. Groups of Salvation Army personnel are pictured with General Carpenter prior to their dispatch to the battle front in far flung lands. Another large number of photographs are of Red Shield Clubs and canteens, in the United Kingdom and abroad, mainly Europe. Exterior photographs often help identify the location. Interior photographs often show the service personnel. Men and women who were grateful for the amenities provided – the greatest probably being the sense of community and camaraderie during such difficult times.
These few brief descriptions are but a snap shot of the hundreds of images that are in the collection.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Presented by the same image, no two people will see exactly the same story. Interpretation, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We all bring our own story to the task of interpreting someone else’s story. With this in mind, here are a few brief personal comments about this collection of photographs and the stories that they tell.
First the overwhelming response is remarkably positive. In the midst of war people appear to be just getting on with whatever needed to be done; not begrudgingly but optimistically. People are pulling together. A sense of camaraderie is evident again and again.
Secondly many of the photographs show how the uniform, rank and discipline of The Salvation Army blended easily with the ethos of the military organisations being served.
Lastly the collection speaks of a world that is so close and yet so far away. My father, who served in the eighth Army during World War Two, could have been in many of the photographs. Indeed he stood outside International Headquarters just hours before it was destroyed by enemy action: so close. Yet the images portray a culture that is vastly different from the culture of today: so far.