Visiting Highbury Hall and Learning From the Archives

Big Brum's work on the First World War is as authentic as possible, with the script and productions based on many hours research and using period and re-enactor's costumes and props.  The drama created and the stories told are intended to be as close as possible to the lives of ordinary people during the war, and the Heritage Lottery Fund project enabled Big Brum to deliberately but carefully blur the boundaries between actual historical facts and the Theatre/Drama stories performed by the company. In this way Big Brum's work is a bridge between the fictional and factual narratives of the war and the people affected. In this way we hope to make the centenary of the war resonate more with the young people's lives today.
The session at Highbury Hall saw the young people fascinated by the imposing house and the luxury of the rooms. Dr Nicola Gauld, archivist and lead for the West Midlands World War One Engagement Centre led the session with Douglas Smith, a retired Head of History from Swanshurst School in Birmingham. They had prepared photos and documents from Highbury as a hospital from 1915-1918, and the young people were excited to see the similarities and differences, and especially the people in the photographs as they searched for which nurse might be Kitty.  

Nicola was able to reveal that there had indeed been a Nurse called Kitty at Highbury Hall (which Big Brum were unaware of), but little was known of her beyond some administrative documents with her name, and photos that may or may not include her.  Nicola and Doug told the young people about the hospital at the time, the duties of the nurses, the kind of casualties that were resident at Highbury, how they spent their time and how the hospital functioned. The photos that had been loaned from the archives at the Library of Birmingham showed many aspects of Highbury Hall at the time, from Nurses posing formally and seriously in groups in the gardens, to disabled soldiers playing pool, and other soldiers or entertainers dressed as clowns as part of the many social functions that were organised to keep the convalescing soldiers distracted from their injuries and memories. 

The young people then explored the building, recognising rooms from photos and studying photographs to see who had lived there. There was much interest in the radiators and floorboards, might they find another letter from Kitty? Where had she worked, eaten, relaxed or slept? How many people were there? Was it crowded? Did the soldiers and nurses get along? How many people died here? How are they remembered?

The reception room at Highbury Hall. Actors Dhiren Gadhia and Roseanna Baggott. Photography by Matt Hinks.

Matt Hinks