The Tower at War – 1914-18

A showcase in the White Tower at the Tower of London will be dedicated to telling the story of the Tower and its people during the First World War, with content updated annually – we caught up with Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries to tell us more about the upcoming display…

Not another exhibition commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War? Surely, you groan, there can’t be any new angles to be examined?

Well, yes there can. Contemplating the best way to commemorate the Tower Armouries’ connections with the First World War posed a number of challenges, not least the fact we have just completed a 4-year long re-display of all the White Tower galleries. An extensive re-exhibition was not an option. However we do have a unique record of this period specific to the site and its staff and deserving of a wider audience.  So it was decided to make a virtue of necessity and let other museums with the space and collections tell the greater story.  We would concentrate on the site itself and the events recorded in the Tower Minute Book (I.189) and Diary (I.188).

The Tower Minute book and Diary continue the tradition of the books of Receipts and Issues kept by Storekeepers from the time of the earliest Tower stores.  On his appointment as Curator in 1913 Charles ffoulkes expanded their content to reflect the wider aspects of the job.  From 1917 he expanded his Tower remit to include the acquisition of current war material by becoming the first Curator of the National War Museum (today’s Imperial War Museum).  Fortunately the terms and conditions of his original Armouries’ role were sufficiently flexible to allow him to continue his oversight of The Tower’s historic military equipment at the same time.

ffoulkes at his desk in the Flamstead Tower 23 September 1916 © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes at his desk in the Flamstead Tower 23 September 1916 © Royal Armouries

Interesting as the archival record is, it is not in itself an ideal display material.  So as well as selected extracts from the Minute book set on a panel, a central case expands one of the stories using objects from the Tower history collection.  Both these displays will change annually.  In 2014 the spotlight falls on William Henry Noble Buckingham – local lad and Foreman of the Armouries.  His story ends with a 22-gun salute above his grave in Ilford cemetery. The focus for 2015 is Fernando Buschmann, violinist and convicted German spy, whose story ends early on the morning of 19 October 1915 with the volley of a firing squad at the Tower.

The display is contextualised by means of an introductory panel outlining the war-time visitor experience and the main characters.

Over the next 4 years we invite you to enter the surreal world of the Tower at war.  While fighting raged on the continent, it was business as usual at the Tower despite the threat of Zeppelin raids, in fact from 1916 the offer expanded with the whole of the White Tower opening as a museum. At the same time as German spies were shot in the early morning, foreign dignitaries were feted and shown round the spoils of earlier European conflict during the day. Most of all welcome to the world of Charles ffoulkes – one of the major shapers of our current perception of the First World War.  If you can’t make it to the Tower, then please follow the Curator goes to War blog.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

For details of the Royal Armouries’ First World War Centenary programme visit the website.