Soldiers’ Stories: The Men of the Manchesters

Don’t miss your chance to see this exhibition at Portland Basin Museum in Manchester. Curator Michelle Hill shares more…

‘Soldiers’ Stories: The Men of the Manchesters’ is the current exhibition at Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-under-Lyne. The former Museum of the Manchester Regiment in Ashton Town Hall closed temporarily in 2015 with collections items going into storage. Since then although there have been small displays of items for particular anniversaries there had been no large exhibition. It was decided that 2023 was the year for this to happen…

The Curators are based at Portland Basin Museum, which is a social and industrial history museum over two floors in a former canal warehouse. Our audience is mainly local and from the wider Greater Manchester area and we pride ourselves on being a family friendly attraction. We have a large school audience as well as visiting organisations such as U3A, care home residents and special needs groups. With such a diverse audience the exhibition had to be accessible, not text heavy and engaging to a wide range of visitors.  However with the regimental museum still being closed and such local enthusiasm for the subject we had to ensure that visitors with a greater knowledge were catered for as well.

The exhibition team decided that a social history style approach would be most appropriate. Objects relating to soldiers that had been involved in various theatres of war were selected within different chronological periods. The display ‘pods’ are small circular glass cases so can provide a challenge, especially with displaying larger items. With this in mind, and to create a ‘wow’ factor when visitors enter the museum, some larger objects such as a Queen’s Colour, Vickers Machine Gun and a shell-damaged drum from the Boer War have been put on plinths to the side of the reception desk. The cased displays are complimented by a range of photographs on the walls from the Manchester Regiment image archive held by Tameside Local Studies & Archives 

There is a large display case which contains a display of uniforms and headwear through the ages as well as larger items relating to different conflicts.

The exhibition has been an opportunity to bring items out of stores as well as display more recent donations. There is a mix of items on display but the Curators have deliberately avoided displaying lots of medals or more ‘prestigious’ items in favour of more ordinary and everyday objects.  It was also a conscious decision to include items from soldiers of different ranks.

Two favourite objects in the exhibition are a postcard written home on a hard tack biscuit from WWI and VC winner Wilfrith Elstob’s bunch of keys. I especially like these items as they are ‘normal’ and everyday objects. The note on the postcard was written by Sergeant Percy Lockett to his sister in May 1919. It is the end of the note which is most impactful; “What have I done to deserve this?” presumably reflecting on his situation and experiences on the battlefield.

Wilfrith Elstob’s keys were found on the battlefield by his batman after his death on 21 March 1918. This is especially poignant as his body was never found. He was awarded the VC posthumously for his heroic actions at the Battle of Manchester Hill after campaigning by his friend and fellow Manchester Regiment officer Hubert Worthington.

One of Assistant Curator Alex’s favourite objects is the Officers coatee from the 63rd Regiment of Foot dating from c1800. This is the oldest uniform in the collection dating from the time the 63rd Regiment was involved in action in the Caribbean during the Napoleonic Wars.  It is adorned with various elements that express regimental identity. The 63rd wore dark green facings with silver braided lace, the buttons bear the number 63 and the coat tails feature the fleur-de-lys regimental emblem.  It is also remarkably small by today’s standards, and is mounted on a child’s mannequin!  

Another favourite item is the bust of Wilfred Owen, by Anthony Padgett, 2016. This sculpture is a remarkable likeness of the renowned First World War poet. It depicts Owen in his officer’s tunic with badges of the Manchester Regiment on his lapels. It also includes his army cap containing various personal items, including his Military Cross medal and a book of poems by Algernon Swinburne which he was carrying when he was killed just one week before the end of the war.

The exhibition has been very well received and there has been nearly 25,000 visitors through the space since it opened on 11 November 2022. Visitor comments include “Such a fantastic display and a great variety of items on display”, “Fantastic to see the Manchesters again, well done Portland Basin” and “Excellent museum visit with impressive displays, lots of work and research, particularly the Manchesters display..”.

“Soldiers’ Stories: The Men of the Manchesters” runs until 2 July 2023.

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