Emotional exhibition reveals heart-breaking stories of the bereft women of World War One

The hidden grief and sorrow of widows and mothers who lost loved ones during the First World War is being shared in a unique exhibition exploring the life of the woman who consoled them.

Dear Mrs Pennyman: Reflections on Grief brings together the emotional letters and untold heartbreak of women who lost loved ones during the Great War.

The exhibition, currently on show at Ormesby Hall, is the culmination of a project by Dr Roisín Higgins, a Reader in Modern History at Teesside University.

She received Heritage Lottery funding to digitise scores of letters written by women during the First World War and research their back stories.

Around 100 letters were originally found at Ormesby Hall in Middlesbrough and had been sent to Mary Pennyman, whose husband’s family then owned the property.

As well as offering financial and practical advice in the emotional letters, Mary Pennyman, whose own husband was fighting in the war, offered the women comfort and the chance to speak about their sons and husbands – the accounts provide a personal insight into the loss they experienced and the struggles they were faced with.

Maud Wilson’s husband was mortally wounded at the Battle of Mons in 1914. She wrote to Mary Pennyman from Liverpool where she had moved from Dublin to be closer to her in-laws. Maud’s family remembers that times were very hard after her husband’s death and despite receiving a small bequest from her father upon his death in 1915, she had to sell her jewellery to provide for her family.

Florence Watson from Barnsley, whose husband had died in September 1916, wrote to Mary Pennyman about her three-year-old daughter Lily, who died of pneumonia and measles in 1918. And Isabella Thomson, from Grangemouth in Falkirk, does not pause for breath in the retelling of her heart-breaking story. She writes about her great love for her 19 year-old son ‘Alick/Alex’ and her despair when he signs up for the army.

As well as Dr Higgins, a number of Teesside University students, graduate interns and members of the public, worked to unpick the stories behind the letters and create a digital archive, preserving a monumental part of British history.

The exhibition in Ormesby Hall runs from 8 October and is available to view from 11.00am to 4.00pm. There will also be a public exhibition at Teesside University’s Constantine Gallery later in the year.

Dr Higgins said: “These letters to Mary Pennyman provide a fascinating insight into the feelings and thoughts of women who would otherwise remain unnoticed in history.

“Researching such an important and emotional time of their lives has been a fascinating project and it is a pleasure to be able to share their stories with the wider population.

“Many commemorative projects have focused on those who lost their lives, but this is unique in the sense that it tells the stories of those who lived on and had to show tremendous strength and courage to survive.”

Mary Pennyman’s life carried its own tragedy. She married James Pennyman in 1915. After several miscarriages, Mary was pregnant in 1923 and the couple were looking forward to the future. However Mary Pennyman and her unborn child died in January 1924 when Mary was 24 years-old.

Dear Mrs Pennyman: Reflections on Grief is one of a series of events to mark the centenary of the Armistice. A reading of the letters to Mary Pennyman, with information about the women who wrote them, will take place in St Cuthbert’s Church, Ormesby, on 11 November.

More information about the exhibition can be found here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/events/735b9188-d185-4587-b727-5a98cd18f568/pages/details