LSBU is 125 years old this year. Opened in 1892 as the Borough Polytechnic, it was one of five such institutes across London charged with the education of the local people of South London, and specifically the promotion of ‘industrial skills, general knowledge, health and wellbeing of young men and women’, under the motto ‘Do it with thy Might’. This motto still exists above the doorway of London South Bank University’s Borough Road building, and as a fully functioning and responsible modern civic university, it continues to fulfil its founding aims today. It is fortunate that LSBU’s rich historic archive, carefully conserved in the Perry Library under the care of university archivist Ruth Macleod, provides a unique insight into the evolution and function of one of the most well-established and significant educational institutes in London.
When world war erupted in 1914, Borough Polytechnic had been operating for just over two decades. Offering courses in a variety of skills and trades, the men and women who entered the institute did so every day under its stirring motto. It is perhaps not surprising then, that when war came, students would feel the call of duty and join the armed forces. In Edwardian Britain, the sense of duty to ‘King and Country’ was strong, and everywhere in the capital city adherence to this duty was emblazoned on posters, visible in every post office, and plastered on the trams that plied South London’s streets.
Exploring the University’s rich archives, history staff and students at the School of Law and Social Sciences are starting to rediscover the details of just what it was like to attend the Borough Polytechnic in this challenging time, and to reveal the stories of staff and students who contributed materially to the war effort, at home and overseas. With detailed archival research at an early stage, the wider impact of the war on them, their contributions – or indeed, opposition – to the war is yet to be fully determined.
But there is one highly visible piece of evidence of the University’s contribution, seen by all that enter the historic Borough Road building: the University war memorial, situated on the main staircase. On this memorial, there are 128 names of men who fell in the war, and details of their contribution are found in the Polytechnic Magazine, letters from relatives, sepia photographs of the soldiers themselves, and sundry other archival gems that the University’s historians are beginning to analyse within the context of the engagement of the University in Great War Britain.
Just a glance at that memorial and a dip into the archive reveals some startling details. Take for instance Lance Corporal Ernest Bowerman of Streatham, student of printing and composition and volunteer to the 17th (Middlesex) Regiment – the Footballer’s Battalion, composed of amateur and professional players, all volunteers. Ernest Bowerman died after a gas attack on the Somme in September 1916. Or indeed Captain Fred Ward of the 2/19th (County of London) Battalion (St Pancras), holder of the Military Cross for gallantry and mentioned in despatches, who was killed in action during the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. The diversity of service of these men, who died in the war, is just part of a rich archive. Following remembrance Sunday, it is important to recognise that we are grateful that our archives help us to tell the stories of those from LSBU who served in the war. As our research develops we welcome the opportunity to bring to light more First World War stories. Ultimately, we hope that our research can provide a rich snapshot of life at the front and at home during a war that shaped the twentieth century, and which continues to influence the world today.