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Take the Thick with The Light

Stitching together the Stopher Story – Suffolk and World War One

This story is about the lives of an ordinary Suffolk family and their experiences during the First World War. It examines the connection between heritage, art and wellbeing through a series of letters sent to and from the Front, written by two brothers, George and Albert Stopher and their family and sweethearts.

The story is told mainly through a series of stitched artworks.  Art allows us to examine what it means to be human and to bring ideas and people together.  Objects and their stories resonate with our own helping us to feel more connected to our community and its history.

This project is led by Juliet Lockhart, Artistic Director of Lockarts, an arts in mental health organisation in partnership with the Suffolk Archives, The Hold, University  of Suffolk and was generously funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

What is the Project About?

This project, ‘Take Thick with the Light’, retells the story of the Stopher family through stitching aspects of their lives: their portraits, the landscape around the village where they lived and the words they wrote about their experiences during World War 1. ‘Take Thick with the Light’ also shows how taking part in projects like this one can increase our sense of wellbeing by taking five simple steps – connect, take notice, be active, learn and give. This, in turn, can improve our ability to cope with life’s challenges and improve our self-confidence. Find out more about The Five Ways to wellbeing here

Lockarts is an arts in mental health organisation based in East Anglia, UK. We use the power of the creative process to make a real difference to people’s lives; inspiring and empowering them to explore, develop and grow. Art makes us feel connected to the bigger picture of life and distracts us from our worries and helps focus the mind positively. Juliet Lockhart is the lead artist on this project. She is the Artistic Director for Lockarts and a practising visual artist.

“My work both as educator and artist makes connections: connecting people to the past and allowing them the space to tell their story; connecting place to story through walking in the footsteps of others; connecting hand, eye and heart through the process of making.” @julietlockhartartist

Suffolk Archives holds a rare series of letters sent to and from the Front from two brothers from the village of Sweffling in Suffolk, George and Albert Stopher. ‘The quality of immediacy and familiarity in the writing within the Stopher correspondence makes it so unusual. ‘I’ve read so many collections of soldiers’ letters,’ says Rachel Duffett, First World War historian and Associate Lecturer in History at the Open University, ‘but these really are special. You come to feel that you know the Stopher brothers personally.’ Find out more about the collection at Suffolk Archives here. 

The title for this project, Take Thick with the Light came from a letter written in May 1915 by George Stopher to his mother, whilst at training camp in Codford St Mary in Wiltshire. He writes in reply to a letter from her, ‘I think you can pluck up and try and send us a few happy letters not downhearted one like this one.’ He tells her, ‘we all must do our duty take thick with the light we all come up together and we all stick together now don’t be downhearted yet let them all come we are ready for the field’.

The use of stitched textiles links into the long tradition of the military using stitching as occupational therapy and to combat boredom. As far back as the Crimean War soldiers recovering from the stress of fighting were encouraged to make quilts to calm them.

We have created a project blog which has more information, more links to articles and other resources and more images of pieces from the collection and the artwork produced.

The Stophers of Sweffling: Suffolk and WW1 – Meet the Stopher Family

This is the story of an ordinary Suffolk Family and their lives during the First World War period. Herbert and Lydia (nee Plummer) Stopher lived with their family in the village of Sweffling at White House Farm Cottages, Glemham Road. They had twelve children in all but by the outbreak of WW1, only seven had survived: Ethel, Daisy, George, Albert, Gladys, Jessie and Fred. Herbert worked as a farm labourer, Ethel, Daisy and Gladys were in domestic service, Jessie was at school and Fred, at the outbreak of the war, was just about to turn five.

George and Albert joined up very quickly as war broke out, their letters home tell of the training they received at Sobraon Barracks in Colchester; George writes to his mother at this time to ‘please send the washing as soon as you can because we are going to march to Ipswich and Woodbridge soon and as I’ve told you before I don’t know when we will go’. They were then sent to Codford St Mary in Wiltshire, where Albert writes to his sister Ethel, ‘I wish I was at Colchester as this is such a lonely place, there is nowhere to go to pass the time away so it seems miserable.’

Once in France, Albert writes to his mother, ‘If you send any cakes, put them in a good strong box as they will soon get battered up getting to me in the trenches.’ The letters over the next couple of years gives us an insight into the day-to-day events as the war gathers pace; news of the villagers back in Sweffling, the requests for particular food, the longing to see their family, the periods in hospitals that both George and Albert went through and the ups and downs of their relationships, George with Ada and Albert with Bessie.

Both George and Albert were killed during the Arras Offensive, Albert at the First Battle of the Scarpe on 10th April 1917 and George at the Third Battle of the Scarpe on 19th May 1917.

“I learnt a lot about the Suffolk Record Office and feel excited with the wealth of material available. I want to find out more about the First World War, the trenches, the food etc. I like experiencing the enthusiasm of others on the project.”

Mary Stopher remembers as a child watching her grandmother weeping silently at the gate of the family cottage in Sweffling, staring unseeing down the empty lane. Lydia Stopher had lost two sons on the Western Front and it seemed to Mary that her vigil was an attempt to conjure their reappearance, to bring them walking home towards her as they had done so many times before. Other than mementoes in the rarely used front parlour, Lydia’s quiet desperation was the only visible evidence of the family’s loss; the boys were never spoken of their absence a silent wound. George and Albert Stopher died within a few weeks of each other in the spring of 1917, yet in contrast to their mother’s silence the men’s voices can be heard clearly through the extensive collection of letters that they left behind. Rachel Duffett, First World War historian and Associate Lecturer in History at the Open University: The Stophers of Sweffling and the Great War

“A very relaxed but totally informative and moving first session. A real sense of contact between these boy soldiers, their family and myself – I thought about my childhood/family. I feel filled up with the images, stories and beginning to build up a picture of life then.”

Connecting the Past to the Present – Linking our own stories

One of the most exciting developments to this project was meeting Heather Harvey, Daisy Stopher’s granddaughter; a chance to connect the present to the past. Heather joined us on one of our workshops and brought with her an incredible array of objects belonging to the family. I was drawn immediately to some fabric drawstring bags, two of which belonged to George, maybe to keep his possessions in whilst in hospital.

“There were three others that had kept all those family letters safe before they ended up in the Suffolk Record Office. I was so excited when Heather asked if I would like the three remaining bags. I knew that I wanted to use one of them to stitch the images of the boys. I could not use the bag as it was, so I unpicked the seams and used it flattened out. I wanted to leave the bag as it was given to me, stains and all, as it was part of the story. As I sat and stitched the images of George and Albert onto the bag, I felt a connection between my hands as they pushed and pulled the needle through the fabric and those who had stitched, over a hundred years ago, the same fabric into a bag, sewed a label on and threaded the cotton tape through the seams to keep the contents secure. I wondered who had carefully placed those letters inside, not able to part with them, and whether they took them out and read those words over and over again and wept for those young men or whether it was enough to know the letters were wrapped, safe and untouched.” Juliet Lockhart, Lead Artist and Artistic Director of Lockarts.

“Seeing Heather last week and looking through some of the boys’ possessions was inspiring. Wonderful to see their books and drawings.”

“The appearance of a school sketchbook belonging to Albert led to the idea of using his drawings to design a set of postcards that illustrated The Five Ways to Wellbeing, five simple steps that we can all take to increase our sense of wellbeing – connect, take notice, be active, learn and give. Taking part in projects such as Take Thick with the Light that bring the arts and heritage together can have a positive effect on our wellbeing and help us feel more connected to our local community.”

“I feel much better for being in the group. I was feeling very stressed when I arrived.”

An embroidered postcard sent by George to his mother, held in the Stopher collection, was used as inspiration. The flower designs were all taken from Albert’s original drawings and the words, ‘notice’, ‘be active’, ‘learn’ and ‘give’ were all written in boys own handwriting by finding the appropriate words in the letters. Finally, Heather, the boys’ great niece supplied the word ‘connect’ in her own handwriting, a beautiful link from the past to the present.

“After the excitement of seeing Albert’s sketchbook last week, I have been thinking about how Albert and Bessie would feel about what we are doing”

The Letters – Noticing the details

“We do not know the extent of the Stophers’ schooling, but as children of an agricultural labourer it is likely that months spent in the classroom were interspersed with weeks helping on the land. Despite the almost complete absence of punctuation and the idiosyncratic spelling, George and Albert’s letters convey an energy and individuality that differentiates them from the mass of archive material. They vividly describe the experiences of ordinary men faced with extraordinary circumstances and their writing tells us what the war meant to them – from the frustration of hunger to the despair of shell-shock.” Rachel Duffett, First World War historian and Associate Lecturer in History at the Open University: The Stophers of Sweffling and the Great War

“I first met with Rachel Duffett, a First World War historian and she talked about this wonderful collection of letters held in the Ipswich Record Office, I then met with Bridget Hanley, Senior Archivist with the Suffolk Archives who introduced me to The Stopher letters. She read to me a letter written by Sister Luard to Lydia Stopher regarding the death of her son George, it was an incredibly emotional experience and I just immediately knew that here was a story I wanted to tell.”

“I made the decision not to research into the lives and experiences of soldiers as they fought in the Great War. I wanted instead to experience it through these letters written by George and Albert Stopher. I spent many hours transcribing the words they wrote, I knew that I would only truly be able to hear their story if I wrote it word for word; in reading the letters I knew I would skim through parts, fill in the gaps. Of course, I knew from the beginning how the story ended but it was a still a shock when I read the final letters from the boys in the collection, so engrossed I had become in their lives. It is a human need to want to touch things, I found it hard to believe that the variety of papers I held in my hands were over a hundred years old, that some of them had been written in amongst the mud, the constant noise and terror of battle and then, had found their way back through France to a small village in Sweffling. The archive becomes a place that touches you. In a letter to his mother and father written in March 1917, George says, ‘In answer to your kind and welcome letter it was a welcome gift to me for I was lying in a shell hole waiting to go after them you do not want to worry because the times are getting better and days are longer the weather the same as it was a month ago.’ There are only two more letters from him after that.” Juliet Lockhart, Lead Artist and Artistic Director of Lockarts.

“Today was a further glimpse of Albert and George after reading their letters home. Also the ‘landscape’ of their lives, their family brought to me in the most moving way. A real sense of who they were, an incomplete picture, bits missing, bits will remain unknown, lost but isn’t that so of every human being?”

Although the voices of the two boys come through in these letters, the voices of the women are in most part, silent. They feel at times like shadows around the central figures and you wonder what is happening outside the picture. Reading these letters throw up more questions than answers.

Ethel Stopher, the eldest sister, clearly holds a pivotal role in the lives of both George and Albert. Between them they write over sixty letters to her that have been kept. There are a few intriguing references to a planned trip out to France by Ethel in the autumn of 1915.

In a letter to Ethel, Albert writes, ‘I was surprised to hear you are coming out here I dont expect you will be anywhere near the fighting’. George writes, ‘And I am pleased to hear that you are going to come out here and have a look round this part of the world I should like to see you out here I think all should come and have a look about France and seeing is beliving do you know if Ada is going to come with them or not,’ and a month later, ‘What are you going to do when you come out here I must say if you come to near the fireing line you would be come acorse a few shell which have not got strength enough to lay on the ground so they to burst sometimes I should not like you to be anywhere near them because of the pieces they are not like smashing the plates etc,’

It is not clear in what capacity Ethel was intending to go to France, was she wanting to work or volunteer out in France or just wanting to see her brothers? How much did she know about the events that were unfolding? It is one more puzzling loose thread in the story.

Working Together

We come to hear The Stophers’ story through the collection of letters and ephemera in the Suffolk Archives, but also because over a hundred years ago someone decided to keep the letters written by George and Albert Stopher. The Stopher story is determined by many different individuals, to those making a decision at some point over the years to preserve these objects and then to those who read and interpret them.  Everybody bringing their own story to add to the mix.

A major part of the Take Thick with the Light project was to work with a group of local people to tell them about the Stopher family and for them to stitch the landscape around Sweffling as it is now.  Over several months we visited and photographed the village of Sweffling.  Back at the Ipswich Record Office we transformed the photos into designs which were stitched with tapestry wool onto canvas

“Two young men, boys really, from a small village in Suffolk, George and Albert Stopher, left all they knew, everything that was familiar to them to join the hundreds of thousands of other young men, responding to the call of ‘Your Country Needs You’ in 1914. We, a small group of women joined Juliet Lockhart to mark and honour their lives. We met in what had once been a classroom in the Victorian school in Gatacre Road, in Ipswich currently housing the Suffolk Record Office.  Juliet explained to us on our initial coming together, her ideas and hopes for this project. Her work is always based on links, on connecting the past with the present.  Process is at the heart of everything.  Honouring the lives of George and Albert, our noticing learning; walking in their footsteps using our time each week to focus on their lives, so that not only did we build a picture of them, but it helped us understand their relevance to us, to our lives in the 21st century.” Jan Addison, participant on the project.

Stories form the basis for how we think about the world and live our lives. Both stories and objects bring us together, they tell of common experiences and beliefs, they provoke memories, so that we can begin to find our own place within our community. Stories show us what we have in common with others, and we learn to engage with others despite our differences as we come to understand who they are and where we stand in this world.

“I am writing my impressions, memories of being a part of this group, while still in the grip of the trauma of 2020. So many experiences in this year for people, locked down, locked out from the ordinary human contact with those important to us. Tiny seemingly insignificant details, which make up the fabric of our lives unavailable, out of reach.  Loss, shock, alienation from so much of what we have previously known links us to George and Albert and what they experienced in their brief lives.” Jan Addison, participant on the project.

“I enjoy the discussions which arise out of the work, particularly today, everyone working away reflecting perhaps the way women of the household, whilst the men were at war, stitched, cooked, worked to keep things going in very difficult circumstances.”

“I feel inspired to know more, find out more, go on building up the picture, looking forward to the stitching and seeing these young men and the landscapes they belong to, emerge.”

“Really enjoyable to meet new people and hear their different experiences.”

Walking in Their Footsteps – Active Research

It is about finding not just the story through the written word, but where the story comes from.  It is about getting to know our local heritage and those layers of histories and events that makes a place.  It is about walking in the footsteps of others, following their path. While we walk, we can imagine where others have trod, we take photos, we look at the same views they might have gazed at and wonder how much or little the landscape might have changed.  We can experience the same space and that connects us deeply to a place. It can throw up a memory of our own, maybe of our childhood walk to school. All these connections, connecting people, past and present, connecting stories to a place.

“After arriving in Sweffling, I made first for the church, which stands overlooking the village on a slight rise. While the key was being fetched, I walked around outside the church, and found a relatively wild area at the back of the building. Basically undergrowth, it was all green and growing, – and invited exploration. I could easily imagine the Stopher boys playing there – it was made for Hide and Seek, and no mistake! Pulling aside some of the foliage growing over a church window, I peeped inside the building, imagining the brothers standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of whatever was inside. Did they take it in turns, or did they squabble over whose turn if was? What I saw inside, was the church window opposite: vivid stained glass, with tall trees behind, against a glorious blue sky, complete with clouds sailing by. It was a picture book scene, and it suddenly struck me how different it was from the scene that would await the brothers in the future in France.”

“I am tempted to say that nowadays we perhaps are a little blasé about the terrors of the Great War – almost immune to tales of death and dismemberment among the young soldiers drafted across the sea to a conflict in a foreign land. We regularly hear about battle anniversaries, see pictures of huge cemeteries. It is as if it has all become some kind of a cliché. But not that bright warm day in Sweffling, where birds were singing and the sun shining. There exists such a stark contrast between that scene and those from the Great War: when shells screamed overhead, machine guns rattled across open fields, and everywhere was dark, damp, dangerous, and festooned with barbed wire It is all easily said, but not until then, in Sweffling, did it really dawn on me. Then, it seemed only right to enter the church and pay my respects at the Roll of Honour, showing the names of the Stopher brothers, George and Albert, both killed within months of each other, in 1917. Christine Patrick, participant on project”

Building the Story – Learning

Lockarts is an arts in mental health charity, we specialise in bringing together the arts and heritage to promote positive wellbeing.  We deliver courses and workshops throughout Suffolk.  Museums, galleries, archives and their collections provide rich, stimulating and accessible sources of inspiration; the objects and their stories resonating with our own, helping us to feel more connected to our community and its history.

“I was inspired by an old school exercise book belonging to Jessie Stopher in 1917. The book was issued by the East Suffolk Education Society to Rendham School.  Jessie was in Standard V which would have meant she was probably 10 when she learnt and copied out recipes and scullery notes. Looking at the recipes was a further insight into the lives of the Stopher family and connected Jessie to her brothers with their constant requests for some home cooking. Albert in a letter to his mother, ‘please send me some cake or make a nice batter pudding so I can cut a bit and have some butter on it,’ needing that comfort and connection to home cooking. We tested out some recipes and bringing in the cakes and biscuits to share during our stitching sessions became an important part of the sessions.”

“I have in my own collection of family mementos some recipes that my mother wrote and so I stitched not only Jessie’s notes but a recipe for old fashioned lemonade that I remembered my mother making and as I followed the swoop and swirl of my darling mum’s words as I worked them in thread I felt close to her.” Juliet Lockhart, Lead Artist and Artistic Director of Lockarts.

“I re-learnt a new form of printmaking/mark making.  I love reflecting on craft/art practices I havent done for a number of years and I’m excited to see how this progresses.  Lovely ladies and yummy cake.” 

Each of the stitched canvas pieces linked the maker to a part of the story that had touched her in some way.  Walking in and around the village of Sweffling, taking photos of the landscape, the church, a rose or reproducing a part of a letter has added another layer to the Stopher story, connecting us again to the past.

It is this immersion into the layers that surround the characters that build the story, adding a sense of place, the sensory experience of making and eating food. It also drew us together as a group as we sat and stitched together and talked about all that we had discovered and our own stories.

“I enjoyed learning all the new techniques involved in creating the designs for the canvas.  Also I love the nature of this group.  A few people working away in a calm and companionable way, it’s friendly, not pressured in spite of the ‘newness’ of learning new skills for some of us.  Two hours of creative ideas and each person working at their own pace.  All made possible by the unique skills and personality of Juliet, the facilitator.”

Different Perspectives

One of the greatest strengths of Take Thick with the Light is the passion and commitment that everyone involved has had for this project.  All of us have found those threads that link our twenty first century stories to that of a family living at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“The story of the Stopher brothers has always been very close to my heart.  My great uncle was killed in action in WW1 and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, having no grave, and so I have a special fondness for Albert who is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. In our collection is a letter to Lydia Stopher from Sister Luard who had nursed George in his final days.

I have used Sister Luard’s letter in talks and workshops, read it at the Ipswich commemorations for the centenary of the beginning of the war in 2014 and on BBC Look East in November 2018 when I was interviewed about the story.  This broadcast prompted a number of Stopher relatives to get in touch as they didn’t know about the collection and we had a visit from 4 generations to come and look through some of the material.

One of the family members has remained in contact and unexpectedly told me she had some more material that we might be interested in. She came along to meet the group when we were stitching and brought the material with her including school sketch books by Albert and his sister Daisy and Gladys’ diary for 1917 in which she simply and poignantly records the deaths of her two brothers. These items give an added dimension to the story.

Two other family members have photographs and papers that they also want to donate. One of these has inevitably been delayed by the pandemic, but when The Hold was open in the autumn, one of them came to see the Stopher display in the Reveal Wall and we told her about the stitching project.  She was quite overwhelmed and remarked on how pleased her mother, who donated the original letters in 1978, would be to see what a difference they have made and the uses to which they have been put. As she left she pressed into my hand a small book which was Lydia Stopher’s ‘Bible Words for Birthdays’. It fell open on the page for Albert’s birthday, which was actually the next day, 21st October. I felt such a connection with Lydia in that moment and reflected that this rich story unlocks the very real personal consequences of the millions of losses due to war and conflict.” Bridget Hanley, Senior Archivist Suffolk Archives.

“I had found several items belonging to the Stopher Boys and Family, that I thought that the Ipswich Record Office might be interested in, to add to the Boys collection of letters and I thought that they would also build a bigger picture of the Boys and add to their wonderful story.  In doing so I have also learnt a lot about the Boys myself and I hope that other people will find it as interesting as I have.” Heather Harvey, Stopher family.

“In the group we were so fortunate to have access to the riches of the archives stored in the Record Office. We were able to read some of the letters that George and Albert sent, mostly to their mother from their postings. It was so moving to read their handwriting. They took great care not to write things which they knew would distress their mother, always ending on a hopeful, cheerful note, i.e.’ I hope to see you again before long’. Their mother sent them parcels from home. Before the boys were posted to France, they were at a training camp in England, they still they sent their washing home to their mother, she dutifully returned the clean clothes to them.  After they left for France, it seems as though she still expected their dirty clothes to arrive, in one letter one of the boys writes to her, ‘We won’t be sending any more clothes for you to wash, as we’re constantly moving on at short notice!’ These letters also contain references to difficulties, misunderstandings and conflicts which clearly existed between the family members. They were often not directly referred to, more hinted at, in these letters home.

Another significant piece of the work for us in the group was the stitching we did. We provided a backdrop of the landscape of Sweffling and the surrounding area. Juliet has made some exquisite stitched portraits of George and Albert, this work was to form an important part of the exhibition we are planning to hold. There is a roll of honour on the wall of the church, containing the names of the boys. George died in France in 1917. There is evidence that Albert also died in France in the same year; his body was never found.” Jan Addison, participant in the project

“I’ve reached the stage in these portraits, where I’ve laid down the background, the tones are all there and it’s at this point where I feel a reluctance to put in the detail as this is the really intense difficult stage. Then in the process of stitching, one tiny stitch in slightly the wrong place can throw the whole portrait out. This is especially true especially in the eyes and the mouth. They are the features that draw me to the faces I am working on. The mouth because without the spoken word this is only connection I have to their voice and the eyes give life to the face and bring a depth to the work. I want the portraits to be the best version of these people. Through the letters, I can clearly hear the voices of George and Albert in my head, but the voices of the women are quieter, and I strain to catch them.

I have come to realise that I am stitching the story of the women, the silent voices, the domestic and home.  As I stitch, I think about being a mother; I think about losing my mother and her story, the loss of her father, her twin boys and my father. I think about those Stopher boys teetering on the threshold, childhood behind them and the promise of the men they were yet to become and my heart aches.” Juliet Lockhart, Lead Artist and Artistic Director of Lockarts

“I am pleased you wrote to the war-office otherwise I should have been out again by now, thank goodness I’ve got a good mother to guide me a bit I am rather young, but still I wreckon I’m a man now, as I am sure I’ve done mans work, and there isn’t many fellows my age who have been through what I have, but it was my own fault.” Albert Stopher to his mother, 1916

“I dont feel very much like a fighting man now Ive had enough of it I feel sure if they take me up the line it would be no use because it would be like taking a rat to kill a dog you cannot think of the times Ive had nor how glad am to be alive I cannot speak and now going to send me back again  It is like working a man on a dead horse I hope to see you again.”  George Stopher to his mother, 1916

Get involved

Take the Thick with the Light – Showcase event

Wednesday 19th May 1pm

The Hold, Ipswich

Join the team and participants of this LockARTs creative project on Wednesday 19 May 2021 at The Hold to learn more about the Stopher Family and hear the stories behind the artwork through talks and a guided tour.

You can book your tickets here.

A range of artworks from the project will be on display in the foyer space at The Hold from 17th May – 17th June 2021.