Huddersfield University’s official memorial to staff and students who perished in the First World War has an extra special significance ... and name.

It is called an allegorical triptych which is a wall painting depicting figures that symbolise war, death and victory. Officially unveiled 90 years ago, it was the work of an art teacher who had avoided the call-up himself and been a wartime replacement for a member of staff who died at the Somme in 1916.

This is one of the many World War One stories that are being unearthed by lecturer Dr Daryl Leeworthy, one of a significant number of Huddersfield University historians currently researching aspects of a war that broke out 100 years ago and continues to generate political and academic controversy.

Dr Leeworthy’s findings cast light on the complexities of contemporaneous attitudes to the conflict and the varied dimensions of the war on the home front and around the globe.

He has focussed on the response of the university itself – then a Technical College – to the conflict, and ramifications for the wider Huddersfield community. For example, as more and more students went to war – especially when conscription was introduced in 1916 – the college began to hold special classes to train women so that they could take over traditionally male roles in industry and bureaucracy. The college also organised its own Officer Training Corps.

Huddersfield was noted as a centre of left-wing opposition to the war so that it has been branded a ‘hotbed of pacifism’ during 1914-18. This has been the subject of a Huddersfield University thesis and the book called Comrades in Conscience, written by Cyril Pearce, who chairs Huddersfield Local History Society.

Dr Leeworthy expresses personal sympathy with this strand of politics and research, but also feels it is important to depict both sides of the town’s response to the war. His work on the Technical College helps to paint the wider picture, including a local willingness to join the forces and serve the war effort.

Huddersfield University's official memorial to staff and students who perished in the First World War is an allegorical triptych, a wall painting depicting figures that symbolise war, death and victory.
Huddersfield University's official memorial to staff and students who perished in the First World War is an allegorical triptych, a wall painting depicting figures that symbolise war, death and victory.
 

The research is uncovering a series of poignant stories about staff and students who fought and, in many cases, died in the war. The 1924 memorial serves as a focal point.

It was painted by Gateshead-born John Richardson Gauld, who came to the college as a substitute for art teacher Willie Speight, of Batley, who had volunteered for the army in the early stages of the conflict, alongside his friend and colleague Harry Topping, who was the college’s assistant secretary. There was no Huddersfield Pals battalion – because of muted local enthusiasm – so the two men and other colleagues joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

Speight died in July 1916, during the first Battle of the Somme, the victim of a bomb that exploded at his guard post. Topping was gassed at end of 1917 and sent back to Britain to convalesce. He returned to the Front and was killed in April 1918 at the second Somme offensive. He fell close to the place where his friend Willie Speight had died.

Another intriguing twist is that Harry Topping was the son of Huddersfield Independent Labour Party councillor Thomas Topping, a close friend of Arthur Gardiner, of the Huddersfield Socialist Party and a prominent anti-war campaigner, who refused to answer the call-up and became a fugitive for a spell. The “tantalising relationship” between the Toppings and Gardiner adds an intriguing dimension to Dr Leeworthy’s research and the fate of other Technical College staff helps to illustrate aspects of the First World War.

For example, Charles Cecil Holtom – a lecturer in practical banking – was killed in 1917 during an offensive in Palestine, a reminder of the global scale of a war that is generally recalled solely in terms of the Western Front. Joe Kay, a lecturer in commerce, survived the fighting, but died after the war during the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

At a ceremony on September 24, 1924, the Technical College art lecturer John Richardson Gauld unveiled his heavily symbolic memorial painting, which can still be seen in the university’s historic Ramsden Building. There was a bittersweet speech by Sir William Rayner who was prominent in the Huddersfield Liberal Party. Mr Gauld had been of military service age but had not gone to war, becoming the permanent successor to the late Willie Speight. Dr Leeworthy speculates that Gauld – normally a landscape painter – must have been motivated by a personal sense of debt - “knowing that he had temporarily stepped into another man’s shoes, a man who then died on the Somme.”

Dr Leeworthy is a lecturer in community history at the university. He studied history and politics at Oxford and at Saint Mary’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and gained his PhD from Swansea University in 2011. He has published a sequence of articles dealing with Britain’s working class, and his next book will be Struggle, Strife, and Strikes: Social Change in Interwar Britain.

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