Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

London 'home' for New Zealand's WW1 soldiers brought back to life

New Zealand troops relaxing in London's Shakespeare Hut lounge. Photo / YMCA image, courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham
New Zealand troops relaxing in London's Shakespeare Hut lounge. Photo / YMCA image, courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

A forgotten London building that acted as a sanctuary for thousands of New Zealand troops away from the death and destruction of World War 1 battlefields has been resurrected a century on.

In August 1916, as war raged on the Western Front, the Shakespeare Hut opened in the heart of Bloomsbury, designed as a "home from home" where mainly New Zealand, but also Australian, soldiers could rest, recover and be entertained.

There were about 4000 troop rest centres across Britain provided by the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) during the Great War.

But the mock-Tudor Shakespeare Hut stood out, as it was dedicated to the great bard, William Shakespeare to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death.

The Anzacs were entertained by some of the era's biggest stage stars as they performed the playwright's work.

The hut was demolished in 1924 and the site became home to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is still there today.

Now, a century after it was built, the Keppel St hut has been rediscovered in a project designed to commemorate the lives of the 100,000 servicemen who sheltered, rested and recuperated at the huts during the war.

A UK-based media production company was awarded a $100,000 grant from the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund for the Resurrecting the Shakespeare Hut project, in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the artists group The Mustard Club.

"It's fantastic that the School is celebrating the history of this forgotten but wonderful building," said the project's expert adviser, Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson.

"London was a dangerous place for recuperating servicemen. Soldiers, especially those so very far from home as the Anzacs, were lost in London and faced many dangers including being robbed or beaten up.

"The YMCA aimed to offer a safe place for the men to sleep, socialise and enjoy a little home comfort."

The Shakespeare Hut was one of the largest YMCA huts in London.

Originally, the land was acquired to build a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre to mark the playwright's tercentenary, but when war broke out it was deemed unsuitable to be using funds for buildings not connected with the war effort. It was then decided that a YMCA Hut should be built, mainly for New Zealand servicemen, and named as a memorial to Shakespeare.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Rebecca Tremain, who is leading the project, described it as a "wonderful project".

"The project will lift the lid on what life was like for those who used the building, and relive stories of those who fought and lived through the Great War," she said.

"After the installation closes, photographs and recordings will be on display at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre where they will be stored to cement the legacy of the Hut, ensuring the public can enjoy its fascinating history for many years to come."

The installation is open to the public on weekdays until September 18.

- NZ Herald

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