Several years ago, while reading through some documents in the Mass Observation Archives at the University of Sussex, I came across a survey of London retailers from 1939 that mentioned increasing wartime sales of gold and diamond ‘sweetheart badge brooches’, a term I had not previously come across. Shortly afterwards, as frequently happens, I heard the phrase again. On BBC One’s Antique’s Roadshow (11 March 2011), jewellery consultant John Benjamin remarked that members of the public often brought these brooches to him to identify but that they seldom, if ever, knew what they were or anything about their histories. Further research revealed that many thousands of these brooches were manufactured, mainly in Birmingham and London, from the late 1880s to the present day reaching a peak of popularity during the First World War, yet they had largely disappeared from public awareness. There seemed to be a neglected subject here ripe for study and, as it turned out, no-one had looked closely at these emotive, personal objects and the feelings and motivations embedded within them.
These little brooches are miniature replicas of the badges of military regiments, naval units, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF, generally known as sweetheart brooches because they were often given as romantic keepsakes by members of the armed forces to their wives and girlfriends before they left for the front. One Londoner recalled that they ‘were received as gifts, love tokens or symbols to display that one of your loved ones was “doing their bit”‘ and remembered that ‘almost every female seemed to wear one’. Widely sold in retail and jewellery stores throughout the country and in small shops set up in military camps where last-minute gifts could be purchased before embarkation, families visibly articulated their support for their men as they left for potentially lengthy periods of separation in wartime by wearing brooches that matched the soldiers’ insignia. In the photograph below, a very young recruit to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment poses in his pristine new uniform before leaving for his posting to France. The whole family wear replicas of his cap badge to support him: his wife wears a brooch at the collar of her blouse and even their baby’s dummy is pinned with another to a length of ribbon.
It had long been customary, of course, for soldiers to adapt pieces of their uniforms into mementoes for their families to wear: metal collar dogs, shoulder titles and buttons were especially popular and army orders had to be issued to prevent the practice. Hand-made objects, together with items fashioned from battlefield matériel, which sometimes included jewellery constructed from shrapnel or bullets, are known as trench art and often incorporated insignia produced for the purpose: for instance, soldiers could buy printed or embroidered badges to appliqué to pincushions as gifts. But the first replica badge commercially made as a piece of jewellery for a woman to wear can be traced to a gold, diamond and enamel brooch in the form of the insignia of the 10th Royal (Prince of Wales’ Own) Hussars, commissioned by the Earl of Airlie as a gift for his wife Mabell on their wedding day on 19th January 1886. Lady Airlie recorded in her diary that she believed she had started a new fashion; she seems to have been correct as no earlier brooch has been identified and by the beginning of the First World War, brooches were available for every regiment of the British army, as well as for units of the Royal and Merchant navies and the Royal Flying Corps, hand-made by goldsmiths and silversmiths at one end of the economic spectrum and mass-produced in factories at the other, in materials varying from brass or paste to costly gemstones. Their material value was always less important, however, than their symbolic and emotive capacity to evoke people and memories.
The brooches’ visible and tangible presence in the quotidian lives of women across all strata of society served as a strong link between front line personnel and civilians on the home front. But these distinctive pieces of jewellery communicated more than simple romantic devotion, expressing sentiments about a range of social and cultural themes, including notions of status, societal solidarity and patriotism. Contemporary newspaper accounts describe how they were worn as talismans in the hope that they might generate good luck and bring the soldier home safely, thus reuniting the brooch and the original insignia that inspired it. Photographs from the period frequently depict a uniformed bridegroom ready to leave for the front, while on the bride’s wedding dress can be seen her military sweetheart brooch, a disconcerting visible symbol since it binds the hopeful couple together but also foregrounds the conflict that we understand will soon separate them, perhaps permanently. Images like these, taken just before the start of the war or during a brief period of leave were sometimes almost the only remnant of hastily conducted wartime marriages of such short duration that they might seem, if the soldier did not return and without even a body for burial, never to have happened. Many such photographs indicate that women wore their brooches as a constant reminder of a missing husband or son’s absence, often with his portrait in a locket, and that they publicly demonstrated their bereavement in this way.
George Errall Withall enlisted with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and was killed in action at Festubert in Northern France on 16 May 1915. Before he left he had given his wife Annie the sweetheart brooch she wears, with his portrait, in this photograph:
Before he enlisted, George Withall was a farm worker in Frensham, Surrey and the photograph depicts Annie and her two little boys, George and Richard, probably outside the family’s cottage. The children’s ages (George would have been about five years old at the time of his father’s death and Richard just three) suggest a probable date for the photograph of 1915. They are all dressed in their best formal clothes and, judging from their sorrowful expressions, it is likely that this image records a service held in Withall’s memory. His body was not recovered, so instead of an indentified grave he was commemorated on the le Touret Memorial near Festubert in the 1920s. In common with millions of other women bereaved as a result of the war, Annie was denied the consoling ritual of a funeral. To bereaved women like Annie who had no grave to visit and make the focus for their memories, sweetheart brooches given as tokens of love and affection often became dearly treasured commemorative objects.
The unprecedented death toll of the First World War meant that many brooches originally given in quite happy circumstances inevitably became associated with grief as repositories of memory and mourning. We should also remember that many soldiers were too young to have established families of their own or didn’t have sweethearts to cherish their memory while they were on active service. For these usually younger men, their mother was often still the most significant female influence in their lives and she would thus be given a brooch to wear. The reasons why bereaved women wore the military brooches they had been given in happier times were complex and are difficult to unpick. For some, the brooch was a straightforward symbol of pride while others felt that only a patriotic display could justify their losses and wore their brooches defiantly. But mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts were strongly encouraged by government propaganda and societal expectations to persuade their men to enlist and to wear a regimental brooch to show they had done so and were thus made complicit in their own bereavement. If women felt anger at the deaths of friends and relatives, however, this was an unacceptable rejection of the code of stoical acceptance to which they were expected to adhere in the interests of maintaining morale on the home front. For more angry or simply ambivalent women in mourning, the brooches’ military connotations were poignant, unwelcome reminders of the cause of their loved ones’ deaths and a reason for concealing these keepsakes from their families.
This may be one reason why so many sweetheart brooches have become separated from their histories. Grieving mothers, wives and sweethearts put aside the jewellery given to them by beloved sons, husbands and lovers who did not survive the war because they were embedded with such painful memories. For example, just before the end of the war, in August 1918, Lt. Charles Bodman of the Durham Light Infantry was killed near Arras. His body was never recovered but the army returned his personal effects, including his photographs, his papers and a sweetheart brooch presumably intended for her, to his bereaved mother in Gloucestershire. Unable to contemplate these haunting reminders, she put them into a wooden chest and entrusted them to her surviving son, asking that it be kept safe but not opened. The box was stored in the family grocery shop and only rediscovered in 2015.
And thus a deeply personal decision to hide away objects with painful associations show us how the stories of sweetheart brooches becomes lost to us as these emotive objects move beyond living memory. Another reason they’ve faded from public consciousness is their status as hybrid objects. From a curatorial perspective, they are neither officially military in design nor simply simply decorative. As such they have largely fallen outside the remit and interest of military museums (where, if they are displayed, their significance is rarely explained to the visitor). Typically, they come into museum collections as part of private donations that include more obviously relevant items such as medals, uniforms and weapons. Whether brooches are displayed or marginalised depends on the importance placed by individual curators (or their trustees) upon the connections between the members of the forces and their families, which is not always accorded much significance. Neither, however, do they fit easily into the collections of design museums, which perhaps regard them as military items, and no major cultural museum in Britain holds examples. Yet badges and emblems always, or at least very often, convey personal and political messages.
Many, I’m sure, are still kept by their original owners’ families. Accessing items owned by private individuals is always challenging, but like other wartime artefacts these are fascinating objects with stories to tell about how people lived and felt and memorialised their loved ones at times of unimaginable tension and heightened emotion. I hope to compile a record of images of brooches, those who gave them and those who wore them, with accompanying stories and any surviving documentation. If any readers would like to add their family histories to this database, so that they are not lost to history, I would very much like to hear from you. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally posted on the blog Historians for History in October 2018 and is reposted with the kind permission of the author and editors.