100 years since the first two minute silence

A blog post by Zoe Farace and Antonia Fernandes, Special Collection Volunteers.

For the last 100 years, the end of the Great War (1914-1918) and later other major wars have been commemorated on what had been known as Armistice Day (when the war had formally ended) and is now called ‘Remembrance Day’.  Typically on this day, at the 11th hour, a two minutes silence is held in order to show respect for the men and women who have challenged the enemy and  sacrificed their lives for their country.  The tradition has been maintained to this day and this year the Royal British Legion, who hold a Poppy Appeal every year, are encouraging people to put down their smart phones and log out of social media, as a way of showing respect this year.  It is clear that this act is the ultimate way of showing respect to those who fought and lost their lives in the plight for justice and safety in the world.  But where did this tradition begin?

Adrian Gregory’s book, “The Silence of Memory” gives a detailed explanation as to the origins of the two minutes silence. The decision to mark the first anniversary of the Armistice with a silence pause in the life of the nation was made very close to the date itself.  Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who had been stationed in South Africa as the commissioner during First World War, suggested it to Lord Milner, a member of the War cabinet. Milner had observed in South Africa that every single day, around midday, work, talk and movement were suspended and they would take three minutes to ‘concentrate as one in thinking of those, the living and the dead, who had pledged and given themselves in all that they had believed in’(1).  The idea was accepted by the War Cabinet and approved by George V, with the announcement for it in all national newspapers the next day.  The idea for marking armistice was not to look back with sadness for the tragedy of the war but to remember those who died and continue to offer up their lives for the protection of country.

Cecil Harwood served in the Great War, and wrote about his experiences in a personal diary, which he later wrote up and submitted to John Burnett to be preserved in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. Harwood initially writes of his excitement at the prospect of serving and protecting his country, however once embroiled in the actualities of war comes to long for some sense of normality. To Harwood, normalcy and solace was found in taking a moment to remember his fallen soldiers as a mark of respect describing it as “one time I shall never forget […] The Padre was sent for and a short service was held over the bodies”.  Taking a short time to reflect on the war and those still fighting for the safety and protection of others was something that Harwood valued throughout the rest of his life, believing that to hear “their message of good will, it made one feel better [and] protected them from harm and prosper in their daily lives”. This is the embodiment of Remembrance Day, to take time to reflect and pause and be thankful for the peace that is currently enjoyed.

All in all, the importance of the two minutes silence is very clear.  It is a way to show our respect for those who have died fighting and to take a moment of recollection and reflection.  It is a long-held tradition, one that will likely be continued to observed.

To make an appointment to see Cecil Harwood’s autobiography, or any of the others, please contact Special Collections.


  1. Gregory, A. (1994). The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-46. (Oxford,Berg Publrs.), p9
  2. Burnett Archive, 1:309 Cecil George Harwood ‘Down Memory Lane’


History Day

Join us and a host of other libraries, archives and research organisations for History Day 2019 at Senate House Library in London on Tuesday 19 November 2019. Admission is free, but you will need to register on their website to attend.

The Brunel Special Collection’s stand at History Day 2018

History Day is a great opportunity to:

  • Plan your next research project
  • Meet specialist librarians & archivists
  • Hear from historical organisations
  • Talk to publishers
  • Build your network

The day includes a history fair showcasing over 50 libraries, archives and other historical organisations, offering one on-one advice on your research.

Visit our stall to find out about how our collections can help with your research and to play with our train set!

New Burnett Archive display

Come and visit our new display on the ground floor of the library and discover the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

We have selected four themes – war, employment, family life and education – to explore in more depth, illustrated by examples from the autobiographies. We have included a range of poignant quotations, as well as illustrations from the collection.

The display is designed to introduce the collection to a new audience, by providing easily accessed themes as a “way in” to explore the collection further.

If you have been inspired by our display and would like to find out more about the Burnett Archive, you can read previous blog posts about the collection, or contact us to make an appointment to view items from the collection.

Summer project volunteer 2019

A blog post by Crystal Prescod, summer project volunteer 2019, studying for an MA in Military History

Crystal working on a repackaging project

I decided to volunteer in the Special Collections unit of the Brunel Library midway through my programme in Military History. I had come to the firm decision to change my career to one in either Library Science or Archiving and volunteering with the Special Collections was sure to grant me not only greater experience within the field itself but also allow me the time to be certain that this was the move I wanted to make.

The few months I spent working there were truly beneficial. The Special Collections Librarian, Katie Flanagan, ensured that I was introduced to so many aspects of working with the delicate material which can be found in Special Collections. From the preservation of old documents to going on a silverfish hunt, to checking the different environmental factors like heat or humidity which pose a hazard to books and maps, I gained a lot of valuable experience.

Equipment used to monitor temperature and relative humidity

My time as a volunteer was both educational and engaging. Furthermore, it made me certain that this is the area in which I would like to enter. I am very grateful to have been afforded this opportunity.

Many thanks to Crystal for her hard work over the summer. You can find out more about our summer project 2019 in this blog post. Special Collections will be recruiting more student volunteers for summer 2020 and the academic year 2020-21. These will be advertised on Brunel Volunteers.

Student volunteering opportunities 2019-20

Special Collections is offering the opportunity during the academic year 2019-20 for up to three Brunel student volunteers to gain experience of working with archives and special collections material.

Student volunteer working on a project to digitise our railway posters collection

The Special Collections department within Brunel University Library is responsible for collecting, caring for, and providing access to, the university’s unique and distinctive special collections of archival, ephemeral and printed material. Special Collections aims to support the university’s research and teaching by opening up our unique resources to enrich study and inspire exploration and discovery. It raises the profile of Brunel by actively encouraging use from outside the university. We aim to develop, care for, and provide access to our collections in line with professional standards and to ensure that our collections will survive for use by the students and researchers of the future.

Our collections are available to anyone to use. They cover a wide range of subject areas, including working class autobiographies, the Channel Tunnel, transport history, poetry and equality and advocacy issues. The earliest items in our collection include books from the seventeenth century.

These exciting volunteer roles based within Special Collections provide a great opportunity to experience a range of work typically encountered in the heritage sector. You will receive training in handling objects, books and archival material. Tasks are likely to include:

  • Listing, sorting and organising printed and archival material
  • Promotion and outreach using social media
  • Preservation activity, such as repackaging archival items
  • Preparing displays

Your volunteering will count towards the Brunel Volunteer Awards, and, if you are an undergraduate, your volunteering will form part of your HEAR (Higher Education Archivement Record). Our volunteers have gone on to successful careers in the heritage industry, including libraries, archives and museums.

We are looking for volunteers who can commit to one morning or afternoon (3 hours) per week for at least a term. This must be on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

If you have any questions you can find out more by dropping into our volunteering showcase event on 16 October, which is open between 2 and 5pm. Or by emailing us on special.collections@brunel.ac.uk.

Applications must be made via Brunel Volunteers. The closing date is Friday 18 October 2019.

You can read blog posts written by some of our former volunteers:

Poetry and education

Disability: a taboo area of Britain’s past

Up and down lines: a Railway Mission pastoral poster

Student volunteer working on a railway pamphlet repackaging project

Hillingdon Literary Festival 2019 workshop

Hillingdon Literary Festival takes place on Friday 4 – Sunday 6 October 2019. Now in its fifth year, this free weekend of literary festivities hosted by Brunel University London, offers a plethora of literary events from internationally renowned authors, creative writing workshops, lively debates, industry masterclasses, arts performances, a local creative writing anthology and so much more!

Special Collections will be playing a part on Saturday 6 October at 2pm with a workshop on transcription poetry.

We’ll be exploring transcription poetry using our Neglected Voices collection of poems inspired by the accounts of disabled people, They were composed by Allan Sutherland whilst he was poet-in-residence at the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University.

Allan Sutherland:

‘Neglected Voices’ is a work about disabled people’s experience, consisting of four cycles of transcription poems. 

We get looked at a lot, and talked about a great deal, but we don’t get listened to very much.  This does not mean that we have nothing to say.  Any number of stories are told about us, as poison dwarves, wicked hunchbacks, pathetic cripples, brave survivors or benefits scroungers.  What the story is depends on who’s doing the telling.  That’s why it matters that the stories about us are so rarely told by us.

‘Neglected Voices’ was created during Sutherland’s year-long residency at the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University, a centre which had ‘a particular commitment to user-led and emancipatory approaches to research and to the involvement of service users and the subjects of social and public policy in research and policy development’ . 

The project uses the same transcription poetry technique as in his work with Paddy Masefield and Nancy Willis. (More information about this technique is in Sutherland’s paper [opens as Word document] presented at the 2010 Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University.)

That previous work was about important figures in the Disability Arts world.  These cycles of poems tell the life stories of a wider group of disabled people, drawn from the range of people involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Centre for Citizen Participation. 

You can book your place here on any of the weekend’s workshops and read other blog posts about the Neglected Voices collection.

Autumn 2019 newsletter

Our Autumn 2019 newsletter has just been published. In it you will find information about events happening this term and our summer projects, including the cataloguing of a new collection, improvements to our reading room, volunteer projects and the launch of a new display about the Burnett Archive.

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