The Second World War Experience Centre was established to collect, document, preserve, exhibit and encourage access to the surviving material evidence and associated information of the men and women who participated in the war in whatever capacity, whether military, civilian or conscientious objector. This work is conducted for the public benefit.
The total number of people involved in or affected by the Second World War is beyond calculation. From this huge canvas emerge the poignantly personal and often heroic tales of individuals – soldiers, sailors and airmen, workers and other civilians on the Home Front – who were drawn into the maelstrom of global war. The Second World War Experience Centre in Leeds is dedicated to the rescue, recording and preservation of these memories and related memorabilia before they are lost forever.
The archive that is being preserved for posterity is international in scope, documenting both Allied and Axis experience. Whilst the key dates are 1939-45, the Centre also collects material documenting the build-up or aftermath of the Second World War. The rescue programme focuses on original wartime letters, diaries, artwork, photographs, maps, newspapers, books, official papers and memorabilia and militaria evoking the period. It also includes manuscript and typescript memoirs, as well as recordings of oral history. An international network of volunteers tape-records individuals’ war memories around the world. Invaluable as evidence, these interviews are also a fascinating supplement to documents and personal memorabilia, which they serve to illustrate.
Increasingly the Centre is becoming the home of the records of veterans’ associations whose declining membership has led to them having to downsize or disband, as evidenced by the acquisition of the complete archives of the Mosquito Aircrew Association.
The collection and preservation of this primary source material is only the first step in making this valuable collection available to as wide a public as possible. For more information about our access and education plans, go to Education.
The Centre was established as a Company limited by guarantee (No. 3613847) in 1998 and registered as a Charity (No. 1072965) in December of that year. The Centre started out in office premises at 6-8 York Place in the centre of Leeds. The formal launch took place at Leeds Civic Hall in September 1999 (to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War) in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Leeds. Patrons, Trustees and Staff were joined by senior representatives from Embassies and High Commissions, Friends of the Centre, and representatives of Old Comrades Associations, all of whom were warm in their endorsement of the Centre’s vision. Guests were treated to the music of a Big Band, a buffet and a specially-produced exhibition which presented ten case studies of material from the Centre.
The importance of the Centre’s role was further evidenced by the gracious visit of HRH The Prince of Wales in February 2001. His Royal Highness was introduced to Patrons, Trustees, Staff, volunteers and veterans as well as being shown the Second World War artwork of Peter Peel and Denis Swinney and sets of documents from the Centre’s archive, selected because of their appropriateness to the occasion, including pictures of HM King George VI being introduced to the BBC War Correspondent, Godfrey Talbot, and HM Queen Elizabeth visiting Hatfield House to see patients who were undergoing physiotherapy to aid recovery. Russian convoy photographs, Arnhem material and documentation of the courage of a lifeboat survivor, clearly held the interest of the Prince, who himself picked up an issue of the Centre’s journal, Everyone’s War, and browsed through it, before signing the Visitors’ book and heading to a reception organised by the Centre in his honour. At the reception His Royal Highness spoke of his admiration for what was being done, of his real interest in the Centre and of his hopes for its future. He asked if he might be kept informed of progress and affirmed that he would like to help. This visit was followed up by a generous gesture of financial support from The Prince of Wales Charitable Trust.
By late 2001, the Centre had become a victim of its own success with the collection having grown so much that there was no more room for expansion at our York Place office. In January 2002, we moved to more spacious premises in Horsforth, North Leeds. It was appropriately on the anniversary of the Dambusters’ Raid, on 16th May, that our distinguished Patron, The Rt Hon The Earl Jellicoe, formally opened the new premises in the company of sixty guests, all of whom were lucky enough to enjoy a special exhibition featuring just a small percentage of the 3,700 case studies which comprised the Centre’s growing collections at that stage.
The move to new premises enabled us to work towards our next goal – that of Museum Registered Status – and Full Registered Status was achieved in February 2003. All at the Centre were greatly encouraged by the good news which came from Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries. The Museum Registration Scheme was established over ten years ago and has become a quality standard for museums, setting minimum standards in collection care, public services and museum management. The achievement of Full Registered Museum status was the result of a lot of hard work in terms of improving the Centre’s systems of archival care and management to meet the standards required by Resource and the Centre is proud to be a Registered Museum.
The Centre holds events around the country to promote its work to a wider audience.
In 2000 The Second World War Experience Centre launched its Annual Lecture Series on “The Experience of War in the 20th Century”. The series consists of four lectures that take place in the autumn with eminent academics and authors being invited to deliver the lectures on their specialist subjects. In 2000 and 2001 the lectures were held on four consecutive weeks in October / November at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea and in 2002 lectures were held at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh as well as at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Speakers from the last three series have included Martin Bell (War in the Age of Television), Antony Beevor (Stalingrad), Niall Ferguson (Prisoner Taking and Killing), M R D Foot (Secret Warfare), Richard Overy (The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands) and Richard Holmes (Monte Cassino).