A WEEK has passed since the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, but the remarkable story needs to be told of how one North-East community came together to mark the centenary. A book would be required to do full justice to how it unfolded but here, at least, is an extract…

At the heart of it all was musician and teacher, Mike McGrother, the driving force behind so many positive community events in Stockton. What he has managed to choreograph over the past four years deserves to be applauded. In fact, it deserves a medal.

When austerity hit, Stockton Borough Council had the good sense to recruit Mike as a “creative partner” to galvanise community spirit and, in 2014, the 1,245 Sunflowers initiative was sown. A book of remembrance showed that Stockton had lost 1,245 sons during the Great War and a sunflower was grown in memory of each of them. A few days before Remembrance Sunday, the flowers were symbolically cut down in their prime.

Stockton’s first fallen soldier, just three days into the war, was a recently married young lad called John Hardy. Soon afterwards, Thomas Hughes, a soldier from Stockton’s Tilery estate, was also killed in battle. He was married with a little girl called Emily and 10 days before he died, he’d written a love letter to his family while on a ship in the English Channel. With no means of posting it, he’d placed his letter in a green ginger beer bottle with a note asking for it to be handed to his family if it were found.

In 1999, a fisherman found the bottle in the River Thames. Intrigued by what he’d read, the fisherman discovered that Thomas’s daughter had emigrated to New Zealand with her mother and he resolved to deliver the letter. He flew the 11,000 miles, knocked on the door, and Emily, by this time 85, wept as she was handed her Daddy’s letter.

This was the inspiration for what happened on the site of the disused Holy Trinity Church in Stockton on Remembrance Sunday eight days ago. Community volunteers were recruited by Mike to spend a fortnight clearing away the jungle of weeds outside the church. Then, 50,000 recycled plastic bottles – flattened into the shape of 1,245 sunflowers – were brought together as a beautiful art installation inside the dimly-lit shell of the building.

While working on a music project at Holme House Prison, Mike had met teacher and artist Joanne Carroll and the idea for the sunflower installation flickered into life. The next challenge was to source 50,000 plastic bottles and Stockton council obliged by delivering them, in amongst all kinds of other waste, in what Mike describes as a “bloody great lorry”. Sorted and cleaned by yet more community volunteers, the bottles were transported to Holme House Prison, where a room had been converted into an arts workshop, for them to be transformed into glistening sunflowers with the aid of a heat-press.

“We ended up with a community army and they turned into a community production line,” smiles Mike, pictured left. “A lot of it was dirty work, especially sifting through the waste, but I hope we did the lads proud.”

Throughout the day, people came to see the sunflowers, read the names of the 1,245 soldiers, find out more about them, and pay their respects. Later, in the darkness outside the church, Mike led an hour-long performance of songs and readings and it was my privilege to act as narrator. It concluded with a soldier appearing in the half-light, high up on the church ruins, and giving a silent salute.

Armistice Day 2018 may have passed now but it is not the end of the story. Stockton’s community spirit, inspired by the centenary, will live on through three projects.

  • The Sunflower Chorus – an 800-strong choir that was assembled for the centenary – will carry on performing at future community events.
  •  “The Red Socks” will be the name given to an army of volunteers who will be kept together for other community projects. Having proved themselves during the making of the sunflower bottles, their name is homage to the volunteers who knitted a million socks for soldiers who fought in the First World War.
  • The PALS Programme will bring retired men together to use their skills and experience in schools, as well as to provide company for each other and a shared community focus. Out of respect for those who suffered from post-traumatic stress through the fighting 100 years ago, the emphasis will be on mental health and well-being.

This is only a snapshot of one town’s community campaign to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. In the years between 2014 and 2018, other community events were staged in Stockton to bring local people together in the spirit of remembrance. They went on walks together, cooked together, unearthed stories together. 

Of course, other communities up and down the country arranged many other magnificent tributes. But Stockton-on-Tees can be particularly proud of what it has already done and how it is determined to go on making a difference to people’s lives in memory of those 1,245 sunflower soldiers.

As Mike McGrother wrote in the script, read out to those gathered outside the ruins of Holy Trinity Church: “The legacy of change and community togetherness that has started will – must – continue long after we go home. Because if the world can tear itself apart in wars and conflict, it can also heal itself through love and compassion. That is our responsibility, our pay-back, and our pledge.”

  • Next week, the heart-breaking story of George Hunter, the Stockton lad who was shot at dawn as a so-called deserter, and how he became the 1,246th sunflower soldier.