ONE of Winchester’s great “untold stories” about how the city filled its spare rooms and cellars with First World War soldiers is set to take centre-stage at a major archaeology conference this weekend.
Dr Phil Marter’s lecture will focus on the huge Morn Hill transit camp where 700,000 US soldiers - half of all those who served on the Western Front - stayed before being sent to mainland Europe.
A total of two million troops passed through the camp during the war, most only staying for a few days, with around 50,000 there at any one time once it was fully operational.
It was set up in the autumn of 1914, with military personnel still sleeping in tents when bitter winter weather swept in.
To prevent many succumbing to pneumonia, patriotic Winchester flung open its doors and took the men in, stashing them to sleep wherever space could be found.
“The city had a population of about 30,000 in 1914 and yet up to 20,000 men were found temporary billets that winter,” said Dr Marter.
“The First World War had much more impact on Winchester than the second. Lots of tradesmen were drafted in to build the camp, and then many shops sold food and other goods to it.
“Some buildings at the bottom of St Giles’ Hill, near the Chesil Rectory, were demolished to make the junction wider for military vehicles. Social history is very important, it’s part of Winchester’s story.”
Dr Marter and his team have excavated part of the camp, situated either side of the Alresford Road near to St Swithun’s School, unearthing parts of the cinema built to entertain troops there.
The Winchester: Archaeology and Memory conference, organised by Winchester Excavations Committee, Winchester College and the city’s university take place at the Sparkford Road campus this Saturday and Sunday.
“This is the most thoroughly excavated city in Britain and the finds among the most fully recorded,” said Dr Simon Roffey, conference organiser and Reader in Medieval Archaeology at the University.
“The aim of this two-day multi-disciplinary conference is to make a wider reading of the city's archaeology through the lenses of history, art, architecture, literature, memory and the processes of archaeology itself.”
Topics will include the excavations of England's earliest medieval hospital, Iron Age Winchester, King Alfred, as well as the city’s place in a wider national and international context.
Tickets cost £62 and can be bought by logging onto www.winchester.ac.uk/events.