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Former MI5 director Dame Stella Rimington launches new Great War exhibition at Swaffham Museum

Dame Stella Rimington (centre), former director general of MI5, opened the new WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum.

Dame Stella Rimington (centre), former director general of MI5, opened the new WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum.

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The former head of Britain’s secret service has launched a new museum exhibition telling the tales of Swaffham’s sacrifices during the First World War.

Dame Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, opened the new WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum.Dame Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, opened the new WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum.

Dame Stella Rimington was the first female director general of MI5 – a role she held from 1992 to 1996 in the organisation which was founded in response to the threat from German spies in 1909.

She has a home in a village near Swaffham and now spends much of her time in Norfolk, so she said she was delighted to be invited to open the new display at Swaffham Museum on Saturday.

The centenary exhibition includes documents, photos, letters, weapons, tools, medals and equipment which outline the impact of the Great War in the town, and the exploits of its soldiers.

Dame Stella, whose father was injured during the fighting, said: “1914 must be one of the most important dates in modern history, because the First World War had such a profound effect on everyone. You have only got to walk across to Swaffham church to see the list of these people who died, and often it is the same name – all the sons of one family.

New WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum. Pictured is  museum volunteer Mark Taylor, dressed as a British soldier.New WWI exhibition at Swaffham Museum. Pictured is museum volunteer Mark Taylor, dressed as a British soldier.

“The effects were absolutely enormous on everybody, not least the people left behind, and particularly the women. When the men didn’t come back,the women had to do their jobs, so the First World War arguably began the emancipation of women.

“My father was one of the thousands of young men who answered the call to volunteer. He fought in France and he came back, but he was wounded and he carried those wounds with him until he died at the age of 80.

“He had a depressed fracture of his skull where he was hit by shrapnel. But he also suffered psychologically. All these men thought they were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’, so when the Second World war broke out he became very anxious and depressed. He never spoke about it – it was such a trauma for him.”

Dame Stella said MI5 was initially formed to combat the threat of German espionage in 1909.

“There was a sophisticated infiltration spying on our dockyards and ports in case they were ever to invade,” she said. “MI5 was founded to see what the spies were doing. They did quite a good job of scooping them up.

“The sources of intelligence have always been the same. You get the best intelligence from intercepting communications and from talking to people. That is how the early MI5 would have found out about spies in this country, and it was the same when I was working – but in a much more sophisticated way.”

One of the most poignant items on display at the museum is the wooden grave marker of Pte Donald Bunting, a member of a prominent Swaffham family of Market Place merchants, tailors and grocers, who was killed in action in France in November 1915.

The cross is a rare surviving example of the temporary grave markers which were used until permanent stone memorials could be built. It was donated to the exhibition by a member of the soldier’s family.

Museum volunteer Mark Taylor said: “It is really quite special because we have got Private Bunting’s grave marker, which is very unusual. You don’t see them very often.”

The museum’s chair of trustees, Steve Gregory, said the display will evolve during the next four years. He said: “It will start by showing the war as a great adventure, and end up showing what a tragedy it was, that tore the country apart.

“It is important that any major exhibition is launched properly, and to have somebody of Stella’s background, with her services to her nation – we thought she would be an ideal candidate.”

Meanwhile volunteers at the museum are collecting more details of what Swaffham did during the war.

Museum manager Sue Gattuso said: “We are putting Books of Remembrances together. We can provide the background, but it is the stories and memories that bring the history to life. We are asking friends and families to add to these books their own anecdotes to build a real portrait of the north Brecks of the time.”

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