Armistice Flag

When Charles B. Howdill’s daughter Madge finally moved out of the family home in Hanover Square in 1993 at the age of 90, she left a rather dusty piece of history in the attic: the flag that the Howdill family had carried around the Square on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, to celebrate the end of the First World War.

Other examples of Armistice flags are on display at the Imperial War Museum, but none of them is as large as Madge’s flag. All over Britain, people seem to have improvised flags on the spur of the moment, using whatever materials came to hand. Presumably, the flag was sewn together by 15 year-old Madge, perhaps with her sisters Marion (19) and Dorothy (10).

Madge’s flag seems to be a variant on today’s Royal Standard flag, which is flown wherever the sovereign is in residence. Two red pennants have been attached to a piece of fabric that features four heraldic elements: three white lions (lions passants guardant) on a red background (repeated), a red standing lion (lion salient) on a white background surrounded by a red border, and a white harp on a blue background. The white lions represent England, the red lion Scotland, and the white harp signifies Ireland. The material has been crudely tacked onto a nine-foot length of wood.

The end of the Great War must have been a very emotional moment for the Howdill family. Madge’s eldest brother Thomas was away in France with the Army Service Corps, while her middle brother Norman was serving there with the Royal Field Artillery. Her youngest brother Leslie, too young for military service, was volunteering with the Coastguard. There was an Army recruiting station in Hanover Square itself, a constant reminder of the war effort. In the event, all members of the immediate Howdill family survived the war.

Large and rowdy gatherings took place on Armistice Day in front of Leeds Town Hall: local newspapers report that huge numbers of women munitions workers from nearby Barnbow poured into the city centre, along with ‘sweet girl graduates’ from the University. We have no way of knowing whether Madge and her sisters took part in these spontaneous, female-dominated celebrations, or stayed safely within the then-gated community of Hanover Square. It is hard to imagine that their father would not have photographed this historic episode, but no Howdill images of Armistice Day have survived.

Madge’s flag was again carried around Hanover Square on 11 November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice. Seventeen local community groups made flags the same size and shape to represent their ideas of peace, all of which were then displayed at Leeds City Museum. Madge’s flag has now been donated to Leeds Museums and Galleries.