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Leicester Special Collections

Dryad Handicrafts and the First World War


Soldiers at the 5th Northern General Base Hospital (Now the Fielding Johnson Building) learning how to weave baskets as part of their recovery (Leicester Mercury Archive at the University of Leicester).


Advertisement for a cane chair produced by Dryad Furniture. Lightweight and sturdy, such furniture was popular among disabled individuals who found they could move it without assistance.

For many men who were injured during the First World War, their wounds meant they would no longer be able to continue with the roles that they had expected to play. Learning new skills was vital for their wellbeing and future productivity. 

The First World War had a devastating impact on those who took part - with over a million British men wounded. Many of them suffered injuries which would have a lasting impact on the course of their lives as they found themselves unable to continue with the labour that they had done before the war. It was felt important to try and get these men back into productive occupations, both to ensure that they could provide for their families, and to minimise the cost on the government. 
The large number of wounded meant that treatment for them needed to be carried out on a mass scale. Many people wanted to help these men to recover, but finding the best methods of assisting with life-changing injuries wasn't simple. For men recovering in the 5th Northern General Hospital (now the Fielding Johnson building), cane offcuts supplied by Dryad Furniture provided some hope. The men were able to use these materials in order to produce canework, learning new skills which would help them in their future lives. The occupation also enabled them to feel hope, rather than spending all of their time gazing up at the ceiling and dwelling on their injuries. 
The success of this venture led to Dryad Furniture (itself founded by Harry Peach, a founder and donator to the university) creating a subsidiary company, Dryad Handicrafts. This company supplied craft kits to schools and hospitals, becoming the largest supplier of craft supplies in the world by the mid 1930s. Such activities remain an important part of injury and illness recovery today, both by enabling people to practice and gain new skills, and to ensure that those affected are able to see themselves as having hope and potential. During the global pandemic of 2020, craft became important to many people in the forming of their identity, and in encouraging them to have a sense of success when previous milestones had become impossible to reach. 

Researched and written by Jenni Hunt