Sunday 4 November 2012

Nurses' records and The National Archives

     A year ago this month The National Archives put online the entire WO399 series of service records of women who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service during the Great War - just under 16,000 files. Before they were online I used to visit TNA and photograph files I wanted to look at, or more often I’d choose just a random selection of files to see what was in them.  I learnt early on that in each one, however short , there was likely to be gem – a form, a memo, a personal letter – something that added to the overall picture of the nursing services.  So much was lost during the Blitz and each tiny bit of information makes the overall picture clearer.  I’ve just had a count up and have nearly six hundred files or parts of files that I’ve photographed in the past.  By going through the images and adding together the tiny bits of knowledge contained within, it’s been possible to find out more about the background and training of the nurses; their Boer War service; medical boards and sick leave; their worries and complaints; their lives before the Army and their lives afterwards; how long they lived, how much pension they received, where and when they died.  Only by the accumulative detail contained within many files has it been possible for me to gain the knowledge that I have now – and that is merely a drop in the ocean.

     Now these records are online, each one can be accessed and downloaded from home for a fee - £3.36 at present.  Some are brief, but many are much longer, running to more than two hundred pages, so quite good value for money if you just want one, or perhaps two files.  This is great for the family history researcher who has found a nurse in their tree. But it seems to be a bit of a disaster for the serious researcher – for those doing studies or writing books on certain aspects of women’s service.  Although it’s possible to view an unlimited number of files online in the reading rooms at Kew, it’s not cost effective or practical to copy every page, or even a small selection of the miscellaneous items which make these documents so interesting and important. In fact, you can read, but you can no longer touch.  You can make notes, but if you want a copy of a file you have to wander off home again and download it.  For a fee.  If you’re looking at one specific area, let’s say medical boards, or training hospitals, or areas of overseas service, you might need to go home and pay for a dozen files, or even fifty – files that you’ve already looked at once after making the long trek to Kew. So at a stroke, these files have been made both accessible and inaccessible, convenient and inconvenient, depending on what you want out of them.  In one way I can accept that it’s progress but is definitely a large step back in many respects.  I just feel very privileged that I've had the opportunity over the past few years to collect so many of these records together on my hard drive and now have the freedom to find and extract the little gems.

     Here's one of those items that I just happened to come across.  It's part of a list of belongings made in 1933 following the death of a serving member of QAIMNS.  What a lot is says about the life of these women between the wars and a good example of what might never be found today in the sterile surroundings of the reading room and the inability to browse and photograph original documents at will.

Sunday 28 October 2012

The 'Unremembered'

Before I had an interest in military nurses, I researched some local war memorials in considerable depth. During the course of that work I learnt a lot about the course of the Great War, and began to visit the Western Front, paying my respects to local men who lie in cemeteries there and taking many photos along the way.  It was a good grounding for what came later.  However, one important lesson I learnt was that not all those who died did so in battle, with many never meeting the enemy or even leaving the UK. I also realised that many who had been casualties of war, who had met the enemy, fought, suffered and died young are not commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission because they made the mistake of dying after the end of the 'qualifying' period which fell on 31st August 1921. So a man who joined the Army one day and got run over by a bus twenty-four hours later will be remembered by the CWGC for evermore.  A man who fought his way through four years, was gassed, wounded and mentally scarred, but died after 31/8/21 - even one day after - will not.  People try hard to justify that rule and point out that there has to be a cut-off date somewhere.  I call it rubbish.

Women have fared particularly poorly at the hands of the War Office, and later the Ministry of Defence by falling foul of their 'rules' for commemoration. Many nurses, both trained and untrained, have been 'forgotten' because despite caring for military personnel throughout the war they were considered 'civilians,' and therefore unworthy of recognition, even if they died within the qualifying dates. Included among these groups are most VADs, trained nurses of the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross and Order of St. John, and a host of nurses who worked in primitive and dangerous conditions caring for soldiers of other nations overseas. I must also mention here munition workers, doing the most dangerous of work in the United Kingdom, with many of them losing their lives - they are also forgotten by the authorities. Complete and utter rubbish.

Our nation spends so much time honouring and revering its war dead, but seems happy to continue to turn a blind eye to the war dead who just happened to die at the wrong time, despite their cause of death being directly attributable to their war service - they remain invisible and anonymous.  I hope in the future that these men and women might receive the respect to which they are entitled. Breath-holding not recommended.

Matron Volta Billing who returned from overseas service with the Territorial Force Nursing Service, her health undermined, and died on 16 December 1922. Remembered here, if nowhere else


Friday 19 October 2012

The Silver War Badge

I've just finished transcribing the nurses' silver war badge roll, which gives details of awards to women who were unable to continue their employment with the military nursing services on account of illness or disability caused by their war service. It's searchable on Ancestry, but it's only when put into a database or spreadsheet of some kind that it's possible to have a good look at the number of awards to the separate nursing services and the wider view. And some interesting facts emerge which I admit to not understanding at all.

There were a total of 735 awards of silver war badges on the roll (TNA WO329/3253).  These awards were spread among Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, QAIMNS Reserve, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and members of Voluntary Aid Detachments, most of whom, as far as I can make out, were working in Territorial general hospitals. There are also a handful of civilian women who don't seem to have a place there, but never mind.

Out of roughly 22,000 trained nurses who served with QAIMNS (plus Reserve) and the TFNS, QAIMNS had a slightly higher proportion of members - let's say it was about a 12,000 to 10,000 split.  So it seems odd that a breakdown of awards to the separate services shows:

QAIMNS and Reserve     ---     131
Territorial Force Nursing Service     ---    438
Voluntary Aid Detachment members   ---   162

As many, if not all, of the VAD awards were to nurses serving in Territorial hospitals, that means that in total the Territorial Force received well over three-quarters of all SWB awards to nurses. So what was the reasons for this?

Territorial Force Nursing Service members were physically weaker to start with, or worked under more challenging conditions?

The TFNS chiefs at the War Office pushed harder to get some sort of award for their members on leaving the service, especially if they hadn't served overseas?

There was some special TFNS pathway through medical boards to ensure their members' illness or disability was made attributable to war service?

Being awarded a SWB made it easier for them to claim a pension at a later date - their 'proof' that they were disabled by the war?

QAIMNS chiefs felt that silver war badges for their nurses was nonsense and put obstacles in the way of them applying, or being recommended for such awards?

Were these SWB awards nonsense?  What actually was the point of them for nurses? As there was no conscription for women they didn't need to prove to anyone that they had 'done their bit.'  And why did they continue to be awarded to women right up until January 1922, more than three years after the end of the war? The SWB roll shows that a good proportion of awardees were gainfully employed by the time they received their badges, both in military and civil hospitals.  Certainly the uneven division between QAIMNS and the TFNS suggests that it was not simply a case of a woman's health affecting her work, but that there must have been some administrative minefield that worked in favour of members of one service and against members of the other.

Monday 8 October 2012

French Red Cross Casualties

Thousands of women served with the French Red Cross during the Great War as doctors, nurses, orderlies, drivers, canteen workers, laundry maids and in many other roles.  Because their work didn't involve the care of British service personnel they rarely qualify for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and curious to see if any of them were named on the CWGC database, I recently sent asked them for details of all members of the French Red Cross that they commemorate.  The list they sent contains just seven names and has only one woman included, but out of general interest I've included all the names here. There were, of course, many more who died during war service, and it seems sad that they may pass by unremembered by their families and unrecognised by the nation.


DAVIS, Driver, MILDRED CONSTANCE. French Red Cross Society. Died from pneumonia, while working with the French Croix Rouge as Ambulance Driver, 8 October 1918. Age 25. Daughter of the Rev. Edward Smith, Rector of Hazelbury-Bryan, Sturminster Newton, Dorset; wife of the late Capt. R. N. Davis. Grave Reference: III. A. 58.


GREEN, Driver, B V. No.20 Section Sanitaire Anglaise, French Red Cross Society. 6 March 1917. Grave Reference: 424.


LEE, Commander, WILLIAM, 10349. French Red Cross Society, attd. British Committee. 29 May 1918. Age 31. Croix de Guerre with Palm (France). Son of William and Marion Lee, of Uddingston, Glasgow. Grave Reference: V. E. 9.

ROOPER, Conductor, RALPH BONFOY. French Red Cross Society, attd. British Committee. 29 May 1918. Age 23. Croix de Guerre with Palm (France). Son of Mr. P. L. and Mrs. A. N. Rooper, of Little Court, Speldhurst, Kent. Born at Chester. Grave Reference: VI. E. 6.


NANCY SOUTHERN CEMETERY, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France
STUBLEY, Worker, JOHN REGINALD. Section Sanitaire Anglaise No. 1, French Red Cross Society. Died of pneumonia, 27 December 1915. Age 30. Son of John and Adeline Stubley, of Batley, Yorks. Grave Reference: J. 226.


MALCOLMSON, Driver, H F. Section Sanitaire, British Ambulance Committee., French Red Cross Society. 14 April 1918. Grave Reference: 1. C. 33.


CARLISLE (DALSTON ROAD) CEMETERY, Cumberland, United Kingdom
BUCK, Conductor, GEORGE HERBERT. Section Sanitaire Anglais, 2nd British Amb. Convoy, French Red Cross Society. 25 February 1919. Age 44. Croix de Guerre with Star (France).  Son of Robert Robinson Buck and Mary Buck, of Carlisle; husband of Clara Buck, of 8, Melcombe Court, Dorset Square, London. Grave Reference: 11. O1. 59.

Sunday 7 October 2012

France and 'Flu

When I'm doing talks I often get asked about the impact that the influenza outbreak of 1918 had on the nursing staff in France and Flanders. I've always felt that while soldiers were so badly affected the nurses got off pretty lightly, but thought I might try and put some proof into the supposition.

From the spring of 1917, the Matron-in-Chief's war diary contained a daily count of the nurses, both trained and untrained, who were sick in France, and accommodated in Sick Sisters' hospitals. It also gives a monthly summing-up of the total number of nursing staff employed in France and Flanders, both British and from the Dominions. So I took the highest daily figure for each month, and worked out the number of sick nurses as a percentage of the total monthly establishment.  There are some flaws in the process, as it doesn't take into account the women who were returned sick to the UK each day, but all these women must have been included in the daily figures at some time or another before their evacuation.  There are also one or two months where the figures are not clear enough in the diary to make an accurate calculation.  The results are interesting (even though a bit lightweight!) - there are expected increases during winter-time, but 1917 was worse than 1918 and early 1919, and the figures seem to support my initial thoughts that nurses were not affected by 'Spanish 'Flu' in France during 1918/1919 any more than they would have been in any other year.

April          5.10%
May           5.16%
June           4.53%
July            2.86%
August        2.91%
September  3.38%
October      3.68%
November   2.86%
December   3.39%

January       3.68%
February     3.15%
March         3.30%
April            2.66%
May            2.52%
June            2.56%
August        2.22%
September  2.18%
November  4.18%
December   3.63%

January       3.73%
February     3.85%
March         4.11%
April           3.43%

By the end of April 1919, although figures are still given in the diary, rapid demobilization makes accuracy difficult.  While the nursing staff were constantly exposed to infections while nursing large numbers of sick soldiers with influenza, it does seem that they may well have developed some natural immunity over many years of exposure during their hospital and community work.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Star Struck

In an effort to make a list of women who served in some capacity during the Great War, but whose work might be unknown by later generations, I've been browsing through medal rolls for French Red Cross workers, and some of those who worked for a multitude of other miscellaneous medical and 'caring' units overseas. The majority, but not all, were women, and I feel sure that in most cases their descendants will be totally unaware that they crossed the Channel to 'do their bit.'  They ranged from Directors and Administrators of large units, to the most humble of drivers, orderlies, cooks and canteen assistants.  But what orderlies and canteen assistants! In places the lists read like Who's Who, and the members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry alone could have kept 'Country Life' in photos and copy for decades. Countesses, Duchesses, Honourables and Lady's; writers, actresses, poets and singers; politicians and businessmen - their names litter the lists.

Included among them, John Masefield and Laurence Binyon; Herbert J. Gladstone and his wife Dorothy (Paget); Lady Louise Mountbatten, Sir Herbert Grotrian, later MP for Hull East, and his brother Frederick. Also included, from vastly opposing spheres, Percy Dearmer, Decima Moore and Enid Bagnold, the latter dismissed from one job by the War Office only to find her way to France as a driver with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Some of them only stayed a short time, and looking at how many returned after just a month or two I wonder if a few had only medals in mind when they volunteered.  Others stayed for years, working with true devotion in humble occupations. I've enjoyed my wander through the upper classes both at work and at war, and would suggest that if you come from a middle-class sort of background, check the medal index cards, held at The National Archives, just to see if your great-aunt or great-grandmother was there.

Sunday 16 September 2012

General Nursing Council Register

I'm lucky enough to have a couple of editions of the General Nursing Council Register here - one for 1928 and one for 1942 - which have proved a real asset when trying to find individual women, where they trained and when.  They are very hefty volumes - the smaller 1928 version runs to 2,000 pages and around 60,000 entries, and by 1942 the increase in the number of trained nurses has resulted in three books of that size making up just the one year. A complete run of the Registers for England and Wales are available at The National Archives, but I thought I'd add a page here as an example of what they offer.

There are some interesting patterns that run through the Registers, and one seems to be the tendency for sisters to train in different hospitals.  Because of the obvious age differences, there could be some years between each sister starting her training, but even when their training coincided they seem to have preferred to be apart. I wonder if the one who started first found it so arduous and spartan at her particular hospital that she urged her sibling to look elsewhere.  One extreme case is that of Alice and Margaret Behn from the Isle of Man, whose training did overlap, but with one in Liverpool and the other in London.  There must have been a great deal of rivalry and comparing of hardship when they met!

Saturday 25 August 2012

Some More Girls in Wartime

By request, here are some more of the pages from 'Our Girls in Wartime,' with rhymes by Hampden Gordon accompanying pictures by Joyce Dennys.

Pansy ran a Knitting Party.
Oh! the things they knat.
Pansy's meetings never ended
And results were simply splendid,
I can swear to that,
Since for weeks we used the socks she sent
To take the place of wire entanglement.


Lizzie labours on the Land.
What she does I understand,
Is to make the cattle dizzy
Running round ....
....Admiring Lizzie


Auntie Fannie ran a can-
-teen for travel-tired Tommies.
Such a feast they hadn't seen
While they sojourned where the Somme is.
Lovely ladies ladled soup
Fit for any Trocadero's.
Eggs and bacon looped the loop
Down the throats of hungry heroes;
You'd have thought no mortal man
Could get through so much-some can!
'Some' Canteen!


Cordelia is a Constable
Of cunning and resource.
She runs in lots of worthy folk
Without the least remorse.
If you should show a chink of light
While getting into bed
She rushes in and takes you name
And OH the things I've said!
I HATE Cordelia!


Diana is a huntress born
On horses desperately keen
Who did her riding with the Quorn.
She's donned a most becoming kit
(Look at her gaiters, how they fit)
And now she is the Remount Queen ....
I think perhaps I ought to mention
The horses do get SOME attention.


A cheeky boy it used to be
Who brought the wire telling me
That the horse I fancied most
Fainted at the starting post.
Now it is the Perky Pam
Who brings the fatal telegram
Thoughtfully instructing you
"Embark tonight for Timbuctoo"


Monday 20 August 2012

Miss Loch and the Indian Nursing Service

     The Indian Nursing Service was inaugurated in 1888 when two Superintendent Nurses and eight Sisters were sent to India, and worked alongside a complementary service formed by Lady Nora Roberts a year previously. By 1893 the number had risen to fifty-two, working at main Stations throughout India, with two or three Sisters at each, and sometimes working singly.  Although their duties were intended to be of a supervisory nature, the lack of any dedicated corps of medical orderlies in India resulted in long and arduous working hours, assisted only by native servants, and a transient population of untrained regimental orderlies.  Both the climate and the prevalence of disease caused the breakdown in health, and lifelong debility for many women who lived and worked in India during this period, but despite this, the Indian Nursing Service was popular, and never lacked applicants. Catharine Grace Loch was among the first group of nurses sent out in 1888, and she worked as Lady Superintendent until ill-health forced her retirement in 1902. Her edited notes and diaries make wonderful reading, both in outlining the military nursing service in India at that time, of which little detail remains elsewhere, and also for its outstanding description of the beauties and trials of life in India at the time. As the service increased in size, Miss Loch became increasingly concerned about both the type of woman being sent out, and also the obvious lack of good nurse training that was evident in many of those appointed by the India Office.  Registers held at the British Library show that the India Office had a slightly unusual view on suitability, with social status and references from eminent and aristocratic 'names' being held in high regard, with nurse training coming in a poor second.  Early in 1892, as the Indian nursing service grew, Miss Loch outlined her own concerns:

Feb.5 —I have been to Dr. Bradshaw's office to talk over with him a good deal of business and to arrange some matters which the Chief wants to alter. I then had to write a long official letter to Dr. B. which was to be forwarded to the Chief, stating my views on the subjects we had discussed; this was very difficult and took me a long time. I am desirous of trying to arrange some plan for selection of Sisters for appointment to the Nursing Service. I am not quite satisfied with some of the new ones nor was I last year, and I think they should not have been sent out. Dr. B. was much concerned when I told him this, and remarked that if nurses of the right stamp are not chosen the nursing scheme will not prove a success, and that is just what I feel too. Of course the gentlemen at the India Office know nothing about selecting or rejecting candidates; how should they ? I am awfully anxious that Mrs. Bedford Fenwick should be consulted in the matter as she is the best possible person. I do wish it would occur to Lord Cross as an excellent plan that I should come home for three months every year to choose nurses.
Feb.12.—I omitted in my last letter to refer to the question of training. The first official papers I saw stated twelve months' training as a necessary qualification for appointment. But in fact a Sister came out last year who had worked for barely six months and for that time solely as a paying ' pro.' in an obstetric ward.  I remonstrated and wrote a letter to Government stating the importance, indeed the necessity, for a good three years' training. Whether in consequence of my letter I do not know, but soon afterwards the 'necessary qualification' was officially notified to be three years, instead of one. Nevertheless all the new Sisters appear not to have been thoroughly trained in general hospitals.
Mar.13 —Had to go to another station about a delinquent Sister, the case being one of complexity, and not without disgrace through serious indiscretion. The worst of it is that the culprit is a lady and a clever woman. As to selections of future nurses it would be a great comfort if something could be done. Though after all one can never be sure of anything, for people do behave out here so differently from what they do at home; they seem to be transformed into quite different persons, so even with the greatest care some of them may be found tiresome. Still I should trust Mrs. Bedford Fenwick's recommendation a great deal. But in any case it would be impossible to tell in a mere interview whether the candidate is suitable or otherwise. Appearances are absolutely deceiving, and manner alone is not a safe guide. Therefore it becomes all the more important that the nurses should come from hospitals where their general character has been well known. Doctors' testimonials are absolutely misleading, and often the most unsatisfactory women possess sheaves of the most flaring praise and admiration.  I do not think there ought to be any difficulty in obtaining ladies in sufficient numbers.  I am sure there would be none if things could be done quietly and gradually, but of course to find nineteen all at once is rather a large order; and when the appointments are made at such long intervals, naturally many who might have come out have settled down to something else before the next opportunity. I do think it will be a grave mistake not to send out ladies. First of all, it is hard on those who are not, because naturally they are sniffed at and make no friends; next, it is hard on those who are, because people always charitably judge the many by the few, and they will find themselves thrown out of their proper position in life on account of their colleagues. It should be borne in mind that the population of an Indian military station is always a shifting one; you cannot make a few friends and keep them as one would at home, it is an endless round of new acquaintances. Finally, if the Nursing Service were placed on a different footing, and a lower class of nurses avowedly introduced, I do not think it would answer at all. The orderlies would have no respect whatever for women whom they would consider of their own class, and the Sisters would perforce make friends with the apothecaries and sergeants and their wives and a whole new set of difficulties would arise which would put an end to the whole thing.

Loch, Catharine Grace, 1854-1904.   
Catharine Grace Loch, Royal Red Cross, Senior lady superintendent Queen Alexandra's Military nursing service for India; Bradshaw, A. Fredrick, ed.; London, New York, H. Frowde.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Voluntary Hospitals Database

At present I'm bent over a 1928 edition of the General Nursing Council Register of nurses, doing what can loosely be described as 'messing about' with lists and databases.  As it runs to more than 2,000 pages, that's likely to be a lot of messing about. It lists all trained nurses who were registered with the GNC at that time as fit to practice, with details of their training hospitals and dates. Included are nurses who trained as early as the 1880s and also those who had just completed their training at the end of 1927, so there must have been many changes in hospitals during that period. Some of the hospitals are still household names today - places like Guy's, St. Thomas' and St. Bartholomew's Hospitals, London; Manchester Royal Infirmary, and Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.  But as hospitals in general were much smaller at that time, it struck me that some of the many hundreds of hospitals mentioned in my register must have been very tiny indeed. Those that had just a couple of wards and a small medical and nursing staff probably accepted just one or two girls each year as new probationers, and the figures began to intrigue me.

While browsing the web for inspiration I came across the Voluntary Hospitals Database, which is a real treasure trove, beautifully and intricately researched and presented, which answers many of the questions about hospitals and their staff at various periods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It gives the number of beds, average bed occupancy, details of how many doctors, trained nurses and untrained probationers there were, and information about various aspects of expenditure. For some hospitals it's possible to track the increase in both patients and staff over many decades. I do realise that you probably need to be the sort of person who wears six anoraks at a time to appreciate its beauty, but well worth a look even for those who are just in T-shirt and shorts.

Voluntary Hospitals Database

If you just start to zoom on the interactive map and drag it to the area you need, a list appears in the left-hand margin giving details for each hospital in the current view - it's very clever and a great way to waste some time.

Monday 30 July 2012

Our Girls in Wartime

Three years ago I added some images from 'Our Hospital ABC' here:

Our Hospital ABC

and was lucky enough recently to find a copy of its sister publication 'Our Girls in Wartime,' again with pictures by Joyce Dennys and rhymes by Hampden Gordon. So here are a couple of the pages with their rhymes:


Martha, a Munition-maker
Manufactures shells
Martha's Father is a baker:
Cakes are what HE sells.
Martha swears the shells she makes
Do more damage than his cakes ...


Miranda mixed with all the Nobs;
Her Depot made a million swabs
(War Hospital Supply).
'It was the good hard work,' she said
'That turned my hair this vivid red.
Never, my dears, say dye.'


Thursday 19 July 2012

Queen Mary's Hostel for Nurses

The Nursing Times, 1 March 1919

     The work done by trained and untrained nurses in this war is a tale which is often told. A tale as yet untold is the fine work done for war nurses by Mrs. Kerr Lawson at Queen Mary’s Hostel for War Nurses, Bedford Place, London, one of the Hostels under the aegis of the British Red Cross Society. It falls to the lot of few women to have a grip – an unconscious grip – on the combined affection and admiration of hundreds of their fellow women. It points to some dominant quality which has so often belonged to some of our famous women leaders. The quality in Mrs. Kerr Lawson which holds other women was once expressed, more tersely and truly than she knew, by a Canadian sister: ‘That dear woman knows her job, and puts grit and love into it.’ The painful knowledge of the appalling burdens so many nurses are bravely and silently bearing came as a shock to Mrs. Kerr Lawson. The nurses with lightning intuition discovered that the right woman had been set down among them, and by degrees a never-ending stream of confidences relating to difficulties flowed to the superintendent in her restful study.  Mrs. Kerr Lawson found herself not only Superintendent of a Hostel, but the confidante of nurses, and very often the lifter of their burdens. There is a great freemasonry in trouble. Those who have received comfort have not been slow to speak.

     Queen Mary’s Hostel opened in Tavistock Place in the July of 1915 with free accommodation for twenty-three war nurses, irrespective of unit. The following July it was moved to Bedford Place with accommodation for thirty-five, though sometimes entertaining up to forty nurses. Two years later No.2 Hostel was opened at 52 Russell Square, for the Home Service Sisters of the British Red Cross, with twenty beds.  In the February of 1918 a No.3 Hostel was opened at 50 Warwick Square for all members of the nursing services who required to spend one night only in London. The mother-hostel had not been open for long before it gained the reputation it now holds so firmly. News of it travelled to Gallipoli, Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, and to Mesopotamia, as well as to the great centres of nursing on the Western front.  When it is realised that all war nurses of the Empire are welcomed, irrespective of unit, the fascination of the contact with the women of far lands will be apparent. Those of us who have roughed it in home and foreign service appreciate to the full the home comforts in the hostels – the cosy bedrooms, the restful drawing-room, the well-cooked, daintily served meals – all the little thoughtful considerations following one’s kind welcome as an honoured guest.

     Owing to the generosity of theatrical managers outside recreation has not been lacking. The mental refreshment this has meant to tired women can be but dimly realised.  Our beloved Queen has taken a keen personal interest in the Hostel which bears her name, and has graciously sent gifts of flowers. On one of the occasions on which she visited the Hostel she addressed all the maids, and expressed her pleasure that they were working so happily and harmoniously in the common cause. Princess Mary is another Royal and welcome visitor.
‘How many of us have passed through this hostel?’ I once asked Mrs. Kerr Lawson.
‘About eight thousand.’
‘Then you have met a fairly representative crowd of us. What has struck you most about us, that is to say about the British nurses?’
‘The way in which some of you are putting up a fight against desperate odds, bravely and alone; the tragedy of those who have lost or are losing their precious health through war service, and who have others dependent on their earnings; the sad and bitter loneliness of those pushed through circumstances from their special home niche which, once having left, they never quite regain; and, above all, the scant means which so often renders them helpless when they should be independent.’ I knew this was cruelly true, and I thought of the spectre of Charity which is not always Love lurking for so many in days of misfortune behind the inadequate pay nurses receive for what is perhaps the most arduous but most devoted work in the world.
‘May you be given the strength to carry on; we sisters need women like you so sorely.’  A warm hand-clasp and I passed out, one more ship in the night, one which had received a God-speed from a very pleasant sport.

     The time has come when this clash of arms is stilled, when nursing sisters need tend the sad results of war but little longer. They will then disperse in their thousands and go their world-wide ways once more. What memories they will have stored, of battle on the land and in the air, and of perilous journeying on the seas – of the super-human endurance of our fighting men! Midst memories sad and drear will come one tender one – of the understanding woman, with true and steadfast eyes and mother’s heart, who gave to them the richness of her sympathy and to many a despairing nurse the strength to bear her load.


Wednesday 18 July 2012

The Last Patient

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Miss Shappere and the Royal Red Cross

While browsing through the tiny hand scribbled notes in the front of the Royal Red Cross Register, I came across one which reads:

'Miss Shappere was refused R.R.C. for service at Intombi Camp Ladysmith because her subsequent behaviour was not satisfactory'

As I'd never heard of Miss Shappere and was intrigued to know how she'd blotted her copy-book, I started with a web search which resulted in a fascinating insight into her life and work. Rose Shappere was an Australian nurse serving during the Boer War and this first newspaper item states quite clearly that she had been both mentioned in despatches (unproven) and that she had been awarded the Royal Red Cross 'which medal she now wears.'

Nurse Rose Shappere

But obviously not! This was written after her return to Australia, so I wonder if she had acquired a medal to wear that she was not entitled to, or if perhaps the newspaper just assumed on her say-so that she had received it. Other items such as this one give the impression that Miss S. was not shy of publicity:

Rose Shappere in London

There is also a good biography of Miss S. here:

Rose Shappere biography

So did mention of her 'subsequent behaviour' relate to indiscreet public comments about the conditions of the hospital at Intombi, or did she fall foul of the authorities in some other way? I shall keep my eyes open for any further references that I come across.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Edith Hope, Naval Nursing Sister

I've always rather ignored Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service in favour of the Army, but earlier this month wrote about their service records which are at The National Archives.  I've now decided to index them, and although brief and scrappy at times, with none of the correspondence contained within the QAIMNS records, there are real gems to be found there. As I've previously transcribed the Royal Red Cross Register,* some of the names are familiar to me, but it's interesting to read additions in the service records which are not included in the RRC Register or London Gazette. One naval nursing sister, Edith Hope, joined in 1913, worked continuously until December 1929 when she retired from the service at the age of 49, and she received the RRC (2nd Class) in 1920 while working in the Royal Naval Sick Quarters, Shotley.  As soon as the Second World War started she decided to rejoin, and served from early 1940 until May 1946, by which time she was 66 years of age. Her ARRC was upgraded to the First Class award on 2nd June 1943, but no citation or details exist in the RRC Register - it just appears to be a general award for wartime service.  However, her naval service record is more forthcoming, stating:

To be a member of the Royal Red Cross for outstanding zeal, patience and cheerfulness and for courage and whole-hearted devotion to duty 

which is a very good addition to the other available information, and gives a much fuller picture of the woman herself.  The number of QARNNS service records is relatively small, but they add a great deal to the knowledge of military nurses of the last century. 

*Just to add a reminder that these records are now searchable on FindMyPast 

Thursday 3 May 2012

A rose by any other name?

     I've recently been browsing through service records of members of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (and its predecessors).  The records are held in ledgers very similar to those held by the Royal Navy for all their officers and ratings, and although brief they offer insights into the women's personalities and capabilities not present in the thicker service files of members of the army's nursing service. They are judged on conduct, ability, zeal, tact in dealing with both staff and patients, and above all, 'temperament.'  The first four categories are marked on a scale covering 'poor' through 'average' and 'satisfactory,' to 'very good,' 'exemplary' and 'exceptional.'  Temperament, however, is a different matter. The varied and many words used to describe these women's 'temperament' is astonishing, but they give a wonderful view of the changes that can occur during a woman's long career, and how people's perception of character can vary. But to sum up, they were:

     Quiet, reliable, cheerful (so often 'cheerful'), pleasant, bright, energetic, equable (also 'very equable' and 'extremely equable'), alert, keen, ladylike, calm, willing, adaptable, contented and thorough.
Some were diffident, subdued, unassertive and changeable; placid, variable, reserved and moody. Some were many of these things at different times, or seen by one reporting officer as 'firm and thorough' while another viewed them as 'inclined to be domineering.'  A few were reported as 'casual and untidy,' 'not dignified,' or 'somewhat pessimistic and argumentative' and 'occasionally sarcastic.'  Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, for those women who reached the heady ranks of Matron, almost without fail their final assessments reported them as 'quiet and dignified' which seemed to be the most sought after trait of personality. Age may not have wearied them, but it did turn them into proper ladies.

Monday 30 April 2012

Edith Appleton one more time!

I've written twice in the past about identifying nurses who were named in the wartime diaries of Edith Appleton, here:

Edith Appleton's diary 1

Edith Appleton's diary 2

Since re-reading the diary following its publication as 'A Nurse at the Front' a few more names have come to light so even more names to add now.  They are:

Born on 2nd December 1879 at Port Askaig, Islay, Argyllshire, the daughter of a lighthouse boatman.  She trained as a nurse at Stobhill General Hospital, Glasgow, between February 1912 and February 1915, before joining Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve as a Staff Nurse a year later.  Her first posting was to Hampstead Military Hospital in June 1917, and she was later posted to France where she worked at No.3 General Hospital, Le Treport from May 1918 until February 1919.  Lighthouse-keeping must have run in the family as though her parents were both dead, her next of kin is given as her sister – the writing is difficult to read, but probably a Mrs. Thomas, whose address was Montrose Ness lighthouse (Scurdie Ness), Montrose, Scotland.

Born 27 July 1892 at Kingstone, Barnsley, Yorkshire, her father a ‘Colliery Salesman and Commercial Traveller.’  She trained as a nurse at Victoria Hospital, Burnley, between March 1913 and April 1916, and joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve as a Staff Nurse a year later.  At the time of joining, her parents were still alive and living at 35 Westbourne Road, Lancaster.  She initially worked at Connaught Hospital, Aldershot, before going to France in the spring of 1918.  She was working on No.42 Ambulance Train for nearly a year, and was finally demobilised in July 1919.

WAITE, Lilian Julia
Her date of birth is unclear as she appears to have taken some years off her age, but believed to have been born about 1865 in either London or Surrey.  Trained St. George’s Hospital, London, and later joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service as a Nursing Sister, being attached to No.2 Eastern General Hospital, Brighton, where she worked for the first year of the war. She was posted to France in May 1915, and worked in many different hospitals, including No.1 General Hospital, Etretat.  Her reports show her to be an industrious worker, but not always in the best of health.  The Matron-in-Chief, Maud McCarthy described her as ‘not very young, but a gentlewoman.’  Her next of kin was her sister, Blanche Waite, who lived in Barnes, London, and Lilian Waite’s address immediately post-war was College Hill Cottage, Steyning, Sussex.  Lilian Waite died in Guildford in January 1930.

LEEDAM, Ida Blanche
Born 1878 in Litherland, Lancashire, the daughter of Henry Leedam, a schoolmaster, and his wife Amy who also worked as a teacher.  Trained as a nurse at the Royal Southern Hospital, Liverpool between 1904 and 1907 before working as a District Nurse in Nantwich.  She joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve as a Nursing Sister in November 1914, and had a busy war, working in many places including No.1 General Hospital, Etretat, and also on hospital ships, ambulance trains and in post-war Germany.  She was wounded in May 1918 as a result of enemy bombing when No.24 Ambulance Train was attacked at Doullens Station and was later awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class).  After the Great War she worked regularly in military hospitals as a member of QAIMNS permanent reserve, and also found time for employment as a District Nurse and as a nursing sister on board White Star Line ships.  Ida Leedham died in December 1944.

So if you are reading this and think you're related to any of the women above, please let me know.

Monday 16 April 2012

For VADs proceeding on active service

During the middle of 1915, as more and more hospitals were needed to cope with an increasing number of casualties, VADs first started working overseas in hospitals under the control of the War Office to augment the numbers of trained nurses. Before they embarked they were given an inspirational message written for them by their Commandant-in-Chief, Katharine Furse, on the back of which was a prayer by Rachel Crowdy, Principal Commandant in France. I was in Oxford over the weekend at the AGM of the Western Front Association and while I was there someone asked me if this prayer was on my website (which it wasn't) so I've added both message and prayer and repeated them here. Copies of the original are held both at the Imperial War Museum and the British Red Cross Archives.



This paper is to be considered by each V.A.D. member as confidential and to be kept in her Pocket Book.

You are being sent to work for the Red Cross. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience, your humility, your determination to overcome all difficulties. Remember that the honour of the V.A.D. organisation depends on your individual conduct. It will be your duty not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness of character, but also to maintain the most courteous relations with those whom you are helping in this great struggle.

Be invariable courteous, unselfish and kind. Remember whatever duty you undertake, you must carry it out faithfully, loyally, and to the best of your ability.

Rules and regulations are necessary in whatever formation you join. Comply with them without grumble or criticism and try to believe that there is reason at the back of them, though at the time you may not understand the necessity.

Sacrifices may be asked of you. Give generously and wholeheartedly, grudging nothing, but remembering that you are giving because your Country needs your help. If you see others in better circumstances than yourself, be patient and think of the men who are fighting amid discomfort and who are often in great pain.

Those of you who are paid can give to the Red Cross Society which is your Mother and which needs much more money to carry on its great work to their Mother Society and thus to the Sick and Wounded.

Let our mottos be ‘Willing to do anything’ and ‘The People give gladly.’ If we live up to these, the V.A.D. members will come out of this world war triumphant.

Do your duty loyally
Fear God
Honour the King

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame.
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each in his separate star,
Shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.


Lord, who once bore your own Cross shoulder high to save mankind, help us to bear our Red Cross Banner high, with clean hands unafraid.
To those who tend the wounded and sick give health and courage, that they of their store may give to those who lie awake in pain with strength and courage gone.

Teach us no task can be too great, no work too small, for those who die or suffer pain for us and their Country. Give unto those who rule a gentle justice and a wisely guiding hand, remembering ‘Blessed are the Merciful.’ And when peace comes, grant neither deed nor word of ours has thrown a shadow on the Cross, nor stained the flag of England.

Katharine Furse in the uniform of the Women's Royal Naval Service, 1920

Rachel Crowdy in her office in Boulogne

Sunday 8 April 2012

War Hospital Supply Depots

I've just added an account to my website of the British Red Cross Central Work Rooms, Work Parties and War Hospital Supply Depots. These were foundations upon which war hospitals were built, but these days are rarely mentioned and have faded into obscurity. But the rules, regulations and discipline which governed them were remarkable for a voluntary organisation. The article is here:

The Central Work Rooms

And this is Barnard Davis' painting of Gerrards Cross War Hospital Supply Depot, its honey-glow attractiveness almost makes you want to be part of it!

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors

This new book by Mary Ingham is due to be published on April 19th, and I've put a review on my website here:

It really is a comprehensive guide to researching women's services from the Crimean War to the 1920s, and covers areas that are barely mentioned elsewhere. Trying to find information about female ancestors is hard at the best of times, and this book is a real 'must have' for anyone who thinks they might have women in their family tree who served with the military forces during that period. Thoroughly recommended (and that's saying something coming from she who spends so much time criticising so many!)

Published by Pen and Sword, 2012
ISBN: 978 1 84884 173 4

Thursday 15 March 2012


Although members of Voluntary Aid Detachments left behind many personal reminiscences and accounts of their time working in hospitals during the Great War, there's not a lot available online that looks at the 'official' side of their service. It's hard to find details of things like pay and conditions of service, where they worked and what they actually did. Also, there are often comments made about 'problems,' but rarely any clear indication of what the problems were. So I've started putting together a few pages about VAD service during the Great War, based mainly on official documents that originated with the British Red Cross Society and are now held online at the Imperial War Museum as part of their Women's Work Collection. All the items on the website are transcriptions of the original documents with photos that I've collected over time. I intend to add a good deal more over time, but the pages can be found here:

Voluntary Aid Detachments

Friday 2 March 2012

A Nurse at the Front

Yesterday saw the publication of 'A Nurse at the Front, the First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton.' Edited by Ruth Cowen, and published by Simon and Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, it relates the daily trials and pleasures of 'Edie' who worked throughout the war as a Nursing Sister with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. The background to Edie's life and work, and the story of the diaries can be found on Dick Robinson's website here:

Edith Appleton

and an interview with Dick at the IWM on publication day can be viewed here:

Dick at the IWM **

I'm sure that this book will become a classic among Great War nursing publications, so don't hesitate - you really might as well go out and buy it now, and as it also comes in a Kindle edition there's no excuse!

A Nurse at the Front (this link to Amazon - other booksellers are available)

**Note: the photo of a nurse used in this clip is not actually Edie, but her great friend Kate Maxey.