Thursday 10 April 2014

The 'Volunteer Nurse'

     With the screening of 'The Crimson Field' on TV, there seems to have arisen some confusion over the 'Volunteer Nurse.' This morning I came across a newly-published edition of Olive Dent's book 'A VAD in France,' first published in 1917 by Grant Richards, and for some years available in new editions or as a free download from the web.**   I was rather shocked that not only is it being promoted as some sort of spin-off from 'The Crimson Field' complete with a cover illustration strongly suggestive that its contents are related, but that the original title has been changed to suit the publisher. It seems an incredibly arrogant stance for a publisher to take, and I have to wonder whether they think the change in title will fool the unwary into believing that it's a different book to the one that can be found free elsewhere. At the very least it shows dishonesty and a complete lack of integrity.

A Volunteer Nurse on the Western Front

     But back to the 'Volunteer.'  When women joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment in the United Kingdom, they received no pay, but were provided with board and lodging if working away from home. When they went overseas, the majority found themselves in a very different position. VADs who worked overseas in British hospitals under War Office control were paid. They received a basic salary of £20 a year, with extra allowances which were extremely generous, and in total added up to more than £115 a year in payment or in kind. It put their annual salary on a par with, or above, many women workers in the UK. To imply that they were working as 'angels and heroines' for nothing is entirely wrong. In the recently published 'Dorothea's War,' the wartime diary of VAD Dorothea Crewdson,* she was constantly surprised at the size of her monthly pay-packet. On the 4th August 1915 she wrote in her diary:

Pay night and we have all received a monstrously and wonderfully large sum of money … The Sisters of course have different pay and more of it. We all feel robbers of the Matron as our salary for the month comes to more than £10 and we only expected £20 a year.

On September 21st she continues:

All the night staff were paid yesterday morning after breakfast.  Matron dispensed coins, done up and packed as usual. VADs got fr 302.75 which is more than £10. Pay is a wonderful mystery and seems always more than one ever expected.

And even when allowances for heating and lighting were discontinued the following year, she had no complaints:

Pay night yesterday and we got fr 334.90, the last big pay we shall have before allowances are cut down. But I am glad as I think it is a waste of English money to pay us all so much.

     So whenever you see VADs overseas patted on the head for doing their job for free, please bear in mind that they did not. They were paid appropriately for their work and they well understood the value of their pay.

*Dorothea's War: Edited by Richard Crewdson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
** If you'd rather not pay for your e-book, Olive Dent's original text of 'A VAD in France' is available free:
A VAD in France