Lost and found: a WW1 nurse

LMA Stone Case Book Our Ellen 2
The elusive Ellen Evans, otherwise Roff, otherwise Humphries, discovered in the Stone Asylum casebook at the London Metropolitan Archives (City of London). Ellen’s sad and tangled story is recounted in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. (This image appears with permission, ©LMA.)

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how challenging it can be to find women in a family tree, because they tend to disappear behind their men. During out research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, one of the biggest brick walls was finding Ellen, our great grandmother’s sister, who left her husband in the 1890s and eventually turned up living with someone else and using his surname, though they had not married. Sometimes women disappear even more completely behind their partner’s name and become “Mrs John Humphries,” erasing every letter of their own identity.

I recently found an example of an elusive woman while engaged in some volunteer work I do for the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Lives of the First World War website. I’ve taken a special interest in the women’s records there, and I was searching specifically for women who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital in Wimereux, France. I was surprised to come upon a page for Staff Nurse Robert Hannah nee Walter E. C., and wasn’t quite sure where to begin to untangle such a jumble of surnames that could also be first names. I double-checked the original source Lives had used — the women’s service roll at the National Archives — and the name appeared the same way there.

Since it’s highly unlikely that a nurse in 1915 was named Robert, I thought the names were simply transposed, and should read Hannah Robert nee Walter. I searched for a marriage record during the war that would confirm that suspicion, but nothing fit. And then I remembered the “E. C.” that I’d ignored on the entry the first time around. I checked the National Archives record again, this time viewing the digitized version, and saw a tiny crucial “Mrs” beside the name, and left out of the transcription. Mrs. Robert Hannah? That made more sense. I popped in a new search, still within the Lives database, and found that Ella C. Walter had married Robert C. Hannah in Kensington, London, in 1917.

That the marriage took place in London was another bonus, since Ancestry holds those digitized entries of Church of England Marriages and Banns. Here I was able to find yet a little more about the woman so recently known as Robert.

When they married on January 6, 1917, at St. Phillip’s Church, Ella Clarice Walter was a 39-year-old spinster, living at 4 Richmond Mansions, Earl’s Court. Her father’s name was John Charles Walter, and though he was now deceased, he’d been “civil servant, Melbourne,” according to the certificate — another Australian connection for the woman who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital. Her new husband was considerably older than she was; a widower named Robert Campbell Hannah, he gave his occupation as “gentleman,” and he resided at the Thackeray Hotel in Great Russell Street.

Searching backwards now, I found Ella living on her own in London in 1911, a single 30-year-old woman of private means, born in Melbourne, Australia, a British subject by parentage. What brought her to London I don’t know — but being unmarried, Australian, and keen to assist with the war effort, she was an early recruit for the hospital founded by Lady Rachel Dudley, wife of the Australian governor-general, first located at St. Nazaire, France, and soon moved to an old hotel in Wimereux. The medal roll shows that Ella joined the hospital staff late in August 1914, with the war not even a month old.

avh, wimereux

In a 1915 piece about “the good work [the AVH] is doing at the front,” writer Katharine Susannah Prichard describes the setting, and brings the photo above to life:

The Winter quarters of the Australian voluntary hospital are in a great, rambling, muddily-white French hotel. When first you see it, you want to draw it as it stands against the sea, under a clear, shining sky. You feel you want to use a rough chalk for its vermilion roof, and for its shutters and doors that are vivid, apple-green. Beyond it stretch the dunes, vague and formless, with their coarse, wind-threshed, bleached grasses, and behind it spreads a scattered toadstool growth of white-walled, red-roofed cottages. Gris Nez forms a rampart on the north, and there is a deserted, red-roofed village along the coast. The Picardy landscape the hospital stands in is so tranquil in a peaceful, pastoral way, that it is almost impossible to believe, that only a few miles away all the damnable business of war is going on.

Ella Walter and colleagues in Wimereux
Clockwise from top: Elizabeth Mundell, Patience Outram Anderson, Ella Clarice Walter, and Mary Rawson.

When the staff first moved into the hotel, they’d barely had time to settle when word came that a convoy of wounded was on its way. Ambulances began arriving even before the beds had been made to receive the wounded. “They kept on arriving,” writes Prichard, “a continuous, slow stream of khaki-covered cars, with a red cross blazed across them. They came over the brow of the hill, and filed past the hospital from 10 in the morning until after four in the afternoon.” Soon stretchers lined the corridors, and 145 men required the staff’s careful attention.

Knowing Ella’s name wasn’t Robert helped me to find this lovely picture of her and some of her colleagues, posing in uniform. She and the other women depicted are each mentioned, albeit briefly, in the unit’s 1915 war diary. In May, the diary tells us, Ella contracted the measles (as did Patience), and in August, she had a brief stay at a rest home in Hardelot. The diary mentions many of the women resting there, and the Australian War Memorial holds a picture that suggests they were happy to go. I don’t see Ella in the Hardelot photograph, and I lose track of her now until her 1917 marriage to Robert Hannah. What sent her back to London, and was she nursing there as well until she married? These answers might surface if I keep searching. But it feels satisfying to have made even some small discoveries about this stranger, to sort the name and put a face to it, and to reunite a nurse with some of her colleagues from a century ago.

hardelot
WIMEREUX, FRANCE, 1915. “SICK NURSES OFF TO REST HOME AT HARDELOT” WAITING IN A MOTOR CAR OUTSIDE THE AUSTRALIAN VOLUNTARY HOSPITAL, FORMERLY THE GOLF HOTEL. (DONOR D. MASSY). AWM, P01064.027

Sources

Australian War Memorial: AVH in Wimereux, France

Discovering Anzacs: Australian Voluntary Hospital

“Handle with Care: Nurses Make Own Sacrifices Overseas.” Louise Almeida, Herald Sun, 23 April, 2014.

Lives of the First World War: Ella Clarice Walter later Hannah

Lives of the First World War: Australian Voluntary Hospital

National Archives: Australian Voluntary Hospital war diary, WO 95/4106/2

With thanks to Kathryn Shapland, Recollections of War, Albany, Australia, and Christine Bramble, Great War Nurses from the Hunter.

 

 

The Canary Girls of WW1

cardboard ww1
A cardboard collecting box used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (EPH 4196)

Despite the years of research that went into creating The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we still have many unanswered questions. The brick walls rise up especially around women’s stories, for women all too often disappear behind their men. This seems particularly true of the working class. In our family, in London, England, many of the women were factory workers or cleaners or laundresses; or they did piece work like book folding or sewing at home, where they could earn a living and look after little ones at the same time. It struck us that during WW1, these were the types of women who contributed anonymously to the war effort, with little remaining now to show the part they played.

Chapter 11 - Ethel Deverill circa 1920
Ethel Deverill worked at a cardboard box factory during the war. What were the boxes used for?

If they’d sewn clothes before the war, perhaps now they sewed any of the many parts that made up uniforms. If they’d made boots, perhaps now they made army boots. If they’d worked at a box factory, as did our grandmother’s sister, Ethel, perhaps now the boxes they made would hold ammunition, or gifts for men at the frontlines, or medical supplies. Other jobs opened up for women too — women became postal workers and bus drivers and farmers; they assisted the police and wore uniforms and blew whistles; they tended the wounded as doctors, nurses, and VADs; and they stepped up in droves to work in munitions factories.

One of our relatives married a male munitions worker in 1916. Her own occupation is not listed on the certificate, but as the 23-year-old daughter of a widowed cleaner, it’s likely she had to contribute to the household income. Did she work at the same factory as her beau? Is that how they met? No one can say now. Often the female munitions workers known about are the ones who died tragically, in an explosion or of TNT poisoning — the ones who survived are lost to history.

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
The December 1916 wedding of munitions worker Bert Morel and Clara Donnelly. Clara’s cousin, our grandmother Doris, is seated far left. Just a few weeks after the wedding, the Silvertown Explosion took place at a TNT factory in east London. With 73 deaths and more than 400 injuries, the event must have been especially frightening for those connected to such a dangerous industry.
Margaret Silcock
From the Women’s War Work portrait collection at the Imperial War Museum, WWC M5

Even during the war, there was an attempt to recognize women’s contributions. Beginning in 1917, a group of women working for what would become the Imperial War Museum began gathering documentation — photographs, ephemera, written accounts — that showed the varied roles women were playing in the war. In preparation for a women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in October 1918, they wrote to the families of women who had died in service, and asked for photographs of them so that the exhibit could honour both the living and the dead. These wonderful photos remain in the IWM collection to this day, and some of the letters still exist too, and hint at the massive loss people suffered on a personal level. When 22-year-old Margaret Silcock died of trinitrotoluene (TNT) poisoning from her work at a munitions factory, her mother willingly sent a photograph, apologizing for its smallness. “It is the only one I have,” she explained, “and I can’t afford to get a bigger one as I only get 7/6 a week.”

alice post
Alice’s mother sent this photograph in response to a request from the Women’s Work committee. Her letter reads: “I should be pleased to hear further if there is anything more I can do, also will you kindly let me know if the museum is open to the public as either my daughter or myself should like to come….” IWM, WWC M11

Women like Margaret were known as Canary Girls because the explosive chemical they worked with often turned their skin yellow. Usually the effects wore off, but many died from exposure to TNT, which could cause anaemia and toxic jaundice. One of the early casualties was a young woman named Alice Post, who died in January of 1916. A newspaper reporting on the inquest into her death stated that she had begun working at a factory about five weeks before Christmas 1915, and walked a distance of 10 miles each day to get to the works and then home again. She ate well at first, but soon lost her appetite, and often complained of headaches and tiredness. The skin on her hands and forearms turned blotchy. She saw the factory’s doctor, but when she failed to get better, she was reluctant to seek medical help again — and by the time she did, it was too late. The post-mortem confirmed Alice had died from TNT poisoning, but the doctors interviewed also felt “the state of absolute tiredness” was a contributing factor, since she had such a long walk to and from work, and very little nourishment to energize her. “People in such a condition, below par, would absorb the poison very readily. The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning by TNT, and added a rider that attention should be given to the washing of the overalls, and that sugar and milk should be provided with the cocoa given to the girls on their arrival at the works in the morning.”

gladys pritchard
IWM, WWC M27

As the war went on, safety regulations increased; but there were still fatalities, and the losses were often not the first a family had suffered. When a Welsh munitions worker named Gladys Irene Pritchard died in November 1916, the letter from the IWM’s women’s work committee must have been addressed to “Miss Pritchard,” for the response from Gladys’s sister reads:

“Please excuse me writing to say it is Mrs Pritchard and she was a widow before she died, her husband being killed on the 10th July 1916 leaving two children.”

A bit more searching reveals that Gladys Pritchard’s husband David, a private with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, and that the children, Joseph Henry and Victoria Lillian, were just five and two years old when their mother and father became two of the war’s mounting casualties.

lottie meade
Lottie’s husband wrote “Please return her photos has I have not got anymore … thanking you very much for what you are doing.” IWM, WWC M15

Likewise munitions worker Lottie Meade was the mother of three young ones when she died of TNT poisoning in Kensington Infirmary in October 1916. Her husband wrote to the women’s work committee that the death occurred “whilst myself was serving in France and [I] got home to late to see her alive.” The photograph he sent along for the Whitechapel exhibit shows Lottie posing proudly in her munitions coveralls; one can imagine it was a photo taken for him, and sent to the frontlines, and then brought home again, memento of a wife no longer alive. Did it surprise him to see her turned out this way, in pants and cap, making the ammunition that fed the weapons he used? How would the war have changed her future had Lottie Meade survived the poisoning? What was it like to live through a time that produced so much tragedy but also so many profound changes in women’s lives?

Lottie Meade’s death certificate lists the cause of death as: “coma due to disease of the liver, heart and kidneys consequent upon poisoning by tri nitro toluene,” and the verdict at the inquest was “death by misadventure.” An awful waste. But the picture suggests there was adventure in Lottie’s life too. The hand on the hip, the raised chin, the subtle yet confident smile — the stance of a woman making her own way in the world.

The women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened on October 7, 1918, and by the time it ended six weeks later, 82,000 people has passed through. The most popular part of the show was the “war shrine,” dedicated to the memory of more than 500 women who’d died in some form of service.

Sources:

Charlotte Meade, Lives of the First World War

Alice Post, Lives of the First World War

Gladys Irene Pritchard, Lives of the First World War

Margaret Silcock, Lives of First World War

The Silvertown Explosion, Lives of the First World War

A Closer Look at the Women’s Work Collection, Imperial War Museum

Lives of the First World War also contains 23 alphabetized “Wives and Daughters” communities as an attempt to document female deaths related to WW1.

Shell Shock, Unrequited Love, and Murder

The Last Message by William Hatherell, 1918. (Art.IWM ART 5234), Imperial War Museum.

While writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we spent quite a bit of time researching mental illness, since in 1917, our great grandmother was admitted to a Surrey asylum called Cane Hill. The asylum had been in place since the 1880s, but by the time our Mary Anne Deverill arrived, some of its patients were soldiers suffering from what was termed “shell shock.” As so often happens during the twisty-turny path of research, we went down plenty of rabbit holes reading about such men. One of the many tragic stories we’ve come across took us to Liverpool in 1919, and involved a soldier serving with the Canadian forces, and a nurse with whom he fell in love.

Roy Joseph Hutty enlisted in 1916, and by fall of 1917 found himself in the mud-soaked fields of Passchendaele on the Western Front. His record tells us that on November 6, he was buried following a shell explosion, and invalided to England. He was unconscious for a month, and “on coming to had profound disturbance of speech and gait, loss of sleep, severe headaches and tremors.” He stuttered badly whenever he tried to say anything, and so spoke rarely. “Keeps himself buried under the bed clothes,” the staff noted. His hands, head, eyelids and arms twitched continually while he was awake. The movements intensified when people spoke to him, but he was “quite still” when he slept.

It was here in Liverpool that he met Alice Kate Jones, known as Kitty, a tall, attractive nurse who had worked at the David Lewis Northern Hospital since the war began. They developed a friendship, and slowly Joe began to improve. Right around the end of the war, in November 1918, Kitty went home to visit her family for a few weeks, and mentioned Joe to her father; she seemed very interested in his case, and said he had no friends in England. Her father agreed she should invite him to their home for a visit, and within a few days he arrived and spent a week with Kitty’s family. While there, Hutty brought up the subject of he and Kitty marrying. The articles don’t say how Kitty felt about this idea, but her father apparently suggested it would be best if Hutty returned home and “establish[ed] himself in some business or work,” and if Kitty completed her nursing training before any such plans were discussed.

A page from Hutty’s service record shows his shaky signature, and notes his nervousness and stammering, caused by a “shell concussion” at Passchendaele. Library & Archives Canada.

Soon after, Hutty returned to Canada. Staff at a military hospital in Toronto made note of “neurasthenia (hysteria)” in his record, and said that his tremors had improved but his right leg still shook and he was “easily startled.” He was discharged “on account of medical (emotional) unfitness” in February 1919, and from then, it seems, he was on his own. He wrote to Kitty about returning to England and resuming their relationship, but Kitty refused. “About the end of February … she had written to Hutty and told him that nothing could go on between them, and they could not be anything more than friends in the future.”

And then in July, Kitty’s sister Elsie received a letter from Joe, which showed a Liverpool address. “As you can see by this, I am once again in Liverpool to see if I cannot make it up with Kitty. So far I have not seen her. I have tried to get her on the ’phone but nothing doing, so I wrote to her. I am wondering if Kitty is on her holidays. Of course, this coming over here might not be of any use, but then, I am trying to do my best to come to an understanding. As I have not heard from you for two months, I am wondering why. . . . I hope to hear from you soon. If not, I shall take a run to London.”

Elsie called Kitty, and shortly afterwards, on July 17th, received a letter saying: “Dear Elsie, I was not a bit surprised when I heard your voice on the telephone this morning. Somehow I thought he would write you and say he was in Liverpool. To think that he should come back over here on a wild goose chase. What he thinks he’s going to do I can’t imagine. Surely my decision is quite sufficient. There is nothing in the wide world would make me change it.”

On July 23rd, Kitty came home from Liverpool on short leave, and seemed well and happy. She had written to Hutty and been clear and firm about her feelings: “To be as we were before can never be. I do not love you, and it is far better we should not see each other again. If you really love me — well, I am sorry, Joe. It will be hard for you, but time is a wonderful healer, and I give you credit for making good and not going to the dogs.” He seemed to accept this, for he responded to say he was returning home by the next boat.

She likely didn’t know that Joe had been hanging around the hospital for several days. Wearing civilian clothes, he’d called in and asked for her, but his behaviour was not strange enough to cause alarm. The landlady at the rooming house where he was staying later said he behaved oddly during those days; but she’d felt sorry for him, guessing he was afflicted by shell shock. When Kitty returned to Liverpool on the 24th, she went to the hospital at about 11 pm to begin her shift, and was standing on the steps of the building with another man who’d also been a patient there, when Joe approached her and shot her seven times. He ran off, then, and threw the revolver in a side street — but later he turned himself in and told police, “I have shot a nurse. I want you to arrest me.”

The letters were read aloud in court. Joe was sentenced to death for his crime, but the jury recommended mercy given his condition. The British Journal of Nursing, reporting Kitty’s death to her fellow nurses, expressed dismay over the tragedy, and sympathy for Kitty’s family, but added, too, that “The writer well remembers, when visiting the hospital last year, seeing the shellshock patients, one of the saddest sights of the war. It would seem difficult to fix responsibility for any action on one of these poor men shattered in mind, and perhaps in body, by the ruthless machine of war.”

Hutty’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, but the life thereafter was short: in January 1922, he hanged himself in his cell. The war’s casualties continued to grow long after it was over.

lone man passchendaele
A lone Canadian soldier navigates the mud-soaked battlefield at Passchendaele, Belgium, in November 1917. William Rider-Rider / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165

Sources

Many articles at the British Newspaper Archive report on Alice Kate Jones’s murder and Roy Joseph Hutty’s trial. These and other sources have been listed on their individual pages at the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful online archive, Lives of the First World War.

Roy Joseph Hutty’s service record has been digitized by Library and Archives Canada.