By Judith Phillips
Edith Cavell is probably the most famous nurse from the First World War and we learned a lot from Ian McArdle’s stimulating talk a few weeks ago. When I realised that this is Nurses Week, it seemed a good opportunity to look at nurses on our project database and see what they were doing during the war. Owen Scott’s original letter about a Roll of Honour which was sent out in 1915 asking for information about people from Teesdale who were serving specifically mentioned nurses. We tend to think of nurses as only serving in hospitals near the front lines, especially on the Western Front, but British women nursed in Russia, the Balkans, around the Mediterranean and at home. Many stately homes were transformed into hospitals as were some schools and other institutional buildings, and hospitals were expanded to take in injured and convalescent men. So I thought I’d check for nurses on the Roll of Honour on our project website (www.thebowesmuseumww1.org.uk). There are seven entries so far, and I’m sure there will be others to be added as we continue our searches.
Edith Annie Bell and Emilie Stephenson both served with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and both have Staindrop connections – thanks to the Staindrop WWI Group for sharing the results of their research. Edith Annie served on HMS Delta in the Dardanelles, Egypt and Turkey, all part of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. She had to discontinue work on HMS Delta due to chronic seasickness but was decorated by King George V in 1917. Sadly, Edith’s fiancé died in 1930, shortly after they were engaged. Emilie too served on hospital ships in the Dardanelles and Egypt and also in the English Channel as men were transported from the Western Front to ‘Blighty’. After the war she went to Canada and then to New York to continue nursing. The Staindrop group are still researching to fill in some of the gaps in their lives.
Another QAIMNS nurse was Lizzie Winpenny from Barnard Castle. After working in a military hospital in Boulogne, she served in the Mediterranean – in Malta, Salonica and then on the Italian Front. Like Emilie Stephenson, she continued to nurse after the war, eventually living in Ireland. Two more Barney women who became nurses are Janet Amelia Dent – such a familiar surname in town – and Hilda Margaret Lang. In fact, they lived in the same street and probably knew each other. Hilda served from 1915 to 1919 and was awarded two Scarlet Stripes in recognition. Janet was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse working in 2nd. General Hospital in Leeds in 1917.
Isabella Helen Milne of Rokeby Park was 21 when she started working at the War Hospital, Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. The Red Cross records show she served at least until 1919. Some of her Bell-Irving relatives were heavily involved in local Red Cross activities. The Red Cross has put its service record cards online at www.redcross.org.uk.
Just this last week a volunteer inputting information from the Absent Voters Lists for townships ‘over the river’ in Richmond Constituency (but covered by our project) found Ester Mary Atkinson serving in the Military Hospital at Cotherstone. The new Representation of the People Act had given women over 30 the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.
Last, but not least, a fascinating story of Alice Julia Camilla Sevier who was born in Russia to a family of English extraction. At the outbreak of war, Alice and her sister Mary joined the Russian Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment. By October 1917, with Russia in the grip of revolution and having withdrawn from the war, the family decided to leave via Finland. However, they were captured by the Germans. On her return to England, Alice gave a detailed account of their treatment as German prisoners to a British investigative commission. Alice married Roy Helmer and it’s thanks to one of her descendants that we have Alice’s story.
And what is Alice’s Teesdale connection? Her paternal uncle was a doctor in Barnard Castle and, on a visit to him, his sister met and married a Barnard Castle solicitor called Hanby Holmes, so Alice and her brothers and sisters frequently came over from St. Petersburg for holidays and to practice their English. And it was on a visit to Barney that Alice met her future husband (who has an entry on our roll of Honour). Rather a slight connection, perhaps, but a great story (and one that deserves a fuller treatment!).
If you have any information about nurses from Teesdale during the war, we’d love to hear from you. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll respond as soon as possible.