Reverend Edward Clarke – United Methodist Church, Bear Street, Barnstaple
‘When this war broke out the Church was as one stunned… a great many of the comments which were being freely uttered on the war showed the very large extent to which the Christian Church had failed to rise to the occasion.’
West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 1915.
Reverend Clarke was a Methodist minister on the North Devon circuit. He also worked in a munitions factory producing shells for the war effort.
Across Devon the outbreak of war was a sudden and unwelcome shock to many in religious service and there were varying attitudes toward the conflict and Christianity’s part in it.
Even within non-conformist communities such as Methodists, approaches differed. Some Methodists and Quakers were amongst the conscientious objectors who came before tribunals seeking exemption from the armed forces; some refused on religious grounds to contribute to the war effort in any way. Others, such as the Revered Edward Clarke in Barnstaple, found a way to merge war work with his faith, working 40-45 hours a week in a munition factory ‘besides preaching on Sundays’ as well as raising money to provide Christmas gifts to North Devon soldiers on active service.
Before the outbreak of war, the Church of England was an established part of Devon society, as in the rest of the country. In general terms, its bishops were an integral part of the ruling classes, Oxbridge educated and often related to titled gentry and peers of the realm. But faced with the bloodiest conflict in living memory, the prevailing theology amongst Anglican churchmen appeared inadequate, as a study of the Church’s reaction to war in North Devon has now revealed.
In the early months and years, special services were given to pray for an Allied victory and a swift end to the conflict. Sermons centred on ‘England’s just cause’ with military themes and attempts at justification. Soon the tone changed and an element of repentance crept in; Britain was being tested and faith was the obvious road to peace. Yet with all these themes, the clergy at home struggled to marry theology with the wholesale loss and destruction being wrought upon their communities.
As the war drew to a close, church bells across the county rang out and services of thanksgiving were held. The war had greatly tested the public’s relationship with the church and it was seen, in some quarters, to have fallen back in their time of greatest need on tired rhetoric and idealism or to simply have ignored it altogether.
North Devon Journal, 1916. Christmas Puddings enjoyed by the Devons in March. 20th April. P.2.B
Gloucestershire Echo, 1915. Reverend Edward Clarke of Barnstaple. 4th December. P.1.B.
North Devon Journal, 1915. Barnstaple United Methodists Circuit. 23rd September. P.8.B
West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 1915. The Church and the War: Has she failed to rise to the occasion? 16th September. P. 4F.
Jones, A., 2018. The Church of England and the War. Devon Remembers Heritage Project: The First World War in Devon.
Sir Ian Heathcoat Amory
‘Dear Sir, may we be allowed to thank all those who in response to the invitation have so generously offered to lend us sewing machines in order that we might quickly execute the Government work… we trust that this public acknowledgement of our indebtedness to our many friends will be accepted in lieu of a more direct and personal communication.’
John Heathcoat & Co., 1915.
Sir Ian Heathcoat Amory managed the Heathcoat lace factory. He produced nets for gas respirators as well as over 100,000 munition shells.
The Heathcoat Amory family were a titled family resident at Knightshayes Court, near Tiverton. In 1816, Sir John had opened the Heathcoat Lace factory, the running of which was taken over by Sir Ian and his brother Ludovic in 1911. They were a major local employer; by the mid 1800’s one fifth of Tiverton’s workforce worked at Heathcoats.
The brothers were very socially conscious and somewhat progressive; they established pension and co-operative schemes for their workers, whereby they could receive a share of the company’s profits. Knightshayes was given over as a VAD Red Cross hospital throughout the war. Sir Ian was also champion of women joining the workforce, an idea which was initially met with a degree of scepticism from their male counterparts who voted against it in January 1916 stating that women were ‘feeble’, ‘inert’ and ‘physically incapable of the work connected with lacemaking.’ In May 1916 the first six women started work in the munitions department. By April 1918, 90% of shells were being made by women. Production continued for the rest of the war; in January 1918 the 100,000th shell was produced by the factory.
A female workforce soon proved essential as conscription depleted the Heathcoat factory staff. From March 1916 the factory was appealing to military service tribunals to keep skilled men so that lace production could continue. From 1917 some tribunals were heard in private, possibly due to the factory’s work on government contracts. Even when exemption was granted, it was usually no more than a few months. By March 1917 86% of eligible men from the factory had joined the armed forces. Their jobs, however, remained secure and their rents paid by the Heathcoat Amory family.
Unsurprisingly, the factory had a close relationship with the people of the town. In one instance, the factory risked being unable to fulfil a short-notice government contract for kilt aprons for Scottish troops. Badly in need of additional sewing machines, the factory could not hire any due to high wartime demand. A public appeal was made to hire sewing machines from local people and soon the factory was inundated with more offers then they could accept. The factory also produced net for Black Veil Respirators, the earliest form of protection for soldiers against gas attacks. After receiving a large and urgent order, the factory worked around the clock. Ten or eleven days’ worth of work was completed within twenty-four hours. A newspaper report of the time stated, after the first gas attack, the entire British Army was equipped with respirators within three days.
Tiverton Museum, 2018. Munitions and Matrons: Tiverton’s Role in the First World War. Display Panel.
Joyce Dennys – VAD and Wartime Artist
"When we took it in turns to do night duty (…) I would get out my candle and my paint box and paint all night. The night surgeon said, “I really think that little nurse might wait ‘til I’ve finished my rounds.”’
Joyce Dennys was training as an artist when the First World War broke out. She worked as a VAD in Devon and produced artworks for recruitment posters and instructional booklets.
‘Our Hospital ABC’ was published late in 1916, the product of all-night painting sessions from a young voluntary nurse named Joyce Dennys and her ‘protector and friend’ fellow nurse Mary Tindall. Joyce’s training in poster and mural design at the Exeter College of Art had come to an abrupt end in December 1914, when she decided to dedicate her time to war effort instead. At 21, she was too young to qualify as a VAD nurse, so worked instead at General Duties at the Red Cross Hospital in Budleigh Salterton.
‘All I ever did was to wash up plates and dishes, knives and forks. I had never done anything of the kind before because those were the days of servants, and in spite of being so poor, my parents had two.’
Sometime around 1915, Joyce drew the artwork for a VAD poster, used nationally to recruit women to Voluntary Aid Detachment work. In early 1916 she passed her Red Cross examinations to become a fully-fledged nurse, a role, however, she was not particularly good at, her attention usually directed towards sprained ankles and the like ‘where it was reckoned I could do least harm.’ It wasn’t long before her friend Mary Tindall began composing light, humorous verses to accompany the paintings. Soon, Joyce got up the courage to approach a publisher directly and their work was accepted and published in time for Christmas. ‘Our Hospital ABC’ represents not only the alphabet but also the Australian (Anzac), British and Canadian soldiers who were treated at Hospital No.2 in Exeter.
Joyce later married a local GP and lived for a while in Australia, before returning to Budleigh Salterton. She trained at the London Art School and continued to paint, draw and publish for the rest of her life.
Howard, A. 2015. Joyce Dennys – Nurse, Artist and Author. [online] Devon Remembers Clinton Estates Website. Available from: http://www.devonremembers.co.uk/content/ww1-stories/nurse-artist-and-author [Accessed on 18/06/2018]
Neville, J. 2018. Our Hospital ABC by Joyce Dennys. Our Hospital ABC Facsimile. Exeter: Devon Local Studies Collection, SWHT.
Joyce Dennys circa 1914. Courtesy of Michael Downes.
Armistice Emily Daniel
For centuries past, babies have been named in honour of famous battles, fallen heroes and in remembrance of family members they may have lost. Devon during the First World War was no different.
Civil birth and church baptism records for the county revealed that battles were as popular as ever when it came to choosing a new baby name. In total, 40 children were given the name Verdun, either as a first or middle name, in Devon between the years 1914-1918. 4 were named Ypres, 21 after Mons, 1 named for the Battle of Loos and 1 for Arras.
In Plymouth, one little girl was baptised Sylvia Mons Cambrai Williams in the parish of Charles-the-Martyr, named after two battles, as was Louisa Mons Aisne Reid Phillips in Exeter St David’s.
Both male and female war heroes were honoured with Devon namesakes; one boy was named Haig after the famous Field Marshal. An impressive 37 took the name Kitchener. Nurse Edith Cavell, who aided the escape of British, French and Belgian soldiers before being tried and executed in 1915, was remembered in the names of two Devon babies, Cavell Disney from Tiverton and Albert Cavell Rogers from Plymouth.
Names were also given to mark the end of the conflict. On 11th November 1918, both Armistice Emily Daniel of Holsworthy and Victory Peace Skinner of Plymouth came into the world.
After the popularity of ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915, the poppy became the official flower of remembrance. Notably, no children were named Poppy during the war years but 8 were during the decade that followed. All were born at the end of the year, close to Remembrance Day.
Find my Past – various searches. Available from: https://www.findmypast.co.uk/search/results?firstname=cavell&firstname_variants=true&keywordsplace=devon&yearofbirth=1916&yearofbirth_offset=2&sourcecategory=life%20events%20(bmds)&collection=parish%20baptisms~civil%20births&sourcecountry=great%20britain [Accessed on 12.06.2018]
The National Archives, 2018. First World War related Baby Names Revealed. [online] Available from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/news/first-world-war-related-baby-names-revealed/ [Accessed on 12.06.2018]
An Exeter Family during WW1 – courtesy of The Army Children Archive
Howard Howell – Canadian Forestry Corps
‘The bonds of Empire have been strengthened by the employment of the Canadian Lumberjack …and every tree that is felled, every log that is cut, may mean another yard of trench defence and the saving of another life.’
Margaret Chute, 1917.
Howard D. Howell was one of thousands of Canadian men who came to Devon from the spring of 1916 to provide desperately needed timber for the war effort.
Only a few months into the war, it became clear that the Allied forces lacked the man power to meet the war’s insatiable need for wood. After graduating in 1914 from the University of Toronto, Howard Howell was soon commissioned as a Captain in the Canadian Forestry Corps. Part of 104 Company, of the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion, Howard’s unit was stationed at a camp at Starcross, near Exeter, and was employed felling trees at Haldon Forest to help meet the deficit in timber for use at the Front.
Britain and the Allies required experienced lumbermen to deal swiftly and efficiently with the huge swathes of mature forest allocated for clearing; on average the men of the Corps were ten to fifteen years older than the average Tommy. And they came fully prepared, not only building residential camps for themselves, but establishing full, working saw mills, railways and sidings for the processing of the timber. The output of their mills was used in every aspect of warfare; they provided railways sleepers and pit props, planks for dugouts and duckboards, wood for ammunition crates, stakes, posts and firewood. In total, Foresters in Devon provided over 2 million cubic feet of wood for the war effort.
The Foresters stationed at Starcross were regularly invited for tea and games at the homes of local landowners. It was at one such house, Oxton, where Howard met his future wife, Muriel. After marrying, they purchased a dilapidated Victorian house, Lukesland, near Ivybridge where their grandchildren still live today. Howard continued to work in forestry and building for the rest of his life, establishing two businesses as well as partnering the Bedford Garage in Exeter. He died in 1969.
Chute, M. 1917. The Forest and the Fight: The Work of the Canadian Forestry Corps. 16th June. Graphic Newspaper [online] P.18 Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000057/19170616/022/0018 [Accessed on 25.06.18]
Howell, J. 2012. History of Lukesland and its connections over 150 years 1862-2012.
Fedorowich, K., 2018. The Forestry Corps in Devon.
Alfred Morris – Founder of Ambrosia
'It was a great day for Lifton and district when, in 1916, he decided to build the dried milk factory there and there is hardly a house in the neighbourhood is not benefitting by the step he made.’
Western Times, 1936.
Alfred Morris was the founder of the Ambrosia Factory at Lifton, initially providing dried milk powder for infants and soldiers in the First World War.
Alfred Morris was a leather producer, contracted to supply the army with boots throughout the war. He was also, however, a keen fisherman who regularly visited Devon from London to indulge his hobby. Looking for a business enterprise which would mean he could spend more time in the county, he happened by chance to meet James Hatmaker, American inventor of the first roller drying machine for milk on a cross-channel boat to France. James was on the look-out for a site to establish a factory in France, but was later persuaded by Alfred to bring his process to Lifton in Devon; strategically placed near a railway and in the heart of milk-producing country.
In the first day of operation, the new factory processed 50 gallons of milk, christened ‘Ambrosia’ by Alfred Morris, the word for ‘food of the Gods’ in Greek mythology. The dried milk product was revolutionary at the time and soon was shipped out to soldiers at the Front after the War Office had approved a sample and placed an order for 300 tonnes. The powder was also an invaluable source of nutrition for young children and babies at a time when the standard of living for most of the UK population was fairly low.
In the years that followed, Ambrosia opened a second Devon factory at Lapford and expanded its range to include tinned cream and rice pudding. Alfred Morris died in 1936 at the age of 76, passing the company on to his son. Today, Ambrosia still operates from its Lifton site and produces 130 million desserts to be sold in the UK alone. A household name, its treasured slogan is ‘Devon knows how they make it so creamy’.
Launceston Then!; 2018. Ambrosia. [online] Available from: http://launcestonthen.co.uk/index.php/the-parishes/lifton/ambrosia/ [Accessed on 25.06.2018]
Blake, Imogen; 2017. It was food of the Gods to our Tommies! Ambrosia’s fascinating history as fuel for World War One soldiers revealed as Devon company celebrates 100 years of history. 26th July. Mail Online [online] Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-4731422/Ambrosia-celebrates-100-year-anniversary-business.html [Accessed on 25.06.2018]
Western Times, 1936. Ambrosia Factories Founder Dead: Loss to Lifton and Lapford. 6th November. [online] Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19361106/083/0008 [Accessed on 26.06.2018]
Alfred Morris, Founder of Ambrosia Ltd. Courtesy of Premier Foods
‘Prisoner admitted to him that he went to those places to commit felonies, but unless he (the Inspector) took him there and showed him the houses, he could not say whether he had committed the offences (laughter). Inspector Hoyle said the prisoner, when charged with this offence, said “Tell me where the house is?” Witness described it and the prisoner replied “Oh yes! I remember it. I shall plead guilty.” Prisoner applied to have the newspapers and a shave while he was awaiting trial. “Appearances,” he added “go a long way in these matters.” (Western Times, 1915)
Arthur Mason was wanted by Exeter Police for several cases of housebreaking and robbery
‘During the past 18 months there have been several cases of housebreaking in the City and in November last a finger print was left on a box at one of the houses entered. It was discovered that the fingerprint was that of a travelling thief named Arthur Mason. I circulated informations bearing his photograph, offering £5 reward for information leading to his arrest.’
So wrote Arthur Nicholson, Chief Constable of Exeter City Police in June of 1915, in a quarterly report to the Watch Committee. The Police Gazette goes on to describe Arthur Mason as ‘thickly built’ and ‘powerful’ before outlining his method of operation;
‘A persistent afternoon housebreaker who “works” alone: ascertained by observation or by knocking at the front doors that good class houses were left temporarily unattended, effected entry by bodily forcing the front doors; stole money, jewellery, clothing etc., and in some cases forced the gas meters and stole the contents.’
After committing several robberies around central Exeter, Mason was eventually identified by his fingerprints; left on a box at a crime scene, they were sent to the Finger Print Department at Scotland Yard where they were confirmed as belonging to Arthur Mason. He was recognised and apprehended on 8th November 1915 by Detective Sergeant Hill and the local newspaper reports of his hearings and trial make for an interesting and amusing read.
Born around 1869 in Birmingham, Arthur repeatedly gave his occupation as ‘baker’, despite spending much of his life in prisons around the country. Operating under several aliases including George Webb, George Felt or Arthur Mills, he was an itinerant thief who reportedly had ‘no objection to being detained in custody’. He was sentenced to twenty-one months imprisonment with hard labour for his Exeter robberies. The last record we can ascribe definitely to him is his intended release from prison in May of 1933, where he was imprisoned for fifteen months on another housebreaking charge. Now aged in his sixties, it would seem that he truly did live a life of crime.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1915. Housebreaking: Charge at Exeter. 11th October. P.3C. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000511/19151011/006/0003 [Accessed 02/11/2017]
Western Times, 1915. Twenty-One Months for Housebreaking. 30th October. P. 2C. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19151030/004/0002 [Accessed 02/11/2017]
Western Times, 1915. Expert at Exeter: Captured for Housebreaking Exploits: Fingerprints. 16th October. P.3B. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19151016/020/0003 [Accessed on 02/11/2017]
National Archvies https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=tna%2fccc%2fmepo6%2f045%2f00136&parentid=tna%2fccc%2f2b%2fmepo6%2f00781806
Police Gazette, 1918. 170: Arthur Mason aliases George Webb, George Felt, and Arthur Mills. 17th May. P.6. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000209/19180517/030/0006 [Accessed on 07/12/2017]
Beatrice Chase – My Lady of the Moor
‘What can we do? We must write of course. If we save one man from destruction, life will have been worthwhile… we shall have done our best and shall dare to stand before the Seat of Judgement.’
Beatrice Chase was a famous Dartmoor author, who founded a ‘White Knights Crusade’ to promote chastity amongst soldiers during the war.
In May 1916, according to her book ‘White Knights on Dartmoor’, Beatrice received a letter from a young officer in the trenches describing the loose morals amongst the fighting men and how a soldier found it impossible to ‘swim against the stream of wickedness that met him at every turn.’ Horrified, Beatrice quickly set about praying for guidance and soon found her solution; writing to men at the Front and asking them to join her Crusade and dedicate their lives to purity and clean living. The response was overwhelming. Already a popular author, Beatrice was now receiving letters of thanks from concerned mothers and wives by the sackful. Her ‘White Crusade’ members had their names entered in a book of olive wood from Jerusalem, kept on the alter in her tiny, purpose-built chapel adjacent to her house, Venton, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor. In time, her little book boasted the names of royalty and politicians, clergymen and working men. Anyone could be entered, as long as he took the pledge, ‘I promise with the help of God to be true to honour.’
Beatrice was born Olive Katherine Parr in 1874 and took up the pen name Beatrice Chase in later years as a novelist. She was strongly religious and, after moving to Devon with her mother in 1902 to improve her health, set about building her own tiny chapel, which she had consecrated by the Catholic Bishop of Plymouth. Beatrice’s popularity continued to grow throughout the war years, with visitors flocking to visit her at Venton where she sold books from the window of her house. Her next attempt at the White Crusade at the outbreak of the Second World War was largely met with indifference. Olive died in 1955, aged 80.
Dell, S., 2005. The Real Beatrice Chase; A Dartmoor Author. Okehampton: The Dartmoor Company.
Parr, O. K., 1917. White Knights on Dartmoor. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Olive Katherine Parr (Beatrice Chase) circa 1917. Karen and Geoff Monk Private Collection
Chief Constable Arthur Frederick Nicholson
‘the Mayor had complained…that on two occasions I had not appeared before the Bench in uniform. I am very sorry indeed if my non-compliance has caused any feeling that I was showing a lack of courtesy to the Bench. In the present difficult times however, when the administrative work is so heavy, I think I ought to be relieved of compliance with this inconvenient and useless ceremonial rule.’ Nicholson, 1916.
Throughout the war years, Chief Constable Nicholson worked tirelessly, organising the dwindling Exeter City police force to meet the ever-increasing demands of war time policing.
In total, 35 of his officers joined up; Chief Constable Nicholson himself applied to join the military twice but was turned down, most likely as his efficiency and commitment to duty rendered him indispensable. He regularly advertised for fresh recruits or ‘Special Constables’ to fill the gaps in the force as was common practice across the country. Unfortunately, several of these were soon relieved of their duties for drunkenness or having been found sleeping at their posts.
His reports to the Watch Committee show his imaginative use of the resources available to him. He increased the number of bicycles to enable constables to cover larger areas between them, as well as a motorcycle to better move around the city quickly in emergencies. He enlisted the services of Boy Scouts for watching vulnerable points such as bridges, railways and viaducts, and went so far as to hire three women to carry out clerk duties. Chief Constable Nicholson even managed to persuade the Committee to fund a ‘really good specimen of an Airedale’ as a patrol dog, a move he was assured would have a ‘good moral effect on the criminal classes’.
Arthur Nicholson was also instrumental in securing better rates of pay and security for his men. At the outbreak of war, any policeman who joined up would automatically forfeit his position with the Force, including his pension and in some cases, his police house which could leave his family destitute. The Watch Committee reports show that Nicholson consistently argued for better rates of pay, comparing those of Exeter to cities of similar sizes. He persuaded the Committee to provide additional monies for the wives and children of serving men, to make up the deficit between Police and Army rates and secured pensions for those men who retired or were invalided out of the Force. He did find himself occasionally frustrated by the somewhat trivial concerns of some of his superiors, as seen above when addressing complaints about his attire when appearing before the committee.
Chief Constable Nicholson was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1924. He was similarly honoured with the King’s Police Medal in 1930 and recognised as a ‘particularly able and experienced police officer’ whose reputation ‘stands high at the Home Office’ and took up a position with the traffic department, where his work made him a well-respected and popular member of the community. Sadly, Arthur Nicholson came to an untimely end only eight years later. Whilst attempting to repair the bumper of his car, he left the engine running and was overcome by fumes. He was found dead by a neighbour in the doorway of his garage, killed by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in September of 1938.
The Western Morning News and Mercury, 1930. King’s Police Medal. January 1st. P.8E. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19300101/073/0008 [Accessed on 09/11/2017]
Nicholson, A. J., 1914-1919. Chief Constable’s Reports to the Watch Committee: April 1914 to December 1919. [bound sheets] Devon Police Chief Constable Collection, 4073O/25. Exeter, Devon Heritage Centre.
Western Morning News, 1938. Overcome by Car Fumes. 13th September. P.4F. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19380913/025/0004 Accessed on 22/11/2017]
The Devon and Exeter Gazette, 1924. Notes of the Day. 4th June. P.4C. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000511/19240604/026/0004 [Accessed on 27/11/2017]
Circa 1913. Chief Constable A. F. Nicholson, Exeter City Police. [photograph] Okehampton, South West Police Heritage Trust.
Eddie Distin – the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster
‘There was big Sam Distin the cox and his brother Albert, Peter Foale senior, the second cox, his son Peter the bowman and his other son, William. There was Tom Putt, who had just left his wife in labour with their third child (…) there was James Cove, James Canham, Ashley Cook, Albert Wood, William Johnson and William Lamble. T’was high water that morning, an easy launch, we were away quickly’ (RNLI, 2016)
Eddie Distin was one of two survivors of the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster which claimed the lives of 13 men in 1916.
Eddie was woken in the early hours of 27th October 1916 to reports of a schooner that had run ashore at Prawle, at the furthest point of the estuary. Later, he would give a full account of the crew that assembled at South Sands, where the lifeboat was housed.
The crew of fifteen battled their way through heavy seas on a starboard tack towards Prawl Point; unbeknownst to them, the passengers and crew of the stranded schooner had safely reached shore before their rescuers had left home, but were unable to send a message as the telephone lines were down. Meanwhile, the lifeboat crew had safely navigated the notorious Salcombe Bar; a spit of sand extending across the mouth of the estuary, especially hazardous in poor weather. Once they had realised that there was nothing to be done for the schooner, the coxswain decided to head for home, watched from the cliffs by crowds of worried friends and family from the nearby cliffs.
‘We had a terrible time trying to get back round Prawle with the sea really burying us down, but we were on our way home. The skipper had just given the order to lower the jib when he shouted, ‘Man your life lines.’ That’s when we met with the disaster. A bloody great sea struck us on the port quarter [and] tipped us end over end. All fifteen of us got back on the bottom [of the upturned lifeboat] and I can remember the skipper saying to Bill Johnson ‘What do you make of it Bill?’ Not much Sam’ Johnson replied. We got washed off two or three times and each time there was less of us who managed to scramble back. It was impossible to swim, you just got rolled over and over and I did not see the boat again’ (RNLI, 2016)
Eddie Distin and Bill Johnson were washed onto rocks on the east side of Salcombe Bay where they ‘hung on like grim death… someone was scrambling down the cliff and shouting to us to hang on. I don’t know what they thought we were doing.’ Battered against the rocks by the relentless sea, the two men were eventually hauled to safety; the rest of the crew were lost. ‘Bill and I were very lucky. We were the only ones to be saved. Some of the bodies were washed ashore the same day, some later and two were never found.’
Eddie was 25 at the time of the disaster. He later became the coxswain of the Sarah Anne Holden, the replacement of the William and Emma, and remained so for a further 29 years until his retirement. He was twice awarded medals for rescues at sea. He died after a short illness, in 1973 at the age of 82. At his funeral, somewhat appropriately, the church was still decorated for the annual Harvest of the Sea which had taken place two days earlier. Large numbers of people attended the service, where the Reverend described Eddie as ‘one of the great stones of Salcombe on which this community has been built.’ (Barratt, 2016) The local museum still houses Eddie’s medals alongside the pocket watch he wore on the day of the disaster, its hands still set to 11.03am.
Barratt, R., 2016. The Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster – 27th October 1916. Salcombe: Salcombe RNLI.
Nottingham Evening Post, 1916. Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster: The King’s Message of Sympathy. Nottingham Evening Post, 30th October. P.3B. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000321/19161030/043/0003 [Accessed on 30/10/2017]
RNLI Salcombe Lifeboats, 2016. Lifeboat Disaster Centenary [online] Available at: http://salcombelifeboat.co.uk/eddie-distins-account-of-the-lifeboat-disaster/ [Accessed on 07/11/2017]
‘Mr John Roberts, an old-age pensioner, residing at Newlands Farm, Witheridge, has no less than 21 grandsons serving their King and country during the present war. This is surely good enough to be a record.’ Western Times, 1915.
John Roberts was a retired farm labourer. Of his nearly 100 grandchildren, 30 saw active service during the war.
John Roberts was a proud man. By the end of the war, 30 of his grandsons had volunteered to fight for King and country in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Palestine and Egypt. He was in his 80s and spending his twilight years on his son’s farm in Witheridge, Devon when the war broke out. A father of 15 with almost 100 grandchildren, he could not have imagined in 1914 the devastating impact it would have on his family. In all, seven of his grandsons lost their lives. The losses endured by John and his family were among the worst suffered in the United Kingdom. John, who worked on farms in his home county for more than seven decades, may well have had more grandsons serving in the Army and Navy than anyone else in Devon and beyond, a perhaps unrivalled contribution to the war effort.
John was born in Cruwys Morchard in September 1829. He married Mary Couch, a former house servant at Thelbridge Parish Church in 1855. Mary died in 1900, aged 64, whilst John lived to the grand old age of 90, dying in 1919, a few months after the war ended. 36 of his 50 grandsons were believed to have been eligible to serve in the war. Of the grandsons who died, the youngest was 19-year-old Albert Roberts of Witheridge, who grew up with John at Newland Farm in the village. Two sets of brothers, from Rackenford and Tiverton, were also among those who lost their lives. John’s extraordinary story is told in a new book (History Maker: John Roberts – the man with 30 grandsons in the Great War), which has been researched and written by his great-great grandson, Paul Roberts.
Roberts, P., 2018. History Maker: John Roberts, The man with 30 grandsons in the Great War. Exeter: Short Run press.
Circa 1900. John Roberts. [photograph] (Witheridge Historical Archive)
Ella Trout – The ‘Hallsands Grace Darling’
‘Such a slip of a lass she looked, this braver of submarine perils, as she came up to the table with the easy gait of one who knew naught of tight shoes or high heels, and the well-thrown back shoulders that come of rowing exercise. In her staple costume and cap of navy serge, she was the very ideal of an English fisher-girl.’
Ella Trout received an OBE in 1918 for rowing to the rescue of survivors of a torpedoed steamer ship in Hallsands Bay.
Out fishing with her 10-year-old cousin William on 8th September 1917, Grace witnessed an explosion on the Newham, a steamer which was now rapidly sinking amid clouds of thick, black smoke. Without pause for thought of the danger from enemy U-Boats potentially still in the area, Ella and William rowed with all their might for a half a mile out to the wreck to search for survivors. They found only one sailor still living, clinging to a piece of wreckage. Ella quickly pulled him into their small craft, wrapped him in a sail and revived him. For this act of heroism, Ella was awarded the Order of the British Empire. The ceremony took place on Plymouth Hoe, when Ella and another ten men also honoured for civilian bravery were presented their medals by Earl Fortescue, the Lord Lieutenant of Devon.
Ella was born in 1896, the second daughter of the Trout family in the small fishing community of Hallsands, Devon. Lively and forthright, Ella and her older sister Patience learned to fish alongside their father, despite the protests of their mother who was anxious for them to enter a more ‘suitable’ profession. After the illness and premature death of their father William in 1910, both Patience and Ella took up fishing full-time to support their mother and two younger sisters, an extraordinary feat at the tender ages of just 13 and 14. Working alongside the men of the village, they soon earned the respect of the other fishermen; ‘the maidens’ proved they were able to hold their own in strength and endurance.
Throughout the rest of her life, Ella and Patience were involved with many maritime incidents, often being the first to raise the alarm when a ship floundered on the rocks around Hallsands bay. In the 1920’s they built their own ‘Trout’s Hotel’ which they operated together, with friends and family until their deaths. Ella died in 1952 and was laid to rest with Patience and their parents.
The following poem was published in the January 1918 edition of the Devon and Exeter Gazette, by an author ‘B.R.C.’.
A Ballad of Hallsands Bay
Calm is the sea and clear the air,
The dimpling wavelets landward stray,
A little boat that takes no share
In war’s implacable array;
A child and maiden all her crew,
Puts forth on such a peaceful day,
When Londoners express their view
There is no war down Devon way.
Athwart their course the waters bear
A wreck that staggered rent and grey,
With one yet clinging in despair,
Survivor of the treach-rous fray.
He gazed upon the open blue,
Tasted the bitter salted spray,
Nor any hope of succour knew –
There is no war down Devon way.
To snatch the victim from the snare
She plied her oar with even sway,
Unfaltering, although aware
Of grim occasion for dismay:
A lurking monster might pursue,
Speeding in search of further prey,
And all the sea with blood imbrue –
There is no war down Devon way.
This verse is but a tribute due
To Ella Trout, of Hallsands Bay,
Since it is thanks to yours and you
There is no war down Devon way.
January, 1918 B R C
Milton, R. and Milton F., 2005. Sisters against the Sea. Tiverton: Halsgrove.
Western Morning News, 1918. Civilian Bravery: Earl Fortescue Presents Medals on the Hoe. Western Morning News, 18th Apr. p.4e. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19180418/083/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
Northern Daily Mail, 1917. Saved by a Girl: A Grace Darling of the Westcountry. Northern Daily Mail, 24th Oct. p.4g. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000377/19171024/085/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
B.R.C., 1918. A Ballad of Hallsands Bay. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 18th Jan. p.5e. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000511/19180118/083/0005?browse=true> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
The People, 1918. Splendid Acts of Bravery by Workers on Land and Sea: Devon Fisher Girl Who Went to Aid of Torpedoed Steamer. The People, 13th Jan. p.4b. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000729/19180113/046/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
The Liverpool Echo, 1917. Girl Rescuer: Boat Rowed to Germans in Channel. The Liverpool Echo, 24th October. P.4d. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000271/19171024/029/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
The Western Times, 1917. Hallsands “Grace Darling”. The Western Times, 21st December. P.11c. Available at: < https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19171221/106/0011> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
[Miss Ella Trout MOBE] n.d. [image online] Available at: < http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205381354> [Accessed 11th October 2017]
[Ella Trout: Who braved enemy submarines and rescued a drowning sailor] 1918 [image online] Available at:< https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000729/19180113/046/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
Rose and Thomas Whitelegg – All the Fun of the Fair
‘In showland, women have always worked and worked hard. We have seen our women at the head of circuses, menageries, roundabouts and many other amusement concerns, and in fully ninety per cent of our people, it is the women who look after the exchequer. In remote days the women of showland were looked upon with wonder by those who saw what was being done, but nowadays, when others are doing similar work, their work does not cause any special comment ...’
World’s Fair Magazine, 1916.
Rose Whitelegg helped bolster wartime morale by continuing to run her fairground family’s shooting gallery and café after her husband Thomas went to war.
As with many others, the outbreak of war in 1914 had an immediate and lasting impact on the community of travelling showmen and their families. Men enlisted with the armed forces whilst the government requisitioned steam driven engines, vehicles and even animals for war work. The majority of fairs up and down the country were closed for the duration of the war.
Despite never learning to read or write, Thomas Whitelegg had a knack for figures and an insatiable work ethic. Rosina, or ‘Rose’ was the business brain of the family with a strong drive to succeed. Both came from respected travelling fair families from the South-West. A small stroke of luck for the Whitelegg family came at the cost of another. In the years preceding the war, fairs in the South-West had been dominated by a small number of fair families including Hill Brothers, Hancocks and Anderton and Rowlands. In a well-known incident on Plymouth Hoe in the winter of 1912, 5,000 suffragettes, outraged at the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst on her arrival at Plymouth, had marched in protest and had set alight the timber yard adjacent to Hancock’s Great World’s Fair. The family fought through the night to save their livelihood but come dawn, many of the rides stood in ruins. Although sympathetic to the Hancock’s plight, Thomas was determined to use this opportunity for advancement. He and Rose purchased their first ride in 1916;
‘a splendid hand-turned juvenile roundabout, the rounding boards bore the legend: T. Whitelegg Pony Roundabout, Pride of the West’ (Belshaw, 2005)
As many women took advantage of new opportunities to fill the labour shortage left by a dearth of working men, hard work and responsibility was already well established in the lives of showland women. The wives and daughters of showmen cared for the family, cooked and cleaned as well as helped set-up and run the various rides. It was not unusual for a woman to continue in the family business after the death of a husband. Sophie Hancock was a renowned Devon businesswoman ‘in no need of emancipation’ (Robinson, 2014). Rose Whitelegg was no different; she independently operated a shooting gallery and café at Anderton and Rowland’s Winter Gardens in Plymouth after Thomas had joined the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in 1917, successfully keeping the family afloat through the lean war years.
The Whitelegg family coffers were further bolstered by the short boon in post-war spending, when thousands of demobbed soldiers returned to England through Plymouth with months of back-pay to spend. This, coupled with the savings that Rose had worked to put away, meant that in a short time they were able to purchase a set of Tidman Gallopers, boasting a menagerie of animal and bird mounts, all steam-driven by a fine Burrell showman’s engine. With Plymouth as their base, ‘T. Whitelegg and Sons’ (the business soon included Rose and Thomas’ three sons, Tommy, Frederick and Arthur) went from strength to strength, travelling the length and breadth of the South-West with their ever-expanding repertoire. In later years the family would own and operate two fairground sites in Plymouth; The Olympia in Union Street and the New Passage. The family became so successful that they even bought themselves a Rolls-Royce, despite Thomas Snr. never having learnt to drive. Rose and Thomas died in 1959 and 1962 respectively, the heads of a prosperous and respected showland family who still live and work in Devon to this day.
Belshaw, G., 2005. T. Whitelegg and Sons’ Cavalcade of Shows. Telford: New Era Publications. Pg. 8-13
University of Sheffield National Fairground and Circus Archive, 2017. The First World War [online] Available from: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/researchandarticles/wwi [Accessed on 31/10/2017]
Robinson, C., 2014. Plymouth’s Great War: The Three Towns United in Conflict. Plymouth: Pen & Ink Publishing.
[Miss Ella Trout MOBE] n.d. [image online] Available at: < http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205381354> [Accessed 11th October 2017]
[Ella Trout: Who braved enemy submarines and rescued a drowning sailor] 1918 [image online] Available at:< https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000729/19180113/046/0004> [Accessed on 11th October 2017]
Walter Charles Hudson Heaven
‘he lived in shivering poverty for a short time on the island, without coal for a fire, without oil for lamps and with little food. He went bankrupt and sold Lundy …it must have been the most bittersweet day in his life’
Will Heaven, 2011
Walter Charles Hudson Heaven was the last member of the Heaven family to own the island of Lundy, off the north coast of Devon.
Walter Charles inherited Lundy on the death of the Rev. Hudson Heaven, who had poorly managed the remaining family assets, leaving his nephew a virtually worthless inheritance. By 1916, the Heaven family were no longer in residence, having evacuated Lundy on the outbreak of war. The lonely island gave rise to rumours however, including that it was being surreptitiously used as a German U-Boat station. One enthusiastic MP, clearly not familiar with the size of the island, insisted it be used to house up to 1,600 prisoners-of-war, although thankfully his suggestions were gratefully declined.
Walter Charles’ great-grandfather William Hudson Heaven had purchased the island in 1836 as a family summer retreat. At three miles long by half a mile wide, the island was steep and tricky to access, with building materials for the Heaven’s new Villa, as well as the furniture, having to be hauled up by hand. Very much like Dartmoor heath in appearance, Lundy was windswept but fertile, boasting only an historic castle, a farm and a lighthouse.
Financial struggles hounded the Heaven family from the beginning; they were forced to offer the island for sale several times in the coming years. The Heavens relocated to Lundy full-time in the 1850s in an attempt to cut costs. They also leased the island in part for farming, fishing and quarrying rights. Despite this, Lundy proved the ideal location for a regular round of shooting, gardening, riding, driving, boating and fishing, egg-hunting and foraging for mushrooms and blackberries. Lundy Island also supported a growing community during the tenure of the Heaven family. At the end of their ownership in 1917, they left a new shop and pub, a hotel, a church and post office.
After declaring bankruptcy and leaving the island, Walter Charles took his family back to Australia in the hope of a better life but was destined for bitter disappointment. He occupied a grey-area of employment; raised a gentleman, he had neither the professional skills for a career nor the money for a life of gentility. He invested in several ventures in the theatre, but none came to fruition. Eventually he died virtually destitute in Australia in 1929 and his ashes were returned to Lundy for burial.
Langham, M., 1995. A Lundy Album. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing
Langham, A. & M., 1970. Islands: Lundy. Newton Abbot: David & Charles Publishers Limited
Heaven, W., 2011. Lundy: My family and the Kingdom of Heaven. The Telegraph, 5th November. Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/familyhistory/8866830/Lundy-My-family-and-the-Kingdom-of-Heaven.html [Accessed on 16/04/2018]
‘The appointment by the Barnstaple Guardians yesterday of a lady relieving officer for the Combe Martin and Lynton district would, in normal times, have been regarded, probably, as a novel and somewhat questionable procedure. But the exigencies of war have swept away many prejudices formerly entertained…’
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1917.
Melvina Robins was the first female relieving officer in Combe Martin, responsible for visiting and administering money to the poor.
Melvina Robins was born in Combe Martin in 1888, the youngest of six sisters. The Robins family were local to Combe Martin; Melvina’s father Samuel was a farmer of a small acreage, who later became the Relieving Officer for Barnstaple and Combe Martin, a district so large it included sixteen parishes comprising an ‘arduous, hilly, exposed, large, and difficult area’ (Western Times, 1914).
As the local Relieving Officer, Samuel was required to visit and make assessments of any family making applications for relief; to supply in person the weekly allowance of all paupers in the district and to provide emergency relief to those in need of it, including transporting persons and families to the workhouse if necessary.
The 1911 Census shows Melvina aged 23 working as the Deputy Registrar of the Barnstaple district. By mid-1917, Samuel, now aged 72, was looking to retire due to ill-health. Melvina had already been recommended as a replacement, providing her ‘appointment should only be a temporary one until after the war’. However, there were several objections and so the post was ‘thrown open, applicants not to be under military age.’
In all, the Barnstaple Board of Guardians received 49 applications for the post; Melvina was elected with a show of 26 hands out of 44. An ‘onlooker’ later wrote to the Western Times that despite the novelty of hiring a female relieving officer ‘stern necessity has led to the employment of women on a much larger scale in a variety of occupations.’ Miss Robins’ appointment was now deemed to be ‘only in accordance with the fitness of things.’
In 1920 a notion was put to the board that Miss Robins be asked to resign in order that her post be filled by a returning soldier. The notion was rejected, the Chairman stating that ‘as far as the Guardians were concerned, the appointment was the usual one, subject to behaviour. Miss Robins was a good officer [and] had served them faithfully and well in the past.’ The Board also approved an application for an increase in Melvina’s wages to £125 per annum.
Melvina continued in her post until 1935, when she retired, fully appreciated and respected by members of the Board and the local community. She never married and died in Combe Martin in 1967.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1917. ‘Onlooker’: Appointment by the Barnstaple Guardians. 8th September.
Rowe, Watts, & Wood Solicitors, 1967. Miss Melvina Robins, Deceased. 1st June. [typed letter] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. Barnstaple: North Devon Records Office.
Western Times, 1914. Mr S. Robins: Application for an increase in salary. 7th April.
Western Times, 1917. With regard to the resignation of Mr S. Robins. 11th August.
‘Melvina Robins’ (1911) Census return for Combe Martin, Barnstaple District, Devon. Public Record Office: 13345, folio -, p.- (1911). Available at: https://search.findmypast.co.uk (Accessed: 12/03/2018).
Available from: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/admin/index.shtml [Accessed on 12/03/2018]
Circa 1960s. Miss Melvina Robins [photograph] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. North Devon Record Office, South West Heritage Trust.
Circa 1910s. Mr Samuel and Mrs Mary Ann Robins [photograph] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. North Devon Record Office, South West Heritage Trust.
‘Remember that the honour of the V.A.D. organisation depends on your individual conduct. .. Sacrifices may be asked of you. Give generously and wholeheartedly, grudging nothing, but remembering that you are giving because your Country needs your help. 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.’
Letter from Katharine Furse, B.R.C.S., the Commandant-in-Chief, Women's Voluntary Aid Detachment, to serving VAD nurses (1914)
Kitty Trevelyan joined up as a volunteer worker aged just 17. After her death in France, it took 100 years to the day for her name to be added to the Meavy war memorial.
Despite being four years underage, Kitty managed to join up as a VAD worker and was soon shipped out to France in 1916. She worked for 13 months with the Army Service Corps as a ‘skivvy’, serving food to men on the front lines.
Kitty was born Armorel Katherine Trevelyan in County Dublin in 1898, the daughter of Georgina and the wonderfully-named Walter Raleigh Trevelyan. The family were comfortably well-off, although her father and mother divorced when Kitty was six. Her mother soon remarried and moved with her new husband and Kitty to the hamlet of Meavy, near Yelverton on the edge of Dartmoor. At the outbreak of war, Kitty and her family were living in The Parsonage (now Meavy House).
Sadly, after her war time adventure as a VAD, she contracted measles and pneumonia and died in France on the 27th February 1917, far from her home and family. Kitty is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave in Wimereaux, in the Pas de Calais. Although her name was entered on the Roll of Honour at her local church, it was omitted from the tiny war memorial in Meavy. After a campaign by Wenches in Trenches, her name was finally added and a memorial service held on the 26th February 2017, one day before the centenary of her death.
The Herald, 2017. Kitty Trevelyan – the girl who went to war and was forgotten for 100 years. [online] 24th February. Available from: http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/history/kitty-trevelyan-girl-who-went-282761 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Wenches in Trenches, 2017. Kitty added to memorial. 26th February. Available from: http://www.wenchesintrenches.co.uk/kitty-added-to-memorial/ [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Letter from Katharine Furse, B.R.C.S., the Commandant-in-Chief, Women's Voluntary Aid Detachment, to serving VAD nurses (1914) Available from: http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWnurses.htm [Accessed on 17/04/2018]
(circa 1916) Kitty Trevelyan. [digital copy of original] private collection of Sue Robinson, Wenches in Trenches.
Mrs R Webber
‘An aged widow, residing by herself in Lapford, Mrs R. Webber is a marvel of ingenuity and industry. And the kindness of her heart knows no bounds. She has a way all her own to raise money for good causes and this picture represents one.’ Western Times, 1917.
Mrs Webber created beautifully dressed dolls for charity. She was one of thousands of people to raise money towards the war effort.As far as we can ascertain, Mrs Webber was born Mary Ann Tucker in Mariansleigh, Devon in 1853. She married Richard Webber in 1877 and together they went on to have eight daughters. Richard was listed as an inn keeper in the 1891 census; it was as the proprietor of the Town Arms Hotel in South Molton that he met his untimely death in 1910, aged 60.
After continuing to run the Hotel for at least another three years, we believe that Mary retired to Lapford, where in March 1917 she was featured in the Western Times for her sterling fundraising efforts towards various war funds. Mary came up with an ingenious system of raising money, by buying dolls and creating beautiful dresses for them. The following is extracted from the Western Times;
‘Wishing to help the Hospitality Fund, Mrs Webber wrote to the Mayoress of Exeter (Mrs J. Kirk G. Owen) and asked her to give the doll a name. The Mayoress readily responded and called the little one Una. Mrs Webber was delighted to receive so uncommon a name and at once set forth to give her friends and acquaintances the chance of guessing what it was, at a nominal charge of a penny each – the correct guesser, of course, to get the doll. That she must have walked miles and miles is shown by the fact that when she returned home after her last round she had 364 pennies – just £1 10s 4d. As luck would have it, nobody guessed the name which the Mayoress of Exeter had selected and the doll became Mrs Webber’s. The old lady took advantage of this to swell the amount raised and, taking the doll to the auction field, knocked it down to the highest bidder for 10s. Thus she was able, by sheer industry and perseverance, to send £2 0s 4d to the Hospitality Fund. The proceeds from [another] doll amounting to £1 4s 7d., were given to the Red Cross Fund. An example, like this one, of unselfish devotion is surely better than many precepts.’
Mrs Webber lived to the age of 91 and was buried with her husband in South Molton in 1944.
Western Times, 1917. Go Thou and Do Likewise. 2nd March. P7.D. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19170302/059/0007 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Find My Past, 2017. 1881 England, Wales and Scotland Transcription [webpage] Available from: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=gbc%2f1881%2f0010193329 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Find My Past, 2017. 1891 England, Wales and Scotland Transcription [webpage] Available from: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=gbc%2f1891%2f0012517072 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Find My Past, 2017. England and Wales Deaths 1837-2007 Transcription [webpage] Available from: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=bmd%2fd%2f1944%2f1%2faz%2f001191%2f068 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
Find My Past, 2017. Devon Marriages Transcription [webpage] Available from: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=gbprs/dev2/mar/56516/2 [Accessed on 14/12/2017]
(1917) Mrs R Webber with Doll [original photograph] White Collection. 4110Z/1/1/3. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
(n.d.) Mr and Mrs R Webber [original photograph] White Collection. 4110Z/1/1/4. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Olive Hockin – Suffragette, Artist and Land Girl
‘For ourselves we saw the seasons through in all their changes of work and weather. And finally we proved to our own satisfaction, and to many a famer round about, that though woman be weak, ignorant, and inexperienced, yet with energy and determination and a little friendly teaching she can, at any rate in emergency, just stand in and “carry on”’.
Olive Hockin was a militant suffragette who later spent a year working as a Land Girl on a Dartmoor Farm
At the outbreak of war, Olive offered her services as a Land Girl, although there is doubt as to whether she was ever officially recruited by the respectable Women’s Land Army, given her colourful past. According to her own account, she had ‘just walked up to offer my services’ to a Dartmoor farmer, after having seen his advertisement for a casual labourer. At no time does Olive specify the real name (she referred to it as By-The-Way) or location of the farm, but it was most likely located somewhere between Tavistock, Princetown and Yelverton.
Olive’s account of her year spent working the land on the Devon farm, entitled ‘Two Girls on the Land: War Time on a Dartmoor Farm’ provides a valuable insight into the lifestyle and attitudes of what was, at the time, a fairly isolated way of life. Many farms had only gaslight and the days were long and tough, maintaining animals and growing crops in the unforgiving and rocky Dartmoor soil. Given this isolation, few farmers shared in the enthusiasm for war and Devon was known for its poor uptake on recruitment for the armed forces. Even less enthusiasm greeted upper and middle-class women offering themselves up as labourers. Olive notes the scepticism she was greeted with in ‘Two Girls’; ‘My lady gasped – but to do her justice, rose to the occasion with a bound. “Well really! You must come in and tell me about it. I am afraid my husband only laughs at the idea. He says that a woman about the place would be more trouble than she is worth, and we quite made up our minds that no woman could possibly do the work!”’
Nevertheless, in a short time Olive was taken on at 5 shillings a week with board and lodging ‘to do whatever I was told and go where I was bid.’ She worked tirelessly for a full year, taking on all the duties of the absent male labourers. She ploughed, harnessed, drove, fed and watered, dosed, milked, cleaned, swept, dug, sowed and harvested.
Olive was likely born in December of 1880 to a Westcountry family. After some time spent in Argentina as a teenager, she returned to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art and went on to have her work shown at the Royal Academy. Gradually, her circles of artist friends lead her to establish links with women’s suffrage and the WSPU. Although marked out as a militant by authorities as early as 1912, Olive came to some prominence in the movement when she was found guilty of an arson attack on Roehampton Pavilion and sentenced to four months imprisonment. The main image was taken without Olive’s knowledge whilst in Holloway Prison awaiting trial, since Suffragettes regularly refused to co-operate when having their photographs taken for police records. Thus, she became one of the first subjects of secret police surveillance photography.
As the war years drew to a close, many female workers and farm hands were dismissed from their jobs in favour of returning servicemen. Little is known of Olive’s time after the war as none of her writings remain. She married in 1922 at the age of 41 and bore two sons.
Butler, S., 2016. Land Girl Suffragette; The Extraordinary Story of Olive Hockin. Somerset: Halstar
Hockin, O., 1918. Two Girls on the Land: War Time in a Dartmoor Farm. Arnold.
1914, Criminal Records Office. Olive Leared née Hockin. National Portrait Gallery Available from: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image.php?mkey=mw70648 [Accessed on 15/03/2018]
1914-1918, Nicholls, Horace. A member of the Women’s Land Army using a plough drawn by two horses. Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive Collection. Available from: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194802 [Accessed on 15/03/2018]
Phyllis Martin – Volunteer Nurses in the Great War
‘Phyllis Martin is your name. Single is your station. Happy be the man that makes the Alteration’.
Private Robin, Phyllis Martin Autograph Book
Phyllis Martin was the daughter of a wealthy Plymouth family. She worked as a volunteer VAD nurse at various hospitals throughout Devon and Somerset.
At the outbreak of war, Phyllis was engaged to Godfrey Paget, a serving officer with Northamptonshire Militia. Godfrey was involved in one of the earliest British-German engagements and was killed in action just six weeks after Britain entered the war, at the Battle of Aisne, on September 14th1914.
It was only a few months later that Phyllis set out to work at the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital in Plymouth, as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. VADs or ‘Very Adorable Darlings’ as they were sometimes known, had become an essential addition to the war effort and undertook tasks ranging from nursing assistants and administrators to ambulance drivers and chefs. Throughout the war, and for some time afterwards, Phyllis served at numerous hospitals including Plympton, Millbay and Bradninch.
Phyllis was particularly popular with the convalescing servicemen she treated, as evidenced by the extraordinary photographic record she kept with her faithful Box Brownie camera, as well as her own autograph books. Like many young nurses of the time, Phyllis kept three autograph books which would be circulated amongst friends and acquaintances. These contained notes, ditties, poems and witticisms, sketches, jokes, keepsakes and even beautiful pieces of embroidery. An entry from Private Francis Murray Kay reads;
‘Think of me now, Think of me ever. Think of the days we had together.’
Apart from the many affectionate and romantic entries, there are several which reflect the enlisted soldier’s changing attitudes to the conflict. An earlier entry from a Sergeant JW Clay reads;
‘Kaiser Bill went up the hill
To see the dreadful slaughter
He fell down and broke his crown
And so he jolly well orter.’
Whilst later verses are sadder and more wistful;
‘I want to go home. I want to go home.
Jack Johnsons and shrapnel around me do roar.
I don’t want to go to the Kinik any more.
I want to go over the sea where the Germans cannot catch me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.’
Phyllis Martin continued her work as a VAD until the end of 1919. She married the son of a local dairy farmer, Leonard Newbery in 1922. They had three children and lived their lives as dairy farmers at Fordwater, just outside Axminster. Phyllis passed away in 1979, aged 90.
Robinson, C., 2014. Phyllis Martin: The Story of a Volunteer Nurse in the Great War. Plymouth: Pen & Ink Publishing.
QARANC, 2006. Voluntary Aid Detachment [online] Available from: http://www.qaranc.co.uk/voluntary-aid-detachment.php [Accessed on 01/11/2017]
1918. Nurse Phyllis Martin (GPMM) at Longlead Military Hospital. John Newbery Private Collection.
1917. Nurse Phyllis Martin with convalescing soldiers at Millbay Hospital. John Newbery Private Collection.
John Brock – Charismatic Manager of the Millbay Rinkeries
‘At Millbay Rink yesterday, by permission of the Major-in-Command, fifty men of the South African Heavy Artillery were entertained. After skating and a tea, three hearty cheers were given to Mr Brock. One of the men said this was the first time they had been entertained, and they should always remember it.’ (Plymouth Evening Herald, 1917)
John Brock was the popular manager of the roller skating rink in Millbay, Plymouth. He worked hard to provide hot meals and regular entertainments for troops stationed in Plymouth.
Known for his ‘happy knack of continually introducing new and novel features’ to attract custom, John Brock was the floor manager of the rink at St Leonards-on-Sea when he was promoted to manager of the shiny new Millbay Rinkeries in West Hoe Road, Plymouth in 1909. On his departure from St Leonard’s, he was given a glowing recommendation;
‘… he leaves much against our will to take a more responsible position… but if at any time there should be an opening in any of our establishments larger than the one he is to take charge of, I should hand him the responsibility which I am sure would be faithfully carried out.’ (Lawer, 2007)
The new Rinkeries had been converted from the old Millbay Soap and Soda Works, a cavernous 30,000ft space in which had been installed a grand rink and a learner’s rink, both with sprung maple wood flooring, a gallery and tearooms. Mr Brock now came into his own, hosting a wealth of inspired themed attractions; grand ‘Cinderellas’ where patrons danced on skates in evening dress only; masked and fancy-dress carnivals; even Farmyard Carnivals, where pigs, geese, ducks and turkeys were given as prizes. John Brock arranged themed Red, White or Blue colour costume nights, fundraisers, benefits and maypole dancing. A proficient skater himself, he hired experts to both perform and tutor patrons and welcomed ‘fancy’ skaters such as The Three Gandys, billed as the ‘Greatest Juvenile Roller Skaters in the World.’ During the war years John worked hard to ensure a strong military presence at the Millbay Rinkeries. His private cuttings book contains numerous telegrams from various officers offering him their thanks for the numerous collections and entertainments provided for their men. He wrote letters to local newspapers, insisting that more be done to entertain the troops and regularly provided hot suppers for men stationed nearby.
John was born Jacob Nathan Brock, the fourth of the five sons of Lewis and Henrietta Brock on the 28th May 1867. The Brocks were a well-established and respected local family and active members of the Plymouth Jewish community. The family is mentioned in the Susser Archive, a history of the Plymouth congregation by the Rabbi Bernard Susser.
John came from a somewhat theatrical background; his father Lewis described himself as a hairdresser and musician, later forming ‘Brock’s Band’ alongside his sons Henry, Charles, Alfred, John and Ernest. Soon after his marriage in 1891 to Eva Atkins, John changed his name from Jacob Nathan possibly to assimilate more into the local community and as his wife was not Jewish. Despite this, he remained as active member of the Jewish congregation at the Catherine Street Synagogue, where he was elected in 1918 to join the burial committee or Chevra kadisha as well as the Bikur cholim, a committee to aid the sick and infirm. In various census records John was listed as a watchmaker and bicycle dealer, before eventually managing various skating rinks, or ‘Rinkeries’ around the South-West.
To the best of our knowledge, Mr Brock continued to manage the Millbay Rinkeries until they were badly damaged by the Plymouth Blitz in 1941. For all intents and purposes, skating was eradicated from Plymouth, with the exception of a few short-lived enterprises in the 1960s and 1980s. John Brock continued to be a popular and community-minded member of Plymouth society until his death in 1959 aged 91. He is buried in the Jewish Cemetery at Gifford Place, Plymouth.
Lawer, D., 2007. Get Your Skates On; A History of Plymouth’s Roller Skating Rinks 1874-1989. Plymouth, Three Towns Publishing
Plymouth Hebrew Congregation Minute Book 1912-1974. Collection of Plymouth Hebrew Congregation: Catherine Street, Plymouth.
John Brock with his daughter Ivy. Private Collection of Di Lawer.
John Brock taking tea with ladies at Millbay Rink Tea Room. Private Collection of Di Lawer.
Germaine Verschoren – Belgian Child Refugee
‘The Belgian children have been taken away from their homes. They have crossed the sea in a ship. They have landed in a strange new land of people speaking a strange language and been put to sleep in strange beds. While their sorrowing parents think of their lost country, home and livelihood, the little one’s tears are shed for lost playthings. Their parents are perhaps destitute – the recipients of charity.’
The Bystander, 1914.
Germaine Verschoren was nine years old when she and her family fled Belgium on foot, along with thousands of other refugees.
Germaine Madelaine was the middle child of the Verschoren family. She was nine years old when in 1914 her father Prosper was badly wounded fighting with the Belgian Army in the first months of the war. On hearing the news, Germaine’s mother Rachella promptly closed up the house in Belgium and began the arduous journey along with her other two children Albért, twelve, and Alyce, six. The family travelled on foot, through Belgium and into Holland in order to find passage to Scotland where Prosper had been sent to convalesce.
And they were not alone. In all, over 250,000 Belgian refugees escaped ahead of the growing conflict, many of them walking or in horse-drawn carts and traps. In most cases, they fled with what they could carry. In later years Germaine would recall pulling turnips from fields alongside the road, washing them in a nearby stream and munching on them as the family trudged along.
Overall, the Belgian refugees were warmly received in Britain; many local and national funds were established to provide them with food, clothes and necessities. Local committees such as those in Devon and Exeter, worked hard to find temporary and long-term accommodation for those fleeing with nothing. Alice Clapp and Clara Andrew both worked for Belgian Refugee Committees and their stories can be seen elsewhere in the exhibition.
At the end of the war, over 90% of those who had fled to Britain returned to their home country. Prosper Verschoren recovered sufficiently to be relocated south from Scotland to the village of Ottery St Mary, where he and his family settled. They became a popular and integral part of the village community. Germaine’s children still live in Devon.
Steel, M., 2016. Belgian Refugee Interviews: Moya Steel Interview. Interviewed by Mary Stephenson. [digital audio file] Ottery St Mary, September 15th 2016.
Verschoren Family Tree [digital image] Belgian Refugee Family Verschoren 1914-1918. DRP/39. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
De Stem uit Belgie, 1916. Nieuws van de “Refugees”. De Stem uit Belgie, January 28th. P.8c. Available at: https://hetarchief.be/nl/media/de-stem-uit-belgie/E1AKjYcQUHRIMJdLhRExjTAe [Accessed on: 04/10/2017]
The Bystander, 1914. Will You Help to While Away the Time of the Little Refugees? 28th October. P.10. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001851/19141028/011/0010 [Accessed on 18/04/2018]
(n.d.) Alyce and Germaine Verschoren [digital image of photograph] Belgian Refugee Family Verschoren 1914-1918. DRP/39. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
‘I think it’s very satisfactory work, nursing. I felt it was from the beginning, because somehow, what you are doing, if you are going to succeed at all in it, that person will be cured. I learnt to do a certain amount of dispensing, it was quite interesting in a way, in fact it was very interesting. I realised that dispensing had a certain amount of danger attached to it.’
Agatha Christie, 1974.
Agatha Christie worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at Torquay for the duration of the war. It was during this time she gained her intricate knowledge of poisons in the hospital dispensary and possibly found the inspiration for her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot.
Agatha married Archie Christie, a young and handsome aviator, in 1912. After a whirlwind affair, they were married on Christmas Eve 1914. Days later, Archie returned to France where he was now stationed with the Royal Flying Corps, leaving Agatha to her war work at the Red Cross VAD hospital in Torquay.
Christie was born in Torquay, Devon as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15th September 1890. An adored youngest daughter, Agatha taught herself to read by the age of five. He mother Clara did not believe that girls should attend school and so Agatha received a mixed education from her father and other members of the household. Thereafter followed a happy and creative childhood, marred only by the premature death of her father in 1901. As she grew older, Agatha and her mother spent time in France and later Egypt.It was early in 1915 that Agatha attended a local fundraiser, an event which may have gone on to have influenced her later writings and produce one of the icons of British crime literature. A local family named Potts-Chatto laid on a soiree at their large house in Torquay, the Daisons, in aid of raising money for the Belgian refugees in their midst. A newly-wed Mrs Christie played the piano for the entertainment of everyone in attendance, including one Jacques Joseph Hamoir, a Belgian gendarme wounded fighting in the front lines and ordered to retire to England with his son Lucian and, later, his wife and daughter. There is the possibility that Agatha would recall her meeting with the retired Belgian policeman in the few years between the fundraiser in Torquay and the writing of her first Hercule Poirot novel ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ in 1920. Whether or not Hamoir was the inspiration for the famed Belgian detective will remain a mystery
In any event, Agatha’s first novel was well-received, making especially good use of her intimate knowledge of poisons, acquired after a transfer to a position as a trainee dispensing chemist in 1916. Agatha Christie went on to become a prolific and highly successful writer of crime fiction, eventually publishing over thirty novels featuring the adventures of Hercule Poirot alone.
Agatha Christie.com, 2017. Christie’s Life. [online] Available at: http://www.agathachristie.com/about-christie [Accessed on 08/11/2017]
Thompson, L., 2007. Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. London: Headline Review
Gill, G., 1999. Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries. London: Robson Books.
Clapp, A., 1914. Reception register, Belgian refugees received at Exeter, 1914. [handwritten register] Devon Remembers First World War Collection. 9036Z. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Clapp, M., 2016. Belgian Refugee Interviews: Michael Clapp Interview. Interviewed by Mary Stephenson. [digital audio file] Exeter, September 15th 2016.
Christie, A. 1974. Oral History Interview. 16th October. Imperial War Museum Collections. Available from: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80000490 [Accessed on 18/04/2018]
Circa 1915. Agatha Christie in her VAD uniform. The Christie Archive Trust
N.D. Jacques Joseph Hamoir and Colleague. [online] Belgian Refugees 14-18 Project. Available from: http://www.belgianrefugees14-18.be/index.php/getuigenissen/testimonies/36-jacques-joseph-hamoir-agatha-christie-s-inspiratiebron-voor-hercules-poirot [Accessed on 08/03/2018]
Sung Ching-lung - Chinese Labour Corps
‘It was never a purely English effort: it required the effort of a great many people from a great many countries, willingly or unwillingly.’
Lord Wallace, 2014.
Chinese Labourers were recruited to fill the desperate need for manpower on the Allied front. Of those who fell ill and died on the journey to France, eight are buried at Plymouth’s Efford Cemetery.
By the summer months of 1916, Britain and its allies were running short on manpower for essential work including digging trenches, loading cargoes, laying and repairing transport links and maintaining artillery vehicles. By January 1917, the first battalion of the Chinese Labour Corps had been recruited and was ready to sail. After travelling overland through Canada to Nova Scotia, the recruits were transported to docks at either Liverpool or Plymouth, on to Folkestone in Kent before finally arriving at the Front. It was most likely during one of these extensive trips that eight Chinese labourers were admitted to Ford Military Hospital in Plymouth. The long journey and poor travel conditions meant that many men suffered from dysentery or pneumonia and died en route, thousands of miles from their homes and families.
A small article in the Western Times in July of 1917 records the funeral of Private. Sung Ching-lung, where ‘The Rev. Fisher (chaplain to the hospital) read a short burial service, and after the Chinese interpreter had spoken to the Chinese patients they uncovered their heads and bowed several times.’ Private Ching-lung was buried with full military honours, with a military band preceding the funeral procession and volleys fired over his grave.
In total, more than 70,000 men served in Britain and France with the Chinese Labour Corps. The bulk of the Corps was retained after the Armistice for the clear-up operation. Manpower was needed to clear battlefields of debris and unexploded ordnance, to lay out and dig war graves. Labourers worked 10-hour days, seven days and week and had three holidays including Chinese New Year. At the time, British writers and cartoonists often demeaned Chinese servicemen and depicted them as stereotypes, uneducated and simple. It is only in recent years that the contribution and sacrifice of the Chinese Labour Corps to the Allied war effort has begun to be properly recognised.
Kumlertsakul, P., 2017. Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front. National Archives [online] Available from: http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/chinese-labour-corps-western-front-2/ [Accessed on 03/01/2018]
HIKMAT Remembers, 2017. Chinese War Graves Project. [online] Available from: http://www.hikmatremembers.com/chinese-war-graves-project.html [Accessed on 06/12/2017]
Fawcett, B. C., 2000. The Chinese Labour Corps in France. 1917-1921. [PDF Online] Available from: http://www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com/history/nations-in-war/chinese-labourers-in-northern-france-during-the-great-war.html [Accessed on 3/01/2018]
Western Times, 1917. Chinese Funeral at Plymouth. 10th July. P. 5C. [Accessed on 03/01/2018]
Chinese New Year celebration at CLC camp, Noyelles, France. Feb 1918. Imperial War Museum Collections.
Henry William Firth
‘And we went to the station and it was all arranged by our own people … and some of the COs got hold of some fog signals and they put them on the line here and there. As the train went out of the little station at Princetown these went off, a sort of farewell. And I remember nearly a thousand men sang a hymn, ‘Abide With Me’.
Mark Hayler, 1978
Henry William Firth was one of over a thousand Conscientious Objectors held at Dartmoor Prison and died of pneumonia there in 1918.
Dartmoor Prison, situated on the high moors at Princetown, was requisitioned and reopened as Princetown Work Centre a few years into the war. In March 1917, 300 prisoners were removed and over the next 15 months perhaps as many as 1,100 conscientious objectors were housed there. Controversial from its beginning, the prison gained national notoriety in February 1918 when one conscientious objector, Henry ‘Harry’ Firth, died and the men (possibly as many as 800) went on strike in protest. The men claimed conditions were poor and that he had not been given medical attention. A subsequent Home Office inquiry ruled that his death had not been caused by malpractice.
Henry had been a Primitive Methodist and a local preacher, and had worked in a shoe factory in Norwich. Mark Hayler, a Quaker, also in Princetown as a Conscientious Objector, nursed Henry when he became ill in February 1918. In an oral history interview sixty years later, he described what happened.
‘I was working at the hospital at the time I attended him. I was a sort of orderly you know, he was only 30 years of age and he was a local preacher with the Methodists, and his wife came down and I can see her now, sitting not in the cell but on a chair outside the door.
He had pneumonia. He’d been badly treated at Dartmoor, he should never have been sent out on the moor in bad weather. He should have got an indoor job and he got this cold and he got pneumonia …It was the only funeral from Dartmoor and the whole of the men attended the funeral, they insisted, they couldn’t have prevented them and they followed behind the coffin down to the railway and it was put on the little train at Princetown and taken down to Plymouth … which is about ten miles away.’
An estimated 16,000 men refused to fight once conscription was introduced in 1916. Although allowed by law, those who objected had to explain publicly before a military tribunal and many had their appeals rejected, thus facing imprisonment. In the national press Objectors or ‘Conchies’ were often portrayed as weak and effeminate, cowardly and entitled caricatures. In reality, they and their families faced ridicule and resentment and were ostracised from their communities. Even after the war, many found it impossible to resume their lives and positions and so made the decision to relocate.
Further information can be obtained from the following sources
Dartmoor Doctor’s Log Dartmoor Prison Museum
The Friend 15th December 1918 Quaker Friends House London
Letter 5th February 1918 Hansard extracts etc in T.E.Harvey Military Prison Correspondence FH/Temp. Mss.835 Box 2 also at Quaker Friends House London
Cyril Pearce Register
National Archives references on Cyril Pearce Register
Hayler, M., 1978. Henry Firth Conscientious Objector. Available from http://www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk/page/henry_firth_conscientious_objector [accessed on 19/04/2018]
Alice Graham Clapp – Belgian Refugee Committee
‘I have the pleasure to inform you that his Majesty the King of Belgium has been graciously pleased to confer upon you the Médaille de la reine Élisabeth in recognition of the kind help and valuable assistance you have personally given to Belgian refugees and the Belgian soldiers during the war.’
Belgian Minister, 1918.
Alice Clapp was one of dozens of women who helped to organise homes around Devon for thousands of Belgian refugees fleeing the conflict. Her original black book recording the details of Belgian families is held at the South West Heritage Trust.
Of the 250,000 refugees who came to Britain, around 8,00 passed through Devon. At the time, Exeter was a central hub for refugees. Upon arrival, their names were logged before being sent on to homes found for them around the county and elsewhere. In total, Alice Clapp’s little black book records the essential details of around 500 men, women and children who were helped by the Exeter Committee for Relief of War Refugees.
Both Alice and her husband were very socially active; Cecil held governorships at various schools around Exeter as well as the local rugby club so it would make sense that one or both of them would involve themselves with committees set up to deal with the sudden influx of desperate war refugees. There is even a possibility that they housed some families themselves, in the house next door in St Leonard’s Road. Alice would spend time reading stories to the Belgian children. As her grandson, Mr Michael Clapp recounts, she was only able to make herself understood to some of the Flemish children by reading in a strong Cornish accent!
There is a possibility that one of the names in the book, one Jacques Joseph Hamoir, a retired gendarme, became the inspiration for Hercules Poirot. Staying with the Potts-Chatto family in Torquay, Monsieur Hamoir may have been present at the same fund-raising party attended by a young Mrs Agatha Christie.
Alice died in 1922. In later years, Alice’s children and grandchildren kept in touch with the family of Clara Andrews, another recipient of the Elisabeth Medal featured in this exhibition.
Clapp, A., 1914. Reception register, Belgian refugees received at Exeter, 1914. [handwritten register] Devon Remembers First World War Collection. 9036Z. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Clapp, M., 2016. Belgian Refugee Interviews: Michael Clapp Interview. Interviewed by Mary Stephenson. [digital audio file] Exeter, September 15th 2016.
Declercq, C., 2014. Where are the Exeter Belgians Now? [online] Online Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees. Available from: http://belgianrefugees.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/ [Accessed on 23/04/2018]
(n.d.) Alice Graham Clapp [digital image of photograph]. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
David Ben-Gurion – Jewish Leader in Training
‘It is one of the most marvelous places I have ever seen. When I went out into the fields at dawn for the first time and gazed at the view around our tents, I was intoxicated by the charming scene. Somehow, I didn’t imagine I would ever see a panorama like this in England. Green mountains and valleys covered with silk, fertile fields and the shadows of nearby forest.’
David Ben-Gurion was the national founder of the State of Israel and its first Prime Minister. As a young man, he joined the newly formed Jewish Legion in 1918 and trained at Crownhill Fort, Plymouth.
From a young age David was a passionate supporter of Zionism, the movement to re-establish a Jewish state in the historic Land of Israel. It was this passion which led him to initially work on the side of the Ottoman Empire, recruiting Jewish men in Jerusalem and, after deportation, in Egypt and America. However, after the British Empire issued the Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish State in Palestine, Ben-Gurion switched sides and swiftly joined the new Jewish Legion.
The Legion consisted of the 38th – 42nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and many were sent to Devon for training at Crownhill Fort. Despite the best efforts of those involved, there was still an element of antisemitism within the British military, which made accommodating the basic needs of the Jewish recruits problematic. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson, admitted himself that he knew almost nothing of Jewish culture. However, he believed that ‘the only way to make good Jewish soldiers of the men was by first of all treating them as good Jews’. He thrice threatened to resign and it was through his insistence that the battalions were able to attend the local Synagogue on the Sabbath and provision for Kosher food was made.
David Ben-Gurion fought as part of the British forces during the Palestine Campaign. He later returned there with his family after the war and began working towards the dream of a Jewish state in Israel. He died in 1973, having been the leading figure of the new State of Israel for over thirty years.
John Durant – 1,000 miles to gather Sphagnum Moss
‘He has stuck to the work in all weathers, sometimes having to scrape away snow to find the moss, and up to date has tramped 1,000 miles gathering, free of cost to the hospitals, moss valued at £75. Mr Durant is at work by the riverside with his specially-made rake, which is a useful implement when the moss is difficult to reach by hand.’ Western Times, 1916.
Such was the War’s insatiable demand for high explosives and army uniforms, cotton was already in very short supply by the closing weeks of 1914. Not only that, but doctors on the frontlines were reporting many cases of sepsis, blood poisoning from infected wounds. The resulting trails of viable alternatives included bandages soaked in formaldehyde and carbolic acid. The answer eventually came in the form of sphagnum, a moss that grows prevalently throughout the damp, peaty regions of Scotland, Ireland and Dartmoor.
Not only does sphagnum moss harbour impressive absorbent qualities (two ounces of dried moss can hold two pounds of liquid) but it is also had antiseptic properties, releasing its own iodine and keeping wounds deodorised and sterile. Soon, large local parties were out on the moor, gathering sackfuls of the precious plant to be sorted, dried and packed into bandages. There were sorting stations across Devon, including Mary Tavy and Princetown. A memorial shell casing still stands in Widecombe, a thank you gift to the people of the village from the National War Savings Committee.
John Durant was one of hundreds of men, women and children who managed to gather enough moss to send over a million dressings per month from Britain to the front lines throughout Europe and Africa.
Boissoneault, L., 2017. How Humble Moss Healed the Wounds of Thousands in World War 1. [online] Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-humble-moss-helped-heal-wounds-thousands-WWI-180963081/ [Accessed on 25/04/2018]
Western Times, 1916. He has tramped over 1,000 miles of moorland, ‘doing his bit’. Friday 14th July. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19160714/056/0007 [Accessed on 25/04/2018]
1918. Collecting Curative Moss – Exmouth. Daily Mail. 10th December. P.16 A. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000560/19181210/143/0016 [Accessed on 25/04/2018]
Western Times, 1916. He has tramped over 1,000 miles of moorland, ‘doing his bit’. Friday 14th July. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19160714/056/0007 [Accessed on 25/04/2018]
Earl Fortescue – Lord Lieutenant of Devon
‘I recall it mainly as a confused mass of perpetual correspondence, committee and other meetings and general anxiety.’
Hugh Fortescue, 1929.
Earl Fortescue was the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, Chairman of the County Council and the Territorial Force Association. He was involved in numerous committees, including those organising Belgian Refugees.
Hugh Fortescue took an active role in mobilising Devon’s Territorial forces in the early days of the war. Having served as a cavalry captain, a local MP, an aide-de-camp to Kings Edward VII and George V and as Lord Lieutenant of Devon since 1903, he was well accustomed to wielding authority and using it to best effect. Having already stocked local mobilisation stores in advance of war, he later directed his commanding officers to disregard ‘perfectly hopeless’ War Office memos, arranging his own straightforward solutions to providing new Territorials with appropriate kit. Further demonstrations of Fortescue’s pragmatic approach to war-time organisation came with the recruitment of ‘some sturdy men’ to guard vulnerable railway points, including the Meldon Viaduct.
‘I gathered that they were not all very good characters, and the man recommended for the charge of the party was a poacher… but they were ready enough to undertake it and so they were sworn in as special constables. I had omitted to bring a copy of the regulation oath from Exeter and so I had to invent one on the spur of the moment. The whole thing was of course entirely irregular.’
Both Hugh Fortescue and his wife, Lady Emily, were members of several committees set on aiding the war effort, including the newly-formed War Refugees Committee, whose members included Clara Andrew, also featured in this exhibition. As refugee numbers increased, Fortescue soon found the local organisers to the ‘unconnected and somewhat haphazard’ in their methods and pressed for refugees in the county to be centrally organised, by merging the independent local efforts together in a new Devon and Cornwall Refugees Committee. His frustrations at coming up against a ‘considerable element of local jealousy and self-importance’ as well as the constant demands on his time and attention led to him declare ‘the office finally closed, to the great relief of all connected with it, for the refugees were not a nice lot; they were exacting and tiresome.’
Fortescue, H., 1929. A Chronicle of Castle Hill 1454- 1918. London: WH Smith and Son.
Anscar Vonier – German Abbot of Buckfast Abbey
‘Although the worst that was feared did not happen, the strain on the Abbot can well be imagined. He said in later life that during those war years he dreaded the sound of the front-door bell.’
Dom Leo Smith, 1996.
At the outbreak of war, Buckfast Abbey was home to forty German monks, led by Abbot Anscar Vonier. He quietly and patiently dealt with local residents and officials fearful of the ‘enemy aliens’ living in their midst.
‘The tenderness of the government towards the enemy alien in our midst has surprised and scandalised a good many people. We are … the most consummate fools in the world. Through mere sentiment we allow things to take place which no other nation at war with us would think of tolerating’ Western Morning News, 1916.
According to the Western Morning News, amongst other newspapers, the existence of a community of German monks at Buckfastleigh left the country under constant threat of valuable information being passed to the enemy. The Benedictine Abbey at Buckfast was established in the 1880’s, with Anscar taking over as Abbot in 1906 after surviving the shipwreck that killed his predecessor. Almost immediately, he began rebuilding the abbey anew on its original 12th century foundations, rather unusually using the monks themselves as builders.
When the war began, the resident monks found themselves under suspicion from locals and authorities given that the majority were of German nationality. Abbot Anscar, himself a naturalised British citizen originally from Germany, was absent in Austria where he had travelled for health reasons. Arrested immediately as a potential British spy, he was informed he would need to remain in Salzburg for the remainder of the war. Luckily, the intervention of church authorities secured his release and return to England. Once back at Buckfast however, he faced repeated calls for his community to be arrested as enemy aliens and sent to an internment camp. Letters and petitions were sent to the Home Office, who decided that the monks could remain ‘within the precincts of the Abbey’ to the disgust of many.
Numerous newspaper reports of the time show scepticism from the press, with Abbot Anscar defending his community at a council hearing; ‘it would be difficult to see how they could carry valuable information to the enemy seeing that, according to the rule of life at the Abbey, they would never leave the precincts except to take recreation for a short time.’
Abbot Anscar Vonier successfully kept his community of monks at the Abbey for the duration of the war, all the while continuing the building work on the Abbey church, which was consecrated in 1922. He died in 1938.
Smith, D.L., 1996. The Life and Work of Abbot Anscar Vonier. [online] Available from: http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1996smith.pdf [Accessed on 22/05/2018]
Western Times, 1916. Buckfast Aliens: Nearly forty Germans reported at the Abbey. 10th October. P.3G. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19161010/024/0003 [Accessed on 22/05/2018]
Western Times, 1916. Buckfast Monks: Internment Question raised at Buckfastleigh Council. 13th July. P.3C. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000265/19160713/027/0003 [Accessed on 22/05/2018]
Vonier, A. 1916. The Personality of Christ. London: Longman’s Green and Co. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/personalityofchr00vonirich/personalityofchr00vonirich_djvu.txt [Accessed on 23/05/2018]
Western Morning News, 1916. Naturalized Enemy Aliens: The Case of the Buckfast Monks. 31st January. P.4G. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000329/19160131/065/0004 [Accessed on: 24/05/2018]
‘Women’s labour is a real possibility, so farmers must take it with patriotic spirit. It is vital not to let down the Nation’s food supply nor to lose the cultivation of the land.’
Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn, 1916
Miss Calmady-Hamlyn was a travelling inspector appointed by the Board of Agriculture. She worked to promote women’s farm labour throughout Devon and established the first farm staffed entirely by women.
By 1915, it was estimated that Devon’s farms had lost 15% of their male workforce as well as many thousands of horses. Despite this, there appeared to be throughout the county, a general opposition to female volunteers working the land. One Dartmouth farmer wrote to a local newspaper that a woman was worth a quarter of a man and so deserved a quarter of the pay. Another suggested the work of two women could be met by a boy of twelve. Although farmer’s wives and daughters had for generations worked alongside their men, there was much scepticism at women’s ability to carry out the heavy work, including running teams of horses to plough and harvesting. As well as this, many female volunteers hailed from the leisured classes; rural famers were not keen to invite upper-class strangers to work their fields.
Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn hailed from a long-established Devon family. Appointed as a travelling Inspector for the Ministry of Agriculture, she worked specifically to promote female labour via the first Women’s Land Army, working with the WWAC (Women’s War Agricultural Committee). In 1917, she established the first female-only working farm, 130 acres at Great Bidlake, near Bridestowe. A greatly successful enterprise, it went some way toward silencing the critics of female farm labour and eventually replaced Seale-Hayne as a training centre, when the college was commandeered as a neurological hospital.
After the war, Sylvia returned to her first love of breeding Dartmoor ponies. She became one of the first female magistrates and received an MBE for her war work. She died in 1962 aged 80.
Neville, J., 2017. The Women’s Land Army. WW1 Inspector Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn. [online] Available from: http://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk/international-womens-day-ww1-wla-inspector-sylvia-calmady-hamlyn/ [Accessed on 11.06.2018]
BBC, 2014. WW1 At Home: Great Bidlake Farm, Bridestowe. The Farm Run By Women. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02fbhcp [Accessed on 11.06.2018]
Western Morning News, 1939. Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn. 17th February. [online]
Private Percy Meek – Shell Shock at Seale-Hayne
‘In his dreams he saw the ghosts of Germans he has bayoneted come to take revenge on him and he heard them fire at him. He believed he was still in the trenches which were being heavily shelled; his pupils were widely dilated and he sweated profusely. He was still unable to speak… all four limbs were now completely paralysed.’
Dr Arthur Hurst, 1918.
Private Percy Meek became one of the most well-known patients of Dr Arthur Hurst’s neurological hospital at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College. His was one of the most extreme cases of ‘hysterical paralysis’ from shell-shock.
Percy’s story really begins during the winter of 1916 when his trench came under a heavy barrage of German mortars. At some time during the attack, Percy cracked and had to be physically restrained from attacking the enemy position himself. He became dazed and unresponsive. In the weeks that followed, Percy was shipped back to Netley Hospital in Hampshire. Initially suffering from convulsive tremors and hallucinations, Percy gradually deteriorated into complete hysterical paraplegia, his mind regressed to that of a ‘year-old child’.
‘It was then found that [Percy] had total loss of memory: he had no idea who or what he was, he did not realise that his anaesthetic legs belonged to him, and he had no knowledge of the meaning of words.’ (Hurst, 1918)
Luckily for Percy, the treatment of shell shock was about to receive a tremendous boost with the relocation of patients to the newly-acquired Seale-Hayne hospital near Newton Abbot. With its large, airy rooms and quiet, rural location, leading neurologist Major Arthur Hurst believed it to be ideal for the treatment of shell shocked men, initially funding the relocation from his own pocket.
Major Hurst, along with ten fellow doctors and numerous nurses and assistants worked to create a positive environment with a matter-of-fact approach to treatment. On arrival, patients were assured that they would be completely cured within a short time; Dr Hurst claimed that his methods could have a thoroughly incapacitated man walking around within the hour. He even invited the cameras of Pathé news to bear witness to this ground-breaking work.
Incredibly, the grainy footage shows Percy Meek, bounding up and down the front steps. Now something of a celebrity patient due to his remarkable recovery, Percy had slowly improved in speech and movement since November of 1917, almost two years since the onset of his symptoms. One day at Netley Hospital he ‘felt something snap in his head’ and soon after began to speak confidently and recover more and more of his memory. Within a fortnight of transferring to Seale-Hayne, he could move both of his arms. By the end of May, he could stand unassisted and was walking by the 2nd June. At the end of the month, he was appointed head of the basket-weaving workshop where he can be seen in the Pathé film, calmly overseeing the other patients.
Percy soon returned home to Snettisham and the family business; he married, had two children and died in 1968 aged 75.
Hurst, A., 1918. Pte. Percy Meek, aged 23, basket maker, from Snettisham. [typed sheets] Fortescue of Castle Hill. 1262M/0/O/LD/113/68. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Meek, R., 1918. Meek Letters: Letter to Major Hurst. [digital image] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Bartlett, R., 2014. Case Study: The remarkable recovery of Private Percy Meek. [digital copy] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Image still from: War Neuroses Version B Reel 1 (1917-1918). 1918. [online]. England: British Pathé. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrRU37beCJ4 [Accessed on: 26th October 2017]
Drewery, D., (n.d.) S-H Pte Meek Later Life (3) [digital image] Seale-Hayne during the First World War. DRP/42. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre.
Elsie May Gilley
‘Miss Elsie Gilley commenced duties this morning. For the time being I have asked her to assist part time with Babies and Top Classes.’
George Lamacraft, 1917.
Elsie May Gilley was a teaching assistant, and later a qualified teacher, at Bovey Tracey Council School. Her story is one of many recorded in the school log book by Headteacher Mr Lamacraft.
When the war began in August 1914, Elsie was still a ‘Pupil Teacher’, or teaching assistant, moving between classes to support the teaching staff or fill in when they were absent. Her sister Annie had already trained at the school, whilst her father John was a regular school inspector.
Bovey Tracey was a typical rural school, with students aged under five (Babies) to mid-teens (Upper Classes). Classes were regularly centred toward the war effort; pupils and teachers held variety sales, with the profit of the first reaching over £20. Pupils gathered chestnuts to make explosives, blackberries and eggs for recuperating soldiers, made splints in woodworking class and knitted gifts to send across for those men on active duty. Mr Lamacraft’s log book notes in December 1914 that ‘We have today dispatched 25 pairs socks, 14 pairs mittens, 28 scarves, 2 pairs cuffs, 2 helmets and 7 small scarves, together with chocolate, stationery, etc. etc. as a Xmas gift to the Soldiers and Sailors.’
The school building was in generally poor repair, requiring constant maintenance. The roof leaked, the radiators came loose and didn’t work, water pipes and cisterns froze and flooded in cold weather and the gas lighting was insufficient and repeatedly leaked into classrooms. The log book shows the community suffered with regular outbreaks of disease; over the years the school was forced to close when pupils and teachers were absent with whooping cough, measles, influenza and diphtheria. In some instances, the headteacher had to quarantine children from the same families and burn ‘all books and articles used by the child’. Sadly, the deaths of several pupils and one teacher are also recorded.
Elsie Gilley successfully passed her examination to become a fully-qualified teacher in 1916, earning an additional distinction in mathematics. In October 1918, she was absent from school for a week after her brother, John R Gilley, was killed in action. Mr Lamacraft was also called up, ‘joining the colours’ during the summer months of the same year. Temporary headteacher Mr Luxton remarked in September that ‘Mr G.H. Lamacraft paid us a visit this afternoon as he was home on a short leave. The children were extremely pleased to see him.’ Mr Lamacraft was demobbed and returned to his post in January 1919.
Lamacraft, G.H., 1914-1919. Bovey Tracey Council School Log Book 1904-1918 [bound] Bovey Tracey Primary School Collection, 879OC/EFL/2. Exeter, Devon Heritage Centre.
Lamacraft, G.H., 1914-1919. Bovey Tracey Council School Log Book 1918-1942 [bound] Bovey Tracey Primary School Collection, 879OC/EFL/3. Exeter, Devon Heritage Centre.
Circa 1911. Headteacher Mr G. Lamacraft and teacher Miss Martin with class from Bovey Tracey Council School. [photograph] Mortimer Family Collection.
Circa 1914. Gilley sisters, Sarah, Elsie May and Annie Florence. [photograph] Mortimer Family Collection.