Women’s stories from the First World War
The stories of nurses, munitions workers and mothers of soldiers are less well known than tales from the trenches, but they all played a vital role in the First World War and no commemoration is complete without them.
Many of our special places have First World War connections. These women's stories are just a taster of what you can uncover on a visit.
‘Everybody was thrilled. It’s always unbelievable to think of it now…we had won the Boer War and we were going to mince up the Germans before Christmas. The whole country…cheered in front of Buckingham Palace.’
In 1917 Dunham Massey became Stamford Hospital and Lady Jane nursed the soldiers. She worked alongside Sister Catherine Bennett, who wrote: ‘I have never had a keener nurse than Lady Jane.’
The house was a convalescent home but, when necessary, surgery was performed there. Lady Jane attended one operation: ‘[The soldier] had a bullet in his brain and this had to be got out. I was given the job of shining a torch into the hole…in the brain…I saw the brain sort of pulsating and it was grey…You know you always wonder if you’re going to be a bit squeamy…but having being given the job to do one forgets oneself.’
From 1 March 2014 Dunham Massey will be transformed into Stamford Military Hospital, as it was in 1917. You can hear the full audio recording with Lady Jane on soundcloud.
Ellen Terry’s life included a 64 year stage career, three marriages and one elopement. She was a famous actress, performing for war charities during the First World War, and was ahead of her time in many ways.
One day, in 1917, she gave her little leather wallet to a soldier on a train who had given up his seat for her. Inside the wallet was a postcard showing a portrait of her. On the back of the postcard she wrote:
‘This old letter case has brought me luck I have had it for 24 years – will you mind it and keep it for luck. My best thanks for giving me your seat I have not even a cigarette to give.’
‘The soldier was killed and his effects were returned to his family. The letter case was donated to Smallhythe, Ellen’s home, in 1980 by the daughter of the young soldier’s fiancé. Sadly we do not know the name of the soldier. The postcard is heavily creased and stained by what could be blood or coffee.’
- Susannah Mayor, house steward
Eva White was just 21 years of age when Britain declared war on Germany. After the man she was intending to marry died at war she began work as a ‘Barnbow Lass’.
By 1916 the workforce at Barnbow numbered 16,000 and covered a 200 acre site. It was described locally as a ‘city within a city’. Eva’s days at the factory were long and arduous, working eight hours a day, six days a week, packing shells with explosives. It was dangerous work, a fact brought starkly to light in December 1916 when ‘Room 42’ of the factory exploded, killing 35 women and injuring many more. Despite this tragedy Barnbow’s work force returned to making explosives the very next day.
In 1917 Eva married the nephew of the game keeper at Nostell Priory. Their son George Hepworth, who is a regular visitor, says that she rarely spoke of the danger she had faced. Many thanks to George for sharing this story.
Learn more about the vital role played by women in the First World War at Nostell Priory on International Women’s Day.
Lady Alda Hoare, of Stourhead, regularly visited injured soldiers at a nearby Red Cross hospital. She became very attached to the injured, calling them her ‘soldier sons’, and even ferried those who were mobile to Stourhead for days out: ‘many of the men told us later they’d had the happiest times, at Stourhead, of all their times, since they returned from the French-front.’
- extract from Lady Hoare’s diary
On Christmas Eve 1917 Alda received the news that her son had died from wounds sustained in battle: ‘Tearless, I on the seat in window of South Lawn, where so oft from childhood till…he last left us, I watching him, I knelt & prayed for his soul oh God, for strength to us, in our shattered lives. He was 29 last 30th July.’
- extract from Lady Hoare’s diary
Alda never got over her son’s death, keeping his room just as he had left it. You can find out more about Lady Hoare and her ‘soldier sons’ at Stourhead from mid-March 2014.
‘November 1913 saw the start of the London “Season”. Making her debut into polite society that year was 18 year-old Stephanie Hyde Parker, only daughter of The Rev. Sir William and Lady Hyde Parker of Melford Hall. Stephanie had a beautiful red, leather-bound book, with her initials stamped in gold on the cover. This was probably a gift from her proud parents and in it she recorded the events she attended. As the storm clouds of war began to gather, the tone of the book became more serious, detailing friends who are serving in the forces and her life as a Red Cross Nurse.’
- Trudi Jeffs, volunteer at Melford Hall
Follow Melford Hall on Facebook or Twitter to stay up-to-date with Stephanie’s scrapbook story. Melford Hall will be mirroring the events of Stephanie’s story to put it into context and exhibiting pages of her scrapbook throughout the centenary. Take a look at the Melford Hall website for more information.