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Women’s stories from the First World War

Lady Jane Grey in her VAD nurses uniform at Stamford Military Hospital (Dunham Massey) Cheshire
Lady Jane Grey cared for injured soldiers at Stamford Military Hospital | © National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

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 many of the special places we care for have First World War connections.

A first-hand account of war breaking out

In the 1980s we recorded two interviews with Lady Jane Grey, of Dunham Massey in Cheshire, who recalls the First World War breaking out:

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.

A quote by Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane during the First World War

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 been given the job to do one forgets oneself.

A quote by Lady Jane Grey

Ellen Terry’s lucky letter case

Ellen Terry was a famous actress, performing for war charities during the First World War. 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 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.

A quote by Ellen Terry

The soldier was sadly 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.

Forgotten heroines of Barnbow

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’ making munitions in Leeds.

By 1916 the workforce at Barnbow numbered 17,000 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.

Persevering through tragedy

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 workforce 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.

Sir Henry and Lady Hoare with their son, Henry on 4 October 1912 at Stourhead, Wiltshire. An 18th-century landscape garden and Palladian mansion. Their son Henry died of wounds December 1917.
Sir Henry and Lady Alda Hoare with their son, Henry, who later died in battle in December 1917 | © National Trust

Sons who are soldiers

Lady Alda Hoare, of Stourhead in Wiltshire, 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.

A quote by Extract from Lady Hoare's diary

On Christmas Eve 1917 Alda received the news that her own 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 and prayed for his soul oh God, for strength to us, in our shattered lives. He was 29 last 30th July,' she wrote.

Alda never got over her son’s death, keeping his room just as he had left it.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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