Friday, May 22, 2020

Stirring the Devil's Porridge

Ask the average person what they know about Gretna in Scotland, just over the border from England, and most likely the answer will be that it's that romantic place where people used to elope to and get married over the blacksmith's anvil, i.e. Gretna Green. *

That is certainly true, but Gretna was also part of what was known as the "Debatable Land", a dangerous no-man's-land region between England and Scotland who had so often been at war with one another. In the 16th Century, it also became the haunt of the infamous Reivers who held no allegiance to either side and ruthlessly raided, pillaged and laid waste to much of the countryside on both sides of the Border. It wasn't a place where you would venture willingly.
In the early 20th Century, the region again became a deadly no-go zone as factories were built along the River Esk for the manufacture of munitions for the First World War. 

And so Gretna then became the place where they stirred the "Devil's Porridge", or Cordite.
Hand-mixing Cordite (note no gloves!)
Copyright Devil's Porridge Museum

This was a mixture of gun-cotton (nitro-cellulose), nitro-glycerine, sulphuric and nitric acids. When detonated in shells and bullets it would burn, produce gas and explode. 

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) who was said to have given the process the name of the "Devil's Porridge" when he was one of the few journalists allowed to witness the work in which women were employed to stir the stuff with their hands before it was packed and transported to shell-making factories elsewhere. At the peak of the War, up to 1,000 tons of cordite were produced every week.
Thousands of workers, most of them young women, were recruited to this work of "feeding the hungry guns". But like all munitions work it could be deadly. Turning the cordite with bare hands, their skin turned yellow due to the sulphur component and their bones suffered, with many of them having their teeth fall out.
Those female munitions workers who stirred that porridge are largely unsung and forgotten now but without them there would have been no shells, no eventual victory. 

At a time when women were grateful to have well-paid regular work as well as being of the firm belief they were doing their patriotic duty and contributing to the war effort, few of them were likely to have been troubled by any moral conscience in knowing that what they were stirring would go on to kill and maim millions. 

Getting right into it!
Copyright Devil's Porridge Museum

A lighter side to the deadly manufacture in these postcards:

(Images and information from the Devil's Porridge Museum in Scotland, also see the following links.)
* You can still get married at Gretna Green today if you so fancy!

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rebel Englishwoman: The Remarkable Life of Emily Hobhouse


Mention “concentration camps” and most people will immediately think of the Nazis and places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Ravensbruck and many others.

But once there were other concentration camps with very British-sounding names such as Balmoral and Belfast, Howick and Nigel. There was even one called America. These were located in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899-1902.

These camps were imposed by the British, under the command of Lord Kitchener, on the civilian population of South Africa. Initially set up as “refugee” camps they soon deteriorated into squalid and disease-infested open-air prisons. The numbers of women, children and elderly or sick men who died in tents in appalling conditions vary depending on your choice of reference material and which statistics you choose to believe, or whether they even bother to include the many thousands of unknown innocent black and mixed race individuals who were also incarcerated in separate camps after being swept up in this now largely forgotten war. Officially, it is said at least 27,000 died, but the record-keeping is unreliable and the figure is more likely to be over 50,000. 

Emily Hobhouse was the Englishwoman who first alerted the world to the horror of these camps. For her efforts, she was labelled as “hysterical” and even a traitor. Although she did have the support of a small group of influential liberal friends, she was overwhelmingly vilified, despised and loathed in her attempts to bring to light the conditions in the camps. In England and around the Empire no-one wanted to believe that the British were capable of such inhumanity, especially towards the families of their enemy. When she tried to return to South Africa, she was deported.

Eventually, her actions did bear fruit and there was a softening in attitude although the hierarchy did not include Emily when the suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, headed up a commission of ladies to visit the camps for themselves and recommend improvements. 

Emily made it her life’s purpose to promote the rights of women and the cause of peace at all costs, and her actions are beautifully detailed in this magnificent biography by ElsabĂ© Brits. With the aid of family archives hitherto unavailable to other biographers, the author reveals new information and delves deeply into the character of this committed and admirable woman.

Even after the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902, the camps continued for a long time as Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy meant there were no homes or farms for many to return to. Her efforts to create work for women and girls by way of introducing lace-making and spinning and weaving schools were remarkable. In spite of poor health and diminished funds, Emily continued to travel endlessly promoting peace and finding ways of helping those affected by war. 

During the First World War, she again embarrassed the British by flaunting European travel restrictions in order to liaise with senior Germans in attempts to organise a peace process, for which she was castigated severely and narrowly escaped imprisonment. After the war was over, she organised food for thousands of Germans left to starve in Leipzig. 

In spite of her enormous humanitarian efforts and commitment to peace, even today she still remains a controversial character with some (mostly conservative male) historians. Emily certainly had her faults in obstinacy and a refusal to compromise her ethics and beliefs, but the best summation of her came from her friend General Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa:

"Let us not forget Emily Hobhouse. She was an Englishwoman to the marrow, proud of her people and its great mission and history. But for her patriotism was not enough. When she saw her country embark on a policy which was in conflict with the higher moral law, she did not say: ‘My country, right or wrong.’ She wholeheartedly took our side against that of her own people, and in doing so rendered an imperishable service, not only to us, but also to her own England and to the world at large.
For this loyalty to the higher and great things of life she suffered deeply. Her action was not understood or appreciated by her own people … Emily Hobhouse will stand out … as a trumpet call to the higher duty … and loyalty to the great things which … bind together all nations as a great spiritual brotherhood …"
Today, Emily is still revered by descendants of the Boer women and children she strove to help and after she died in 1926, her ashes were buried at the base of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein.

A five star biography about a five star woman.

Detail - National Women's Monument, Bloemfontein
(Emily Hobhouse witnessed this very scene and worked with the sculptor in its design.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annie Egan and the Spanish Flu

Although plagues might not be one's choice of entertainment at the present time, I highly recommend this informative podcast by Michael Adams telling the story of nurse Annie Egan and how the Spanish Flu impacted on Australia.

Forgotten Australia

Thursday, February 27, 2020

'Even a Woman Can Do It'

First Officer Everard-Steenkamp was the last ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) Spitfire pilot to die in the line of duty shortly after the end of World War II. 

On 19 March 1946, while on a routine service delivery flight of a Spitfire XIV between Hampshire and an RAF base in Shropshire, the plane's engine inexplicably failed and it crashed into some trees at Button Oak at full speed. Death was instantaneous. 

Joining the ATA in 1944 and chalking up 4,000 flying hours in every type of aircraft available, Rosamund King Everard-Steenkamp was to become the first recorded woman to pilot a jet when it was still in the experimental stage. Wing Commander H. Bird-Wilson had asked her to fly the Meteor Mark III to show that "even a woman can do it". She reached the speed of 600km per hour. In her personal log book she recorded the flight with one word: "Wizard!"

Rosamund the pilot
(South African Military History)

As one of the often-unheralded female pilots of the ATA, Rosamund should be assured of her place in World War II history, but she was so much more. She had been a farmer, a qualified judge of Ayrshire cattle and a wool classer. She was an excellent rider and shot. In addition she was a musician but it is as an artist that she received her greatest acclaim. Her work is still in demand with art collectors today. 

Still Life with Erythrina Caffra,

Born on 20 July 1907, at Bonnefoi in the Carolina District of the Transvaal, South Africa, Rosamund was the second daughter of trader and farmer, Charles Joseph Everard, and his artist wife, (Amy) Bertha King. All the women in the family were destined to be artists of note. Rosamund's elder sister, Ruth, her daughter Leonora, and then granddaughter, Nichola Leigh, have continued the family tradition to the fourth generation. 

Rosamund the artist

To learn all about the Everard Group, please follow the link. The following is an extract from that website:

'Ruth and Rosamund had inherited their mother's adventurous and determined spirit. After their unorthodox education on a remote South African farm, the girls were taken to Europe to further Ruth's artistic and Rosamund's musical studies. Here they were exposed to the vibrant and stimulating Parisian Art scene of the 1920's. Ruth and Rosamund developed the same liberated and strongly independent spirit that characterizes other remarkable women of the era.
Uninhibited, unconventional and beautiful, on their return to South Africa in 1926, the sisters brought back something of the glamour of the jazz age to their farm on the highveld. Always the extrovert, with the latest Art Deco- inspired dresses and jewellery from Paris, Rosamund threw extravagant parties and Bonnefoi became the social hub of the region.
Rosamund's paintings of the time dazzle with the enjoyment of Clarice Cliff type colour. The landscape undergoes an artistic transformation in a Rosamund painting as the mountains and valleys become a decorative pattern of flattened and simplified forms.
Although a successful farmer, Rosamund could not adapt to the conventional role accorded to women in farming communities and so, in 1935, embarked on a career as an aviatrix.'

Rosamund had also studied violin at the Paris Conservatoire.  An extract from a biographical article about her in the South African Military History Journal has this to say:
 ' idealist, in search of truth and beauty, her music lifted her up to sing among the clouds and inspired her with a passion for flying. As she wrote in her diary, "I sometimes felt I was walking on the clouds."'
Rosamund took up flying with her brother Sebastian and came to love the landscape of the Transvaal with its:
'... panoramic views of the limitless, rolling veld where great billowing thunderheads came rolling over the green grass and the rainwashed sky was intensely blue.' 
Exhibitions of her paintings were held Europe in the 1930s to which she flew in her own de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft. After qualifying for a commercial licence, Rosamund took part in the Hendon Air Pageant and her solo tour of Europe and North Africa culminated in an official reception in Turkey where she was the guest of Kemal Ataturk

Rosamund and her plane

Komati Pool

After gaining her Navigator's and Instructor's licences, Rosamund flew aircraft deliveries in Kenya. At the outbreak of war, she became the official flying instructor at the Witwatersrand Technical College and trained many pupil pilots who later distinguished themselves in the South African Air Force. Together with other female pilots, she flew Lodestar passenger aircraft on the shuttle service between South Africa and Cairo. 

One of her students had been Hermanus N. F. Steenkamp whom she married in 1940. Sadly, their marriage was shortlived as her husband died in 1942 (exact cause unknown, but possibly as a result of either war service or accident). Rosamund felt his loss keenly and was convinced that an all-female flying war ambulance service could have saved the lives of many men like her husband, but her attempts to get this off the ground were met with official disapproval.

This extract from the biographical article gives us further evidence of her determination to have women aviators recognised:

'Hearing that the Russians employed women pilots, she decided to join the Russian Air Force. Getting a lift from the USAAF, she proceeded to Teheran, the wartime communication centre between the Russians and the Allies.
At the Russian military headquarters she met nothing but suspicion and distrust. Air Commodore Runciman and the British Ambassador, Sir Reader Bullard, with whom she lunched, advised her that, even if the Russians did accept her, they would not give her the work she wanted to do but would callously try to break her spirit. Thus, all her dreams and schemes to achieve a more effective role for women pilots in the war were once again frustrated.'

The closing paragraph of the article well sums up the amazing and courageous life of Rosamund Everard-Steenkamp:

It is significant that she met her end as a Spitfire pilot and thus emulated some of the immortals of the Battle of Brtain in her own 'finest hour'. Of Rosamund Everard-Steenkamp, talented musician, artist, agriculturist and flyer, it may be said, 'Whom the gods love, die young.'

Find-a-Grave, All Saints Cemetery, Maidenhead, Berkshire
Epitaph reads: Great-Hearted, Greatly Loved
Death has no dominion
over her.

Follow these links to learn more

Take a tour to the Abandoned Town of Bonnefoi

Artnet Collection of paintings by Rosamund.

South African Military History Society 

Auction prices for Rosamund paintings

Life with Art page on Rosamund

A book was written in 1980, The Women of Bonnefoi, but it is rare and copies are pricey.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Women to the Front: the Extraordinary Australian Women Doctors of the Great War


Discovering stories about forgotten or marginalised women from history continues to be one of my passions. For the last ten years or so, this blog has attempted to bring some of them to light, and so it is always an enormous pleasure to see others publishing such enlightening books that will reach wider audiences.

Although many people are still surprised to learn that there were women doctors who served during World War I, this was something I’d always known from an early age, due to the fact that my late aunt had been a nursing VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and she told me that she had worked with female doctors in hospitals on the island of Malta and on the Eastern Front at Salonika in 1917-1918. [See Note below.]

This book focusses on just twenty-four Australian women doctors who defied the prejudices and policies of the military establishment and made their own invaluable contribution to the war effort. Between them, they displayed extraordinary grit, determination and courage and saved untold numbers of lives yet their achievements remain shadowy at best. And when they returned home many had their experiences negated due to the attitudes of the time.

As the authors Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee state, neither the British nor the Australian National Archives carry any official service records for these women. They have had to rely on small collections of letters, diaries and other materials and it is impossible to know for sure how many Australian women doctors went to war. “The paucity of official records for the women … and the lack of sources generally, has meant that while some women’s experiences are relatively well documented, of others there are very few traces.”

The book is eminently readable as it weaves the experiences of these women within the timeline of the War at both the Western and Eastern Fronts, in the Mediterranean and Middle East as well as England and Scotland. Its last third contains more detailed biographical details of each doctor listed. With the aid of the index, this will be an invaluable resource for anyone researching a woman in particular to find out where and when she served.

This is a most important and worthy addition to the history of women in World War I and is highly recommended.

Note: Follow this link for extracts of letters written by Sgt. R.A. Hennel in which he mentions the “Lady Doctors” of Malta. 

Also see my earlier review of “Isabella and the String of Beads” by Katrina Kirkwood about another British woman doctor, Dr. Isabella Stenhouse. This book mentions Dr. Helen Greene who was a friend of both my aunt and Sgt. Hennel.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Life at the Edge of the World (Book Review)

Elizabeth Macarthur: a Life at the Edge of the World
Michelle Scott Tucker
Text Publishing
 (the cover shows the young Elizabeth and in the background Elizabeth Farm around 1826)

Those who are interested in early colonial Australian history will be familiar with the name of John Macarthur, who is credited with establishing the wool industry with stock descended from Spanish merino sheep. He is equally known for being a leader in the infamous Rum Rebellion in which he deposed Captain William Bligh (of “Bounty” fame) as the Governor. Macarthur also passed through the pockets of millions of Australia when the first $2 bill came out with his image imprinted on it.

Of his wife, Elizabeth, less is known, although she has given her name to the NSW Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute and a high school, and Elizabeth Farm is one of Australia’s oldest buildings open to the public.

For years at a time, John Macarthur was absent from the family’s properties around Parramatta and left Elizabeth to hold the reins. This book tells her side of the story.

Married in 1788 (the year the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales) 22 year-old new bride Elizabeth and her arrogant, but almost penniless, army officer husband John followed three years later and began to build their own empire “at the edge of the world”. 

Although she often longed to see her beloved Devon countryside again, Elizabeth would never return to England and devoted the rest of her life dealing with the many hazards and challenges of a tough and strange environment. Family issues had to be negotiated alongside pragmatic business ones. In her husband's absence, she had to manage both the household and business matters, attend to the employment of convicts. She personally oversaw the processes of wool production, including washing, baling and transport, as well as a breeding program to produce the best flocks.

With her cautious diplomacy, Elizabeth negotiated the inevitable feuds and jealousies common to all small insular societies. She endured booms and busts and tragic personal losses.  Yet through it all she continued to love a husband who was notorious for his recalcitrance and irascibility, and willingly deputised for him at a time when women of her genteel background were expected to be little more than decorations.

Elizabeth bore nine children, and progressively lost several of them before she herself died aged 83.  One of her sons was sent to England at the age of seven and died thirty years later without ever seeing his mother again. A daughter suffered from what might have been polio and needed constant care for many years. There would be no quiet retirement for Elizabeth, however, as John Macarthur increasingly suffered from insanity, finally being institutionalised. Through it all, Elizabeth persevered in her steady and competent way.

This biography is a fine and most fitting tribute to one remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Macarthur, c. 1845

Elizabeth Farm as it is today,

More here:

(Several photographs of Elizabeth Farm through the years)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Two girls in a lifeboat

When World War II broke out, there was a shift in the criteria for receiving a Lloyd’s Medal that was formerly “For Saving Life at Sea” and was changed to “For Bravery at Sea”. Only a handful of women received them.*

In 1942, the Blue Star vessel SS Avila Star was en route from Buenos Aires to England when she was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Azores in the North Atlantic. Those passengers who survived the initial explosions took to the lifeboats. Tragically, only one lifeboat was rescued after its passengers endured nearly three weeks at sea. The number of saved passengers was 29, although several more died in Lisbon in following days.

Among those few survivors were two young women, Mary/Maria Elizabeth (nicknamed “Johnnie”) Ferguson and Patricia Maud Traunter, born in 1923 and 1924 respectively. Both were daughters of Englishmen who lived and worked in South America and both were heading to England to sign up for the WRENs (Women’s Royal Naval Service) or the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).

Mary Ferguson was to receive accolades for her actions and bestowed with the BEM (British Empire Medal) as well as the Lloyd’s Medal for Bravery at Sea while Patricia did not receive any similar recognition although she went through the same ordeal.

Mary's exploits were told in a book published years later in 1963,  A Girl Called Johnnie: Three Weeks in an Open Boat by John Frayn Turner. Unfortunately it is very scarce and unavailable to me at present, but some of what it probably contains can be read online in Chapter 16 of another book by the same author, Fight for the Sea: Naval Adventures from the Second World War.

The preview does not include the full chapter, but it is astonishing that nowhere in the available pages is there any reference to the second woman, Patricia Traunter, being in the lifeboat as well!

Nor is there any mention of her in this detail from the Imperial War museum attached to an item that belonged to Mary Ferguson, although in her obituary in The Times of 8 July 2006, there is passing reference to Patricia Traunter, that the two women were as one when they “refused to accept any positive discrimination in their direction” and when offered more water than the men “stoutly declined it”.

Copyright London Times

This amazing struggle between life and death is dramatic in itself but one has to wonder as to what went on between the two female survivors to result in rather different stories in the newspapers.

This following article from the Daily Mirror of 15 November 1942 casts quite a different spin on the bravery of Mary Ferguson and in fact even goes so far as to make her look like the weak ninny of the pair. The newspaper image is difficult to read and the text too long to reproduce in full here but the two opening paragraphs display all the titillation for which the DM is famous:-

Two girls in a lifeboat … men dying, men going mad … alone on the vast Atlantic …

Patricia was in her slinkiest dance frock when the torpedo struck. That, a brassiere and panties, was all she was wearing when they dragged her, dazed and oil-smothered into one of the lifeboats.”

Being the DM, there are further references to how they were wedged close to men with their “flimsy frocks clinging wetly to their bodies” and how they had to slip over the side at certain times to discreetly attend to personal matters.

Mary Ferguson plays a subservient role to Patricia throughout the DM article in which Patricia is the nurse in charge. It looks as if she might have told the reporter that her female compatriot certainly didn't deserve any medals:-  

Johnnie Ferguson would sit all day staring into space and Pat Traunter had to slap her to keep her awake.” 

The last line though hints that Patricia’s state of mind was understandably shaky and perhaps her retelling of the traumatic adventure couldn't be relied on:-

She [Pat] is being treated for a strange, though temporary, mental affliction.” 

Clearly it is the surviving men who would have reported back to the authorities that it was “Johnnie” who demonstrated extreme bravery in the circumstances and deserved the medals. What they thought of Patricia, who knows. She may have done her bit too. It would take guts for anyone to survive three weeks in a lifeboat with diminishing fresh water and food supplies plus dealing with daily death and madness around you.

Other factors may have been at play as well, including the intractable British class system. Mary Ferguson had a posh Chelsea address whereas the Traunter family hailed from the working classes of Sheffield, Yorkshire. Even during the war, such social subtleties could make a big difference in who got recognition for their efforts.

As in The Times obituary, Mary Ferguson died in Rutland, UK, in 2006, apparently unmarried. However, an announcement in that same newspaper back on 14 February 1945 is for her engagement to Lieut. P E Marsh, RNVR, son of Rev Sidney Marsh of Ryde. For whatever reason the marriage did not eventuate. The obituary also states that Mary went on to become a personal secretary after the War and concludes: “She remained steadfastly reticent about her wartime exploit.”

An engagement notice also appears in some newspapers late in 1942 that Patricia was to marry a Welshman, Henry Griffith, who was serving in the Merchant Navy, but there was no subsequent marriage reported for this either, and instead she was married in 1944 to Lieut. Michael Timothy Hickie, destined later to become a Lieut. Commander in the Royal Australian Navy. 

From the records, it appears that Patricia had at least two children, but did not make the headlines again. She also died in 2006, her last address being in Australia - Kalaru, near Bega, New South Wales. 

Her husband Michael recently self-published a story of his life and access to this might verify some more facts about his wife’s role in the famous lifeboat event. 

Ferguson's WRNS uniform jacket, bearing her medal ribbons, is now an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum 

There is a plot here for an amazing drama of survival including possible rivalry and if anyone reading this can tell me more about the lives of either or both of the young women who survived the SS Avila Star, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

* See my earlier blog post on Victoria Drummond, another WW2 recipient of the Lloyds Medal