Stories of remarkable World War One women in the collections of Edinburgh Libraries

22 January 2018
August-1916---On-board-our-troopship-_-The-Hanspiel-_-42107.png On board our troopship ‘The Hanspiel’, August 1916
On the shelves of libraries and archives everywhere there are hidden lives waiting to be discovered. This article brings together the stories of three women from the collections of Edinburgh Libraries who each worked as a nurse during World War One.
Stories of remarkable World War One women in the collections of Edinburgh Libraries Images

Here we delve into their personal diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums to explore their extraordinary working lives.

1. Ethel Moir

Ethel Moir was 32 years of age when she volunteered along with her friend Lilias Grant to be a nursing orderly in one of Elsie Inglis’ overseas Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH). She was one of over 1,000 women who served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One (WW1). For Ethel, it was a chance for adventure. Her courageous spirit is captured in her writing as she recounts the hardships and setbacks with gutsy enthusiasm. After setting sail from Liverpool for Archangel in Russia, via the Arctic Circle, she describes her living quarters on board: 

“She's quite a small boat, and a fiend of a tub, very narrow in her bottom and in consequence rolls like fun! She's filthy too and of course has no accommodation for passengers; at present, I hate her like nothing on earth! ...we retired to our bunks and horrible rat-holes we found' em!”

The journey begins

Once they made land Ethel and her nursing colleagues had to transfer to a rickety old train to complete their long and arduous journey. On board, there seems to have been little sense of hierarchy amongst the women. Ethel writes in her diary: 

“We're getting near the Frontier now. Dr. Inglis has just been telling me that we are to be in the very thick of things, as we are to be with the 1st Serbian Division, which is right up at The Front. She says there's lots of work ahead of us, so that's grand. I'm longing to get started to work. We are such a jolly Unit - 75 in all.”

The 75 was made up of 4 doctors, an administrator, a transport officer, 16 trained sisters, 16 Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses and several ‘odds’ such as cook, sanitary inspector and secretary.

Many of the staff without medical qualifications served in the SWH at their own expense. It’s hard to appreciate the bravery all these women showed not simply by putting themselves in such a dangerous and stressful situation but by even declaring to family and friends in 1916 Britain that they intended to volunteer to go off to war. Many wanted to help serve their country and to preserve lives but they also hoped to prove that women should be treated equal and to further the campaign for women’s rights.

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2. Sheila Macbeth Mitchell

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell also served during WW1 as a nursing auxiliary overseas. Sheila had already discovered a taste for adventure when aged 18 she spent a year in Paris with her sister where she’d attended a music school. However, when she expressed an interest in becoming a P.E. teacher, her family didn’t approve of her intention to work. The arrival of WW1 enabled her to gain the independence she craved.

Sheila went to London to train to become a nurse. Her scrapbook gives an insight into life as a trainee nurse and the routines and programmes attended. It contains a printed syllabus of cookery demonstrations and practice sessions attended, starting with lesson one, a menu of milk jelly, custard pudding, beef tea (3 ways), scrambled eggs and wine whey and progressing to lesson number 12 and a menu of grilled chop and straws, fish soufflé, canary pudding and poached eggs. Her ‘Pupil-probationer’s timetable’ shows a full schedule from the 6.15am wake-up call to lights out at 10.30pm, Monday to Saturday. Prayers and housework were expected before leaving for the hospital to get to morning lectures and practical sessions.

Having completed her training, Sheila worked at the London Hospital in Whitechapel for 6 months before becoming a Special Military Probationer attached to Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services. After a short spell at Bagthorpe Military Hospital near Nottingham, she was sent to help out on a hospital ship evacuating wounded soldiers from the front.

The sinking of HMHS Britannic

On 21 November 1916, up late, Sheila was just starting her porridge when a large explosion was heard and she felt a “shiver right down the length of the ship”. The HMHS Britannic, sister ship of the Titannic, was passing close to the Greek Island of Kea, and had hit an underwater mine. The captain sent out a distress call followed shortly by an order to abandon ship.

“We did not realize that while we were hanging over the side of the ship, the whole of the fore part of her was under water – we might have been more frightened if we had seen it. The Captain called out to hurry as she was sinking fast.”

Britannic sank within 55 minutes of the impact, killing 30 people. 1,065 people survived, rescued from the water and lifeboats. The Britannic had carried enough lifeboats for all passengers and it was also fortunate the ship had been on its outward journey and had not yet picked up the wounded soldiers.

After a circuitous journey back to England, Sheila had two weeks leave before returning to nurse the wounded in a hospital outside Abbeville, France and then retreating to a make-shift hospital at Wimereux, near Boulogne.

“I was on night duty over half of every year – but preferred it as it meant real nursing – not scrubbing lockers and meals. I was usually in surgical wards as I was good at inventing beds to accommodate dressing of wounds”.

After the war, Sheila went on holiday to Switzerland where she met John Fowler Mitchell who was home from leave from the Indian Civil Service. The two married in 1920 and settled in India. A new chapter in Sheila’s adventurous life had begun.

3. Mary Morag Bird Cunningham

Mary Morag Bird Cunningham worked as a health professional in Edinburgh from 1911 until the 1940s. Mary’s photo album documents her working life throughout her long career and the changes in medical practice are easy to see. The album starts in the grand and imposing surroundings of Edinburgh’s Victorian Royal Infirmary and ends in a community health clinic. Stark changes are also evident in the nurses’ uniforms which develop from ankle-length starched white aprons, caps and collars in 1911 to knee-length white overcoats in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, Mary Cunningham left no written testimony of her nursing career and so we know little about her character or her life outside her work. Many of the pictures have no annotation, so we have few clues to tell us who else looks out alongside Mary from these pages of history or what occasion prompted the record to be taken. Some images seem very posed, particularly at the beginning of the album, but as time progresses they become less formal. From day one, there is a sense of pride and a happy working environment.

In 1911, she started her four years of nursing training at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She gained experience working in a variety of departments including Male and Female Surgical; Skin; Ear and Throat wards. At the end of her four years training, she is described in the nurse’s register as:

"A quiet, gentle and kindly nurse... she made an excellent special nurse". 

Serving the city of Edinburgh

Mary left the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh in 1915 to train at the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital to become a midwife. Then, after a short time as a private children’s nurse, in 1917 Mary became one of Edinburgh’s pioneering health visitors.

Edinburgh had a high child mortality rate, particularly in its poorer districts. Between 1911 and 1915, the death rate of children under five was 38.2 per thousand. The Child Welfare Scheme was established in July 1917 to oversee the well-being of all children in the city by recording data on every infant up to the age of four. In the midst of World War One, whilst the country experiencing heavy casualties abroad, there was an added impetus to preserve life at home.

Mary was one of ten women recruited to the role of professional health visitor to deliver this new scheme. They managed a team of 300 voluntary health visitors and helped establish a network of facilities including dispensaries, infant health centres, antenatal centres, a convalescent home, playcentres and kindergardens. The scheme enabled mothers to meet with other mums who could share and understand their situation. In the majority of cases the visitors gave advice and support, but where necessary they offered practical assistance such as help to buy clothing and food or medical treatment.

The Scotsman reported favourably on the inauguration of the new scheme and commented on the mothers’ appreciation:

“The visitors have been agreeably surprised by the welcome accorded to them in the homes. The traditional Scottish dourness has not been obtrusively in evidence.”

Mary's album contains pictures of child health clinics in Portobello and Prestonfield areas of Edinburgh where she worked monitoring and supporting child health. She also ran ‘mothercraft’ classes, teaching women how to care for their babies. The principles of the Child Welfare Scheme are commonplace today but were groundbreaking at the time and helped to reduce the infant mortality rate from 546 deaths in 1917, dropping to 189 by 1920 and down to 34 by 1950.

Capital Collections

Libraries play an important role in collecting personal histories. We know so much about Ethel Moir, Sheila Macbeth Mitchell and Mary Cunningham, their experiences and their contribution to healthcare because they left behind such vivid first-hand accounts. These stories were then collected by Edinburgh Libraries and the photo albums and diaries digitised allowing them to be made available to everyone.

You can explore and enjoy them in their entirety on Capital Collections, Edinburgh Libraries’ online image library. Browse the pages and photographs to find out more about these remarkable women and the lives they led.

(Sheila Macbeth Mitchell’s story is reproduced by kind permission of her family.)

[images: Mary Cunningham, holding two babies at Edinburgh Royal Maternity Hospital, 1914; On board our troopship ‘The Hanspiel’, August 1916; Sheila Macbeth Mitchell, c1916; Mary Cunningham with a mother and baby and doctor at a neighbourhood health clinic, c1935]

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