Wartime Christmases in Sevenoaks

Mention Christmas and the First World War to most people and they’ll imagine some variation of Christmas truces, football between the warring sides and the seemingly general notion that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’. Certainly Cedric Gordon of the North Staffordshire Regiment wrote this to his mother from France in September 1914. But there would be a further three Christmas Days before the Armistice was signed and I want to look at what that entailed for the people of Sevenoaks, those at war and at home.

In 1914, the popular firm of S.Young and Co. used its regular advertisement in the Kent Messenger to promote its Grand Bazaar, setting the tone by asking the question: Christmas as usual? Why not?

There are thousands of soldiers and sailors to whom Christmas will mean more this year than ever before. There are thousands of children for whom Christmas would be as indeed if the old customs were not kept up.

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With so many local men away and large numbers of Belgian refugees in the town, as well as wounded servicemen at the newly established hospitals, fundraising was the order of the day.

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Patriotic Christmas cards like this were sent in 1914

Lord and Lady Sackville hosted a concert at Knole in aid of the St John’s hospital where their daughter, Vita, was Commandant. Held on the afternoon of 15th December, the concert featured some well known artistes, including Miss Phyllis Dare and Miss Constance Collier. Children of the estate workers were also invited to a Christmas tea on a Wednesday afternoon.

The troops billeted in the town were not forgotten and the Territorials Christmas fund raised £167 17s 5. which was distributed between 4th and 5th Loyal North Lancashires, 4th and 5th King’s Own, the Army Service Corps, and the Army Medical Corps and Divisonal Headquarters division. The remainder being given to the Soldiers’ and Sailors Families Association.

Letters sent home were regularly forwarded to the Sevenoaks Chronicle to be reproduced for popular consumption. In 1914 Private F G Saxby of G Company 4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment wrote to local recruiting officer Captain H W Knocker

I am pleased to say that I am quite enjoying myself in my new life. The fellows here are a very sociable lot. The food we have is very good indeed and I have no doubt Major Laurie looks after G Company as well as any.

Our 1st Lieutenant is the Reverend Percy Thompson’s son, and our Second Lieutenant is Archdeacon Dunkerley’s son of St John’s.

I expect to get home for Christmas and I hope I shall as I have always spent it at home up till now. We have some very nice route marches of sixteen to eighteen miles and come home very tired, but full of fun. We have a football XI and are going to play for a cup and shield among the Companies. After all, army life is not all bad.

In January 1915, the Sevenoaks Chronicle printed an article by Thornton Shaw on How Our Troops Fared at Christmas. The article was in fact more of a guide to the men of the north and what was perceived as their strange habits.

“You have got to know the average Northerner before you can hope to understand him. He is, by nature, hardy and brusque, he often omits to lift his cap (which he wears in great preference to a bowler hat) to his lady friends and when he is not on military duty he has an inherent objection in saying “sir” to anybody on earth. But he possesses a heart as big as the wide world itself…”

He continued

“And if some of them seem just a little bit uncouth you must forgive them. And they have done Sevenoaks heaps of good in the matter of trade. Ask any tradesman you like…”
Shaw noted that the residents of Sevenoaks had raised £710 to ensure that the soldiers present in the town during Christmas enjoyed the festivities, with lavish amounts of food and entertainment; one contingent of 25 men “polished off an entire pig between them…as my informant (an officer) laughingly remarked ‘only a collier could have done it’”.

All of the men, wrote Shaw, were grateful but also wistful for the lives they had left at home, one corporal remarking, as he posted home a box of chocolates to his wife
“Ah’d reyther ‘uv bin up at whoam, if ah’d had nowt but kippers”.

News sometimes arrived home from Sevenoaks men being held as prisoner of war. One such man was twenty year old Albert Hayward, the son of William, an old soldier and his wife Jane, who resided at 13, Buckhurst Avenue, Sevenoaks. Albert was working as an apprentice printer before the war and enlisted in London in November 1914. He fought at Ypres With 2nd Battalion The Buffs, where he was taken prisoner in April 1915.

The Chronicle carried a report in January 1916 under the title A Sevenoaks Soldier in Germany, Xmas in an Internment Camp, which featured a postcard that Albert had written to his parents:

Just a hurried line to thank you for the two parcels which I received in quite good condition. I think I told you that the pudding was quite good, and that the cigars were quite nice and mild. I enjoyed my ‘Xmas quite well under the circumstances. My chum and I had a tin of mutton chops, ‘Xmas pudding, beef and vegetables, for dinner. Of course we managed to forget nuts, oranges, apples etc. the ‘boss’ gave us a bag containing 50 cigarettes, buns and lbs of apples; we also had a ‘Xmas tree decorated up, and we were allowed one bottle of lager beer, which was half the dinner. I hope you all had a very enjoyable ‘Xmas and New Year, and good weather, for we have had some heavy falls of snow lately, but it has changed to rain now. Please tender my thanks to the Rev J Rooker for the card he sent me of the Parish Church. I hope you are all as well at home as this letter leaves me – in the best of health.”

Albert saw one more Christmas before he died as a result of his diabetes in Otcober 1917. He is buried in the Niederzwehren Cemetery in Hessen, Germany and both brothers are remembered on the family grave at St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks.

Throughout the war years, the Chronicle reported how Christmas was spent in the local VAD hospitals, where staff and patients celebrated the festive season together. In 1916, the large ward at Cornwall Hall was decorated with holly and laurel. Another ward featuring ‘a model of a gigantic Zeppelin, with excellent models of aeroplanes in close proximity to it’.

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The paper printed a letter from A PATIENT, who outlined what he and his fellow patients had enjoyed

On Christmas Day, after many of the nurses and patients had attended Divine Service at the Parish Church, there was an incessant round of festivities, commencing with a splendid dinner, served in the large ward (cooked at the Royal Crown Hotel, through the kind thoughtfulness of Mr Marshall). Crackers and flowers made the tables look inviting, but when the board was covered with turkeys, mince pies, plum puddings and dessert, the effect was greatly increased.

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At St John’s Hall hospital,

The festivities began in the early morning with the good old custom of Santa Claus, each man waking up to find  bulging sock in his bed; a surprise provided by the staff and much appreciated by the patients.

In the afternoon, after a typical Christmas tea, there was the stripping of a fine Christmas tree laden with gifts of all kinds, both or the staff and patients. A first-rate football from the nurses to the patients caused much applause as being a happy omen of future victories.

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In its 1918 Christmas editorial, the Chronicle noted that despite the still somewhat dimly lighted streets, Sevenoaks has been wearing during the past week or so, a cheerier aspect. The Christmas of 1918 promises to carry with it some of the old-time gaiety. Peace on earth has a greater meaning than, perhaps, it ever had before.

 

 

 

Fundraising and friendship – Belgian refugees in Sevenoaks

How we respond to a refugee crisis is one of the biggest questions of our own time and so I have been curious as to how Sevenoaks responded the last time the country saw a significant influx of refugees – how did the town cope, what did the refugees do, how was life altered?

The presence of significant numbers of Belgian refugees from 1914 onwards is a lesser known fact of the war in the public consciousness but there is plenty of evidence available to help answer these questions.

In 1914, the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported, in its Friday 16 October edition that

Since the fall on Antwerp, the Belgian refugee has really begun to make himself felt as part and parcel of London’s population; we may fairly add, of Sevenoaks population too.

Over the next few weeks and months, the paper highlighted how local people were  engaged in raising money and collecting clothes for the refugees already in their midst. On 23 October, the Chronicle reported a whist drive being held in the Weald for the destitute Belgians Fund, while Mr Frank Robinson let it be known that the cinema was admitting Belgian refugees and soldiers in to the mid-week and Saturday matinee for free, to see such films as A Sporting Chance and the patriotic Your County Needs You.

The same edition of the paper carried names of some of the first refugees to arrive as well as those Sevenoaks residents who had opened up their homes to receive them. Madame de Chauvaux-Marlier, together with her four children and two other adults were staying at Bulimba, the grand residence of the Hemmant family, Mdme Chainage-Rooms of Liege was staying at Ashgrove with her children, and Mrs Hawkes, an English refugee from Insterburg, was staying at 10, Eardley Road, her husband being interned at Spandau fortress.

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List of refugees published 23 October 1914

J S Richardson, Secretary of the Working Committee of the Sevenoaks War Relief Fund (who was later to be killed on active service and is remembered on the town war memorial) wrote to the paper asking for those hosting or otherwise responsible for any refugees in the town, to register them by completing a form to aid in the compilation of a national register.

A letter also appeared in the paper from Mr Swanzy, Chairman of the Urban District Council.He appealed for more means to deal with the “present and future needs of the Belgian Refugees in Sevenoaks”. Swanzy noted that

Were it not for the brave resistance of the countrymen of these exiles France would probably now be completely over-run by the common enemy and the prospects of the Allies very different to what they are to-day. Try to imagine what we would feel, if, like these people, we were fugitives with no means of livelihood for the future. In most cases they have the terrible certainty that their homes are wrecked and they stand stripped of practically everything.

We cannot exploit the sorrows of our guests. They are here in our midst, representative of every class, members of the aristocracy, tradesmen, artisans and country people. All alike in having lost everything.

The paper also recorded the number of wounded Belgian servicemen who had arrived in Sevenoaks and the surrounding district, noting that “some of them are really in an awful state of depression, through the loss of the greater part of their families and homes”.

Belgian soldiers were accommodated at the local VAD hospitals, including Cornwall Hall and St John’s and the names of many were listed.Thanks to the Cornwall Hall archive, we know what some of these men looked like, however, although a handful were named in the albums, no surname was given.

 

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List of wounded Belgian soldiers in St John’s VAD hospital, published 23 October 1914

According to the Chronicle

At the Cornwall Hall, one soldier was of a regiment which went out 1,400 strong and got cut up by the Germans, only 300 managing to get back to the Belgian lines. He was one of the 300, and he tells how he went over the German trenches in which it was estimated there lay between nine and ten thousand dead Germans. Another tells of how he fell into German hands but managed to escape. He had a terrible wound in his hip and a broken arm.

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Photos from the Cornwall Hall archive

At St John’s Hall, there were 33 Belgian patients under the Commandant, Miss Lambarde

The Chronicle again

The patients at this excellent hospital are all Belgians and, in spite of their great troubles, they can be heard happily singing to the tune of a gramophone. Some of them are playing cards, while others eagerly scan the contents of a French journal. The nurses…are doing excellent work, and are very grateful for all the gifts that have been sent, but we understand that all types of dried grocery and perhaps meat would be most acceptable. At this hospital it has been necessary for three operations to be performed, but the patients are progressing favourably.

The paper also carried the story of how one young Belgian soldier had not seen his brother since the start of the war and had thought him missing or injured, but discovered that he was also in Sevenoaks and was able to be reunited with him.

The generosity of the people of Sevenoaks even came from abroad. Bessie Styles, a young woman, formerly of Seal near Sevenoaks, who had emigrated to America, wrote to the vicar of St Mary, Kippington, asking for him to publicise the fact that together with her sister, Florence, she had collected £9 10s 4d from American donors, including one German who undertook to aid her collection. She asked that the generosity of her donors be publicised locally to reassure them that funds raised had reached the intended recipients and so the Rev Thompson had her letter published in the Chronicle in December 1914.

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Bessie Styles wrote home about the fundraising for Belgian refugees amongst her American friends

A few weeks earlier the Chronicle sent an undercover reporter to chat informally to some of the wounded soldiers and refugees, who, he noted had begun to have “picked up quite a serviceable smattering of English and are now able to make themselves understood”.

Taking into account the many fundraising events, appeals for food and clothing, all of which were well responded to by local people, the paper concluded

Neither in the hospitals nor in the circles of private families throughout the land do we believe that the brave Belgians are being better treated than here in our own town.

This certainly seemed to echo the sentiments of many of the new Belgian residents. On Christmas Day 1914 at the Cornwall Hall hospital, Dr Mansfield was presented with a framed drawing by the Belgian soldiers, which had been drawn by one of the patients, George Dubois. Mrs Mansfield received a small silver stamp box and Mr Fred Keisen addressed the assembled, first in French, then English

For the first time in our lives and in consequence of the grave events which are taking place at the present moment in our beloved country, we are on this holy day which commemorates the birth of our Saviour, far from our homes and families. Although this festival has not in Belgium the significance which characterises it in England, it is for us a day of great joy, for we are always at this season of the year in the bosom of our family. Our grief is great but great is your kindness, for it is in these cruel moments that you have done for us all that was humanly possible to soften our exile, and we thank you very sincerely.

Belgian refugees remained in the town for the duration of the war. They were found homes, supported with food and clothing, helped, where possible, into employment and the people of Sevenoaks maintained the generosity of spirit and fundraising that had welcomed the very first arrivals.

In July 1916 the Sevenoaks Belgian Refugees’ Fund (which had been set up to coordinate relief) published its regular report. The report stated that since its foundation the Fund had “entirely supported or partially assisted over 80 persons” – and individuals had been assisted in a variety of ways, including one disabled soldier, crippled with rheumatism for whom electrical baths had been prescribed. The man had been sent, together with his young family, to Tunbridge Wells to receive this treatment for two months, in the hope that he would be able to work as a chauffeur.

There were some discordant notes. The same report noted King Albert’s request that his countrymen should be found employment rather than forced onto charity and the Fund recorded that

…we have attempted to comply with His Majesty’s request. In this, to our great regret, we have found ourselves hampered by the refusal of several Sevenoaks workmen to permit a Belgian among them.

Though in general, the evidence points to the respect and welcome that Belgian refugees received in Sevenoaks. As ever, news was anxiously awaited of local men serving with the forces and one report from a local soldier highlighted the reciprocal nature of care between the two nations. The Chronicle reported that Percy Ellman, nephew of local resident, Alfred Ellman, had written home to say

My battery was gassed and we lost temporarily a 47 gun. I got lost after the ‘scrap’ for two days but I found a real good Belgian Samaritan, who gave me rest and food and told me he was only returning the kindness shown to Belgian refugees in England.

Support for the refugees in the town continued unabated until the Armistice. The Chronicle reported that many Belgians joined with townspeople in services at the Catholic church to mark the end of the warThere is little evidence to suggest how and when the refugees and wounded servicemen left the town after the end of hostilities. Possibly some kept in touch with their host families and friends they had made. The arrival of so many refugees in the town in the early days of the war was perhaps a stark reminder of the reality of war and how communities are easily displaced, forced to flee with what they could carry. The people of Sevenoaks rose to the occasion, welcoming those who had fled their country and supporting them throughout their stay.

 

 

Nursing at Cornwall Hall

A real treasure trove of information on some of the women of Sevenoaks who worked as nurses during the war is the archive of material left by Kathleen Mansfield, Commandant of the Cornwall Hall VAD Hospital. IMG_2286

Kathleen Mansfield

She was born Kathleen Lilian Clark in October 1885 in Portadown. Kathleen attended Sidcot Quaker school and went on to train as a nurse at Almondsbury Memorial Hospital, north of Bristol. In 1910, she married Dr Percy Mansfield, a family doctor in Sevenoaks and they went on to have four children.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment, commonly known as VAD, was founded in 1909 to provide field nursing services both at home and across the Empire. Kathleen Mansfield joined in 1912 and soon held the post of Lady Superintendent. When a VAD hospital was set up at Cornwall Hall near where the couple lived, Kathleen joined  and became the Commandant, joining husband Percy who was already working as the Medical Officer. Other hospitals were established locally at St John’s Hall in Hollybush Lane, at Wildernesse and on the Combe Bank estate. Vita Sackville West of Knole worked at St John’s, together with (Bridget) Aurea Lambarde, of Bradbourne Hall.

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Staff and patients at Cornwall Hall

Kathleen and her husband served throughout the war, tireless in their work to care for those that arrived at Cornwall Hall, from the Belgian refugees who began to arrive in Sevenoaks in late 1914, to the wounded servicemen who were sent to convalesce throughout the war. Fortunately, Kathleen kept meticulous records, including photographs and letters from the servicemen, with names and service numbers carefully inscribed. The archive also includes some wonderful photos of the nursing staff, who were mainly drawn from the local upper and middle class families of the town, as well as photos of sports days, fancy dress parades, Easter and Christmas celebrations. All of this material, including the glowing testimony of many of their former charges now returned to the Front and recalling the care and comfort that they had received, speaks of the dedication and compassion of the Commandant and her nursing team. Kathleen was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1917 in recognition of her service. DSC_0253

Staff and patients congratulate the Commandant on her honour

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Telegram from Buckingham Palace regarding her investiture

Kathleen Mansfield died in 1962, surviving her husband by twelve years. Thanks to her family, who have carefully preserved her scrapbooks and given permission for the material to be shared in support of the Nursing Memorial, I will be researching many of those nurses and patients featured within its pages and sharing stories on this website.

One of the nurses featured throughout the archive, is Emma Snow Crump. Emma was born in 1873 in Devon and the 1901 census for Wales shows her working at the Monmouthshire Lunatic Asylum. Ten years later, the 1911 census shows that Emma is as a nurse at Sevenoaks workhouse in Sundridge. Emma Crump joined the staff at Cornwall Hall as a night nurse in October 1914 and stayed there throughout the war, becoming Sister in 1915, Matron in 1918 and Matron in sole charge, 1919. According to her records, she was paid 30/- per week in 1914 and by 1919 this had increased to £2 per week. Emma married in 1926 and lived on until 1952.

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Emma Snow Crump

I’ll be sharing more photos from the Cornwall Hall archive over the coming weeks. As ever, please do let me know if any of your family worked at or had a connection to Cornwall Hall VAD or any of the hospitals in Sevenoaks during the war.