The war grave of Lily Scammell

By Ed Perkins.

In a quiet churchyard in Poole, lies the grave of Lily Emma Scammell, who died in the First World War.

Although commemorated as one of the war dead with her gravestone maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Lily did not lose her life as a result of enemy action. But though she may not have been a heroine, she was certainly a pioneer, who died when comparatively young.

For Lily served in the First World War as one of the earliest members of the Women’s Royal Air Force, joining it in 1918. And she passed away that same year of an abdominal infection at her home in Alder Road, Poole, at the age of just 45.

Lily was born in the village of West Tytherley in Hampshire, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Scammell. Thomas was a carpenter.

By the time Lily was seven, the Scammell family had moved to Poole, close to the Woodman Tavern in what is now part of Branksome.

Two years later, around the same time as the Scammells’ youngest child, Sidney, was born, the children’s father, Thomas, died, aged 49. He was buried in January 1883 at Branksome Park. His widow, Elizabeth, was left to look after their six children, including the new-born baby.

After she grew up, Lily, the oldest of two daughters, was to have a number of jobs. At 18, she was working as a housemaid at the home of a family, living in Burton Road, Branksome Park.

Ten years later, she is listed as a waitress at a restaurant and was now living back with her family at Firwood, Langley Road, in Parkstone, just off the Bournemouth Road.

Soon afterwards, Elizabeth, her youngest boy, Sidney, and daughter Lily moved to another home called ‘Ranelagh’ in nearby Alder Road. By now, Sidney was working on the corporation trams and Lily was in domestic service.

In 1914, the year the First World War broke out, Lily’s mother died at the age of about 74. Like her husband, she was buried in Branksome Park.

The war saw aircraft being used for the first time in conflict and, as the conflict progressed, more and more military planes were taking to the skies. Before the war ended, in the early spring of 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged to form the RAF, with the Women’s Royal Air Force alongside.

At the time of the merger, 9,000 women – many of whom were already in military service – joined the new WRAF.

Two months later, Lily Scammell, too, enlisted in the WRAF. Her age was recorded as 42, though she was three years older.

She had followed her younger brother into the service for Sidney served as a private in the RAF’s Kite Balloon Section.

Lily worked as a seamstress with the WRAF and was stationed at the Beaulieu airfield at East Boldre in the New Forest. Women in the WRAF had the rank of Member and she was given the service number of 9239.

RAF Beaulieu was a training airfield that expanded greatly during the course of the war. In the year Lily enrolled there it, it had huge aircraft hangars, workshops covering everything from carpentry to welding, and accommodation buildings that included one for specifically for women in the WRAF.

Many squadrons passed through the training airfield, some before going to the Western Front. Pilot training was dangerous in itself and 41 airmen are believed to have died in accidents at East Boldre.

Women carried out many tasks at RAF Beaulieu, according to the East Boldre Parish Council website .

‘By early 1918,’ it says, ‘women were performing several vital roles. Some were lorry drivers, or officers’ chauffeurs while others worked in the workshop, which was also on the north side of the road.

‘This workshop comprised a Sewing Room where the material was stitched onto the wings, and a Doping Room where the material was ‘dipped’ in stiffener. It was a terrible place to work due to the fumes given off by the dope.’

As a seamstress, it is likely that Lily Scammell worked in the Sewing Room.

Stitching on a First World War SE5a fighter. Lily Scammell would have been involved in this sort of work at Beaulieu airfield. Picture: East Boldre Village Hall & Geoff Tomlinson

Stitching on a First World War SE5a fighter. Lily Scammell would have been involved in this sort of work at Beaulieu airfield. Picture: East Boldre Village Hall & Geoff Tomlinson

Lily had enrolled for duty with 17th Wing at RAF Beaulieu on 3 June 1918. Just 80 days later, she died back at her Alder Road, Poole, home. Her younger sister, Ida, was at her side.

The cause of death was given as ‘Tubercular Peritonitis’ – an inflammation of the abdominal lining causing severe pain. Her death certificate also included the words ‘Five months’, suggesting she may have been suffering even before she joined up.

Her funeral took place days later with Lily’s brother, Frank, liaising with the War Graves Commission. The service was conducted by the Rev Charles Arthur Strange, a clergyman from St Clement’s Church in Boscombe, whose brother, the Rev Geoffrey Lionel Strange, was a minister at All Saints.

Lily was buried under the shade of trees in the north of All Saints churchyard at Branksome Park, not far from where her mother and father had been laid to rest.

Close-up of Lily Scammell’s grave, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Close-up of Lily Scammell’s grave, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

At St Nicholas’s Chapel in York Minster, her name is included in the roll of honour of more than 1,500 women who died in the First World War, recorded on oak panels on a screen.

York Minster memorial

York Minster memorial


The life and death of Gunner Cyril Coles

Cyril Coles was born near Poole on March 9th 1892 to William and Sarah Coles. He was active in the Skinner Street United Reformed Church and worked at his father’s mill in Creekmoor. He did not join up at the start of the war presumably because he was needed in the mill. In February 1916, with conscription in force, he was called up and joined the Machine Gun Corps in early April 1916 and then became part of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps. When soldiers joined this Corps they had no idea what they would be involved in. The reason? It was because of the secrecy surrounding the British invention – the tank.

The tank was just an idea on a drawing board in 1915 and the first prototype had only appeared in January 1916 but General Haig was eager to use the tank to support the Somme offensive that had begun so disastrously on July 1st 1916 with British casualties of 57,000 on the first day.

Coles was a member of ‘D’ Company which was one of the first tank units to be created. The rush to get them into action meant that crewmen received only around 10 weeks training. Lieutenant B. Henriques of ‘C’ Company remarked ‘it was obvious… we had not had sufficient training’.

 Coles was a gunner on tank D15 which was also known as ‘Duchess’; the number and name followed on from the tank being in ‘D’ Company. D15 was a Mark I female tank – a female tank was armed with machine guns while a male was armed with machine guns and two 6-pounder cannons. The tank weighed nearly 30 tons and had a crew of eight consisting of an officer, a driver, four gunners and two gearsmen. It was difficult work in unpleasant conditions. The armour was only 10mm thick and while it could stop a rifle or a machine gun bullet, it stood no chance against a hit from an artillery shell. The petrol tank was at the front of the tank and a direct hit resulted in a catastrophic fire. Armouring piercing bullets could go straight through the tank.

The first time a tank was used in conflict was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which began on September 15th 1916. Forty-nine tanks were to support the infantry by crushing the enemy barbed wire and destroying machine gun emplacements. Unfortunately, only eighteen were able to take part because of mechanical problems or they became stuck in a landscape of trenches and shell holes. One tank took nearly nine hours to get to the British front line from the Starting Point because the crew had to guide it through a maze that could collapse at any minute – a speed of around 0.4mph compared to the maximum of 4mph for a Mark I.

A damaged female Mark I tank. The wheels were supposed to help with steering but were a hindrance. The dark area on the ‘sponson’ near the machine gun was the escape hatch – there was another on the other side and one on top of the tank. By Kind Permission of the Tank Museum [Photograph 10572-113]

A damaged female Mark I tank. The wheels were supposed to help with steering but were a hindrance. The dark area on the ‘sponson’ near the machine gun was the escape hatch – there was another on the other side and one on top of the tank. By Kind Permission of the Tank Museum [Photograph 10572-113]

The infantry of the 41st Division was to be supported on September 15th by 10 tanks, including ‘E’ Group which was formed of D15, D2 and D19. The latter two became stuck in shell holes having not even reached the British front line and only D15 was able to take part in the fighting. D15 was travelling along Tea Lane when the tank suddenly started to erupt ‘clouds of smoke’. Artillery fire had hit the tank and damaged the steering which made movement impossible so that the crew had no choice but to abandon it. Coles and another crewman were killed by the enemy machine gun fire that enveloped the stranded tank; a third later died from his wounds. Cyril Coles is buried in Bulls Road Cemetery, east of Flers in France.

What would it have been like for Coles inside a Mark I tank in battle? He would have felt he was in a nightmare that affected all the senses.

  • Deafened by the noise of the engine (which was in the crew compartment), from the machine guns being fired and from the enemy bullets hitting the tank.
  • Suffered heat exhaustion through the heat from the engine and guns.
  • Found breathing difficult in an atmosphere of oil, petrol and cordite fumes.
  • Felt isolated. Visibility was through narrow slits which were targeted by rifle fire and sometimes 2-3mm holes were drilled through the armour so they could see out.
  • Showered by metal splinters that would fly about the inside of the tank when enemy fire hit the outside. The crewmen could protect themselves by wearing face masks made from leather and metal with chain mail that hung down over the lower part of their face. Although the masks offered some protection the eyepieces often had metal slits which further reduced the visibility.
  • Worked in semi-darkness. There was virtually no lighting inside a Mark 1.
  • Nausea because the movement of a tank over the battlefield was like being on a ship on a stormy sea.
  • Communication inside the tank was by hitting a hammer on metal work to attract attention and then using hand signals because of the noise. Often the tank commanders would struggle to know where they were in a featureless landscape that was ever-changing during an artillery bombardment.

The outcome of the battle was considered a failure by the British while the Germans considered it a British success. Enemy soldiers became panic-stricken when faced with a tank; ‘a crocodile is crawling about in our trenches’ said one. In contrast, the attitude of Allied infantry changed from cheering enthusiasm prior to the battle to one of cynicism and disillusionment.

While there were failures at Flers-Courcelette, the battle showed the potential value of a tank. The conditions were not ideal and those in charge of the tanks in one sector had advised against their use because the terrain was totally unsuitable but were overruled. The British continued to develop the tank and on November 20th 1917 the Battle of Cambrai rewarded this persistence when over 400 tanks went into action. A crewman was now trained over 16 weeks on the heathland around Bovington, Lulworth and Worgret in Dorset followed by more training in France. Also the Mark IV of Cambrai was a superior tank to the Mark I of Flers-Courcelette.

Read Cyril Coles’ profile on the First World War website

‘It’s not at all safe’ – experiences of the war

Passchendaele was described as ‘the battlefield [that] is nothing more than a cemetery’. Mud was everywhere and wounded men simply disappeared as the shell-holes in which they sought shelter filled with water from the incessant rain.  This is a typical impression of the First World War but what did the men who were fighting feel about their experiences?

The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper occasionally contained extracts from letters that were either sent directly to the newspaper or came via relatives of servicemen. Many men sent letters that were collated in local Parish Magazines, such as for St Michael’s Church, Hamworthy. The Rev. E. Hounslow, Rector of Hamworthy, would sometimes send extracts to the Herald for publication. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project has explored the local newspaper and from these personal letters we can learn a lot about life at the front as experienced by men from Poole and the Dorset Regiment. Virtually all the writers of the letters survived the war.

Soldiers marching along Poole Quay

Soldiers marching along Poole Quay. From the collection of Poole Museum Service

Sergeant C.T. Southwick, of Parkstone, wrote to his father in late 1914 that he had had a good voyage across the Channel. This was followed by a nights rest and then a long, but ‘interesting’, journey by train. They rested for three days and then had to march for three days. Rain and mud was everywhere but ‘everything is too interesting to be dull’. They had plenty to eat but the food was too salty which made them thirsty and water was scarce and often unfit to drink.

Private G. Allen, 1st Dorsets, was a reservist from Poole and worked at Doulton’s Clay Works, Hamworthy. He was called up on August 5th 1914 and by the 14th he was at Mons on the Western Front. A bullet penetrated his thigh but it was only a couple of days later that he became aware of the injury when he was wounded by shrapnel in one of his lungs. He was transferred to a hospital in Brighton by the beginning of September 1914. When interviewed at his home in Poole in October he was disinclined to talk about his experiences. He mentioned that it had been ‘very trying’, that he didn’t think much of the German soldier’s ability to shoot, and British soldiers were made very welcome in France and Belgium.

In contrast is the experience of Captain Viney of the Dorsets who wrote, in December 1914, that the trenches which his unit occupied were ‘wonderful’. They were 400yds from the German lines and were a myriad of passageways in which it was easy to get lost. He described going to see the Colonel’s dugout which was about 8ft square and carpeted with straw, sacks and carpet. It was heated by a charcoal stove and a sack was used to ensure no light was seen. There was a kitchen and his orderlies had a separate dugout. Interestingly, officer’s dugouts were on the opposite side of the trench to the men’s. One officer had hewn two beds out of the clay and added a large mirror and shelving to his dugout – the officer was reading the newspapers from Britain when Viney visited him. ‘It was really a most extraordinary show’ said Viney.

Many men describe their experiences of being under fire. In a letter from Private A Hynard, of Parkstone, to his cousin he talks about the noise and that ‘it is not at all safe’. He said that the German shells sound as if they are singing when they go through the air. Enemy shells nicknamed ‘coal-boxes’ make ‘a hole big enough to sleep in. If they hit you you don’t need sleep’. He is also remarkably open about the losses they had suffered. Lance-Corporal P.G. Pilbrow, Dorset Regt., felt that being at the front ‘was like being in a glass bottle in a rifle range’. He said that the Dorset Regiment had lost a lot of men and that it was now ‘a mere company’.

Bandsman A.J. Gambier wrote to his brother, Poole Councillor E.E. Gambier, to say that shells were flying everywhere whilst he was writing the letter. Shrapnel ‘fell like rain….only a bit harder and bigger’. Sergeant C.J. Hodge wrote that the mud was very bad, but that the shooting ‘is fine practice for Poole Fair’ and he expected to do very well at the shooting gallery in November. ‘It is quite exciting at times’ and when a shell lands in an enemy trench the ‘fireworks’ are ‘picturesque’ at night.

A frequent theme of the letters is the desire for food and tobacco to be sent to the writers as well as, surprisingly, the local newspaper. Private H.F. Sartin’s letter in October 1914 was the first indication that he was safe after being listed as missing. After commenting how he thought the war could last for years, and about the incessant marching, he ended by saying he would be ‘everlastingly grateful’ if he could be sent some cigarettes.

P Brown, from Poole on HMS Sirius, thanked the Poole and East Dorset Herald in May 1917 for sending him the ‘Herald’. He was full of praise for the munitions workers at Messrs Knight & Co of Hill Street, Poole but not so for conscientious objectors. Rifleman W.H. Mitchener, of Hamworthy, also said he welcomed receiving the newspaper whilst he was on the Western Front. He carried several old issues in his pack which other Poole men were glad to read when he met them. In his letter he said he hadn’t received a newspaper for three weeks which he greatly missed although he did realise that fighting the enemy was probably more important!

In early December 1914, Private P.E. Dyer, Scots Guards, sent a letter to his mother telling her that he was still alive, that it was very cold, and there was plenty of food but it was ‘plain’ and he wanted her to send him ‘something tasty’ such as cake. In another letter, he thanked his mother for the welcome food she had sent him. He said it was cold and rained every day. He then told her he had a bit of luck in that a bullet went through his helmet – a bit lower and he would have been ‘out’. He was killed not long afterwards on December 18th 1914.

In startling contrast is the experience of Private W.J. Franklin from Poole and serving in India with the 2/4th Dorsets. His description of his Christmas Dinner of 1915 – the menu was soup, fish, turkey, potatoes, cabbage, Christmas pudding, mince pies, beer, lemonade, oranges, and nuts – must have left many feeling very envious.

Nurses and convalescent servicemen

Nurses and convalescent servicemen. From the collection of Poole Museum Service

Many men sent letters from hospital to let everyone know how they were. Private Percy W. Buckmaster, 1st Dorset Regt., wrote to the Secretary of Poole Football Club to say he had been wounded five times in the leg but that he was ‘going on famously’ and was in a hospital in Chelsea. He said that the closest he had come to death was when piece of shrapnel went through the top of his helmet but missed his head.

Private W.L.K. Penny wrote to his mother who lived on Old Roman Road, Broadstone. He had been wounded on October 13th 1914 at Le Bassee and was now in a hospital in Brighton. He had to have a leg amputated but was grateful to be alive. He wrote that most of the men in his section had been killed in the action. He had to crawl for around 150 yards and then realised he had to run if he was to survive. He and another man got to a barricade where they thought they would be safe but there was only space for one person to get through. Penny got through first but the man behind him was killed halfway through the gap.

Private J. Baker, of Waterloo, Poole, fought with the 1st Dorsets at Le Bassee and Lille. He was wounded 13 times on the same day as Private Penny. He pretended to be dead when German soldiers moved forward and at night he crept towards what he hoped were the British lines. An officer in the Devon Regiment found him and he was taken to hospital and eventually returned home as an out-patient at Cornelia Hospital, Poole.

A few men described the exhaustion they experienced. E.W. Keech was a Driver in the Army Service Corps and his unit consisted of 75 London buses to carry troops, 3 cars for officers and 6 motor cycles for despatch riders. He commented that the roads were in a bad state and that trying to stay alert after driving 14 hours or more was difficult.  Private H.F. Sartin of the Royal Army Medical Corps said he was very busy and sometimes had to get by on as little as 10 hours sleep in a week.

Not surprisingly, a common topic was about life in the trenches. F.C. Barnes, of Hamworthy, wrote to the Parish Magazine and was one among many that said it always raining. He also reported back on meeting fellow Hamworthy men. Rifleman W. Mitchener described his experiences of rats. He said the best way to get rid of them was to put some cheese on the end of the bayonet and when the rat started eating – pull the trigger. The mud was awful and up to his knees so it was very difficult trying to lie low when the shells started flying.

Trench foot was a common problem. Sergeant C.T. Southwick described his experiences of Neuve Chappelle in May 1915. He said he had not taken his boots off for 11 days so his feet were ‘rather sore’; also he had had only two proper baths in four and a half months. Hamworthy resident, Harold Chaffey was reported in the Parish Magazine as being treated for ‘foot trouble’ after a time in the trenches. A man suffering from trench foot would lose sensation in his foot; it would then swell, feel ‘dead’ and then start to ‘burn’. Men either had to crawl or be carried to the medical facilities. A major problem early on in the war, it became less serious when oil was applied two or three times a day – assuming that was possible.

For many men, unless they had been in the Regular Army serving in the Empire, this was their first experience of being abroad. As well as describing their own experiences they would often comment on the local life of the countries they were either travelling through or were based in. Rifleman William Mitchener wrote in 1916 to say that he had enjoyed travelling through France and ‘would advise’ anybody who enjoyed scenery ‘to join the Army’.

Early in 1915, Private F.A. Sherwood wrote to his parents about the sea voyage to India. He said that it was very hot on the journey. He thought that the Suez Canal was not as wide as between Poole and Hamworthy and that Port Suez had a seafront ‘much prettier than the one at Bournemouth’. After they passed through the Canal a rumour went round the ship that peace had been declared. He ended his letter saying he was looking forward to walking on land.

George Mitchener (brother of William) of Hamworthy sent a photograph to the Parish Magazine of himself on a camel which he found riding ‘bumpy’. He also wrote that he was looking forward to receiving the Hamworthy Parish Magazine for news of his mates. Sidney Short, also from Hamworthy, was in Mesopotamia and said it was very hot during the day and very cold at night. When the ground got wet it became like the Lake clay pits of Hamworthy. He was part of the Royal Flying Corps and died on November 4th 1918. Sidney White, another Hamworthy man, got sunstroke and enteric while in Mesopotamia and was transferred to a convalescent hospital in India. Part of the journey involved a 75 hour train ride.

Private L. Cartwright, Wiltshire Regiment, was based in India. He also comments in his letter on the heat and how it got very cold at nights. Cartwright was part of the guard duty at Kirkee Arsenal, which was one of the largest in India, and its associated ammunition factory. After 2 hours of patrolling around the outside he was glad to get in a bit of shade. They also had to be careful of jackals and cobras. He commented that the grounds of the Arsenal had so many trees and flowers that it was like being in a ‘park’.

In 1915, Private S Perry, from Poole, described, in some detail, a football match played in Ahmednagar by D Company 4th Dorsets against a team of German POWs. The British side was made up of former players from the Poole teams of Longfleet St Mary’s, St Aldhelms, Carters’, Adult School, Tramways, Gasworks, Poole Swifts and Upton. The Dorset team beat the Germans 3-1 after an entertaining match ‘of a most exciting character’. Private E. Rigler also wrote to the newspaper about a series of football matches played by a team from D Company of the 4th Dorsets. Their victories were over the local Kirkee Arsenal teams of Ammunition Factory Rovers (3-1) and Kirkee Rangers (4-0). When the Dorsets transferred to Ahmednagar they beat the Oxford Light Infantry 4-1.

What was unexpected in researching this post was the extent to which soldiers received, and looked forward to receiving, the local newspaper  and the part that, for example, the Hamworthy Parish Magazine played in keeping men in touch with families and other serving men.



Dramatic Rescue of Japanese Crew by Poole Lifeboat

The Treaty of Versailles ordered the surrender of the German U-boat fleet and, in several instances, the submarines were given to the Allies as part of compensation for the war. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project describes the dramatic rescue off Poole of one such U-boat.

The ex-German U-boat U 143 was on its way from Portland to Japan when it became stuck on Hook Sands, which are near the entrance to Poole Harbour, in the early hours of January 8th 1919. It had a Japanese crew and was being accompanied by the Japanese destroyers ‘Kashiwa’ and ‘Kanran’. The submarine had approached the coast because it was having problems with its engines and found itself driven onto the sandbank during a gale. The destroyers were unable to get to the submarine because of their draught. For the same reason, the ‘White Oak’, a Portland naval drifter, was not able to help and assistance from the Poole lifeboat was requested by the Portland naval authorities.

Around 11 am on the 8th, the ‘White Oak’ went into Poole to tow the RNLI lifeboat ‘Harmar’, to Hook Sands. The ‘Harmar’ was 37 ½ feet long, was a self-righting lifeboat with twelve oars, and was the last sailing lifeboat stationed at Poole. It cost just over £1,000 – a legacy from the late George J. Harmar of Kensington, London.

The 'Harmar' in the Lifeboat slipway, Fishermans Dock. Notice the lack of protection from the weather.

The ‘Harmar’ in the Lifeboat slipway, Fishermans Dock. Notice the lack of protection from the weather.

A high tide was beginning to raise the submarine off the sands but the sea was still running very heavily. In difficult conditions, the lifeboatmen were able to get towing wires onto the submarine and then pass them back to the ‘Commerce’, a tug which was helping in the rescue. However, the high tide passed with the submarine still stuck. The Japanese crew could not leave without orders and so the ‘Harmar’ had to remain on-station using the ‘Kanran’ to provide some protection from the rolling waves. Meanwhile the other destroyer had gone into Poole Harbour to have the hawser, which had been used to tow the U boat, removed from a propeller. The Mayor of Poole and Commander Ward of the Naval Base made an official visit to the destroyer a few days later.

The crew of the lifeboat had been on-station for around twelve hours when distress rockets were seen in the distance. The crew of the ‘Harmar’ raised its anchor and set sail to rescue the crew of the Antwerp schooner ‘Zwaluw’ which was perilously close to the shore. The crew of nine was taken off the schooner in a heavy sea.

The ‘Harmar’ arrived back in Poole at 3.30am on January 9th and the crew had a few hours rest before venturing out again. U 143 was found to be in a stable condition and so the lifeboat returned to base. Later in the day, the Japanese crew were given permission to leave the submarine so the ‘Harmar’ and its crew went out again at 1730. The navy drifter assisted by taking the ‘Harmar’ up to, and then from, the harbour. Twenty-eight crewmen of U 143 were taken off in two journeys to the Japanese destroyer which was in the harbour. It took several days before the submarine was eventually recovered and brought into Poole where it was found to have suffered little damage.

It is estimated that RNLI lifeboats rescued nearly 5,000 people during the First World War of which 1,600 are known to be directly as a result of the conflict. The rescues invariably took place in difficult circumstances and it should be remembered that lifeboats only had radio equipment installed after 1928. Up until then, contact with the shore was made by the firing of rockets which could be easily missed. The crew were, literally, on their own when a lifeboat was launched.

An uncanny dream and the sad story of a WW1 nurse

A researcher in Poole History Centre uncovered the beginnings of this story when searching the 1935 newspaper and a Culture Volunteer followed the lead.

In 1935 the Evening News published a letter from a woman who had been VAD nurse working at the Naval Base Hospital in Poole during the First World War. In a series headlined “Tales of the Uncanny”, she told of her dream about a bad case of burns being admitted to the hospital, waking up with Picric Acid at the forefront of her mind. (Picric acid is an explosive but was also used to treat burns.)

She took her dream seriously and acted on it, asking a doctor to ensure a supply of burns dressings was added to their stores. While on duty the following night at 3am, a young airman was admitted with terrible burns acquired while dealing with a fire at the airship station at Upton. She wrote that her dream had undoubtedly saved his life because the hospital was prepared.

The letter writer was a Mrs SFR Hulbert. At the time she wrote about she was actually Mrs Eveleen Maude Wilson, a member of the Poole Voluntary Aid Detachment 66. She had joined the Red Cross as a VAD nursing member in March 1917, and was living at Heathfield, Bingham Road, Lilliput. Her first posting was at the Grata Quies Military Hospital in Branksome Park, then briefly at a hospital in Hindhead, before taking up her position at the Naval Base Hospital in Poole. This was rather a strange hospital, barely more than a sick bay in some respects. It was set up with just 18 beds in the boardroom of the Poole Workhouse in St Mary’s Road. This had the benefit of being close to the Cornelia Hospital, the main military hospital in Poole, with its backup resources of doctors, nurses and stores. Did the burns dressings come from there?

Perhaps Eveleen deliberately sought the posting at the naval hospital, as she had been married twice to naval officers. Her private life before this had been an unhappy one and even been the subject of much public scrutiny.

Eveleen was born in 1885, daughter of Thomas and Louisa Hooman, living in Sevenoaks, Kent. In 1908 she had married Arthur Gardiner Muller, a Royal Navy Lieutenant based in Portland. However the marriage seems not to have been a success, because during 1913 both husband and wife petitioned each other for divorce. Divorce in those days being more unusual and often scandalous. In this case it made headlines in newspapers across the country as the Naval Divorce Case. The press at the time was far more restrained, and the thought of how today’s tabloids would have affected Eveleen doesn’t bear thinking about. Her husband cited another naval officer as conducting an affair with his wife – not only a brother officer, but a friend – Lieutenant Douglas Henry Vernon Wilson. Eveleen sought divorce on the grounds of cruelty and adultery. The 1911 census actually shows Eveleen and Douglas staying at the same boarding house, without Arthur, but she denied any relationship with him. Many witnesses were called to give evidence, which included an anonymous letter and spying through keyholes on board ship. The jury found for the husband and the divorce was granted, with Douglas Wilson made to pay compensation. Eveleen was therefore branded by the court to be a liar, a perjuror and an adulterer. This must have been an appalling position to be in for any woman at the time. Presumably Arthur and Douglas were also badly scarred by the very public humiliation, not least for the effect on their naval careers.

Eveleen Maude Wilson, from the Daily Mirror 1914

Eveleen Maude Wilson, from the Daily Mirror 1914

However one outcome was that in October 1914 Eveleen married Douglas Wilson in Weymouth. But this is still no happy story for them. Just over a month later, on 26th November, Douglas died at sea. He was one of over 700 sailors who died when HMS Bulwark blew up, anchored off Sheerness in one of the worst naval losses for Britain in the whole war. Eveleen was now a widow. Whether she was further upset we can’t tell, but Arthur also died just 9 months later – from illness while serving in the Dardanelles campaign.

At some stage she moved to Poole, probably along with her parents, as just over 2 years later she was living in Lilliput and a volunteer nurse. Her dramatic dream about burns must have been during 1918, the year she was at the Naval Base Hospital and perhaps it was there that she met another naval officer, Lieutenant Stanley Frank Ravenhill Hulbert. He became her third husband when they married at St Peter’s Church, Parkstone on 1st February 1919. He was by then in the newly-formed RAF. In 1921 they had a son, Charles and hopefully there was a period of happy family life as he grew up. But in 1940 Eveleen and Stanley were divorced. And worse, in 1942 Charles was killed flying a Lancaster bomber over occupied Europe. Another war, another tragedy for Eveleen.

Eveleen did keep her husband’s name – perhaps as a link to her lost son. She went on to run a small hotel in Hythe, Kent. Hopefully there she had happy dreams, whether uncanny or not!

A Poole man’s experience of being at sea

Local men would occasionally write to the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper about their experiences of being in the First World War. A Culture volunteer working on the First World Project has looked at one man’s experience of being on HMS Grafton.

HMS Grafton was an Edgar-class cruiser and was launched in London on January 30 1892. She was commissioned in 1895 and operated off China until 1899. Following this tour of duty she became the flagship in the Pacific. At the beginning of the First World War, HMS Grafton was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron whose role was to blockade German ports. This type of ship was quickly found to be unsuited for this work and, following a withdrawal from service, Grafton was later transformed into a bombardment ship and was used in the Gallipoli campaign.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald reported in its November 26 1914 edition on an interview with Mr H.G. Lucas who was on HMS Grafton at the time it was involved in blockade work in the North Sea. Mr Lucas lived at ‘Dreadnought’, Longfleet Road, Poole and was a member of the Poole Board of Guardians. He was part of the Royal Navy Fleet Reserve and was called-up on August 2 1914. The newspaper interviewed him when he was home on leave for a couple of weeks. He said that there were nearly 70 men from Dorset on the Grafton including Messrs Short and Baker from Poole and Mr Brown of Broadstone. Lucas was on the Grafton from August 3 to November 15 and he reckoned he must have sailed nearly 30,000 miles as the Grafton searched shipping and hunted for submarines. He said that they stopped all types of merchant shipping from numerous different countries. This happened day and night which he said was “terribly trying”.

In the interview he said that the Grafton was the first British vessel to take down a German ensign after the declaration of war when it captured a German ship. He said they also had some luck. The cruiser Hawke came on station at 4am to allow the Grafton to take on coal – not long afterwards the Hawke was torpedoed. He comments in his interview that various ruses were used by the enemy to entice the ship to investigate, such as throwing debris in the sea, but the sailors soon realised that if they were not careful they would be sunk by a torpedo from a waiting submarine. While life on the ship was ‘very strict’ the men were ready for anything and were eager to protect the coast of Britain. Lucas also talks about other aspects of ship life. A sprig of white heather was kept on-board for ‘good luck’ and the ship’s elderly cat, called ‘Jack Johnson’s pupil’, would chase about the deck while the fife and drum played a tune each morning.


  1. The British blockade of German North Sea ports began on August 12 1914 with the aim of stopping merchant ships reaching Germany. By 1916, over 300 deaths a day were being attributed to starvation, there were food riots in many German cities and on June 28 1916 around 55,000 German workers went on strike because of the conditions. It has been argued that the naval blockade was a significant factor in Germany’s surrender.
  2. Lucas makes no mention if ‘prize money’ was received for the captured German vessel. It was not uncommon for captured shipping to have the original crew taken off and replaced by a ‘prize crew’.
  3. The North Sea was extensively mined by both sides. In contrast to the German policy in which shipping had to take their chances, the British policy was if a merchant ship put into a British port it would be searched, any illegal cargo confiscated and then the ship would be escorted through the coastal minefields.
  4. Jack Johnson was a famous American boxer of the time.


Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company – a hope for the future?

Post-First World War was a time to look to the future and given the large numbers of returning men there was a pressing need for jobs. A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project explores the short history of one attempt to develop a shipbuilding industry in Poole.

As early as November 1917 there was talk of creating a massive shipbuilding industry in Poole. Iron ore would be imported from Spain, after which it would be smelted, turned into steel and then engine components manufactured – all in Poole. It was claimed that orders for more than 40 ships would follow when the company was up and running. Captain Gardiner, who lived at ‘The Birches’, Parkstone, and was behind the scheme, hoped to have the first ship finished by August 1918. He claimed that this would be aided by special ‘secret’ machines from America which would mean the company could build ships much cheaper than in traditional shipyards. At the time, there was a heavy loss of shipping because of submarine warfare and there was a great need for new ships. The project went into abeyance because it was nearly two years before anything further happened.

A letter dated 8 August 1919 was received by Poole Harbour Commissioners announcing that Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company had purchased the Admiralty Shipyard Extensions No 62 (formerly the Hill, Richards and Co Ltd shipyard) at Hamworthy. The company had been contracted to build twelve 7,600 ton ships. The keels for the initial two were to be laid shortly and February 1920 was the expected launch date. They expected to utilise the existing six berths and had plans for two 10,500 ton ships and two liners for the Atlantic trade. The letter expressed a hope that Poole Bar, just outside the entrance to the harbour, would be dredged as quickly as possible to aid the project.

The prospectus for the Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company was published on 15 December 1919. The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper reported that the value of the twelve ships to be built by the company was £2.25 million. It was also hoped to carry out repair work. The advantage of the project was that the Lake Shipyard was already fitted out and had an existing workforce on the 151 acre site. It was anticipated that it would be ‘one of the largest’ shipbuilding companies in the country.

The shipyard had the benefit of a rail link to the London & South Western Railway mainline and this would allow materials to be easily delivered. It was anticipated that it would employ, when fully operational, 2,500 to 3,000 men. It was also expected to attract other businesses to Hamworthy and its branch line would become highly important to the area. The housing shortage in Poole would be alleviated as Captain Gardiner proposed using some of the 300 acres of his own land for the construction of a ‘garden city’ of 500 houses in Hamworthy. Gardiner had purchased Lake House in 1919.

Who was Captain Gardiner? According to a newspaper article, he was born in Manchester, was 52 years of age in 1920 and was in the Royal Navy during the First World War. Apparently, he was in command of a ‘Q’ boat, used in combatting submarine warfare, which sailed out of Poole.

It was reported on November 20 1919 that the first ship would be finished by May 1920 and the remainder would be completed ‘every six weeks’. The company hoped to start work on two liners in February 1920. Oddly, it was also announced that nearly 2,000 men would be transferred from the Clyde shipyards.

A newspaper article of January 15 1920 said that 3 keels had been laid. A few months later, it was reported that the ships would have their engines and boilers added at Glasgow which meant they would have to be towed to the Clyde. A concern with shipping movements in and out of Poole Harbour was the restriction placed by the bar of sand just outside the harbour entrance. However, it was said that no dredging was needed as the vessels would only have a draft of 9ft while the Poole Harbour Bar had a draft of 16ft at high water spring tides.

The prospect for Poole, the harbour and jobs was considered very bright. However, just a few months later, a compulsory winding-up order against Gardiner Shipbuilding was announced. Spanish companies wanted the return of £400,000 that had been paid for ships which had not been delivered – although there was disagreement over whether the money had been paid. A merchant banker was prepared to give £200,000 based on the value of the company’s assets but would require more time to raise the funds.

Another debt of £430 was claimed by a Birmingham company. Captain Gardiner alleged he was owed £50,000 by Gardiner Shipbuilding but it was also claimed he owed the company £21,000. It was stated that the financial problems had arisen because the company was paid in instalments for work in progress and these payments had not been made. Captain Gardiner believed that the company would be able to continue to function as he was in the process of raising £250,000 of capital.

In December 1920, an article in the local newspaper said that a compulsory order was being sought for the liquidation of the company because of unpaid debts. The company claimed it had ‘bills of exchange for £10,000’ in a foreign currency and these could be used to pay the debts when converted into British pounds. It was agreed that the order would be dismissed if the money was paid.

However, in March 1921 there were two winding-up petitions against Gardiner Shipbuilding – the Campania Naviera Mundaca Sociedad Anonima and W.G. Armstrong Whitworth & Co. claimed they were owed a total of £293,000. The Gardiner Company wanted further time as they were awaiting the result of the international War Reparations Committee concerning a loan of 42 million francs for major shipbuilding projects that had been requested by the company. The case was adjourned for a week but the newspaper article noted that the shipyard had not done any work since July 1920.

There is a strange ending to this story. Clara, his first wife, died when bailiffs were about to take over Lake House. A law forbade bailiffs from going into a dwelling if a body was ‘at rest’ and Gardiner had his wife’s body kept in the house for around two years. She was eventually buried in Hamworthy Parish Cemetery in 1921. A large crypt was built and can still be seen in the cemetery; strangely, there appears to be no inscription.

Hamworthy Cemetery

Hamworthy Cemetery

And what happened to Captain Gardiner? In 1925, he was on trial at the Old Bailey, London accused of a £200,000 fraud relating to when he was managing director of Gardiner Shipbuilding in Poole. It was alleged he had published false information to encourage people to take out shares in the company. The seriousness of the case meant that the startling amount of £60,000 was the reward for his capture. The case and his life story captured the public imagination. An Australian newspaper article had the headline ‘Picturesque Hero of Astonishing Adventure’. The article outlined his remarkable life which involved taking part in a revolution in Chile, being on the side of the Chinese in the Chino-Japanese War, commanding Australian troops during the Boer War, and being on a minelayer during the Russo-Japanese War. During the First World War, he carried out salvage work on the ‘Oceanic’, invented several anti-submarine devices, commanded a ‘Q’ boat, and claimed he was involved in the planning of the Zeebrugge blockade. Part way through the trial the jury concluded there was no case to be answered and Gardiner was released.

He died at the Seaman’s Hospital, Greenwich, in 1930 and is believed to be buried alongside Clara in Hamworthy Parish Cemetery.

Declaration of Peace – how Poole marked the event

The Armistice was declared at 11am on November 11 1918. However, it was not until the Treaty of Versailles was signed that the First World War was officially at an end. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War Project describes how Poole marked the declaration of peace and remembrance.

The local newspaper reported that the Peace Treaty was signed at Versailles on June 28 1919 ‘bringing to an end the greatest war the world has ever known’. How did Poole react? The newspaper reported that the news arrived in Poole at 4pm. People gathered in the High Street, flags and bunting appeared throughout the town, ships blew their sirens, and young people bought and set off fireworks. More fireworks were let off from the town and boats during the evening. What followed was a series of spectacular celebrations.

‘Poole’s Great 1919 Joy Day’ was held in Poole Park on July 9 1919. It had been hoped that airship S.R.I would fly over the town to advertise the ‘Victory Loan’ but unfortunately this did not happen. The town was decorated with flags and bunting and a carnival procession of 250 people and numerous floats went from West Quay Road to Poole Park where there was music, sports, boxing and dancing. It is believed that 14,000 people attended the event.

The Government announced that Saturday July 19 1919 was the official National Day for celebrating peace. The notification only appeared at the beginning of July but it was hoped that events would take place even though the time was short. It was also announced that Sunday July 6 1919 was the day for a National Service of Thanksgiving and in Poole this took place at St James’ Church.

Poole Peace Celebrations were held on Friday and Saturday 18 and 19 July 1919 – once again in Poole Park. Friday was for children and Saturday was for adults and ex-servicemen. Businesses in the town closed on the Saturday and the Post Office was open from 8.30am to 10am with only one delivery of letters. The Children’s Day was attended by 6,500 children with each school having an allotted space in the Park. Each child received a slice of cake and hot sweet tea was supplied in buckets and baths. After the tea and cake, the children were able to take part in sideshows such as hoopla, skittles, roundabouts and various sports. The Poole Town Band played music in the evening. While Friday’s event took place in bright sunshine, Saturday’s celebrations were spoilt by the wet weather. After processing to the park, 2000 men were given lunch in marquees. Unfortunately, the sports and water events were not held because of the weather. In the evening, fireworks were set off in the town and a large bonfire was lit on Constitution Hill.

Poole Park Peace Celebrations

Poole also held a ‘Peace Regatta’ on August 2 and 4 1919 with the aim of recognising the sacrifice made by merchant seaman during the First World War. The idea developed from a suggestion by the Mayor of Poole, Major Dolby. The British Motor Boat Club had already planned a meeting in Poole Harbour for that weekend and, even though time was short, it was decided to expand it into a much larger event.  Fields adjoining Salterns Works and ‘The Elms’ house were opened up for the crowds of visitors and a ferry went from Poole Quay and motor vehicles ran from Poole Park. On Saturday and Monday there were motor boat and sailing races. On Monday there was a full day of activities with races, rowing and ‘amusing aquatic sports’ such as the greasy pole; the latter activities were organised by Sandbanks RAF. Other entertainments included the Poole Town Band, sideshows, and dancing. In the evening, there was a firework display, boats were lit up and Salterns Pier was decorated with Chinese lanterns – even the Poole Gas Works crane had lanterns. The money raised was to be used in the establishment of the Russell-Cotes Nautical School in Poole which was to train boys for the Merchant Navy.

Apart from the special celebrations there were the more reflective events. Under a headline, ‘The Day of Remembrance’, the local newspaper reported that on November 11 1919 the ringing of church bells took place just before 11am. At 11am, trade stopped for 2 minutes, people stood still in the streets and ships put their flags at half-mast.  Afterwards, churches and chapels opened their doors for people to remember those who had died.

A year later there was an element of unhappiness expressed in the local newspaper that because the town did not have a war memorial there was no focal point for remembrance. Also, in contrast to the previous year, only a few flags were flown at half-mast and while the traffic stopped for 2 minutes there were still people milling about ‘in an unconcerned manner’. The evening was marked by a firework and torchlight display in Poole Park. The park was also to be illuminated. Admission was 6d for adults and 3d for children and there was a competition to guess the number of people who came to the display – tickets 3d with a prize of £5. For many, the prize was the equivalent of a week’s wages. Interestingly the newspaper reported that ’smoke clouds’ would be used to hide the display from those outside the Park. All the profits were to go to the Cornelia Hospital.

In September 1921, a major event took place in Poole Park to raise funds for the Tank Corps Compassionate Fund and Association. A grandstand was setup together with a special racetrack. The Grenadier Guards band came from London to play music during intervals in the event and Percy Hodge, the Olympic steeplechase champion from Surrey, gave a demonstration of hurdling. The Tank Corps Gymnastic team gave a display and there was a race for ‘cyclotracteurs’, which were bicycles with a small engine on the front wheel. After a series of sports events involving entrants from Poole and the South of England there was dancing, various sideshows and, in the evening, fireworks to be enjoyed. Prizes for the sports events were awarded by Lady Elles, wife of Sir Hugh Elles, Colonel Commandant of the Tank Corps.

1921 marked the change from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day. Artificial ‘Flanders poppies’ made by women and children in the war-affected areas of France were also on sale for the first time. The profits were to go to Lord Haig’s Fund for the Widows and Children and it was hoped that everybody would wear a poppy on the day. Miss F.E. Lever of Longfleet Poole, Hon. Sec. of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Old Comrades Association, was a driving force behind their sale and she encouraged all women who were ex-service to get involved. Demand outstripped supply on the day and paper had to be bought to make ‘homemade’ poppies. The substantial sum of £195 0s 1 1/2d was raised in Poole. Oddly, the Local Education Committee had refused to allow the British Legion to sell poppies in schools.

The remembrance event in 1921 was larger than the previous year. A stage was set up near the Free Library in the centre of Poole and members of the Tank Corps, an armoured car, and trumpeters from the 5th Battalion Tank Corps were in attendance. The Mayor of Poole and various dignitaries gathered on the stage just before 11am as crowds waited in front of the library and on the High Street for the service of prayers. The theme of the previous years of the morning for a time of remembrance and the evening as a celebration for those who had returned was continued with a ‘meat tea’ being provided for all ex-servicemen of Poole and Hamworthy at the Shaftesbury and Liberal Halls.


‘The Astounding Record of a Poole Girl’

A Culture Volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project has been exploring the local newspaper to discover what life was like in Poole during the war for the town and its residents. A headline, ‘The Astounding Record of a Poole Girl’, in the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper of June 21 1917 was intriguing and, using other records collected by Charlie Lord (Poole Researcher), the remarkable life of Poole girl, Ada Fricker has been pieced together. A warning – the story is very convoluted and the accuracy of some of the information is open to question!

The newspaper article of 1917 described Mary Rogers as ‘one of the cleverest adventuresses who has been about in recent years’ when she appeared in a West London court. But who was Mary Rogers and what was her connection with Poole?

Mary Rogers was actually Alice Ada Fricker. She was born on October 22 1871 in a cottage in Cinnamon Lane in Poole to Samuel Fricker, a Poole seaman, and Emily Fricker. Cinnamon Lane ran from New Street around the back of the Almshouses and on to Market Street.

Cinnamon Lane from the collection of Poole Museum Service

Cinnamon Lane from the collection of Poole Museum Service

A newspaper article of December 26 1889 reported that her father had been drowned at sea while working as a mate on board the vessel ‘Cross House’ which was sailing from Southampton to Sunderland. He was knocked overboard in a gale when the vessel was north of the Spurn Lightship off the Humber Estuary. The deceased’s wife and two daughters were reported to be living in Shaftesbury Cottages, Market Street. Samuel Fricker had been at sea all his working life and was aged about 45.

Nothing has been uncovered about Ada Fricker’s life in Poole. A later newspaper report noted the ‘when 14 years of age she was a tall and pretty girl and looked much older’. At the age of 19, Ida Alice Fricker married Maurice Rogers, a medical student, at Barton Regis, near Bristol, and so became Mrs Rogers. That her first name had changed from Ada to Ida and her married name is often recorded as Rodgers is a characteristic of her story. Also how did a Poole girl end up getting married in Bristol? One possible answer is that she may have gone into domestic service which was a typical outcome for single young women at the time. It is also from this point that the tale begins to take an unusual turn.

Two years after getting married she had become an actress and appeared as Lady Gipsy Rodgers in the play ‘Apartments to Let’ and also in several other plays. She played Lady Agatha Carlisle in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, a part she was apparently very good at, but none of her other performances were of note. However, she must have had a bewitching presence because, after meeting her, Stanley Napier Roberts, Edward Elgar’s brother-in-law, borrowed the considerable sum of nearly £2000 from London moneylenders to finance the theatrical companies in which she was involved. Unfortunately, the productions were a failure and instead of an easy retirement he found himself under pressure because of the debts he had incurred.

Three years later the self-styled Lady Gipsy Rogers and Lionel Rogers of the Trilby Theatrical Company were accused of assaulting John Roydon, an actor of the company, at Aberystwyth over a dispute about pay. Apparently he alleged that members of the company were close to starvation because they had not been paid. The defendants were each fined 5s (25p). The choice of name for the theatrical company is intriguing as George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, had written a gothic novel, ‘Trilby’, in 1894. It was an incredible success with the London stage production being first presented in 1895. The style of hat worn by the leading female character, Trilby O’Ferrall, became known as the ‘trilby’. It is interesting to speculate if Ada Fricker thought that touring a theatrical production using the name of Trilby would be a profitable exercise; the play also features in another of her court cases.

The 1901 Census records an actress ‘Gipsy Ro(d)gers’, 23, as living in Southall, Middlesex, having married Maurice Rodgers in 1891. An age of 23 is rather hopeful with a date of birth of 1871 and she was also apparently living with two brothers who were actors. Strangely, she did run, for a time, a riding school in the West End of London.

In 1907, after being fined £14 at Clacton, Essex for keeping a manservant and carriage without licence she promised only to use the name ‘Mrs Rodgers’. Mr H. Lionel Somerset stated during the court proceedings that he was her brother, although he had previously said they were married, while she, unhelpfully, said he was no relation. A copy of a marriage certificate presented in the court case showed her to be ‘Ida Alice Faulkner Fricker’, daughter of a deceased Army captain (!).

In 1910, she interviewed the infamous murderer, Dr Crippen, in Pentonville Prison. The prison governor believed the interviewer was Lady Henry Somerset with ‘her object to evangelise the famous prisoner’. In actual fact, it was Ada Fricker posing as ‘Lady Mercia Somerset’ and she hoped to sell the interview to a newspaper if Dr Crippen was not convicted. She promised to take him to her country house if he was released – at the time she was a tenant of Broom Lodge, Huntingdonshire. She also carried out a correspondence with Crippen while he was in jail and published some of his letters in order to make some money.

January 1911 saw her once again facing criminal proceedings – this time at Huntingdon Assizes. She was living in Herne Bay and claimed she could not attend the Assize because she was very ill, although it was noted in court that it was strange she became ill ‘so suddenly after being served with notice to appear’. Debts had been run up in the name of Reed, a groom, who was supposed to be an employee. She claimed he was her husband so the debts were his, not hers, and that she had married Reed when she was 14. Under cross examination, she admitted that Reed was Rogers. She received 4 months. The prosecutor believed she was the daughter of a medical officer in the Navy, had married at 19, and had lived as the Hon. Ida Faulkner in Bristol. According to some newspaper reports she apparently kept bulldogs and, occasionally, a wolf wherever she lived.

In a later appearance, at Cirencester Police Court, she bore ‘herself with dramatic dignity’. She was arrested in 1913 along with Cecil Roslyn (also known as Lionel Somerset) whom Mrs Rodgers described as her brother. They had toured ‘Trilby’, a theatrical production, and, on their travels across the country, it was alleged they had persuaded numerous traders and hoteliers to give them credit or paid them with cheques that were not honoured. It was also alleged that the defendants had used the name ‘Lady Somerset’s Theatrical Touring Company’ in their dealings with traders. However, Mrs Rodgers claimed she did not need credit as she received £500 per year. Lady Henry Somerset, a member of the Beaufort family, did appear in court and said she knew many members of the family but the accused was not one of them. The prisoner claimed she received an income on the assumption she did not use the Somerset name – apparently a firm of solicitors provided her with £18 to £25 every month. The two defendants were convicted and received three months hard labour.

Her story had, by now, become so famous that ‘The People’ newspaper published the ‘Life Story of Lady Mercia Somerset’ in February 1913.

In 1917, Mary Rogers (33) Ellen Taylor, Edna Gordon (19) and Cecil Rogers (18) were in court for having stayed at a London hotel and pawned a large quantity of its bedding and sheets. Oddly, they were charged with illegal pledging and not theft. She claimed she had an army allowance of 25s a week for herself and one child (her husband was believed to have served in the war) and, as before, a £23 per month allowance from a ‘person’. Mrs Edna Gordon and Cecil Rogers were apparently her children so giving her age as 33 was optimistic. Mary Rogers and Edna Gordon were fined with the alternative of prison if the fines were not paid – which they were.

The court case had little effect as a year after the First World War ended a headline announced ‘Lady Mercia Again’ with the article referring to the defrauding of clergymen at Eastbourne. Edna Gordon, her 18 yr (?) old widowed daughter, was also arrested. Mrs Rodgers received 6 months and Mrs Gordon three months.

In one report it was said ‘she was very fond of beautiful dresses and had a passion for jewellery’. She ‘impressed tradesmen’ with the use of titles and presumably benefited from having been an actress. Her success also appears to be due to the prevailing respect to titled people at the time and the seeming expectation that they would run up debts which would eventually be paid. The society of the First World War era was cash based so that someone who used cheques was considered unusual. Banks were not common and there was a certain mistrust of them because there was no protection if they went bankrupt. The absence of a welfare state also meant that people had to rely heavily on their own devices if they got into financial difficulties.

One newspaper headline referred to her as the ‘Woman of Many Names’. It is believed that she used on her travels around the south of England: Ida Alice Fricker, Lady Mercia Somerset, Avis Fitzroy, Mavis Redfern, Irene Rodgers, Jane Jones, Mary Cullam, Aris (possibly a misspelling of Avis) Fitzroy, Mrs Alice Rogers, Avis Fitzroy Somerset, Mrs Reed, Mrs Reeves, Mrs A. Bolingbroke, Ida Rogers, Melia Rogers, Mrs Rodgers, Ida Alice Faulkner Fricker.

Her choice of aliases is interesting. Lady Mercia Somerset was her favourite and people usually assumed she had links to the Beaufort family whose name was Somerset. Fitzroy was often the middle name of members of the Beaufort family. Bolingbroke was the name of landed gentry in Wiltshire and Henry IV was also known as Henry of Bolingbroke. Interestingly, Faulkner is a name associated with St James’ Church, Poole – ‘Fawconer’s Charity’ provided bread for elderly women. One wonders if this was why she used the name.

It is interesting to consider her frequent change of names, flexibility of age etc from the viewpoint of the First World War era. Accuracy of names and ages seems to have been of no real concern simply because they rarely mattered and spelling, in particular, was often flexible. An earlier classic example would be the father of the Bronte sisters who decided his original name of ‘Brunty’ was not interesting enough and simply changed it to ‘Bronte’. Payment for work was by cash, most people rented and many could not write – accuracy of date of birth and name was irrelevant.

Many young women of Ada Fricker’s age went into domestic service and in 1900 there were around 2,000,000 women working as servants. The work was very hard with long hours for little reward. A newspaper article of 1915, under the headline ‘Fewer Servants’, commented that ‘the pressure of war’ was making it difficult to hire servants. This was partly because the incomes of large houses had been seriously eroded and they needed fewer servants. The First World War also offered many new employment opportunities that a lot of women found more attractive because they were better paid and had more independence. Post-First World War many of these jobs disappeared but the large houses could no longer afford a large staff. The lack of this traditional work for single women, with no clear alternative, meant they were increasingly encouraged to emigrate to countries such as Australia and New Zealand – another reason, sadly, was the lack of men of marriageable age.

The Nottingham Evening Post reported in 1928 that male impostors are ‘careful’ in their choice of titles while women appear more able to get away with it. The newspaper used, as an example, Lady Mercia Somerset (Ada Fricker) who managed to get photographed and be reported as an ‘enthusiastic politician’ who might even stand for parliament. The newspaper commented that ‘when women become imposters they are to be feared’.

 She was not beyond self-publicity. The Thompson Weekly News announced in 1923 that, as part of a series on the ‘The Scandals of Cinema Land’, the story of the ‘The Amazing Career of Lady Mercia Somerset’ would be ‘told by herself’. Unfortunately, neither a record of this article nor that in The People has so far been found.

A remarkable tale but there is one question that was never fully answered – did she actually receive a monthly allowance from solicitors and, if so, why? £20 a month was a significant sum given that the starting wage for a female munition worker at Holton Heath was £1 a week.

The tragic story of Sydney Woodroffe, Poole’s teenage VC winner, and his brothers

Three Poole brothers answered their country’s call to join the Army and fight on the Western Front.

One would be mentioned in dispatches; another won the MC; and the youngest, Sydney Clayton Woodroffe, ‘a boy with a wistful smile’, received the Victoria Cross.

All three began by serving with the Rifle Brigade. None survived.

Bournemouth Graphic image of 1915 commemorating Sidney, Kenneth and Leslie Woodroffe. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Bournemouth Graphic image of 1915 commemorating Sydney, Kenneth and Leslie Woodroffe. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Of the brothers-in-arms, the oldest, Kenneth, would be the first to be killed in action. Sydney died in a battle in which his other brother, Leslie, suffered terrible wounds. Leslie spent months recovering then returned to France… and was killed.

Their three names are inscribed on a roll of honour at All Saints Church at Branksome Park close to where the Woodroffe family lived.

All Saints’ roll of honour including the Woodroffe brothers.

All Saints’ roll of honour including the Woodroffe brothers.

The Woodroffes were well-to-do. The father, Henry Long Woodroffe, the son of a florist and nurseryman, was a wine merchant who had been born in London’s Paddington where he married at the age of 27. His bride was Clara Eliza Alice Clayton, 22 years old, whose father was described on the marriage certificate as ‘gentleman’.

Henry and Clara soon had a wine and spirits business in Lewes called Browning and Woodroffe. Later it would merge with the wine and spirits section of the local Beard’s Brewery.

Henry and Clara’s four children – all boys – were born in the Sussex county town.

The Woodroffes would also lease a public house called the Nutley Inn (later known as the Shelley Arms) near Maresfield in Sussex. It is unlikely that they involved themselves directly in running it for, in 1899, their address was still in Lewes and, in the 1901 census the licensee was another man who lived there with his family and two boarders. Henry also owned a property in the Finsbury district of London.

In 1904, after seven years, Henry’s involvement with the inn ended and, in time, the family moved west towards Poole.

By 1911 the Woodroffes were living at 20 Acresholt, in Branksome Wood Gardens and then on to a large property called Thorpewood in Branksome Avenue (today called The Avenue) in Branksome Park, Poole.

The two oldest Woodroffe boys, Hugh and Leslie, born in 1885 and 1886, had been sent as boarders to the prestigious Marlborough College in Wiltshire. Their younger brothers, born in December 1892 and December 1895, would follow them there.

Leslie, Kenneth and Sydney would excel at Marlborough, all becoming the college’s Senior Prefect (head of the school).

Sidney Woodroffe and two other editors of the Marlburian magazine, 1914. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Sydney Woodroffe and two other editors of the Marlburian magazine, 1914. (Courtesy of Marlborough College.)

Leslie was in the school rugby XV and cricket XI, and won a Classics scholarship to University College, Oxford. He went on to become a schoolmaster at Shrewsbury, but volunteered to serve soon after war was declared, obtaining a commission in the 8th Rifle Brigade.

Kenneth who went on to be a Classics scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was a first-class sportsman. He had been captain of Marlborough’s cricket team and became a Cambridge Blue in 1913 and 1914. A fast-medium bowler, he made an appearance for Hampshire at Bournemouth’s Dean Park against South Africa. He went on to play for Sussex taking 6-43 against Surrey in the county’s last game before the war. Within a month, he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade. Later he would be transferred to the 2nd Welsh Regiment to fight at the front.

Sydney, the baby of the family at 18, had just finished school when war was declared. He had been a member of the college rugby, soccer and hockey teams and was all set to follow in Kenneth’s footsteps by going to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study Classics. He never did. Instead he obtained a commission to serve with the Rifle Brigade and left his Branksome Park home to go to war.

Postcard of Sidney Clayton Woodroffe.

Postcard of Sydney Clayton Woodroffe.

The oldest brother, Hugh, had left Marlborough at the age of 16 and had long gone to Malaysia to work in a business believed to be a rubber plantation. Still employed there when war broke out in August 1914, he was, by then a married man with a two- year -old son and his wife, Norah, was heavily pregnant. She would give birth to a son the following month. Hugh was not in a position to join Lord Kitchener’s Army half a world away.

It must have been a proud but worrying time for the boys’ parents, Henry and Clara, back in Poole with three sons in the Army. They had every right to be concerned. Tragic news would soon come knocking.

Lt Kenneth Herbert Clayton Woodroffe was in action almost constantly from November 1914. On 9 May 1915 he was killed during an attack on the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle in France. For his bravery, he was mentioned in dispatches. He had been leading his platoon and was the man nearest the enemy front-line trenches when shot through the head. Kenneth was 22.

The next news to reach Mr and Mrs Woodroffe just three months later was even worse. Both Leslie and Sydney were involved in the fighting at the village of Hooge, on the outskirts of Ypres in Flanders. The British had, days earlier, successfully blown a huge mine under the German entrenchments. But on July 30, the Germans launched a counter-attack.

It was memorable in military history because it was the first time that flamethrowers were used in battle. At 3am, the Germans spread ‘liquid fire’ into the British trenches and, with the weight of numbers against them, the Tommies were forced to retreat to their second line of defence.

That afternoon the order came to counter-attack to recover lost ground. With not enough artillery support and going uphill towards the strong German positions, it was a risky strategy.

Leslie, a captain in command of a company, led his men over No-Man’s Land into intense machine gun fire. He counted 160 steps before throwing himself flat but was hit in the thigh, knee and heel, according to Marlborough College accounts.

For six hours he lay there, before night fell and he was able to drag himself back to the British lines.

Captain Leslie Woodroffe would be awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry in the field that day.

On that same ghastly day at Hooge, his brother, Second Lieutenant Sydney Clayton Woodroffe, too, had been in action.  After the enemy had broken through the front trenches, he and his men came under heavy attack by bombs from the front and rear. They defended their position until they had exhausted all of their own bombs.

Then, Sydney skilfully managed to bring what was left of his platoon back safely over 200 yards of open ground and then down a communication trench back to Brigade headquarters by a wood.

That afternoon, he took part in the ill-fated counter-attack.

His citation for the Victoria Cross, posthumously awarded, said: ‘This very gallant officer immediately led his party forward in a counter-attack under an intense rifle and machine-gun fire.’

He was killed cutting through the barbed wire in front of the enemy trenches to move the attack forward. Sydney was just 19 years old.

The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Ronald Maclachan, who had lost 19 officers and 469 men either killed or wounded, afterwards sent a letter to Sydney’s parents at Branksome Park. He wrote saying ‘your younger son was simply one of the bravest of the brave.’

He said: ‘He risked his life for others right through the day and finally gave it for the sake of his men’ and added, ‘he was a splendid type of young officer, bold as a lion, confident and sure of himself too.

‘The loss he is to me personally is very great,’ he wrote, adding that ‘his men would have followed him anywhere.’

In his letter, Lt Col Maclachlan included another personal observation that must have affected Henry and Clara’s deeply, this time about brother Leslie: ‘I shall always remember how I saw him last – just minutes before a counter-attack was to take place, quiet, cool and collected, as he always was when there are shells and bullets about, armed with a rifle and preparing to lead his men over an open sweep, uphill in a counter-attack.

‘He knew what it meant quite well.’

The Victoria Cross that Sydney was awarded must have been some small compensation for parents Henry and Clara who had now lost two sons to the war.  They received their son’s VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace.

A fellow officer, war poet Captain Charles Sorley, who would later be killed later that year at Loos, wrote a poem as a tribute to his friend Sydney. It read:

‘There is no fitter end than this.

No need is now to yearn nor sigh.

We know the glory that is his,

A glory that can never die.


Surely we knew it long before,

Knew all along that he was made

For a swift radiant morning, for

A sacrificing swift night-shade.’

The Poole and East Dorset Herald, like many other papers, reported Sydney’s death and the award of the Victoria Cross.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald report on Sidney Woodroffe’s Victoria Cross, 9 September 1915.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald report on Sydney Woodroffe’s Victoria Cross, 9 September 1915.

The wording of the report prompted the Poole Mayor, Cllr G.C.A. Kentish, to write to the Herald thanking them for correcting a mistake that said that Woodroffe’s Branksome Park home was in Bournemouth, not Poole.

‘Poole is indeed proud of her heroes,’ he wrote, ‘and would rather not have them annexed by other boroughs, though, of course, the temptation is great.’

Mayor’s Letter to the Poole and East Dorset Herald, 23 September 1915.

Mayor’s Letter to the Poole and East Dorset Herald, 23 September 1915.

Meanwhile, Henry and Clara’s badly injured but surviving child, Leslie, spent months in hospital recovering from wounds in both legs.

While there, he wrote a poignant letter, putting on a brave face, to a former teacher at Marlborough saying: ‘Isn’t it splendid dear old Boodles getting the VC? My people are awfully happy and I am especially pleased for their sake.

‘That wonderful phrase, “this very gallant officer” keeps ringing in my ears. What more could anyone want to hear said of their brother?’

Hardly recovered, Captain Leslie Woodroffe was posted again to the Western Front. He arrived back with his regiment on 1 June 1916.

A shell hit him that same day. He was taken to a casualty clearing hospital but died days later on 4 June.

A grieving Shrewsbury teaching colleague described Leslie as ‘one of the best men ever to put on a gown.’

After the war, the Woodroffes remained living in Branksome Park, at Thorpewood then, seemingly, a house called Woodmore or Woodmoor in Branksome Avenue.

The boys’ father, Henry, died nine years after the war had ended in a Bournemouth nursing home. He was buried in the churchyard at All Saints, Branksome Park. (Coincidentally, another VC winner Thomas Pride, a Royal Navy man who was awarded the honour for his gallantry in 1864, is also buried in the churchyard. And the parents of another British officer who won the VC in the First World War, Montague Shadworth Seymour Moor, lived in Tower Road, Poole, just a short hop away)

Henry Woodroffe’s widow, Clara, was in a hotel in Croydon when the Second World War began, living on private means. Later she would reside in a hotel back in Sussex, before passing away on 13 January 1951 at the age of 89.

She was buried alongside her husband at Branksome Park.

Their oldest son Hugh, left Kuala Lumpur soon after the war to return to live in Britain. In late 1919 he wrote to the War Office, successfully applying for a 1914 Star medal to be added to the Victory and British War medals awarded to his late brother Kenneth.

When the Second World War started, Hugh, now a wine merchant like his father had been, was back at Lewes. Over the years he would live in many places across London and the Home Counties and would marry for the second time in his late 70s. He died in 1972 at the age of 87.

Today Kenneth Woodroffe’s name is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial in France. Leslie was buried at the Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension, near Bethune, also in France. Sidney’s name can be found on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres in Belgium.

Sydney’s VC is now part of Lord Ashcroft’s Collection, housed at the Imperial War Museum.

Memorials commemorating Sydney Woodroffe can also be found in places such as Lewes, London and on the Rifle Brigade memorial in Winchester Cathedral.

At peaceful All Saints Church in Branksome Park, the three Woodroffe names are included alphabetically on a tablet on the wall, listing the dozens of men from the parish who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. The church organ is also dedicated to the war dead.

In the Treasury at the London church of All Hallows by the Tower, a sword is kept that is believed to have been Sydney Woodroffe’s. It was one of two that had once flanked what had been the church’s Toc H Chapel.

Newspaper cutting showing Sidney Woodroffe’s Marlborough rugby football cap on the memorial to Gilbert Talbot in what was the Toc H chapel at All Hallows by the Tower church. (Courtesy of All Hallows by the Tower.)

Newspaper cutting showing Sydney Woodroffe’s Marlborough rugby football cap on the memorial to Gilbert Talbot in what was the Toc H chapel at All Hallows by the Tower church. (Courtesy of All Hallows by the Tower.)

Why is it there? There is a link. The Rev ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who co-founded Toc H – signallers’ abbreviation for Talbot House, a rest centre for soldiers in Belgium during the war – was for a long time, vicar at All Hallows by the Tower. The other Toc H co-founder was the Rev Neville Talbot. Neville’s brother, Gilbert, was killed alongside Sydney at Hooge. The following day Neville, who could not bear to leave his brother’s body unblessed, crawled through the grass, defying shells and snipers, and found Gilbert and Sidney’s bodies. Gilbert’s body was recovered a week later. Sidney’s never was.

They had died near a communication trench that was known to the soldiers as ‘Old Bond Street’.

Sydney’s Marlborough rugby cap had also been displayed at the church before a bomb devastated the sacred building in the Second World War. It was placed on the memorial to Gilbert.

They are commemorated, too, on the roll of honour at their old school, Marlborough College, where a Memorial service for 2nd Lt Sidney Woodroffe was held in the September of 1915, not long after he had died.

A tribute given by the Master of the College, the Rev J.H. Wynne-Willson perhaps gives an insight into what Sidney, the 19-year old lad, rather than Sydney the soldier, was really like:

‘I have constantly in my thoughts the quiet, strong boy with a wistful smile, who went in and out amongst us doing big work in all departments of the school life, and yet so modest and self-forgetting, with a disposition strong, yet kind, vigorous, yet gentle.

‘Though rather reserved, he was very sensitive: he never expressed his feelings much, but they were strong.

‘Practical though he was, he would, I think, have made his mark in scholarship, for he loved literature and had a student’s mind.

‘In spite of his capacity as a Cadet officer, and his intense interest on the OTC, he shrank from war.

‘It was an effort to go, but therein he did his duty as in all else.’

Sources include:


The National Archives

Lest We Forget by Steve Annandale (2014, All Saints Church, Branksome Park)

Marlborough College and the Great War in 100 Stories (2018, Marlborough College.)

Public Schools and the Great War by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh (2013, Pen and Sword)

Bournemouth and the First World War by M.A. Edgington (Bournemouth Local Studies Publications, 1985)

‘Band of Brothers’ newspaper article by Kevin Nash (Bournemouth Daily Echo, 13 November, 2008)