‘The great adventure of it all . . . .’: The Wartime Volume of Hilda Zigomala

From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office MC 2738/14

An essential part of exploring the Norfolk Record Office for archives relating to the First World War, is to spend some time with Volume 15 from the Zigomala collection. It may not be relevant to your particular piece of research, but it will allow you to pause a while and reflect on the impact of war on one particular family.

Hilda Frances Zigomala was the daughter of Charles and Augusta North of Rougham Hall. In 1889 she married Major Pandia John Zigomala and this is when she started to create her collection, reflecting her personal life set, in the case of Volume 15, against the context of war. Each volume is a feast of exquisite watercolour paintings, photos, press cuttings and other memorabilia.

Unfortunately Volume 14 is missing from the archive. Volume 15 is the final volume Hilda Zigomala created and covers the period 1916 to 1918 with an envoi written in 1920.  Various themes emerge; wartime England, the contrast between active service and being home on leave and, most importantly, her only son John’s military career.

Photo 1 First page

Photo 2 Carpentering together

Hilda Zigomala was extremely talented in all manner of crafts and it was a talent she shared with her son John. The above photo is the first page of Volume 15 and starts with Christmas 1916 and a painting of John at his “carpentering”.  The photo on the right shows Hilda and John “carpentering” together.




Photo 3 Dance

Many pages illustrate the stark contrast between life in high society and being on active service. When home on leave all manner of events would be organized, mainly at their London home in Egerton Gardens which was clearly a grand affair.


Photo 4 On leave

In September 1918 Hilda went on holiday to Dymchurch staying with friends. John, home on leave, was able to join her.  Even on holiday war is reflected in her paintings.  Although playing on the beach the men are in uniform and warships and aeroplanes are in the background.

Photo 5 Dymchurch Photo 6 Dymchurch


Photo 7 potatoes

Hilda’s paintings also give a glimpse into everyday wartime life, particularly in London. Food supply was critical, particularly in the latter years of the war.  Dig for Victory may have come later but here we see that potatoes had been planted outside Buckingham Palace.

Photo 8 air raid



With the development of aerial warfare, air raids were also becoming more frequent. This image shows an air raid just outside Hilda’s front door.









Photo 9 John in uniform

Hilda’s son John Copeland Zigomala was born in 1898 and was in the Irish Guards in the First World War. The Irish Guards were deployed to France and they remained on the Western Front for the duration of the war.

While celebrating Christmas, the first page of Hilda’s volume also includes a newspaper cutting from the London Gazette January 1917 announcing his promotion to Lieutenant. His regiment was based at Warley Barracks, Brentwood, Essex.

John was injured on more than one occasion. In February 1917 Hilda records that John is passed for light duty and rejoins his regiment at Warley.  On a later occasion he suffered a gunshot wound to his left elbow.

In November 1917 John was sent back to France in command of 280 men and 6 officers. He was only 19 years old.  Describing action he was involved in, The Times on 29 November 1917 recounts:

From house to house they fought their way, bullets streaming from countless loopholes. The toll of prisoners mounted rapidly for the Germans showed no particular desire to come to grips with the stalwart British Guardsmen.

Further action in April 1918 was reported in the Daily Mail on 24 April 1918:

The Guards Division, after five days of heavy fighting at Boiry-Becquerelle (south of Arras) completely repulsed hostile attacks delivered in great strength.

While Hilda’s collection focuses largely on her son; her husband Jack was also away and she had to endure much time alone. She helped at the Ciro YMCA Centre in London which gave soldiers an opportunity to meet up with friends and relatives.  For this work she was awarded The Order of the Red Triangle by the YMCA in June 1919.  At other times she would visit friends across the country.  The photo below is a full page from her volume.  Hilda was visiting Wroxton in Oxfordshire for Christmas.  The card on the right is a Christmas greeting from John.  Hilda has painted herself feeding the chickens – in her fur coat of course!

Photo 10 Chickens

Photo 11 armistice day


Armistice was a time of great celebration and relief.







However, in May 1919 John volunteered with the Russian Relief Force and left for Russia.

Photo 12 john leaves for russia

Earlier in the war John had been awarded the MBE for bravery when there had been a bombing accident at Warley. Tragically a second incident in Russia had a different outcome.  On 25 August 1919 a fire had broken out on board an ammunition barge.  John went out with others to try and put it out when there was a massive explosion and he was killed.  Hilda wrote:

Everything in this life ended for me when our boy was killed in Russia . . . my world consisted of my husband and our boy . . all too soon the time came when he went to Sandhurst and Jack to France and my anxieties began – & then the awful day came when the boy went to France . . . I prayed as I never prayed before, and yet suffered tortures of anxiety. Then the Armistice came and I felt all my anxieties were over.   . . . He went off radiant with happiness at the great adventure of it all. . . Even now I can hardly even think of those black hours of acute agony . . Gradually a reason & object in life came back to me – I would work for others with the small talents God has given me

After John’s death Hilda dedicated herself to teaching crafts to disabled former servicemen. She was awarded the CBE for her work. Hilda died in London in 1946.

Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger











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