Canaries, Camels and Other Acts of Kindness

Correspondence of the Amherst Sisters

The five Amherst sisters; Mary, Sybil, Florence, Margaret and Alicia were the daughters of Lord and Lady Amherst of Foulden Hall in Norfolk. Sybil, Florence and Margaret never married and, at the outbreak of the First World War, all three sisters, in their fifties, were still living at the family home.

The Amherst letters (MC84/204 528×1) is a collection of correspondence largely related to Margaret’s role at the hospital.  There is also some correspondence to the sisters from soldiers from the village who were known to them.

Margaret was the Commandant of the British Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital at Buckenham Tofts Hall at Mundford for the short time it was open between January and May 1916.  During that time it admitted 52 patients.  It closed when the area was required for military training. (Reference: ‘The Auxiliary Hospitals of The British Red Cross Society and St John Ambulance in Norfolk 1914-1919’. Compiled by Colonel C E Knight M.B.E. K.St.J).

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One of the Amherst sisters, thought to be Florence, sitting at her desk. Norfolk Record Office: MC 84/206 

Letters from the soldiers give some insight into how time was spent at the hospital.

Corporal H Kirke wrote:

“Do look sharp and get another house so I can come back to you . . .I was glad with the flowers Miss Florence sent over, we never see any flowers here from one day to another and the patients never get any cigarettes or tobacco . . . . I am ready for going out of this place, it doesn’t suit me a little bit”.

A later letter he thanks Miss Florence for sending a golf club and three balls.

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Hospital staff playing golf. NRO: MC 84/206

Private Bateson wrote:

You say you missed me in the kitchen.  I only wish I was there now or Playing Golf . . . I expect the Billiard Table will get well Patronised”.

Lyle Craig wrote:

“Have you got any one to paint postcards, if not I shall come back and do this”

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Painting postcards was a regular pastime. NRO: MC 84/204, 528X1

Thank-you letters reveal the range of gifts the sisters sent. These included books, photos, knitted garments and even guinea pigs sent to soldiers’ children. Tobacco was a commonly well-received gift and clearly the perils of smoking were unknown at the time.

In June 1916 Private Twigg, having been transferred to the Norfolk War Hospital in Norwich, wrote:

“As I do not smoke much it gave me great satisfaction to distribute the cigarettes among my chums many of whom miss a smoke more than anything.  I had just used my last piece of soap so yours saved me the trouble of getting more from these French shops”. 

Parents of those in the Amherst’s care also wrote expressing their gratitude.

H Claxton’s mother wrote:

“My son asked me to send you one of my cannary (sic) birds . . . I will send it by the 9.20. . . . . thanking you for your kindness to my son”.

Grace Croxford, living in South Africa, wrote about her daughter Joy who was working at the hospital.

“My daughter Joy’s letters are so full of her bright and happy life with you . . . . It is such a comfort to us to know she is in such kind hands and such a lovely home . . .We hope she will do her duty to our poor wounded boys . . it is a great pleasure to us that she should have the opportunity of seeing so much of dear old England”.

Soldiers who were transferred to other Red Cross Hospitals when Buckenham Tofts Hall closed were quick to compare.

H Lingwood of the Norfolk Regiment was transferred to Bilney.  He wrote:

“I am sorry to tell you that we are not so happy as we were at Buckenham and I am sure that we shall never find another hospital like (yours) where ever we go”.

Private Twigg also transferred to Bilney and was equally unhappy.  He accused the Matron of withholding a letter from him and wrote:

“I have been out once since I have been here.  I am sure now that she is doing this for making money, she thinks more of her chickens and dogs than us”.

The care shown extended beyond the soldiers’ stay at the hospital. Margaret Amherst was anxious to know that the soldiers, on discharge, had reached their next destination safely.  The soldiers would be given a stamped addressed postcard to send back to her confirming their safe arrival at their next destination.

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Stamped addressed postcard issued to soldiers on discharge. NRO: MC 84/204 528X1

Lance Corporal William Robert English (Service number 20103) and Isaac Eagle (Service number 18750) were known to the Amherst family and corresponded with the sisters throughout the war. English was the village schoolteacher and Eagle was an agricultural labourer in Foulden.

English had promised to write to Florence Amherst once he had received a promotion and duly did so:

“The promotion came on Saturday night I donned my stripe with all due importance on Sunday morning.  I am an “unpaid  L.Cpl. but that does not matter as there is the satisfaction of knowing that one has risen one step. . . . . The uncertainty, and the fact that all one’s actions are planned for him, -have rendered me – and others too – almost careless of the future. . . . . . The average Britisher loves to grumble & yet performs.  I think it is amusing. . . . . . I have been kept well informed of Foulden news for I have received from time to time letters from the school children.  Strange to say the girls write but the boys do not”.

Eagle found himself in Cairo in 1915 and wrote:

“I have done my best to observe all the rules of health as laid down by the authorities for our personal benefit.  But unfortunately a good many have been laid low with that awful dysentery caused sometimes by indulging in eating too much native fruit and as you know the natives are none too clean personally!  I believe they have a dislike for soap…..I have lately paid a visit to the Pyramids. . . I had my long desired ride on a camel”. 

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Eagle on a camel. NRO: MC 84/204 528X1

English served in Mesoptomaia, India and Egypt and returned home in 1917. Eagle died at sea on the ship Victory in November 1916.

This collection of correspondence reflects one of the many ways that support was given during the war by those at home and it is testimony to the level of care and kindness shown by the Amherst sisters that such a wealth of letters exist.

Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.


Words of loss

“Everything in this life ended for me when our boy was killed . . . . . . .those black hours of acute agony . . . the utter blackness and hopelessness of despair”.  These words were written by Hilda Zigomala following the death of her son in Russia in 1919. (MC 2738/14).

Over 17 million lost their lives in the First World War.  This included about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians.

What words could and had to be found following the loss of a loved one as the result of war?

This blog post records the words of loss relating to four young men from Norfolk in the First World War.  The links to their records, held at the Norfolk Record Office, are given here:

  1. Herbert Arter served with the 67th Canadian Western Scots Pioneer Battalion.  He was killed in action on 25th August 1916 at the age of 22. (MC 3182/1)
  2. Augustus Capps served with the 6th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.  He died in Flanders in 1917. (ACC 2010/34)
  3. Captain Philip Hewetson served with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.  He was wounded at Aisne on 27th May 1918 and died a prisoner of war on  3rd July 1918. He was 24 years old. (MC 643)
  4. Herbert William Wellard served with the 5th Battalion Special Brigade Royal Engineers.  He died of wounds in France on 3rd July 1916. (MC 2715/6)

Words from King George V

The King would send a brief letter accompanied by an engraved memorial plaque to the family.  The letter and plaque below was sent to Mr Wellard following the death of his son Herbert William Wellard.

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Letter and brass plaque from King George V. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: MC 2715/6, 1024X5.

Words from Commanding Officers

  • Herbert Arter’s commanding officer, Lieutenant  J Falkner, wrote to his mother from Flanders on 28th August 1916:

“My dear Mrs Arter, It is indeed a painful duty for me to inform you that your son H Arter, was killed in action on the morning of August 25th.  I was his Platoon Commander, and I assure you that your son was one of the best, and his loss is felt by all his chums and myself.  Any duty he was called upon to do, he did quickly with a smile, and you can feel that your hero boy made the supreme sacrifice with his face to the foe.  He is buried in Flanders in a pretty spot where many more brave heroes are sleeping their last sleep.  As names of places cannot be mentioned, if you write to the Graves Registration Commission, B E F Army P O London you would be informed of the exact place of burial.  Major Gordon, the Divisional Chaplain, I presume has written or will write you also.  Your son’s personal effects will in due time reach you.  Sympathising with you, I am, Yours truly, Lieut. J Falkner”.

  • Lieutenant Colonel Ross also wrote to the family on the loss of Herbert Arter.
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Letter from Lieutenant Colonel Ross on the death of Herbert Arter. NRO: MC 3182/1.

Words from Comrades and Friends

  • Captain Philip Hewetson’s father was the vicar at Salhouse.  In the Parish Magazine, December 1918, his father writes of a letter received from a Salhouse soldier: “This is just to try and express my real sympathy for you in your great bereavement.  At such a time one cannot say much, one feels that is something far too deep to talk about”.

Words from Family

  • William and Augustus Capps left Gorleston to join the war.  When Augustus was killed in Flanders in 1917 William was probably informed by his mother who had sent a newspaper cutting from The Mercury.  William, (41531 Private William Capps, 1 Essex Regiment) was in Tipperary, Ireland at the time. Many young men would have found it hard to express their loss in words and William was probably no exception.  On 14th September he wrote:

“My dear mother.  . . . . .in the best of health, but a bit down at times about Gus, but I suppose it will not bear the thinking about, as that will not bring him back again, well lets hope that we shall have the pleasure of meeting him in heaven.  I thought it was a very good piece in the Mercury about him, and he seems very respected by everybody who knew him and that is very satisfactory.”

  • Reverend Hewetson wrote of the loss of his son in the parish magazine and other correspondence.
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Reverend Hewetson’s letter on the loss of his son Philip Hewetson. NRO: MC 643.

The Printed Word

  • Captain Philip Hewetson. Press cutting:

“For England’s Integrity

For that his dear life was not given in vain

Despite the anguish of our loss and pain”.

  • Herbert Arter.  Memoriam card from his siblings:
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    Memoriam card for Herbert Arter. NRO: MC 3182/1.

    Complied by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.

‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.

‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.


Edith’s baptism entry. NRO catalogue reference: PD 199/4

Edith Cavell is perhaps Norfolk’s best-known twentieth-century heroine. Born in Swardeston, she was nursing in Brussels when the First World War broke out. After Brussels was occupied, she continued in her post and also helped Allied soldiers to break through enemy lines and escape to Britain. Executed by the Germans on 12 October 1915, her death became an enormous propaganda weapon for the Allies.

Propaganda postcard. From the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Propaganda postcard. Image courtesy of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

As this October is the centenary of her death, many heritage organisations are shining a spotlight on Cavell’s life, as well as the role of nurses during World War One. From Monday 5 October The Norfolk Record at the Archive Centre will have a free exhibition entitled ‘No Hatred or Bitterness’: Edith Cavell and Norfolk Women in the First World War.

This exhibition includes original documents that have never been displayed in public before, including letters from both Edith and the soldiers she helped. The exhibition also looks at Edith’s story and how she has been remembered, both at the time and in later years. It delves into the background to her story – the role of other Norfolk nurses, abroad and at home, and at the many roles played by Norfolk women in wartime, even those whose courage took the form of opposing the war. Each, in her own way, was a true Heroine of Norfolk.

Related events will accompany the exhibition. On Thursday 15 October there is a drop in event called ‘Women at War’ at which you can discover the wide range of experience of Norfolk women as nurses during the First World War, from Norfolk to the Mediterranean. Plus, find out how Edith Cavell was portrayed in film. There will also be the opportunity to learn about useful resources for tracing nurse ancestors. There is no need to book for this event, but see our Eventbrite page for more information.

There are also children’s activities taking place in October. On Monday 26 October, during the Autumn half term, children will look at cards and propaganda and choose to either create a propaganda postcard or an embroidered card.

On Tuesday 27 October an activity run jointly with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital will reveal the history of Edith Cavell, and teach children how to use a bandage and create their own letters with invisible ink or in code.

Booking for the children’s activities is essential, for more information see our Eventbrite page. 


Photograph of nine girls fund-raising for the Red Cross. NRO catalogue reference: MC 84/206, PH10

Museum donates WW1 letters written by former pupils to Gresham’s Archives

As part of the centenary commemorations of the Great War, Gresham’s School in Holt has been remembering the stories of ex-pupils and staff that died in the conflict one hundred years after their deaths.

An unexpected consequence of this commemoration has been the discovery of new material to add to the school’s extensive First World War Archive. A recent link has been established with the West Kirby Museum, as two Fallen Old Greshamians (OGs), Alec Herron and Eric Blackburn, came to Gresham’s from that town on the Wirral in Merseyside.

Heather Chapman from the West Kirby Museum recently visited Gresham’s to donate a collection of letters from OG Gray Blackburn. Gray, brother of Eric, fought in the First World War and was wounded but survived. Unfortunately he later died in the Second World War and his name is recorded on the Second World War memorial in Gresham’s Memorial Chapel. Gray’s letters were discovered in a skip in the 1980s and they form a significant addition to the School Archive. Gresham’s is extremely grateful to the West Kirby Museum and to Heather Chapman for the bequest.

Presentation of Gray Blackburn's letters

Presentation of Gray Blackburn’s letters

World War 1 Digital War Memorial Project

On Monday night I had my first opportunity as the new Community Development Worker at Norwich’s Millennium Library to meet some of the young people who have been participating in the WW1 Project with film maker Peter Harmer. Before the film screening I met with the group and Community Librarian, Ben Miller who has been guiding them through their Bronze Art Award, which has been an important tool in documenting and reflecting what they have learnt in a book format. During an atmospheric thunder and lightning storm, we were treated to a sneak preview of the group’s work, and what a talented bunch they are!

Checking the final edit

Checking the final edit

In order to the share their work beyond the group and complete the ‘Skills Share’ element of their Bronze Award, friends and family were later invited to join us for the first public screening. The event began with a short presentation from the group. One by one, each young film maker related the diverse range of skills and knowledge they have developed through the process of creating their film; from script development to learning the lingo of film making, the group gave us a thoughtful insight into the dynamism of their experience.

The Premiere!

The Premiere!

The film itself is beautiful, told from the varying perspectives of a family who have each had to adapt to the often distressing changes inflicted by war, and interspersed with modern day documentary links – it is a poignant and thoughtful work using a range of techniques that have allowed the group to learn more about the specific effects of the war on Norfolk and put themselves in the shoes of those who lived it.

I am looking forward to working with the group in July to curate an exhibition of their work, which will be displayed in the library.

The film itself will be shown together with the animation created by the TS Warriors group working on the project in Great Yarmouth in the Fusion digital gallery at the Forum from the 21st of July – as if you didn’t already have enough good reasons to visit the Millennium Library!