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Category: Women in History

  1. Ada Woodley - First World War Nurse

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    On 10 January 1918, a nurse named Ada Woodley died at Littlebury in Essex. She's not a famous woman in history, but when me and my fiancé stumbled on her grave two years ago while visiting this beautiful old village, I decided to research her. It's rare to find a war memorial grave in a local cemetery, and I'd certainly never seen one dedicated to a woman before. But researching Ada's story reminded me that women who worked hard for their country during the war weren't really treated with the same amount of respect as their male counterparts.

    Home in Littlebury

    Ada was born around 1886 at Littlebury. Woodley was her mother's maiden name, and as such Ada appears to have been illegitimate. She can be found on the 1891 census living with her mother Sarah, her maternal grandfather George Woodley, and her step-father Daniel Perrin, as well as a 2 month old half sister named Elizabeth. Ada had kept the Woodley name, but obviously I don't know if that was her mother's choice, or if Daniel didn't want her to take his name.

    By the 1901 census Ada was out making her own way in the world as a servant for the Pryke family in Saffron Walden. Her employer, Charles Edwin Pryke, is noted as "Superintendent of Police", so Ada may have been working in quite a nice house. Saffron Walden isn't too far away from Littlebury, so she may have been able to return and visit her mother quite frequently. Sarah and Daniel had increased their family, Elizabeth had been joined by Annie, Mabel, Harry and Frederick, and were still living with George Woodley.

    Nurse WoodleyAda Woodley © IWM (WWC H19-4)

    In 1911 we first see Ada as a nurse. The census for this year shows her in Dearnley near Rochdale, where she was employed by the workhouse as a hospital nurse. Evidently at some point in those ten years Ada decided that being a servant wasn't the career for her, and made changes in her life that enabled her to train as a nurse and find employment further away from home. The workhouse at Dearnley still stands, with a grand imposing red-brick façade and clock tower. The infirmary, where Ada would have worked, was built in 1902 and appears to be tucked away in the north corner, possibly where it could be better isolated during serious epidemics.

    Three years later, war broke out. As it became clear that it wouldn't be "all over by Christmas", more people were expected to show their commitment to war work. In the case of women such as Ada, there was a need for them to work in the military hospitals that had sprung up in both Britain and across Europe. On 21 June 1915 Ada Woodley joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Maybe she hoped to be sent abroad, some nurses were sent to work on hospital ships in the Mediterranean, others were dispatched to France and Belgium to serve in casualty clearing stations and hospitals near the coast. But many more were required to stay in Britain, and look after the men who were invalided "back to Blighty". In Ada's case she was sent to the 2nd Western General Hospital in Manchester.

    Ada appears to have settled in well at the hospital. The matron in charge of her clearly tried to help fight her corner when she became ill, something she may not have done for a nurse she rated less highly. The TFNS also wrote to her mother after her death stating that "The council have placed on record the cheerful and willing service she rendered to her country, which was so appreciated at the 2nd Western General Hospital".


    The first incidence of serious illness appears in Ada's nursing records in July 1917, when she was granted two months sick leave. At a time when the country was under great strain from the war effort, and injured men were being sent back from the front lines with increasing frequency, 2 months of leave suggests quite a serious illness. She travelled back home to her mother at Littlebury, and sought treatment there. In September 1917 a further two months sick leave was granted, but this is where war time bureaucracy really starts to show it's less helpful side, something that Ada's mother would have to deal with after her death.

    A series of letters kept in Ada's file detail the sudden decline in her health. A letter from 14 September, sent to Ada, informs her that she is only eligible to receive three months sick pay as her illness is not caused "in and by" the service. Therefore, despite her sick leave totalling four months up to October, she will only receive three months pay. The letter also informs her that once her four months is close to expiring she'll be required to attend another medical board meeting, presumably to show them that she has recovered.

    This letter wasn't what Ada was expecting. There's a gap of a month in the records, but a letter written by Ada herself dated 9 November 1917 appears in her file. In it she defends herself against what's clearly a basic box-ticking exercise, highlighting in her letter that she can't attend the medical board as directed, as she's confined to her bed. She also states that "I refuse to accept this statement" about her work not contributing to her illness. She highlights that when she first joined the TFNS she had a certificate confirming her good health, and in the two years she's worked at Manchester she hasn't had a single day off sick. She also points out that since returning home she's been under medical supervision, which has included being seen by a specialist. The conclusion she's received from her doctors is that even if her illness hasn't been caused by the hospital, then the strain and hard work has helped it develop.

    Throughout the record I couldn't see anything indicating what was wrong with her, only that it was serious. At one point a note states that she's being treated by radium, which was used for a number of illnesses at the time. Given her job involved helping injured men, it may be that helping lift those heavier than herself led to a hernia or internal haemorrhage, something that was difficult to treat properly, and which could lead to a serious infection.

    Sadly Ada's condition went downhill quite quickly, and it became obvious that she wasn't going to get better any time soon. One letter from her former Matron-in-Chief encourages the War Office to deal with her discharge from the service as quickly as possible as she was seriously ill. The Matron had already tried to help, asking for a medical board to be convened at Ada's home as she was too ill to travel to the necessary meeting. Given that the Matron was still up in Manchester, it's quite likely that she and Ada were keeping up correspondence, checking on how her former colleague was doing and becoming increasingly concerned when she heard about how Ada was being treated.

    Ada was finally invalided out of the TFNS on 28 November 1917. This at least meant that she no longer had to worry about being summoned before a medical board to prove she was unfit for work, and probably came as a relief to her and her mother. A gratuity was then paid of just over £24, the letter confirming receipt of the money was written by the Reverend Ernest Edgeley, the vicar of Littlebury. The letter was dated 7 January 1918, Ada died three days later on 10 January. Given that we know from other letters that we was literate, with a lovely clear handwriting, she was clearly too sick to manage this last task herself.

    Fighting the War OfficeAda Woodley - Littlebury churchyard

    Reverend Edgeley proved to be a good friend to Ada's mother Sarah. The rest of the file contains letters written by the Reverend on Sarah's behalf, it's quite possible that unlike her daughter, her literacy was limited. Sarah had to pay for her daughter's funeral out of the money Ada had left in Sarah's possession. Ada had no will, and the War Office held on to the money for such costs as part of her Estate. Sarah had to apply to the War Office for the funeral expenses to be reimbursed, but the reply from the Office, dated June 1918, refused. "As the deceased was of illegitimate birth Mrs Perrin has no legal claim to the amount due to deceased's estate from Army Funds".

    This must have been the last kick in the teeth for Ada's mother. The letter goes on to inform her that if she writes in, stating that if she had supported Ada in her childhood, then they would reconsider her application. Reverend Edgeley became involved again at this point, you can almost hear the anger in his letter; "I can certify from my own knowledge as vicar of the Parish extending over nearly 30 years, that Mrs Perrin supported the deceased during her infancy, childhood, provided her with a home in instances of holiday and finally nursed her through her last illness".  Soldiers were encouraged to make their wills before they left for the front line, evidently such legal niceties weren't encouraged for those serving in the services at home, including nurses. Or perhaps Ada's end came too suddenly for it to be a consideration.

    Ada's mother chose the quote she wanted on her daughter's headstone, it simply reads "She hath done what she could".

    The picture included is from the Imperial War Museum collection (© IWM (WWC H19-4)), it was submitted to the war museum in 1918 following two letters written by Reverend Edgerley. The grave photo was taken by me. 

  2. On This Day: Birth of Sophia Dorothea of Celle

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    On 15th September 1666 the sole heir to the Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg was born, and it was a girl. Named "Sophia Dorothea",  the little Duchess would go on to have a deeply unhappy marriage to a man who would then imprison her for thirty years, the future King George I of England.


    At the time of her birth, Sophia Dorothea's parents were unmarried due to the differences in their status. Sophia's mother was Eleonore  d'Esmier d'Olbreuse, from a minor noble French family. She had served as a lady in waiting to the Duchess of Thouars, and met her future husband on a trip to the German state of Kassel. Duke George William on the other hand was the son of the Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, and inherited the Duchy on the death of his older brother. He resided in the province in Celle, giving a good portion of his inheritance to his younger brother Ernest Augustus. As part of the deal, Ernest married Sophia of Hanover in place of George William, and George himself promised to not marry or have any heirs who would threaten Ernest's inheritance.

    When he met Eleonore, George appears to have fallen completely in love with her. She became his mistress, and their daughter followed in 1666. When Sophia Dorothea was ten her parents finally married officially, but the origins of her birth (including her mother's lower-nobility status) still caused problems for Sophia.

    "I will not marry the pig-snout!"Sophia-Dorothea-of-Celle

    Sophia Dorothea was originally considered for a match with her cousin, King Christian V of Denmark, but in the end she was considered unsuitable by the King's mother. A match was then made with the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, but again this fell through.

    At the age of eleven Sophia Dorothea was considered as a possible bride for her cousin George Louis, Ernest and Sophia's eldest son. The idea may have been suggested by Ernest himself, who saw that by marrying his cousin, George Louis would then inherit his uncle's rights and titles through his wife, and the lands split between George William and Ernest would be reunited.

    The proposal was rejected by both Eleonore, and the potential groom's mother. Both women could see that the pair were not a good match, and they both did their best to persuade their respective husbands that such a marriage would only lead to misery. Unfortunately, Ernest was not a man who had ever listened to his wife's advice, and George William appears to have been similarly dismissive of Eleonore's concerns. It was therefore declared that George Louis would marry his first cousin, in spite of the mother's reservations.

    On being told that she was to marry George Louis, Sophia Dorothea reportedly declared "I will not marry the pig-snout", an unfortunate nickname that George-Louis had picked up in Hanover. She had absolutely no choice in the matter. The stress of her forced marriage led to her collapsing repeatedly, first when meeting her future mother-in-law, and second when meeting George-Louis himself. If she felt that such dramatic fainting fits would persuade her father to call off the match, then she was sadly mistaken. The marriage took place on 22 November 1682, and Sophia Dorothea was whisked off to Hanover with her husband.

    Disastrous Match

    The match was destined to fail from the start. Sophia of Hanover disliked her daughter-in-law, telling friends that she had only agreed to it due to the huge sum of money that George William was paying the family each year as part of the dowry agreement. George Louis was considered to be dull and rather haughty, Sophia Dorothea on the other hand was lively and bright, and enjoyed taking part in the various entertainments put on at the court by her father in law. Luckily George Louis was away frequently, he was a military man and often left the court to manage the Hanoverian army, leaving his wife behind with his family.Duchess-Sophia-Dorothea-of-Celle

    Sophia Dorothea gave birth to their son, George Augustus, in November 1683, who was followed by a daughter also named Sophia Dorothea, in March 1687. But at some point George Louis had taken a mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg. Husband and wife frequently argued, and Sophia reportedly began to cause public scenes that were considered to be an embarrassment to the family. Feeling neglected and unwanted by her husband, Sophia Dorothea turned for comfort to the Swedish Count Philip von Konigsmarck.

    It's difficult to tell when their affair started. The pair had known each other as teenagers, and renewed their friendship in 1688. Despite Konigsmarck leaving the court to serve in various armies, the pair kept up their relationship. The pair were indiscreet, Sophia Dorothea's parents even heard rumours about their daughter's behaviour, and the whole court hummed with the gossip that she was planning on leaving her husband and fleeing with the handsome Count.


    The fate of Konigsmarck remains a mystery. He disappeared in 1694, and was reportedly murdered after trying to help Sophia Dorothea escape Hanover. In August 2016 it was reported that a skeleton had been found under Hanover castle, which historians theorised could be the remains of Konigsmarck. However the story at the time was that his remains had been cast in to a river.

    Sophia Dorothea herself was divorced by George Louis in 1694, when he became King George I of Great Britain, there was no wife to be made Queen at his side. Rather than let her return to Celle, he had her imprisoned in the castle of Ahlden, and had images of her at the court removed and destroyed. She never saw her children again, and since her own father was complicit in her imprisonment he refused to see her. Her mother on the other hand, spent decades begging for her daughter's release. Sophia Dorothea's son was deeply upset at the loss of his mother, and hated his father for her imprisonment.

    Although it was a genteel imprisonment, she was given a good income, a comfortable home and plenty of servants, it was still a terrible way to treat a former wife. Sophia Dorothea reportedly kept a large collection of portraits of her family members, especially her children. On 13th November 1726, she died while still imprisoned in Ahlden castle, she was sixty years old, and had been locked up for 33 years.

    Her coffin was kept in the cellar at Ahlden castle for several months after her death. It was only in May 1727 that Sophia Dorothea was finally freed of her prison, when she was buried in Celle's church, next to her parents.

  3. On This Day: Death of Bertha von Suttner

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    On 21st June 1914 the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha von Suttner, died in Vienna. She was the second woman, after Marie Curie, to become a Nobel laureate, and like Marie Curie her life was one of frequent turmoil.

    Impoverished ChildhoodBertha-von-Suttner

    Bertha was born on 9th June 1843 in Austria. Her father, who predeceased her, was a younger son of a prominent Austrian aristocratic family, but her mother was the daughter of a "mere" cavalry officer. As a younger son, her father hadn't inherited any property or wealth that he could leave to his wife and child, and as a result they lived in the household of Landgrave Friedrich zu Furstenberg, along with Bertha's aunt and cousin.

    Bertha had a decent education, despite living as a poor relation, and became fluent in multiple languages including English and Italian. But after the Landgrave died the family finances grew more precarious, not helped by Bertha's mother, who frequently gambled away what little money they had in a desperate attempt to turn the family fortunes around. Bertha received several marriage proposals from older wealthy men, but she declined all of them. Instead she went to work as a tutor in the home of Karl von Suttner, whose daughters needed a companion. It was here that Bertha met and fell in love with the brother of her charges. Arthur von Suttner. The family were scandalised by the relationship, not only was Bertha from a poor family but Arthur was seven years younger than her.

    She moved to Paris where she spent a short period of time working as a secretary for Alfred Nobel. But while she developed a friendship with Nobel, she was committed to Arthur, and she returned to Vienna for a secret wedding.


    The elopement meant that the newly married couple decided to leave Austria and relocate to Georgia. Through Bertha's aristocratic connections, they were received by the ruling Prince Niko of the Dadiani family, but they didn't receive the patronage they might have hoped for. They earned money through teaching the children of the local aristocracy, and writing for Austrian newspapers on the on-going political crisis between Russia and Turkey. In the following years they moved several times and had to find more creative ways to earn money, including accountancy, design, and further newspaper and magazine articles.

    Bertha in particular was a keen writer, and slowly began to work on more political articles. In 1883 her first political work "Inventory of the Soul" was published, in which Bertha put forward her own pro-disarmament views. Her mother died in 1884, but this made their financial problems worse as Bertha became responsible for the payment of her mother's debts. As hostilities in Georgia increased, the couple grew increasingly anxious for their safety. Luckily by this point the Von Suttner family had come round to the idea of their son's marriage, and they were invited back to Austria, settled at Harmannsdorf.

    Fighting for Peace

    By now Bertha was committed to the cause of peace, and dedicated the rest of her life to the pacifist movement. In 1889 her celebrated novel "Lay Down Your Arms!" was published, eventually being translated in to 12 languages and covering 37 editions. She kept up an active correspondence with philosophers and activists, and became co-founder and chairwoman of the German Peace Society. With her husband's death in 1902 she had to leave Harmannsdorf and return to Vienna, from where she travelled to Berlin for the International Congress of Women and then the United States for a peace conference in Boston.

    In 1905 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, founded by her old employer Alfred Nobel. She was only the second woman to become a Nobel laureate, and it's generally believed that it was her friendship with Nobel that led to him including the Peace Prize in his foundation plans. She continued to campaign for peace even as Europe ground closer to war, attending further conferences in the Netherlands and collecting signatories to petitions for peace.

    Perhaps it was a blessing that she died just weeks before the First World War broke out. Despite suffering from cancer, she had been planning on attending another peace conference in Vienna. Although she is often forgotten as a Nobel Prize woman laureate (in favour of Marie Curie) her contribution to the peace movement, through her writing and tireless campaigning, was enormous.

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  4. On This Day: Birth of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

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    Today is a resounding Happy Birthday to one of my favourite women in history - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson! She dedicated her life to studying medicine, becoming the first British woman to become a doctor, and then ran hospitals, public health programmes, and trained other women to follow in her footsteps.

    Becoming a Doctor

    Elizabeth was the second of twelve children, and grew up with her parents and siblings in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Her father was a wealthy business owner, and Elizabeth and her sister were sent to a private girl's school in London. Even in her teens Elizabeth was unhappy with a woman's lot in life - she would complain in later years that her school hadn't taught maths or science. After she finished school she maintained her own education, studying latin in her spare time while helping her mother around the house and looking after her younger brothers and sisters.ElizGarAnderson

    Through mutual friends, Elizabeth came in contact with the social reformer Emily Davies. She also joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which helped organise a meeting between her and Elizabeth Blackwall, the first American woman to become a doctor. This meeting spurred Elizabeth on to become a doctor herself, and although her father originally disagreed with her plans, he eventually changed his mind and fully supported her.

    At the time there was no route for a woman to become a doctor, and all the usual paths that were open to men refused to help a woman.  Elizabeth first trained as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, and once she had proved that she could cope with operations she was allowed to receive private tuition in Latin and Greek (for correct terminologies and the identification of medicinal plants) and the production of medicines, although the Hospital still refused to let her sign up as a medical student. Her father paid for a tutor for anatomy and physiology, and she was allowed to attend dissections at the hospital, until the male students complained and had her banned from the room. By this time she had taken her first exams and received certificates in chemistry and medicine, but her applications to multiple medical schools were again refused.

    Elizabeth was eventually accepted by the Society of Apothecaries, who were not allowed to refuse admission to women. She continued to receive private tuition, although the medical schools were not keen on accepting women, some of their professors were less discriminatory. She received her licence to practise medicine in 1865, after receiving the highest marks in the exam group.

    Doctor Garrett

    Elizabeth was keen to assist poor women, opening an outpatient dispensary for women and children that saw over nine thousand outpatients in it's first year. She also furthered her studies by learning French, which allowed her to apply for a medical degree at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. More work began to come to Elizabeth's door; she was elected to the London School Board, which controlled the building and running of schools, and became a visiting physician at a children's hospital, but demand for her dispensary and private practise meant that she resigned both positions after a few years to concentrate on her original work. The dispensary became a women and children's hospital, and moved to large premises in Marylebone. She also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the first teaching hospital that accepted women as students.

    She was finally accepted by the British Medical Associate in 1873, who promptly pulled the ladder up behind her by changing their rules to state women were not allowed to join. But while some negative rule changes were being made, more positive ones were also taking place - London University allowed women to enrol on it's medical course in 1873. Elizabeth spent the rest of her life working in medicine, along with running her hospital and treating patients, she also passed on her skills and knowledge to the other women who wished to follow her. She married James George Skelton Anderson in 1871, and had three children with him - their daughter Louisa also became a doctor.

    In her retirement, Elizabeth continued to set new records for women, in 1908 she became the first woman to become mayor of Aldeburgh. She campaigned for women's suffrage, although she disagreed with the more militant side of things and distanced herself from their activities. She died in 1917, having never seen women's receive the right to vote. But she did see the change in the world after she set a trail for women doctors, as more and more women signed up to medical courses, and found themselves accepted by the institutions who had once said "no". 

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  5. On This Day: Death of Katherine Swynford

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    On this day, 10th May 1403, one of medieval England's most well-known, or notorious (depending on your point of view) women passed away. Given how her life had caused such a scandal, it comes a bit of a surprise to know that her passing was barely noted by the chronicles of the time.

    A Respectable Wife

    Katherine de Roet was the daughter of a minor nobleman from Hainault, now in modern-day Belgium. He came to England in the service of Philippa of Hainault on her marriage to Edward III of England, and Katherine was raised in the royal nursery in the company of the princes and princesses of England. She was married to a rather impoverished English knight, Hugh Swynford, and Katherine Swynford became the name that history remembered her under. Her husband's manor was at Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, but the land was poor and the family often struggled for money. Katherine had several children by Hugh (the exact number is difficult to confirm) and raised them at Kettlethorpe.

    Hugh's death around 1371 or 1372 left Katherine in dire financial straights. However here her Royal connections helped. Katherine had served in the household of John of Gaunt in the past, and as a widow she was taken back in to his household, where she was put in charge of the ducal nursery. At some point during this part of her life, she and John began their affair. Their first child was a son named John, who was born some time in 1373.

    Infamous Mistress

    But while Katherine was widowed, John wasn't. His first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had died but he had married a second time to a Spainish princess, Constance of Castile. This marriage was not particularly happy, and John may have had several affairs before he and Katherine began their relationship. Katherine went on to have three sons and a daughter by John, who were given the surname "Beaufort".

    Even though they were discreet, the news of their affair got out eventually, and Katherine was slandered as a whore in the chronicles. Public opinion had swung against John, and the news of his relationship didn't help. During the Peasant's Revolt John's beautiful Savoy Palace was looted and burned to the ground, and he seemed to take this as a sign of divine disapproval for his behaviour. He and Katherine ended their relationship, and John settled down to focus on his wife and her Castilian inheritance.

    Scandalous Marriage

    This separation would not last. Several years later their relationship was resumed, and when Constance died in 1394 John further scandalised the country by marrying Katherine. The poor noblewoman of no particular family was suddenly elevated to the position of Duchess of Lancaster, making her second in the land after the Queen of England. People couldn't complain too loudly though, as King Richard II, John's nephew, seemed to approve the match, and no one would argue too loudly with the king.

    Katherine outlived her husband by four years, and spent her widowhood quietly. She was welcome at court by King Richard, and then later by her stepson King Henry IV, but she appears to have spent most of her time in Lincolnshire. On her death she was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, and in time her daughter Joan Beaufort would be buried next to her. Her Swynford children had distinguished enough careers, but it was her Beaufort descendants by John that would go far. In 1485 her great great grandson, Henry Tudor, would claim the throne of England, and make her an ancestress of the English royal family.

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