Sevenoaks women at war – 100 years on
by Matthew Ball
THIS year sees the last of the significant anniversaries of the First World War – from the March Offensive, through to the Armistice and declaration of peace.
When we think of the war, it is often of men fighting in the trenches or of significant battles, such as the Somme. As 2018 also marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to many women aged 30 and over, I wanted to take a look at the wartime experiences of some of the women of Sevenoaks, many of whom would be able to vote for the first time in the General Election of December 1918.
Local women, from all walks of life, made a significant contribution during the war. Marjorie Crosbie Hill was one of these. Born in Sutton, Surrey, in 1887, Marjorie was the daughter of William Samuel James Hill and his wife Elizabeth Mary Crosbie. William and Elizabeth had married in Islington in 1871. By 1891 they had moved to Sevenoaks, where William became a prominent resident and Justice of the Peace. The couple were recorded in that year’s census living at The Red House, once the home of Francis Austen, an uncle of Jane Austen, and now the premises of local solicitors, Knocker & Foskett.
The census shows Marjorie at home with five siblings, a governess and three servants. Later the family moved to 50, High Street and by 1911, Marjorie was living with her widowed father at 2, South Park. During the war, Marjorie, who was a Christian Scientist, worked organising and running canteens and clubs for workers at the munitions factories, for the Young Women’s Christian Association. She was awarded the OBE for this war work in early 1918 and she sat for her portrait at around that time.
Gladys Chapman lived at the other end of town, in the St John’s area of Sevenoaks, and was honoured for an act of bravery during the war.
According to a news report in the Sevenoaks Chronicle on 31 January 1919, Gladys lived at 3, Barrack Corner, and during the war, worked at the Kings Norton Metal Factory at Abbey Wood. About 7,000 workers were employed at the factory during the war, most based in temporary huts. Shell and cartridge cases were made in Birmingham then assembled and loaded at the Abbey Wood Factory, next to Woolwich Arsenal.
Gladys was on duty when a fire broke out in the factory, caused by a spark from a machine igniting some cordite.
The outbreak spread to a stack of aerial bullets, and but for the energies of Miss Chapman might have become much more serious. Miss Chapman first filled pails with water, which were poured on the cases, which were smouldering; then when the foreman threw off the corrugated iron covering to get at the burning wood with hose pipes, she threw the sheets to one side. This done, she secured a small hose and played on the fire, although all through these operations the bullets were exploding and flying in all directions, making the undertaking at once extremely dangerous and alarming.
Gladys was rightly recognised for her bravery and attended a ceremony in Brighton, where she was presented with her medal by Lord Leconfield, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex as ’recognition of coolness and courage displayed by her, in face of great danger’.
Clarice May Cross nee Porter also worked in a munitions factory during the war. Born in 1892, Clarice, who had only recently married and was a new mother, died in 1918. In its report of her burial, the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that Clarice had died of blood poisoning in hospital in Folkestone. Her obituary noted briefly that she had worked in a munitions factory during the war ‘and there contracted the disease of which she died’. Clarice was buried in the cemetery at St Nicholas. Her coffin carried by her brother Tom who was in the Royal Navy, and other serving soldiers and sailors. She left behind her husband, Clarence, and baby daughter, Clarice, who was just a few weeks old.
Many men went away to fight, their wives and families left to cope and rely on each other for support. Others men took a different stance and declared that they were Conscientious Objectors who were against the war. Men who took this stance were required to appear before a local Military Tribunal to determine what should happen to them. Some were recommended for Non Combatant Service. This was the stance taken by George Tester of ‘Cedar Villa’, Cedar Terrace, St John’s. George accepted non-combatant service until he was instructed to unload arms from a ship. Refusing to do so, he eventually spent nearly two years in prison at Dartmoor. His wife, Emma, and two children, Mollie and Philip were left to cope.
Years later, Mollie would recall: “As a family, we were ostracised. I remember walking hand in hand with mother along St John’s Road. Two men, up ladders, shouted something abusive at my mother. She gripped my hand tightly and hurried me away. Father had said mother must continue to go to the Baptist church, although no-one spoke to her. I remember walking up the aisle to our pew, which was halfway up the church. My mother held my hand tightly.
“A couple of teachers at Sevenoaks Council School were horrible to me because my dad had been a conscientious objector. They felt very strongly.”
Other Sevenoaks women nursed at one of several local hospitals run by the Volunteer Aid Detachment in town. There were hospitals at St John’s hall (where Vita Sackville West was commandant for a time), Cornwall Hall, Wildernesse, Chipstead and Chevening.
Mrs Anckorn of Dunton Green received a message early one morning in September 1914 to say she was needed at Chipstead Mission Hall as the first of the Belgian refugees to reach Sevenoaks would arrive imminently.
She later told the recounted: “I rushed to Martin’s in Dunton Green, bought a uniform, borrowed a governess cart and drove to Chipstead. There I helped to scrub the floors and put up beds. We were hardly ready when the first Belgians began to arrive. They had walked from the station and were covered in blood, filthy bedraggled and unshaven. We gave them soup and bundled them into beds after cleaning their wounds.”
Many Sevenoaks women nursed throughout the war, either in the town or, in some cases, in France.
Ada Margaret Bassett, known as Maggie, was born in 1897 and joined the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) at its formation in 1917 when she was the fifth to enrol with the new service. Maggie became an official driver, working for Admiral Lord Jellicoe, who was then First Sea Lord. Later she served in the Second World War in the Auxillary Transport Service and was a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, driving ambulances on the Home Front.
Maggie’s grandmother, Ann Bassett nee Parsons, the mother of George and Maggie’s father, Charles, was born in 1835 and lived on until 1933. Ann, who had a number of family members in the forces, became a tireless contributor to the war effort by knitting shirts and other clothing for soldiers at the Front. This picture below was taken when she was thanked after the war for her efforts.
Some of these women would receive the vote in 1918; others would have to wait until the franchise was extended to all women over 21, in 1928. It would be interesting to know if Ann Bassett, born in the reign of William IV and then well over 90, exercised her right to vote.
Matthew Ball is a writer, historian and genealogist. His next book, Sevenoaks, the Great War and its legacy, will be published later this year. More information is available at his website: