Monday, 30 January 2017

Maltese Military Funeral for Isabella’s colleague, Dr Isobel Tate



On 28th January 1917 Isobel Tate died. She was one of the small group of women doctors who, like Isabella Stenhouse, had signed up to work with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the summer of 1916. On January 30th, she was buried in Pieta Cemetery, alongside men who had died from wounds sustained in Gallipoli or infections caught in Salonika. 


This extract from The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads tells of my visit to the cemetery:


It is a burning hot Maltese day as I turn away from the vehicles hurtling along the dual-carriageway outside Valletta into a peaceful Pieta side street and go through an iron gateway. The thick stone walls instantly dull the roar of the traffic. I can hear insects, and even in the midday glare I can see that this war cemetery is unlike any I saw in France. Cypresses stand sentinel over a field of flat tombstones that lie between hard baked paths: their dates 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918. This is where the soldiers who the hospitals fail to mend lie buried. Many of the stones bear three names. The Maltese ground is so hard that the army has had no choice but to let the flood of dead share one another’s graves. They have had no choice but to lay many of the tombstones flat, as if to greet the sun. If I took the time to count, I would find 1,303 victims. That is almost one every day from the start of the campaign in Gallipoli in 1915 until the signing of the Armistice in 1918. But I do not count them. Instead, I turn back towards the gate, letting time and the weather slip to the winter cloudiness of Tuesday 30th January 1917 and an article in the Daily Malta Chronicle.


As I wait, I thread together the information I have gleaned about this last month, January 1917. Many of the churches started this third New Year of the war with a week of special prayers, but the German U-boats did not stop. Instead, they sank four merchant ships passing near Malta before the month was even nine days old. Not that there were many casualties, but tons of sugar, barley and other grains were lost. From home, tales of women and children queueing for hours in the winter cold and wet for basic supplies of bread and meat have been coming in from every quarter. The letter-writers try to put on a brave face, but the envelopes spill stories of supplies running out and shopkeepers having to come to the door to dismiss the queue. They tell of the weary families, frozen to the marrow, trudging home empty-handed, wondering how they will survive. Rumours abound too of discontented murmurings among the soldiers on leave, furious that while they have been risking everything for the sake of their nation, their nation has not looked after the women and children they have entrusted to its care. And the British in Malta have agreed that although they may be bored of canned meat, canned fish and the everlasting condensed milk, for now they are having the best of things.


My thoughts are interrupted by music. It is a quarter to four. Other people have joined me – a few nurses, some orderlies and a little crowd of men in hospital blue. Quiet, we crane to see. In front of the band marches a cluster of uniformed men who I know from the Chronicle are members of the Royal Garrison Artillery. They pass so slowly that I can count them, forty in all, pacing solemnly to music so sad that it alone makes my eyes moisten. As the last row of the artillery passes, the band itself comes into view. Eyes front, the Band of the Royal Malta Artillery is setting the rhythm for the whole procession, the dignified tones of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul resounding from their instruments; swinging from their drums, black crepe. Solemn minutes tick by before the coffin comes into view, and every hat around me is doffed, every head bowed. Lying on a gun-carriage pulled by six mules, the coffin is escorted by privates, lieutenants, captains and colonels, each bearing an elaborate wreath. Just beside me at the gate, the cortège halts, and the band falls silent. The Union Flag draped over the coffin moves eerily in the January breeze.

Hundreds of funeral processions may have come along this road in the last two years, but this one is different. It is no soldier who lies inside that coffin. It is one of the lady doctors, Dr Isobel Addy Tate. Respectfully, her coffin is lifted gently from its carriage and placed on the pall-bearers’ shoulders. Even their names make the Chronicle, so detailed is its account. The priest is leading them into the cemetery, but I wait, watching the crowds who have followed Dr Tate. There are numerous Medical Officers with their RAMC badges. A cluster of civil surgeons, and a throng of Matrons, Sisters and Staff nurses pass before, at last, the group I have been waiting for comes into sight. Instantly recognisable by their motley garb, I slide in with the lady doctors. Slowly, we process towards the grave. The place is packed. Every path is full, and the grave is awkwardly near a wall, but the men are moving back to allow these women, Isobel Tate’s closest friends and colleagues, to be the nearest to her burial.





As the priest conducts the service, the two neighbouring tombstones catch my eye. These are not shared tombs, each grave holds the remains of a nurse. Only one space remains in the row, and I shudder. At the rate this war is going, it too will probably soon be filled. Somebody who is now living and working, maybe even one of these women standing near me now, will be lying in a coffin for an interment as ceremonial and certain as Dr Tate’s today.

The priest finishes the ritual and the artillery men raise their guns. Three sharp volleys snap the silence and the tear-jerking strains of the Last Post echo from a single trumpet. I bow my head and wait while the lady doctors file past the still open grave. Then solemnly and quietly, they leave the cemetery. Does their conversation slowly come back as they walk towards Porte des Bombes?

“So sad.”

“So far away from home.”

“How did she die?”

“Congestion of the brain associated with typhoid, they suspect.”

“She had taken over the bacteriology in Valletta Hospital, hadn’t she?”

“Yes, and she was ill in Belgrade when she was out there last year, I believe.”

“She deserves recognition from the authorities.”

“Yes, she has given her life for her country just as surely as any wounded soldier or victim of malaria.”



(Excerpt from The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads,
Copyright Katrina Kirkwood 2016.)

Thursday, 6 October 2016

For National Poetry Day


A poem from Dr Isabella Stenhouse's archive, saved from her time in Malta as one of the first women to serve as a doctor with the British Army:




A HOSPITAL CONCERT, MAY 8, 1917
DEDICATED TO A VOICE


She will wish her pure strings to be mute—
Heal us, alone, by thy voice!
We are weak—with an arm, or a foot,
‘Tented,’ or bound, to no choice;
Ours are the bandaged eyes,
A-search for the Singer’s face—
Denials, through darkness, arise,
Pierce it with sound, for a space:
O Singer of Life—so, of pain!
Sing ‘Vita’––thy ‘Vita’––again and again


Ah! those were old words, that we’ve read—
‘O Sempre Amore’—that stirred;
And Love’s for us lads, sick in bed,
And Love is the wounded’s last word;
And a warmth drew in from the street,
And we slipped to an English June,
And England and Italy meet,
And touch the same chord of Love’s tune:
O Singer of Love—lift from pain!
Sing thy ‘Sempre Amore’—again and again!


Then he sank to an under key—
‘O Pena’!—O Pain! is it not?
And we fell to a blind reverie—
For we’ve had our pain, God wot!
We were back in the fever and ache,
Or peered in a pal’s dead face,
Or were feeling the lift and the shake,
And the moan in us down to the Base;
O Singer—though sweetest—of pain!
Sing ‘Pena’—thy ‘Pena’—again and again


Then he wrought us—passionate—loud—
‘Guerra, ah Guerra’!—is it War?
For our slack frames stiffened them proud,
And the men, we were once, we saw—
Over and on to a Leader’s sign,
Tightening their teeth on wild breath,
Spilling their blood like the reddest wine,
While they staked for winning or death!—
O Singer of madness and pain!
Sing ‘Guerra’—’thy Guerra’—again and again!


The ward empties to shuffle and drill—
All but two bedridden rows;
But he’s made eyes,—the dryest—to fill,
He’s breathed all our souls to new glows;
And a pale face, still in a trance—
Is away to the glory of things;
And the crutches tap tap to a prance;
While a voice to the hollowness clings—
O Vita dolce, si sovente amara!
O Sempre Amore—Pena e Guerra!—


Valletta, May 10th, 1917 
F.D.B.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Family Tree Magazine's review of The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads

Thanks to Karen Clare of Family Tree Magazine for this new review, printed in the magazine last month:




This delightful memoir-cum-family history mystery was borne out of a collection of memorabilia inherited from the author's adored Scottish grandmother who was – unusually for a woman in WW1 – a doctor.
As well as photos and surgical instruments there is a string of glass beads, which apparently came from a grateful German PoW. And so the author embarks on an ancestral road trip to piece together Isabella's story and discover the origin of the beads. Her investigation takes her from Isabella's grand Leith home to France, Malta and Alexandria in Egypt, via an appearance on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. The narrative is exciting, while the brief fleets of imagination will spark recognition in many family historians, as the author not only retraces Isabella's steps but breathes new life into her remarkable story.
Buy the book.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Solving mysteries: raising questions

Last month, Family Tree magazine invited me to write a post for their blog. I didn't want to write a spoiler, so I pondered again the whole process of research and writing.

Was it morally acceptable to dig up a story somebody had chosen not to tell?
How black was the line between fact and fancy?
Where did Isabella's story fit in the massive global commemoration of WW1?

This is how I began:

Family tradition held that my grandmother, Isabella Lane (née Stenhouse), had served as a doctor during WW1 - but she never talked about it. Even on her eightieth birthday, when she was presented with a huge tape-recorder and urged to record her memories, she still refused. The machine was untouched when she died sixteen years later, leaving me her medical instruments and a mysterious string of beads - the gift, it was rumoured, of a grateful German prisoner of war. Sometimes I would look at the collection, wondering what story it could have told, but it was forty years before I began to investigate.
You can read the rest of the article here: A String of Beads and a Family Mystery


Friday, 12 August 2016

#OTD 100 years ago: Which women doctors did the army take on?

Thanks to Col. Walter Bonnici’s hard work, I know that on 12th August 1916, Dr Isabella Stenhouse left Southampton on board the HMHS Gloucester Castle. 


Gloucester Castle before decoration in its hospital ship regalia.

She and fifteen other women doctors were joining 22 of their colleagues. Together, they formed the first cohort of women doctors that the British Army had ever dared to recruit. Not that the army was taking the risk of sending them to help with the flood of wounded from the battle raging in the Somme. Oh, no. Rather than let these ‘ladies’ anywhere near the fighting, the army was shipping them to Malta, far away in the Mediterranean.

It was not that these women were inexperienced. 

Isabella had spent 1915 working in France - that story is told in the book.

Georgina Davidson, too, had served with the French Red Cross but, when that job had finished, she had travelled to Serbia to join Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Florence Bignold had also worked in Serbia.

Recently qualified Martha Stewart had been forced to retreat from advancing enemy troops while running a surgery for Mrs St Clair Stobart’s Serbian Relief Fund. By way of thanks, the King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had awarded her the Order of St Sava. 

And, as if to cap them all, New Zealander Ada McLaren had spent three full months as a prisoner of the Austrians after being captured while working with the Berry Mission, again in Serbia.

Yet these experiences had deterred none of them from boarding the Gloucester Castle. On this day 100 years ago, they set off for war again. 

Their companions were no less bold: Mabel Hector had worked in India; Elizabeth Moffett was an active suffragist who, on occasion, had refused to pay her taxes, while Katherine Waring was so confident of her abilities that she had signed up only 6 months after qualifying. 

As the ship slipped out of port and headed towards the Bay of Biscay, what was going to happen next?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

A Rewarding Read - A Nontraditional Account of WW1





At last! Somebody has explained The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads
Here's blogger Connie Ruzich's 5* review from Goodreads

"This non-fiction book balances two stories, one a biography, the other a mystery. The first story relates the compelling experiences of Isabella Stenhouse, an intrepid Edwardian who was one of the small minority of women in Scotland to be awarded a medical degree at that time. Shortly after graduating from medical school in Edinburgh, Isabella volunteered as a physician and tended the wounded of the First World War in in France, Malta, and Egypt. Her life story is compelling and is augmented with historical insights that deserve a wider understanding and appreciation. From the medical facts of gas gangrene to the social contexts of spiritualism, author Katrina Kirkwood supplements her story with well-researched background information. The book should strongly appeal to anyone with an interest in nontraditional accounts of the First World War and those who wish to learn more about women’s history in the conflict.

The second narrative, interwoven with Isabella Stenhouse’s story, is the journey of Isabella’s granddaughter and her quest to learn more about her grandmother’s unusual war experience. Using family photos and artifacts (including Isabella’s medical instruments and the string of beads referred to in the book’s title), the author sets out to research her grandmother’s life. This part of the story moves from archives in London to forgotten beaches in Alexandria. Using her imagination to speculate on Isabella’s motives and to fill in blank spaces in Isabella’s story, Kirkwood adroitly balances on the tightrope between fact and speculative opinion. Her account of the search for her grandmother’s history should appeal to others who have embarked on a similar quest and is instructive for those who would like to investigate their ancestors’ involvement in the Great War.

An unusual book about an uncommon war experience, Kirkwoods’ fresh perspective on the First World War is a rewarding read."

Thank you, Connie!

Paperback and eBook versions are both available from Amazon and can be ordered from all good bookshops.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The full story available now … at last!

First came the research. Then the fumbling attempts to write it up - the embarrassing first drafts and the constant editing. 

Then there were the rejection slips and the decision that, even if the mainstream didn't want to tell the story of a professional woman navigating her way through WW1, her tale had to be told - it represented the tales of so many other women who were also in danger of being omitted from the centenary commemorations. 



So today, 100 years after the most important centenary of her war, The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1 is available on Amazon or can be ordered through all good bookshops.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Only a week to go ...




The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1

Available as ebook or paperback from Amazon or any good bookshop from 25th July.

Here's the blurb.

It was the inscription that made the antique scalpels so tantalising: ‘Isabella Stenhouse’. A woman doctor? A woman doctor who was rumoured to have served in the First World War? Could Isabella have treated wounded men with these very implements? And had a grateful German prisoner of war really given her the strange string of beads that tangled round her stethoscope? 

Coaxing clues from archives across Europe, Katrina Kirkwood traces Isabella's route from medical school to the Western Front, Malta and Egypt, discovering as she travels that Dr Stenhouse was not only one of the first women doctors who worked with the British Army - she was also a woman carrying a tragic secret, torn between ambition and loyalty to her family.

Isabella’s story was selected for the BBC Antiques Roadshow’s WW1 centenary edition, and featured by national, international and local media.

'The quiet heroics of a woman on a WW1 battlefield' Daily Express

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The 100 Year Women's War



'Concern had centred on whether women had the physical capability to withstand the demands on their body that some of the roles will require.'

When I read these words last Friday, I was engulfed by a feeling of déjà vu. I had come across this argument time and again during my research. It was, for example, one of the ways in which adults tried to dissuade Edwardian girls from training as doctors. 


But the incarnation I was reading did not come from the Times of 1905. It was live on the BBC website - and not as history, but as news. It related to the government's recent decision to allow women to serve in close combat roles in the British military. 

Now I am no military expert and couldn’t begin to make judgements about this particular case, but I found the parallels fascinating. When I read that: 'Young men and women  will inevitably form relationships and personal issues will disrupt the dynamics of units'I was back with Vera Brittain in her VAD uniform, watching the restrictions that the terrified authorities were placing on volunteer nurses to ‘ensure’ that romance had no chance.


Trawling the internet, I read how: 


It was a similar anxiety that made the authorities send Dr Isabella Stenhouse and her colleagues, the first women doctors they had ever employed, to Malta. They regarded it as much safer than letting them anywhere near the front line in France.


I read on, and guess what? The rule change comes amid reports of a recruitment crisis and undermanned army reserves.’ Why, undermanning was exactly the problem that faced the army medical services in 1916 - the problem that led them to risk recruiting Dr Stenhouse and her colleagues. 

One compensation is that, a century on: 


I just hope that these new combat-ready women will not suffer the indignities that were imposed on their pioneering military ancestors, the women doctors who signed up with the army this month 100 years ago.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Why July 1916 was an important month for women doctors

Courtesy of Sarah Wilkin from Oxford University's WW1 Centenary blog you can discover why July 1916 was an important month for professional women here:

WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings

Sarah kindly invited me to submit a post related to my research on Dr Isabella Stenhouse. I was thrilled when she posted it last Friday, the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

The Somme was, and is, such a huge event that it overshadows everything else that happened that July one hundred years ago. But for Isabella, July 1916 had another meaning - the 24th was the day she signed up with the Army.

From the start of the war, the Army had refused to employ women doctors but, by that July, the desperate needs of the wounded had broken their resolve and they asked medical women to help them. Isabella was one of the first to sign up.




Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Blog silence broken - book imminent

Today, I can break twenty months of blog silence. After travelling thousands of miles, visiting numerous libraries and archives, writing countless drafts and receiving a lot of help from kind and generous people, a book about Dr Isabella Stenhouse is imminent.

Publication is set for 25th July, but as a taster, here is the cover, brilliantly designed by Shona Andrew.


Here is the blurb:

It was the inscription that made the antique scalpels so tantalising: 'Isabella Stenhouse'. A woman doctor? A woman doctor who was rumoured to have served in the First World War? Could Isabella have treated wounded men with these very implements? And had a grateful German prisoner of war really given her the strange string of beads that tangled round her stethoscope?

Coaxing clues from archives across Europe, Katrina Kirkwood traces Isabella's route from medical school to the Western Front, Malta and Egypt, discovering as she travels that Dr Stenhouse was not only one of the first women doctors who worked with the British Army - she was also a woman carrying a tragic secret, torn between ambition and loyalty to her family. 

Isabella's story was selected for the BBC Antiques Roadshow's WW1 centenary edition, and featured by national, international and local media. 

'The quiet heroics of a woman on a WW1 battlefield' Daily Express.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Isabella guesting in Beyond the Trenches Blog

The mystery of Dr Isabella Stenhouse and her beads is gradually being unravelled, and, slowly, the story is being penned - well, typed.



In the meantime, Alex Pryce at the AHRC kindly invited me to write a post for their blog, so for a taster, head to Beyond the Trenches.

And if you want to find out more about WW1 and the people who nursed tens of thousands of sick and wounded men in WW1 Malta, head to Walter Bonnici's incredibly useful website

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Isabella gets her mention this centenary weekend

I'm really glad that this weekend the Telegraph has decided to feature Isabella on the Flashback page of their Saturday magazine.




It feels as if she has been given her small place in the battery of commemorations taking place this weekend, a century after WW1 began.

She also features in Paul Atterbury's BBC Antiques Roadshow book, World War One in 100 Family Treasures, that will be published on 7th August.




Of course, there's much more of the story to tell, so here's hoping for a way to get the full story out soon…….

Monday, 30 June 2014

Isabella at the Blaenavon Front

On Saturday, courtesy of Breaking Barriers Community Arts, Isabella was invited to give the people of Blaenavon a chance to contribute a strand of 'DNA' to the commemorative work that began at Made in Spring last year.



She stood in the shelter of a fake WW1 dug-out at Blaenavon Heritage Day, beads beside her and a table nearby where the townsfolk could decorate beads and add them to the growing strand of 'DNA'. 



All went well until the rain leaked through the awning……but, with the help of 44 bead decorators, the strand was completed.





Thursday, 10 April 2014

Isabella in the news


It's been a busy week for Isabella. Her Antiques Roadshow appearance caught the imagination of some of the press.

Wales on Sunday published an article which had some truth in it - but only some!

The Daily Express managed to be more accurate, and ITV Wales came to film her medical equipment and string of beads ready for their centenary commemorations in August.

After that, this photograph of Isabella working with the British Army in Malta was favourited and retweeted on Twitter.



Thursday, 3 April 2014

Isabella is in the Radio Times

Imagine my shock. A quick browse of next week's Radio Times to see if there are any treats in store, and there is Isabella's name in the Choice Section!



BBC 1, Antiques Roadshow, Sunday 6th April, 8pm.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Isabella on Antiques Roadshow, 6th April

I was annoyed, so I typed a quick email:

'WW1 was not just about France and the trenches, and it was not just about men. I own the medical instruments of a woman who served as a doctor in France, Malta and Egypt during the war.'

It was Spring 2013, and the Antiques Roadshow had just asked for ideas for their WW1 centenary episodes, a letter from the trenches or a medal, they suggested.

A phone call later, and I was being interviewed by the producer. They wanted photos. They put Isabella on the shortlist and, asked, "Nothing definite, but would you be free to take the instruments to France in late July?"

Would I be free? Of course I would.

So we went, and Isabella's instruments will be discussed in the 6th April episode of Antiques Roadshow.



Monday, 3 February 2014

Update

Lack of posts on the blog doesn't mean I've stopped working on Isabella - Oh No. I've been working on her story harder than ever since the Arts Council Funding ended in June.

First of all I went travelling. I drank coffee on the site of the hospital in France where Isabella worked.


Over the last few years, I've spent days in the Imperial War Museum, painfully decoding the diary of the hospital. The dip-penned, candle-light scrawled words have been hard to untangle. In their antique Edwardian script, they haven't always made sense. I've kept wondering if I've understood them aright. Visiting the place cleared that all up, made sense of both the writing and Isabella's tale.

I found old photos which showed me what the building used to look like, and I scoured the town for spots Isabella would have known.




I flew to Malta and was overwhelmed by the friendly interest shown by people in Isabella's story, a part of their island's story they knew little about. I was able to walk in the rooms where she had tended patients, and to stand on the steps where she had paused from her work to gaze down at the sea. I wondered what she had been in her mind as she sat in the very same spot.




It's been a satisfying adventure, but I haven't visited Egypt yet. I'm a bit scared of Egypt. Any suggestions?

On my return, I began to write up three years (on and off) of research. I'm halfway through. Halfway through my attempt to tell Isabella's tale in a way that's interesting and fun yet historically accurate.

But I'm wondering when I should tell people what I am doing; I'm busy panicking that I've missed the centenary of WW1 because all the commemorations have begun so early, and I'm wondering if all my work will prove to have been in vain.

But even if I am too late, I am still convinced that the story of a woman who served as a doctor during WW1 is worth telling. She was not a famous woman, she was just a junior doctor, but without juniors, how would people become seniors? Without people to test the waters of working in a male dominated environment, to begin to let men see what they could do, how could men begin to realise what women could do, and how could anyone else follow?




PS: Why have I paused working towards an installation? Because to get the funding to make an installation, I knew I would need to work out exactly what I wanted and what it would cost. But to do that, I had to collate everything I'd discovered about Isabella and her beads. And once I began doing that, I quickly found there was far too much to limit her story to an installation. An installation or something else can follow later. Let's hope!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Isabella, a detective story told in an installation for schools and galleries

As a result of the research grant from the Arts Council of Wales, I am looking for expressions of interest from galleries, museums, schools, libraries,  communities, festivals or anywhere else, in hosting the installation 'Isabella and the String of Beads'.


Here's the background: 



In the 1890s there were four sisters, who, like many other girls of their day, were brought up to sew fine seams and prepare for marriage to a suitable man.


But the oldest, Isabella, grew restless and fought her way into studying medicine.
She had just qualified as a doctor when war came in 1914.
Leaving home, she travelled many miles and to mend wounded men instead of garments.

Unravelling the tale of what happened as she travelled has been like a detective story. She left no personal papers or diaries. Only her medical instruments and a string of beads tell of her war experience, but the words of others give clues as to how she might have thought and reacted, words both from writings of the time and from interviews with living women whose lives parallel Isabella’s in unexpected ways. 

Isabella’s story will be told through a clue-filled installation that aims to give the viewer some of the delight of detection and discovery that the research has provided. 




Alongside her original instruments, her story will be revealed through a life-sized replica of her uniform, a freshly-constructed sampler, a dissected 1910 anatomy text book, short films and lighting effects.

Isabella's story represents the story of many feisty women, so to make it accessible to a range of people, there will also be a portable version of the installation that can visit schools, libraries and community venues. Workshops will also be available to enhance engagement.

Please contact me via the contact form for further details and discussion.




Monday, 6 May 2013

Isabella visits Made in Spring

Made in Spring is a one day arts festival in Roath, Cardiff; a warm-up act for the big Made in Roath festival that has taken place each October for the last few years.

Yesterday, Isabella and the String of Beads had a stall there:



Passers-by were invited to decorate one bead each. They then threaded their bead onto a communal strand of 'DNA' to commemorate the legacy of women such as Isabella who went against the flow of their times to alter what is colloquially known as the DNA of our culture. 




People drew, wrote, stitched and stuck until there were 44 beads on the strand and it was ready to be twisted into double helix of 'DNA'.