RESIDENT HISTORIAN: Three Feisty Woman
by Northern Life
Almost all on board dreadfully sea sick, and in a most terrific gale, still ‘laying to’ with close reefed top sails, hatches fastened down, and helm lashed, had our dripstone, and compass washed off the poop, what other damages I have not yet heard, dreadful howling and screaming from the poor women and children below.”
It was early January in 1848, and Mrs. Smith had started on what turned out to be a 71-day voyage from Plymouth to the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope. She was aboard the ‘Scotia’, an emigrant ship carrying 160 passengers with a wide variety of trades, plus married women and children and a hundred poor Irish “looking very cold and wretched”. Mrs Smith was “attendant upon Mrs. Councel”.
Her footnote in history survives simply because she kept a journal which, since it now belongs to Keighley’s Cliffe Castle museum, suggests she was from that area. Her husband, “my dearly and justly beloved Smith”, had died on a homeward voyage from India in I844.
We get a glimpse of her character when a child on board died, reputed of smallpox, “causing great alarm on board particularly amongst those who possess any personal attractions”. Honest Mrs. Smith had no illusions: “Though not in possession of any myself I feel rather afraid of the frightful disease.”
During that January gale Mrs. Councel had been “in a frightful state of excitement” and “sick and screaming like a child” for days, but her attendant, though sea-sick herself, had managed to eat a roasted potato and stagger to Divine Service. February squalls again set Mrs. Councel “fainting &c.”, until a “disgusted” Mrs. Smith left her cabin to take her chance in steerage – a courageous move two months into such a voyage – where she developed inflammation of the lungs.
Notwithstanding, once sufficiently recovered she went on deck to watch “great preparation making for port in the shape of painting, repairing rigging &c, some talk of ‘heaving the Cable’ which betoken a near approach to land”. On arrival at the Cape of Good Hope she engaged as a servant with a Mrs. Jones, “in preference to others who made perhaps more eligible offers merely because I liked her appearance.”
Her journal had chronicled a collision in the Thames, heavy weather, five deaths, a narrow escape from running aground at Madeira, “a disturbance between Capt. and Crew”, a difficulty in getting all hands on deck because they were drunk (“supposed to have got the grog from
the Emigrants”), and fighting “in consequence of a child being painted”!
Yet Mrs. Smith could still say it had been “a long but on the whole not an unfavourable voyage”.
Miss Annie Collett lives on via the slender means of her autograph album, retrieved by chance from a skip. In the latter half of the Great War she either worked, or more probably visited, the Keighley War Hospital where her feminine presence proved extremely popular in crowded wards of young and middleaged sick and wounded men.
The things they wrote in her album were frankly flirtatious. Here is Private P. Sharpe, among the 158 beds of J Ward in 1917: “Love is a feeling, A very funny feeling, It’s a feeling that you’ve never felt before. It’s a feeling that you feel When you feel you want to feel A feeling that you’ll feel for evermore.”
A ‘Jock’ called A. Leslie even tried to describe her in atrocious verse:
To cheer us up with a smile and song
There’s none can beat Miss Collett,
And if she says, I’ll be up next night
She never breaks her promise.
Some evenings when there’s nothing doing
And we’re not out on bail She’ll say,
If you’re not tired of it
We’ll have that long, long trail.
She always has a kindly word
or all us weak and lame,
And though she can’t put on a tie
God bless her all the same.
Now dear Miss Collett,
I hope you will Excuse this first attempt of mine,
And as you read I hope it won’t
Send cold shivers down your spine.
This tells us that she was a much appreciated and frequent visitor, that morale was boosted by popular singsongs, and that she had tried in vain to fasten men’s ties for them. For the patients she represented normal life:
Annie is your name,
Single is your station.
Happy will be the man
Who’ll make the alteration…
Early in 1940 middle-aged Mrs. Maud Marks of the Keighley Salvation Army volunteered to serve tea and buns to the troops in France. This was still the period of the socalled ‘phoney war’, which ended abruptly with the German advance in May. Caught up in a great retreat, Mrs. Marks remained in France after Dunkirk, escaping in a June evacuation from St. Nazaire. On her return to Keighley, the local Salvation Army asked her to give a talk, so she wrote down her experiences in a cheap exercise book.
Issued with two blankets and measured for a uniform in London, she had joined a Salvation Army contingent “somewhere in France”, quartered in a hotel. Mrs. Marks too had an autograph album, from whose entries we learn about her. “Keep your face towards the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you,” wrote a sergeant called Chris. “In memory of many laughs and smiles”, whilst Alex and Geoff “greatly appreciated your many kindnesses and cheerful smile.” Obviously the Salvation Army ladies offered more than tea and buns, for soldiers “brought their sorrows and difficulties to us.”
“I shall never forget the terrible bombing,” Mrs. Marks recalled the sudden switch to a ‘real’ war, “we just had to stay there and listen to the shrapnel on the glass roof. It was going on nearly all night, we could see the great fires blazing, we sat in the passage for hours and I tried my best to amuse them, so after they called me Gracie Fields.”
Retreating, they had to leave their French helpers behind (“they looked pitiful and begged us not to leave them”). Their Major drove his seven women and three men in a little covered wagon along roads clogged with refugees, “women with bicycles, old folks in lorries with their families and pets, it was a terrible stampede”. Days were confused, as the Germans “seemed to follow us.”
Mrs. Marks’s faith, as she simply phrased it, did not falter, and when she prayed it was for her children at home rather than herself. Perhaps these were sentiments for the benefit of her local Salvation Army, but there can be no denying the reality of how “a young worker went a bit mental and one lady Mrs. Major Glimpson was killed at Arras”. Her album took on a sombre tone. “Look Upward,” wrote Major Nora Knott. “Never mind skies overcast. Move Onward. In the path that Jesus trod. Rise Homeward day by day. From Earth to God.”
Mrs. Marks’s last hectic hours in France overwhelmed punctuation:
“We escaped to St. Nazaire where we waited in a field and was bombed all night we were in slip trenches and then we marched to the docks about 100 of us noncombatants and a ship a Polish one with all Polish waiters brought us to Plymouth with about 4,000 troops aboard as well…”
Back home, in the context of those action-fraught days, her local paper barely remarked upon her, baldly saying she had been “helping at one of those ‘Army’ huts” – surely a massive understatement.