The Red Cross’s Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) from World War One have in the past been saddled with a popular public image something akin to the Women’s Institute meets Florence Nightingale: all jam and Jerusalem and ladies mopping feverish brows. Meanwhile, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) have been labelled ‘terrorists’ and characterised as spitting vixens who would as soon ‘knock yer block orf’ as help anyone whose needs fell outside the fight for women’s suffrage.
And yet… a transcribing project that we are carrying out at the Centre for the Historical Record here at Kingston University has uncovered a firm link between these two early 20th century examples of ‘citizen’ action.
We are coming to the end of a truly mammoth task of transcribing the records of VAD members during the First World War and, in the process, we have turned up some fascinating gems. One came to light recently, which creates a direct link between the VADs and Pankhurst’s WSPU, and which exposes the assumptions portrayed above for what they really are: lazy stereotyping!
Buried among the 240,000-odd cards of VAD members, one of our transcribers picked up this one:
She was immediately struck both by the name on the card – Singh (we had not come across many – if any – names with connections to the Indian sub-continent) – and also by the title, ‘Princess’. If finding the card of a Princess was not enough to raise the curiosity of our volunteer, there was also the Princess’s address: Faraday House, Hampton Court – barely a couple of miles from our office at Kingston University.
Our investigative antennae were turned up to full and focussed directly on Sophia Duleep Singh. Her VAD record was, as are most of these records, almost irritating by the paucity of the information it contains. The briefest of details revealed that Princess Sophia had served as a nurse in the VADs for sixteen months, at the Percy House Auxiliary Hospital at Isleworth (West London). (http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/percyhouse.html)
The hospital, which housed 300 beds for sick and wounded servicemen, was opened in October, 1915 (the same month that Sophia enrolled as a VAD) and nursing staff were provided from the VAD Middlesex/22 branch, whose members had trained at Hampton Court, right on Sophia’s doorstep. In her time at the hospital she had amassed over 2,000 hours of service, which roughly approximates to 35 hours a week for every week of her service: a full-time job. According to her card, she left the VADs in January, 1917, to take up work for India. She warranted further investigation.
We had several leads to go on: her first name and also her address during the war, which led us automatically to the 1911 census to see what else we could find. Our first port of call was FindMyPast, and we immediately found her, living at Factory [sic] House, Hampton Court.
Her entry indicated she was born in India, although actually she was born in London. Despite the mis-transcription of her address and incorrect place of birth, this was undoubtedly Princess Sophia. There was a curious note written at the bottom of her census entry: ‘Best information obtainable. WH Fry (Registrar)’. We wondered what that meant, but parked that as a dead-end and moved on to a broader search on Google.
And it was through Google that we discovered the connection with WSPU. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was something of a celebrity in early 20th century London: the daughter of an exiled Maharaja of the Punjab, socialite god-daughter to Queen Victoria (who had given her the grace and favour residence at Hampton Court) and… an active member of WPSU!
Her connections with WPSU, it turns out, are quite well known and well documented. She was a member of the Pankhursts’ inner circle and participated in famous actions such as the Black Friday demonstrations at the Houses of Parliament in 1910, when 4,000 women marched in protest against the failure of the House to grant women the vote. Intriguingly, she was also involved in local action, and was well known in the Hampton Court area, often to be seen selling the newspaper, The Suffragette, outside the Palace. Not surprisingly, her notoriety did not endear her to the Establishment (of which, due to her royal blood and patronage, she was inextricably a part).
Her attempts to sell The Suffragette at Hampton Court particularly riled, and a letter held at the British Library displays this irritation perfectly. It was sent to Lord Crewe (then Secretary of State for India) after a photograph was published (see above) which showed her selling the newspaper outside the Palace.
The letter asked for advice on how to curtail the Princess’s activities, and whether she could be evicted from her grace and favour apartment as a result. Crewe advised that the matter should be forwarded to the Lord Chamberlain, who was best placed to ‘warn the lady that she must not make herself conspicuous at H. Court or in its immediate neighbourhood’.
Something about that census page, with the mysterious comment by the Registrar, now got us thinking again. Why had the cryptic reference to the inhabitant been added – and by the Registrar himself? Completely serendipitously, when we returned to the 1911 census, we used Ancestry rather than FindMyPast. I had never thought the two services handled the census differently – in fact I thought they took exactly the same files from the National Archives. How wrong could I have been? And here is a note of caution for census searchers: make sure you know what is missing!
When I searched for Sophia Duleep Singh on Ancestry I was presented with a completely different page to that retrieved through FindMyPast. This page was uncompleted – no name in the name column, no age or occupation; but, written across the bottom right hand corner were the words, ‘NO VOTE, NO CENSUS. As women do not count they refuse to be counted, and I have a conscientious objection to filling up this form’. The note was signed Sophia A Duleep Singh. What a lady!
While Sophia Singh’s exploits as a member of WSPU and her involvement in campaigns for reform in India are now well known, information on her time as a VAD is less forthcoming. In Anita Anand’s recent biography of the Princess (Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, 2015), she does make passing reference to her work in the VADs: ‘In 1915… not content with merely visiting Indian soldiers at Brighton [she] had swapped her civilian clothes for a Red Cross nurse’s uniform’. In 1917, she relinquished her nursing work in favour of fund raising, working with the Red Cross on behalf of Indian troops, which links up with the comment on her VAD card that she left to ‘work for India’.
After the war, Sophia returned to the suffragette cause and the continuing fight for votes for women on equal terms with men, also taking the fight for women’s emancipation to India. It makes sense in a way that Sophia would need to find another cause to immerse herself in during the war: as WSPU wound down its aggressive campaigns with the advent of war, perhaps she needed an alternative outlet for her endless energy.
Our encounter with Sophia has opened up further exciting research possibilities: a short article in the Surrey Advertiser of February, 1915, refers to an award ceremony at which 415 local ladies received certificates for nursing, first aid and invalid cookery. Among the recipients were Sophia and two other ladies of Indian descent: the Princesses Sukriti Ghosal and Sudhira Mander. These two were absent from the event, excusing themselves to the Mayor by telegram, stating that they had been called away on ‘Red Cross work’.
The VAD cards are silent on these two women and my research into these Indian connections continues…
The VAD Database can be accessed and searched at:
Sue Hawkins is a Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University and specialises in the history of nursing and healthcare