Did you know that the British crime author Agatha Christie (1890-1976) volunteered as a nursing assistant and a pharmacist in World War One? This is just one of the many fascinating pieces of information now available in digital form as a result of the tremendous dedication of up to 800 volunteers, a team who have now completed a major new online archive on British Red Cross volunteers during the Great War.
The exciting new archive is the result of an extensive two-year project which was organised and managed through the Centre for the Historical Record, which is based at Kingston University’s History Department.
Led and mainly overseen by Kingston University historian and nursing history expert Dr. Sue Hawkins, the dedicated volunteers have put together the stories of more than 90,000 World War One British Red Cross volunteers, whose vital work ranged from driving ambulances on the front line under highly dangerous conditions to cleaning floors in makeshift hospitals back home in ‘Blighty’.
The famous author, playwright and crime novelist Agatha Christie (see wartime picture), of course, went on to write 66 detective novels and 14 short-story collections under her own name, plus some other works under an assumed name, but in 1914 she had volunteered as a worker for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), putting in many hours of unpaid work at a hospital in Torquay. Moreover, in 1917, she also qualified as a pharmacist, providing essential aid to doctors.
The modern-day volunteers at Kingston University spent many hours themselves engaged in the challenging task of painstakingly transcribing a collection of 100-year old personnel index cards, records that contained the details of people who gave their time to help the war effort in 1914-1918. Many of the 90,000 Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) offered their services a number of times, in a variety of ways. Each time they did, this was recorded separately (by hand), creating the staggeringly large number of 244,000 registration cards.
The resulting free digital archive created by the Kingston University volunteers will now give the public the chance to search for their friends and family relatives who volunteered during the war, and perhaps discover key details about where they worked and what tasks they undertook.
The VADs came from all walks of life and included the rich and famous, such as Christie, as well as working-class families and children. Some qualified as nurses, while others volunteered as cooks or cleaners in temporary wartime hospitals, or set up knitting circles to provide the troops with socks (particularly essential for trench warfare on the Western Front).
The volunteers at Kingston’s Centre for the Historical Record were recruited from the British Red Cross and societies such as local history associations. There were also some who had previously completed history degrees at Kingston and still wanted to indulge their passion for history and the past. Senior Lecturer Sue Hawkins, who managed the creation of the database, paid tribute to the team of volunteers and said many of them had gone beyond the task of merely transcribing the record cards: ‘Many of our present day volunteers are family historians who would see something interesting in the cards and then want to go off to research to find out more’.
Sue also explained some of the background to the unique project. She said it was awarded £80,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and was launched by the British Red Cross in response to demand from families who wanted an easier way to access the records of their loved ones. There was also the need to preserve the 100-year old registration cards from damage caused by being handled.
The British Red Cross appointed Kingston University’s Centre for the Historical Record as project partners due to its very impressive work on the Historic Hospitals Admissions Records Project (HHARP), which saw the digitisation and indexing of admissions records for a number of London children’s hospitals.
The new archive of Great War volunteers stories will undoubtedly become an essential aid for both professional historians and members of the public who want to find out more about how their families and relatives lived through and experienced major events in the early twentieth century.
Go to: www.redcross.org.uk/ww1