Veronica Nisbet: Volunteering and the Vote for Women

Museum of the Order of St John Hannah Agass, Learning and Access Officer
Opening page of Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook (Museum of the Order of St John, London © The Estate of Veronica Nisbet)

From a middle-class household and trained for marriage and domesticity, Veronica Nisbet was never meant to go to war. However, in 1915 following the enlistment of all her brothers, Veronica signed up as a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Brigade’s North Shields Voluntary Aid Detachment or ‘VAD’ (a term which also became synonymous with the individual members). Veronica recorded her experiences as a VAD in a scrapbook of photos, newspaper clippings, sketches and cartoons inspired by George du Maurier, a satirical cartoonist whose work often appeared in Punch.

Like Veronica, almost three quarters of the women who served as VADs during the war had never worked outside of the home. Supported and encouraged by their families, the experience was viewed as both laudable and useful, a natural extension of the philanthropic work expected of a middle-class woman.

As Olive Dent, a former VAD, explained in her memoirs: ‘Defence was a man’s job, and I, unfortunately, was a woman … And yet the New Army of men would need a New Army of nurses. Why not go and learn to be a nurse while the Kitchener men were learning to be soldiers?’

‘The working party has arrived’, cartoon by Veronica Nisbet. Extreme left, Lady Victoria Percy, fourth from left, Veronica Nisbet. (Museum of the Order of St John, London © The Estate of Veronica Nisbet)

As a VAD, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, home nursing, invalid cookery, and hygiene. She enjoyed the comradery of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, it was a welcome opportunity to get away, if only for a few hours a week, make new friends and acquire new skills. Upon completing her statutory six-months training, she was accepted as a full-time VAD at the North Shields Infirmary.

Had the war been shorter and on a smaller scale, it is probable that the Military Nursing Services would have managed without voluntary aid, but by the beginning of 1915, it had become overwhelmingly apparent that there were not enough trained nurses to keep the military hospitals staffed. Consequently, the War Office agreed that VADs could be employed in military hospitals at home to augment the trained staff. VADs undertaking such a position (approximately 10% of the 100,000 in active service) had to be 21 or more years old and single, as although married men were expected to join the army, married women were still expected to make family obligations their top priority.

By May of the same year, requests for VADs started coming from military hospitals in France, Malta and Egypt. To serve abroad, VADs had to be between 23 and 43 years old and have at least 6 months’ work experience in a home hospital. Unlike VADs on the home front, those who volunteered overseas were paid by the War Office, receiving the yearly sum of £20. In March 1917, Veronica became one of the 2,212 VADs who enlisted to serve abroad. Before embarking on her journey to France, she would have been given a message written by Katherine Furse, the VAD’s Commandant-in-Chief. The message urged the women to do their duty ‘loyally’, with ‘humility and ‘determination’ echoing the message sent by Earl Kitchener (Secretary of State for war in 1914) to the men of the British Expeditionary Force, which encouraged them to do theirs ‘bravely’, ‘with energy’ and ‘patience’.

Veronica arrived at the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, a small town in northern France, on 28th March 1917.  The Brigade Hospital was the largest voluntary hospital serving the British Expeditionary Force in France and was widely considered to be the best designed and equipped. It was entirely staffed and funded by the St John Ambulance Brigade, caring for over 35,000 patients during the war. As a Base Hospital, it received patients from the Casualty Clearing Stations (which were situated a few miles behind the front line) and provided treatment, surgical support, and some degree of convalescence to patients before they were either evacuated to hospitals in the UK, or returned to their units.

St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital Étaples (© Museum of the Order of St John, London) OSJ/1/2/1/7/2

In March 1917, the Brigade Hospital contained 18 wards and 750 beds. It had been expanded several times since opening in September 1915 with enough beds for 525 patients. Veronica was one 24 VAD nurses at the hospital whose role was to assist the 53 professional nurses [sisters] whose time was in short supply. Consequently, she carried out much of the basic work; cleaning, scrubbing, setting trays, preparing breakfasts, lighting fires and emptying the bed pans. Many of the VADs, particularly those who signed up to detachments prior to the outbreak of war, had never intended to become assistant nurses and were not prepared for the physical and repetitive work, nor for the strict discipline of the hospitals.

Matron Todd and Colonel Trimble with some of the VADs outside the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital Étaples (© Museum of the Order of St John, London)

As the war continued, the trained nurses were spread increasingly thinly across the hospitals. The proportion of VADs grew larger and the work assigned to them was more responsible. At the Brigade Hospital in France, the VADs were called upon with increasing frequency to assist the trained nurses with dressings and treatments. In his first annual report as Commanding Officer of the Hospital, Colonel Trimble wrote: ‘… the condition of the patients is such that some of the younger women find it very difficult… there have been several breakdowns, some more than once.’

VAD performance on New Year’s Night 1918 from  Veronica’s scrapbook. Veronica can be seen in the centre dressed as a fairy.  (licensed by the IPO Orphan Works Register no. OWLS000006-17)

Despite the incredibly difficult and stressful conditions which were encountered by staff at the Brigade Hospital on an almost hourly basis, they were able to find some respite in the provision of entertainments for their patients and each other. These ranged from sports days and dances, to musical performances, plays and pantomimes. We know from Colonel Trimble’s official reports as well as the various programmes and photographs, that Veronica and her fellow VADs often played a central role in the organisation of hospital entertainments. Whilst the VADs may not always have demonstrated the trained nurses’ aptitude for practical work, they certainly brought a range of life skills and experience not usually seen in military hospitals.

By the spring of 1918 however, there was a growing anxiety amongst the Hospital staff that Étaples would be one of the next German targets, and on the night of 19th May, 1918 their fears were realised. German aircraft bombed the town and the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital was hit, resulting in extensive damage and five fatal staff casualties. Shortly after, on 31st May, the Germans launched another major attack dropping bombs on Étaples for a period of almost three hours, which resulted in eleven deaths at the Hospital and sixty casualties. This second attack rendered the Brigade Hospital incapable of continuing, with no department left unscathed.

A copy of this photograph is in Veronica’s scrapbook and shows the aftermath of the German air raid on the night of 31st May (©IWM Q10381)

Veronica moved with what remained of the Brigade Hospital up the coast to Trouville, where it reopened in October 1918.  On 11th November 1918 the Armistice was signed, although the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital remained open for several more months. Veronica was one of the last members of staff to leave the Hospital on 19th January 1919, before it finally closed on 1st February.

The work undertaken by the female VADs during the First World War was met with almost universal approval because it resembled the pre-war social work expected of middle class women. By contrast, when women’s war work did not fit as neatly with class and gender, both the work and the women who did it were seen as problematic, even threatening. Despite being sanctioned by the War Office, women who wore military-style uniforms such as the Women’s Volunteer Reserve and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aroused grave suspicions.

Similarly, it took almost two years of war and the introduction of conscription until there was popular acceptance of women workers in industry. This was especially true in munitions, where women workers were initially accused of a lack of patriotism and an obsession with wages despite only receiving a fraction of the salary of their male counterparts. Conversely, the nurturing and healing work of the VADs received widespread support and praise because it was not viewed as a threat to social stability – it was inherently women’s work.

Women war workers gauge shells at Royal Shell Factory 3, at Woolwich Arsenal in May 1918 (© IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196362)

The First World War was certainly far from transformative in terms of gender equality and the breaking down of social barriers; post-war, many women were forced out of the better paid factory work that they had been able to take up during the war and were pushed back in the less well-paid textile industries or domestic service. The percentage of women in work returned to pre-war levels and by and large, the traditional view that a woman’s place was in the home prevailed.

However, for the 100,000 women predominantly from the middle and upper middle classes who served as VADs, war did undoubtedly bring new opportunities and freedoms, albeit limited. Whilst there remained deeply held convictions about the need to preserve the social order, professions such as teaching and medicine, viewed widely as both nurturing and healing, became open to unmarried women. Additionally, some of the pre-war taboos surrounding the chaperoning of unmarried women lessened and it became less frowned upon for a woman to travel alone; Veronica took advantage of this and travelled regularly to the US and Canada to showcase her work.  Of course, one of the major changes in 1918 was the enfranchisement of women over the age of 30 which, as Irene Rathbone (former VAD) wrote: ‘was given as a reward rather like a chocolate is given to a child who has behaved unexpectedly well under trying circumstances.’ Although, it was another 10 years before the vote was extended to women over the age of 21 as was given to men in 1918.

In her autobiographical novel, ‘We That Were Young’, Irene Rathbone wrote a fictionalised account about her wartime service as a VAD and in the 1931 edition, an introduction was added by Elizabeth Delafield, also a former VAD:

To the very great number of middle and upper middle class young women, myself among them war brought relief. We’d been brought up in the tradition that a girl did not work, she was worked for by a male relation, usually her father. Her aim in life was to find another man who would take upon himself this obligation by marrying her. In return, she became his housekeeper, the mother of his children. Women who were girls in 1914 will understand what that meant, those who are girls in 1931 will not and never can.



A VAD in France, Olive Dent, Diggory Press 2005

We That Were Young, Irene Rathbone, The Feminist Press at CUNY 1993

The Story of British VAD Work in the Great War, Thekla Bowser, Imperial War Museum 2003

Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One, Kate Adie, Hodder Paperbacks 2014

Myths and Legends of the First World War, James Hayward, The History Press 2005


From the St John Archive:

Constance. E Todd’s memoirs of her time as Matron of the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Étaples (OSJ/1/2/1/14/2)

Charles J. Trimble’s weekly and annual reports for the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Étaples (OSJ/1/2/1)

Elizabeth Veronica Nisbet’s Scrapbook (SJA383)

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