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Voices from 1918

Diaries are a jumble of writing about everyday life. When you read them you get to know the people, their humour, their emotion and their everyday routine. It’s like having a window into their lives that is fresh and real so you relate to it.

Welcome to Voices from 1918 - and get a view of life in the last year of World War One from the diaries and letters of people who were there.

Our ‘characters’ are professional musician and nursing orderly Olive Harcourt, stretcher bearer James Sansom, Lady Mary Monkswell of Beaminster, Dr Marie Stopes, author of Married Love, and Artillery Lieutenant Alfred Forbes Johnson.

We wanted to try and get across the feel of everyday life in a time of huge national drama and personal tragedy. Our characters write about the enormity of war at the same time as walking in the Dorset countryside or playing football behind the lines. Somehow the everyday events captured in their diaries make their experiences all the more real.

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Lady Mary’s diary

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After extracts from our work on Lady Mary’s diaries were used in the show When Tommy Came Marching Home at Bridport Arts Centre and the outdoor event Pages of the Sea we decided to make an audio version ourselves with Margie Barbour playing Lady Mary.

It’s a moving, emotional account of life on the homefront in Beaminster with a a fascinating commentary on the war - Lady Mary is so much in the know about events that you sometimes read about them in her diary before they are in the newspapers.

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Artillery Lieutenant

Alfred Forbes Johnson MC is a Lieutenant in the artillery who keeps himself sane in the war with a mixture of humour, letter writing and prodigious reading while on duty at the often hazy observation point - OB.

An academic librarian, he had worked at the British Museum where he returned after the war and became deputy keeper of books.

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Victorian diarist

Mary Collier, Lady Monkswell is a Victorian diarist and widow of the late Liberal politician 2nd Baron Monkswell. He had been Minister for War in 1905 and Mary who was in her late 60s by 1918 was extraordinarily well connected with a sharp eye and keen interest in current events. She writes with emotion and feeling - often before things are reported in the newspapers.

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Nursing orderly

Olive Harcourt is a singer and musician of international repute who trained in Dresden and lived in Germany for some years. In 1916 she put her musical career on hold to come to Dorset with sister Florence to work as an orderly at Beaucroft Red Cross Hospital in Colehill.

Her diaries are full of colourful stories about life in a small Red Cross Hospital.

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Stretcher bearer

At the start of 1918 Portland quarry worker Jim Sansom had been a stretcher bearer in the heat of Egypt for two years. He writes: “Twenty of our fellows got typhus and four died in January but after isolation and rest we were marching back to the front by early Spring”

James was born in 1895 into a Portland Baptist family. At the age of 17 he want to work in Pearce's Quarry with his father and brothers as one of the family crews where sons learned their father's trades.

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Women’s rights campaigner

Marie Stopes shocked polite society by challenging the Victorian idea that it was improper for a woman to enjoy sex. Her book Married Love, published in March 1918 became an instant best seller with six printings in a fortnight.

Later, in the early 1920s she moved to Portland, Dorset where she founded Portland Museum.

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A world bathed in Golden haze

Lady Monkswell's diary 2nd January 1918 - cold but sun

Going up to the town I met a splendid staff officer - a Captain called Angus, walking up with Cosmo - my niece’s husband.

Robert went with me to Mr Leigh and we got the sugar ration straight. Walked up Whitesheet hill with my son Eric and Miss Mills - A world bathed in Golden haze. Delicious air. Tea with Eric niece Frances and funny baby Hugh.

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Ethel’s work in Camouflage

Lady Monkswell's diary: Saturday 5th January A steeple-chase walk with Mr Kit. got over stream below Knoll Farm, saw plovers, head their cry.

Ethel [my niece] to lunch. We talk of war conditions and her own work in Navy camouflage.

At Shipness [in Scotland] she plants and tends the garden and drives and cleans the car. One day they saw ten great liners, filled with Americans, go past between them and Arran - other great ships are constantly going by. Frances to tea and Mr Kit. Cosmo nearly as worn out as Robert. Pretty sure he is not to be sent abroad.

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Eat Less Bread

This letter from Lord Devonport asking people to reduce their consumption of bread was in Lady Mary's scrapbook of war cuttings.

Ships were being sunk by U-boats and people were being told to eat less food - by a grocer. “This we did in great measure.” she says

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Belgians in Beaminster

Sunday 27th January

Beaminster Red Cross Working Party. Mrs Partridge collected 224 and made and sent 1911 garments. Pretty good I think.

Monday 28th To Dor: Small meeting about the two old Belgians, now removed to Paignton, the last of the 13 we have supported since the great flight in September 1914. Rumours of air raid. Yes. One Gotha shot down. [by Sopwith Camels over Essex]

Tuesday January 29th On this day in 1915 Robert’s poor little wife died and left us lovely little Lorna, the beloved

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Tea

Monday February 10th 1918

Letter from tea merchant Young that the country is packed with tea. No anxiety for us. To Parnham, found Ryles alone. Absurd baby came in and howled. Mr R had heard from Bishop R that the late German liner Wilhelm II, now Leviathan came into Liverpool with 7000 Americans. Pleasant twilight walk home.

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Our cook

Lady Mary Tuesday March 5th

Poor dear Mrs Toleman, our excellent cook, took her boy (7) to Torquay hospital - successfully. She is stronger and much braver than I am. Scott went in car to meet her at Crewkerne. Mrs T fainted in car! After 12 hours rushing and exertion and emotion.

Thursday 7th March Raid on London, (Northern lights assisted the enemy)

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OBE from the King

March 6th 1918

Winnifred Marsden, Commandant of Dorchester's Colliton House VAD Hospital received the OBE from HM King George V at BuckinghamPalace.

The hospital, which started with 20 patients in 1914 now has 200 in the house and 14 marquees.

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Among the bullets...

March 07, 1918 James Sansom: Three miles from the front line. We stay here till the evening of the 8th when we stretcher bearers start for the reserve lines to form an ADS [Advanced Dressing Station]

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too drunk to salute...

March 08, 1918 Olive Harcourt: During a discussion on saluting, Ward said he did not salute an officer who was very drunk.

Robinson said he should salute the uniform and not the man so Ward answered “Yes but I ain’t agoin’ to salute the public ’ouse what he’s got inside ‘im”

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Immense crowds to buy War Bonds

Lady Mary Saturday 9th March

Sale of War Bonds - 100 million asked for and more than 138 million subscribed. In Bridport, 15000 were asked for on Monday and by Tuesday evening 29000 were received and by Saturday £68,500.

Sunday 10th March Striking account from Frances of War Bond sale at the Tank in Trafalgar Square. No dignity at all - more like a fair. Immense shabby crowd, lined up to pay in their saving to help their country! All to the strains of an inferior band. What a scene. Total: £138 million

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The Epitome of a Victorian Lady

Olive Harcourt was “Epitome of a true Victorian lady”, her ward Joan Cocozza told us at her home in Bristol.

Visitors were announced, gentleman friends kissed her hand, women kissed her cheek.

“It was an utter surprise when I began reading her diaries and learned of the time she cared for wounded soldiers,” she said.

During WW2, Joan, then a young girl, would spend half her week living with her family, and the other half living with Olive at her grand house in Clifton, where Olive taught her to play the upright piano she later left her when she died in 1958.

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Love affairs

March 13, 1918 Olive Harcourt: Prewer and Fuller gave me a tiny screw of saccharine and told me they thought I was just as sweet as that. Long talk by Prewer's bed with him and Fuller about the latter's love affairs. Gave them toast.

March 14, 1918 Twenty year old Sergeant Purnell Fuller, who lost his leg serving with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, spent more than eight months at Beaucroft Red Cross Hospital in Wimborne, Dorset after being admitted in Feb 1918.

He left the army and married Ada Body in 1920. They had three children Ethelene, Gordon and Ron who became an artist, toy and automata maker with work at the V&A and other galleries. Guardian obituary His son, a classical guitar maker is named Purnell after his grandfather.

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Six steps of separation

“They say there are no more than six steps of separation between any of us”, writes Voices artist Alastair Nisbet, but he never expected it to apply to a middle aged nurse’s 100 year old diary from WW1.

“While reading Olive Harcourt’s account of her time at Beaucroft Red Cross hospital in Wimborne, I was astonished to find a link with my first art teacher at secondary school - Mr Fuller.

The anxious young boy who Olive nursed after he lost a leg in the trenches, went on to marry and have three children. The youngest, Ron, was my art teacher. I never thought at the time but we didn’t do a lot of traditional art, we made dioramas out of shoe boxes and weird, brightly coloured balsa wood planes which we took up on the hill with Mr Fuller to fly to fly.”

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Comforting-Talk

March 15, 1918 Fuller and Prewer came to tea, most pleasant time. Prewer said it wasn’t what I did but the way I did it. This in answer to my saying they mustn’t thank me for the very little I had done.

On February 22nd I wrote: Florence came to me and had a comforting talk to poor worried Prewer. Men in A ward were so dear. Pratt and Sergeant Fuller both held my hand while they talked. New men very nice.

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Cheeks like Cherries

Lady Mary's diary: Friday 15th March

Carrots and onions sowed. Almond tree in blossom. Took Mr Kit to Whitesheet wood (by the arm) his eye still covered out of doors. Lovely up there. He sat on my ruff, taking a nap while I wandered round and picked some primroses. A wise speech from Balfour about Russia and Japan - a good day.

Saturday 16th March A new walk. Bridport road to Beech Avenue through meadows to top of down over Slape. Down to Orchard Farm where a strapping girl with fierce dark eyes and cheeks like cherries let one thro’ the farm.

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Prisoners!

March 20, 1918 Lady Monkswell: Extraordinary emotion: Some 25 German prisoners marched into Brooklands opposite. Of all ages, in their shabby grey uniforms, guard of 5 Tommies with fixed bayonets. I went down the road just as they came up. Feminine crowd but no groaning. Very fine, warm

March 21st: The result of the U-boat destruction to allies, neutrals and ourselves. Out of 33 million tons of merchant shipping, two and a half million tons have been sunk. This means 8 ships in a hundred or one in 13. Put plainly, it’s bad, but not nearly as bad as I had expected.

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Dear Eric

March 21, 1918 Lady Monkswell: To Mrs Dyer's, as far as Parnham Down with Robert and Lorna. Met Mrs Pitt-Rivers, Lady Avebury’s sister in law. She was in coat and boots - Land Women’s costume, becoming and suitable. Heard of dear beautiful Eric Lubbock's heroic death last year (air man)

Captain Eric Lubbock MC of the 45th Squadron Royal Flying Corps was Lady Monkwell’s nephew. His A1082 Sopwith Strutter was attacked by 2 Albatros D.IIIs and shot down, at Railway Wood near Ypres in 1917. Both Lubbock and observer John Thompson were killed

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Me Unmarried

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More prisoners!

March 22, 1918 Lady Monkswell: German prisoners in Mrs Pinney’s house, in spite of her. She came here and poured out to Robert, half crazy.

To Parnham, white magnolias lovely, inhabitants sad and very dull. Old red camellia out. 84 enemy machines destroyed to 27 of ours. Very fine, hot.

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Night Attack

March 29th 1918: Stretcher bearer James Sansom of 230th Field Ambulance is in the line on the Jerusalem to Nablus Road with 74th division. A night attack on Amman is being launched in a few hours

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General Allenby

By the end of March 1918, stretcher bearer James Sansom and the troops on the front line in Palestine reach the Jerusalem to Nablus road, having taken Jerusalem from the Turks at the end of 1917.

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Married Love published

March 26th 1918

My Book Married Love “to increase the joys of marriage” is finally published today.

I have some things to say about sex, which so far as I am aware have not yet been said......

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Private Harcourt

Along with her diaries, Olive kept notes about her patients, their injuries, humour, mannerisms and of course, their voices. This was probably unusual for a mere orderly but Olive was a well to do woman of means and she was clearly very interested in doing her best for the men she looked after.

She’s obviously amused when one tells her: “Get out we're all eddicated in ’ere”; another mimics the hospital commandant's hymn singing and one of them calls her “Private Harcourt”.

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Camped on hillside

James Sansom: April 1st 1918

We come out of the line now for another rest and have a camp on a hillside amongst beautiful natural scenery. Except for the sound of the guns and an occasional enemy aeroplane or two we nearly forget there is a war on

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Menstruation

Marie Stopes: “A frequent mistake is confuse menstruation with the ‘period of desire’ which is generally called ‘heat’ in animals.”

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A voice with incredible range

Nursing orderly Olive Harcourt, “a voice with an extraordinary range”, was well qualified to give singing hints to her patients at Beaucroft Hospital in Dorset.

After a debut in Berlin in 1894, her 20 year singing career spanned Europe and North America

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Hospital Full

Olive Harcourt's diary: April 13th. Hospital full, 52. Florence came to help and did well, the staff washing up, the bread for tea and some waiting in the wards. Four men in the tent, altogether 32 in bed

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on the move - no camels

James Sansom: April 8th 1918 Too good to last long, we move again today on a 4 days march to Ludd which is the rail-head, a distance of 40 miles by road. We have no camels now but horse transport.

April 12th 1918 We stay 2 days at Ludd, the country found here is glorious with orange groves and other fruit trees, although the nature of the country is sand.

April 15th 1918 We get on cattle trucks here to train for Kantara which we reach at midnight after 16 hours in the trucks. We march to our camp about five miles away and settle down

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Using this blog

Explore by day, month or person here on the blog or on our five Twitter feeds: @Voicesfrom1918 @LadyMonkswell @MarieStopes1918 @JamesSansom230 and @OliveHarcourt.

Voices from 1918 has been developed by artists Sharon Hayden and Alastair Nisbet in partnership with Wimborne Community Theatre, Dorset History Centre and the Priest’s House Museum, Wimborne with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Thanks to all who have helped us with this project: Maria Gayton and staff at Dorset History Centre where we found Lady Mary Monkswell’s diaries; Joan Cocozza, ward of nursing auxiliary Olive Harcourt; Portland Museum where we found James Sansom’s diaries; the British Library and Wellcome Libraries; Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne and Gill Horitz from Wimborne Community Theatre.

We’ve used a new simpler type of blogging system which we beta tested for indie developer Janis Rondorf of Instacks software.

Posts created as simple text files are dropped into a folder on the webserver without the need for complicated formatting making it easy to upload material quickly.

We’re always happy to share more details about our work - email us using the link at the bottom of the page and we’ll get back to you.

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