Remarkable Women of Cheltenham – Part 1

Extracts from Cheltenham in the Great War by Neela Mann (2016, The History Press)

“Cheltenham’s Prisoners of War and two remarkable ladies      

The large basement at Dumfries House, in Bayshill (now County House) became the source of a life line to 197 Prisoners of War (POWs) from Cheltenham.  The house was the home of Mrs Elphinstone Shaw, wife of an Indian Army Colonel and daughter and sister in law of Indian Army Generals.  Having been married in India, Mrs Shaw returned to Cheltenham in 1895 to join her sister and family. 

Mrs Shaw and the basement at Dumfries House

Since October 1914 Mrs Shaw had been sending parcels of her own accord to prisoners of war from Cheltenham.  The Prisoners of War Fund Committee, part of Cheltenham Trader’s association, was formed in July 1915, as a result of “Soldier’s Day” held in the town in June.  Mrs Shaw and her daughter Mrs Hearle Cole were asked to serve on the committee and to take on, officially, the organisation and despatch of parcels to captured Cheltenham soldiers.  At the time it was considered that “their onerous duties will extend over some weeks, maybe months”! 

The first batch of thirteen parcels, sent out in July 1915, contained sugar, Nestle milk, café au lait, golden syrup, herrings, bacon, camp pies, towels and soap, pencils, tobacco, bread, cake, and pipes. Local traders had to submit a tender to supply the organisation. 

A letter appeared in the Gloucestershire Echo from Mrs Hearle Cole on 17th July 1915, advising people to be aware the German authorities had requested that if they were to send their own parcels to POWs, the parcels must be sewn up in canvas, linen or sacking with the address to be written on linen and sewn on to the parcel, as brown paper parcels were falling apart.

Letters of thanks came flowing in to Dumfries House from POWs and their families and as a result, in September 1915, Mrs Shaw was asking for warm vests and worn boots for the POWs, as they had requested.  Three months later the Echo had started a fund to supplement money coming from the Trader’s Association efforts, so great was the need, and this fund continued throughout the war. 

Some townspeople ‘adopted’ a POW and gave money regularly to pay for his parcels.  By December 1915 Mrs Shaw and her team of volunteers were sending 80 parcels a month at a cost of 5s., each weighing 11lbs and including a cardigan jacket, muffler, cake, sweets, roast beef, raisins, tobacco and cigarettes, apple mould, milk, tea, cocoa, Vaseline and a handkerchief. 

Mrs Shaw was able to pass on, through the pages of the newspapers, useful snippets of advice to POWs’ families.  One returning soldier wrote “I shall always remember Mrs Shaw who gave me food when I was hungry and consoled me when I was sad.”

Parcels for POWs being assembled at Dumfries House

By September 1917, demand had risen to 70 parcels per week, packed by several lady assistants and the Echo fund had raised £1,166 15s 7d.  The work, by this time, was considered to be of sufficient importance to be taken under government ‘control’ but was still not given any government subsidies or grants.  In effect, Cheltenham POWs were supported by their own people.  When food rationing was brought in, the ‘government control’ was evident in that the only food allowed out of the country was to be specifically for POWs but not for internees.  9th December 1917 Mrs Shaw died suddenly.  She was held in such high regard that her obituary spoke of her thus: “She was a grand, old lady, one of those staunch, sterling fine characters who sticks to a job however arduous.”  Mrs Shaw was typical of Cheltenham’s Anglo-Indian ex-military ladies, used to rallying support to look after ‘the troops’.  As one would expect, her daughter, Mrs Hearle Cole, took on the running of the organisation, with help from her own daughter, Mrs Austin Miller.    

Eventually, ten lady volunteers, the domestic staff of Dumfries House plus the gardener, Mr Matty, were sending out an average of 1,020 parcels monthly, weighing 10lb.  There were ‘bonded’ goods – tea, coffee, sugar, syrup, chocolate, tobacco and cigarettes, stores of which had to be checked weekly by Customs and Excise officers.  Mrs Hearle Cole was answerable to the Central POW Committee in London and to 42 regimental care committees. 

Letters from the men’s relatives and hundreds of cards from the men had to be answered regularly and personally by Mrs Elphinstone Shaw and by the end of the war Mrs Hearle Cole had to take on a secretary to cope with the volume.  One letter of thanks, written on behalf of the Cheltenham POWs in a German camp, told the ladies that their work was vital to the men but that sometimes parcels needed better wrapping, such as the one received where the soap had become mixed with the jam!  Another from a Bishop’s Cleeve man told of having been moved around POW camps and eventually receiving 36 parcels at once.

The financial situation in May 1918 was precarious; there was only enough money for one month’s parcels – the cost of parcels had almost doubled to 8s each.  In a newspaper appeal it was reported that “Due to recent great drives by the Germans hundreds of prisoners were taken including some from Cheltenham…so it is only fair to warn that the demands of funds are now exceedingly heavy…and operations may have to be suspended.”  In response, another, even larger “Prisoner’s Day” was held on August Bank Holiday Monday, with a total of 47 stalls and a procession of 64 entrants in fancy dress, organised and controlled by Mrs Ringer.  The event raised a staggering £3,300 from the people of Cheltenham. 

Cheltenham POWs who presented themselves at Dumfries House when freed, received 15lb of food, a shirt, muffler and socks from Miss Wethered’s County Voluntary Association, £2 on arrival and £1 per week for eight weeks from funds.  At the POW Thanksgiving Dinner in December 1918, Mrs Hearle Cole received …a tornado of applause such as she is unlikely to forget” and a rose bowl engraved with the Borough Arms of Cheltenham and an inscription with the names of 197 men who were POWs.  The four maids were presented with gold brooches and the gardener, Mr Matty, with a case of pipes.   Five days later 80 of the men made a pilgrimage to Cheltenham Cemetery and placed a wreath, crown and cross on Mrs Elphinstone Shaw’s grave.  

Making the Memorial March

On November 10th more than 1,200 people will march through Cheltenham to represent the number of people listed on Cheltenham’s War Memorial. Each marcher will be given a name (and image if available) of an individual serviceman or woman to carry.

Whilst in principal this seems like a simple idea a huge amount of research and collaboration was required to create this event. Initially each of the 1,296 men and 1 woman listed on the war memorial needed to be identified and researched. (There were 1,290 original names, 1 added after unveiling in 1921 and 6 added in 2016 during the restoration phase) Continue reading “Making the Memorial March”

VC Paving Stone

A commemorative stone was laid on Sunday 2nd September at Cheltenham War Memorial to commemorate Lt Col Richard Annesley West (VC). The ceremony was attended by members of his family (from as far afield as Australia) and representatives from the Royal Tank Regiment, North Irish Horse and the Royal British Legion. The paving stone was unveiled by the Mayor of Cheltenham (Bernard Fisher) and there was a large civic presence including the Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire (Dame Janet Trotter). A summary of the event written by Cllr Paul McCloskey can be read here.

Queen Street

Queen Street was possibly Cheltenham’s most unfortunate street during the First World War. The community lost a significant number of men varying in age from just 17 to 49.

A new roll of honour for Queen Street has been compiled by local researchers Steve Lewis and David Drinkwater.

To learn more about the impact WW1 had on the community of St Peter’s & The Moors visit our new exhibition (created by SPTM Big Local) which opens at the Hardwick Gallery, St Paul’s Road on 28th August.


Wooden battlefield crosses to be saved

Today, Cheltenham Civic Society has received a National Lottery grant of £9800 for a First World War memorials project in Cheltenham. Awarded through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s First World War then and now programme, the project will focus on conserving 23 wooden battlefield crosses currently located in Bouncers Lane Cemetery.

Continue reading “Wooden battlefield crosses to be saved”

Life in Prestbury during WW1

Click here  to view the slideshow exhibited at this year’s Prestbury Village WW1 Fete. Learn more about how the village was affected by the war both on the ‘front lines’ and the home front. (Unfortunately we don’t have permission to add the soundtrack and animations to the internet, but there will be another opportunity to view the film at the Gloucestershire & Racing Remembers event in November 2018). Research and presentation by Rebecca Sillence.

Opening of Holst WW1 exhibition

A new WW1 exhibition at the Holst Birthplace Museum was opened by the Mayor of Cheltenham on Friday. The exhibition focuses on the time composer Gustav Holst spent travelling around Salonika and Constantinople with the Y.M.C.A. teaching music to soldiers in Greece and Turkey.

You can see original letters and diary entries written by Holst,  experience a recreated Y.M.C.A. hut and see the piano at which he composed The Planet Suite during 1914-16. There are also slideshows and video footage which will bring to life the stories as you explore. Visit for more information about their programme of centenary events.




Cheltenham War Memorial

Unveiling the war memorial

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.”   –  Robert Laurence Binyon, 1914

11th November 1918 is a date that has gone down in history; marking the cessation of fighting and leading to the end of the First World War. The Armistice agreement was signed at Compiègne in Northern France, between the Allied forces and Germany. When the fighting was over many British troops began to be bought home to be reunited with their loved ones. The walk home from Cheltenham railway station marked the transition back into civilian life for many returning servicemen. For others it would be several months or even years before they were demobilised and allowed to return home.

In order to commemorate the lives lost during the 1914-1918 war, Cheltenham Town Council commissioned Messrs R L Boulton & Sons to create a memorial that would enable the people of Cheltenham to remember the bravery of the 1284 Cheltonian men that gave their lives for their country.

Continue reading “Cheltenham War Memorial”

Leave your thoughts at the ‘Listening Stations’

Marking the 100 years since the end of World War One,  residents and visitors will see ‘Listening Stations’ popping up around the town as part of the Cheltenham Remembers project.

A year-long arts programme of community engagement is focusing on the significance of World War One. As part of this the ‘Listening Stations’ are being created throughout June and July and are situated at locations including The Wilson, Leisure Centre, Cheltenham Library, The Town Hall and Hester’s Way Community Centre.

Continue reading “Leave your thoughts at the ‘Listening Stations’”