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.  

New WW1 Resources

A fascinating glimpse into life in Cheltenham during the First World War. The gallery below shows a small selection of the material relating to WW1 held at Cheltenham Local & Family History Library (Chester Walk, Cheltenham GL50 3JT). You can also view several wartime programmes and leaflets from their collection by visiting our new WW1 Library page, which we will be adding to over the coming months.

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The Cheltenham Aviation Industry

H.H. Martin was a Cheltenham based company that originally specialised in architectural decoration. During the First World War, the company developed; and in early 1918 the Gloucestershire aircraft company was formed. Thus beginning the thriving aviation industry in Cheltenham.

By April 1918, approximately 45 aircraft were being made in Cheltenham every week. Much of this productivity was due to the hard work of local women who were called upon to fill the gaps on the workforce.

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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. https://thelisteningstationcheltenham.tumblr.com.

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.

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RAF 100 Exhibition

If you missed out on visiting the exhibition  at the Jet Age Museum (created by the RAF Association for Cheltenham Remembers), you can still watch this video which gives an overview of the story behind the formation of the RAF in 1918 and the development of the local aviation industry in Cheltenham during the First World War.

With thanks to Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason CB. CBE. DL of the Cheltenham branch of the RAF Association.

Cheltenham’s ‘Forgotten’ War Memorial Painitng

This year sees the return of Cheltenham’s official World War I memorial painting by Fred Roe RI to The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum. This offers the first opportunity to see the painting in Cheltenham for many decades. The artwork features five Cheltenham men and is accompanied by a display and booklet telling the story behind the painting. This project was initiated and created by Neela Mann (pictured) of the Cheltenham Local History Society in partnership with the Wilson and forms part of a wider exhibition at the Wilson, entitled ‘At Last Fighting is Over’; The end of the First World War on the Front and in Cheltenham. 

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The Battle of Jutland

File:HMS Indefatigable (1909).jpgThe Battle of Jutland started 31 May 1916 and ended on 1 June 1916.  It’s considered to be the only major naval battle of World War 1.  The British Navy lost more men and ships, but the verdict was that the German Navy lost and was never in a position again to put to sea during the war.

6,094 British men were lost, including 12 Cheltonians who were on board HMS Lion, HMS Indefatigable (pictured), HMS Fortune, HMS Queen Mary, HMS Defense and HMS Invincible.

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Prestbury Remembers WW1

Read about some of the men listed on the Prestbury war memorial in this free Memorial Trail eBook by Rebecca Sillence. Prestbury lost more than 40 men during the First World War and many of them lived or worked in the Cheltenham area. This booklet guides you on a loop of the village where you will pass many of the houses where servicemen and their families lived. You can also read about life in the village for those left behind and the Racecourse VAD Hospital. Prestbury Remembers WW1