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Best Wishes To Matron: Jane Appleton’s WW1 autograph book.

The Miller Institute © North Devon Record Office.

‘You ask me for something original, I don’t know where to begin, For there’s nothing original about me, Excepting original sin’.

By the time Private C. B. Barrett of the 17th Battalion Royal Fusiliers scribbled this little rhyme for the matron on Boxing Day, 1918, he and the other sick and wounded servicemen recovering at Barnstaple’s Red Cross Hospital had every reason to feel cheerful.

The Great War was finally over, the hospital would soon be wound down and 17 days later its fourth and final matron, Jane Appleton, was demobilised. What became of Jane is unknown, but her precious album crammed with notes and tokens of appreciation from 81 of the soldiers she had cared for during her 10 months of service is now on display in the museum.

The hospital – located at The Miller Institute on Derby Road, today home to Yeo Valley Primary School – was one of around 3,000 temporary Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Auxiliary hospitals which sprang up across the country following the outbreak of war in 1914. Administered by Red Cross county directors and staffed overwhelmingly by civilian volunteers – two thirds of them women and girls – these ‘second-line’ hospitals generally cared for the less seriously wounded soldiers who required a homely and less crowded environment in which to convalesce. The volunteers – often upper and middle class ladies drawn from the local area – worked under the direction of trained nurses such as Jane, who prior to taking up her post in Barnstaple on March 5, 1918, had served at VAD hospitals in York, Waterlooville and Eastbourne.

Jane Appleton’s autograph album (detail) © MBND.

According to an article published in The Western Times in 1919, 1,153 patients passed through the Miller Institute’s wards, the first batch of whom were dispatched by train from Exeter’s Central War Hospitals on November 28, 1914. ‘From that time onwards’ continues the article: ‘its work continued splendidly, and the patients, on leaving, have invariably expressed high appreciation of the tender care and skilful treatment they received at the hands of the doctors and the staff during their stay……

‘The charming grounds in which the hospital is situated…. also contributed in no small measure to their pleasure’, while during the summer months many of the more able soldiers enjoyed trips to some of the beauty spots ‘for which many of them had heard North Devon’s praises sung far distant.’ Frequent concerts and ‘entertainments’ as well as donations of money, food, clothing ‘and a variety of other useful things’ from members of the local community further enhanced the lives of these ‘broken and maimed heroes’ from across the United Kingdom  as they recovered from everything trench life had thrown at them including battle wounds, frostbite, rheumatism and influenza.

Jane Appleton’s autograph album (detail) © MBND.

'you’ll often discover, at the kiss of your lover, there is something they can’t ration yet’

Their gratitude and relief is clearly reflected in the sketches, poems and simple expressions of thanks collected by Jane during the closing months of the war. Cartoons which would not look out of place in a modern day newspaper and references to a number of probable in-jokes – such as a coloured drawing of the portly, pipe-smoking and apparently irritable ‘Old Bill’ of ‘the Miller Institute VAD’ – carry echoes of long ago laughter.

While predominantly light-hearted, the contributions vary in tone from the fun and flirtatious to the religious, deeply contemplative, topical and political. A limerick featuring an old lady of Crewe who was  so ‘horribly frightened of flu’ that she ‘fixed on a gasmask with glue’ alluding to the combined horrors of war and the pandemic engulfing the globe which would eventually claim many more lives than the conflict feels particularly poignant during our own COVID-blighted times. Another rhyme about the introduction of rationing concludes that while most popular consumer items had been severely restricted: ‘you’ll often discover, at the kiss of your lover, there is something they can’t ration yet’.

Jane Appleton’s autograph album (detail) © MBND.

A couple more entries appear to reflect a growing political dissatisfaction among the army’s rank and file after four years of war. ‘God made the bees, the bees made the honey, Tommy does the “dirty” work, and the Tradesmen take his money’ writes one private, putting his own contemporary twist on Cowper’s famous rhyme. ‘When I can call aristocrats my brothers’ writes Bombardier E. Walker in a poem entitled Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: ‘And, just as they do, Lord it over others, Why then, say I, shall we begin to see, the blessings of a true fraternity’.

The recurring sentiment infusing Jane’s album, however, is perhaps best summed up in the words of C. W. Tandy of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry: ‘I wish you health, I wish you wealth, I wish you golden store. And after death I wish you heaven, what can I wish you more?’

Jane Appleton’s autograph album (regiment badges detail) © MBND.

Jane Appleton’s autograph book is displayed in the museum’s Military Rooms.

Written by Sophie Jay

Editor Adam Murray

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