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Sue Light

Violetta Thurstan

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Sue Light

As Violetta Thurstan has been mentioned in another thread, I thought she deserved one of her own. The phrase ‘quite a woman’ is frequently used to describe nurses and others who served in the War – Miss Thurstan must take first prize in that category!

She was born Anna Violet Thurstan in Hastings in 1879, the daughter of Dr. Edward Paget Thurstan. She trained as a nurse at The London Hospital, and The Children’s Hospital, Shadwell, at that time using the name Violet Thurstan.

Educated in France and Germany she spoke these languages fluently. Before the war she was prominent in her profession as an administrator, organiser and lecturer, and was highly respected by both the nursing and medical professions. She became the one of the most ‘high profile’ of all nurses who served in the Great War and from the early days her name was rarely out of the nursing press, and she wrote long letters, which were published week by week. This extract is from the British Journal of Nursing in March 1937, when at the age of 58 she was not going to miss out on the war in Spain - it provides a good potted biography.

MISS VIOLETTA THURSTAN ON ACTIVE SERVICE IN SPAIN

All through the Great War Miss Violetta Thurstan saw active service and experienced extraordinary adventures. Only daughter of Dr. Paget Thurstan, of Bath, she has been offered, reports the Bath Chronicle and Herald, the supervision of the Universities Ambulance, under Sir George Young, despatched to the front in Spain.

Miss Thurstan had an adventurous and varied career during the Great War. At its outbreak she was appointed matron of a British ambulance to be stationed in Brussels. Hardly had she and her staff arrived before the Belgian Government decided to offer no resistance, and the Germans occupied the city. Most of the staff were evacuated, but Miss Thurstan and two or three nurses remained in Brussels. Here she received an appeal to help the British wounded prisoners after the Battle of Mons. Almost single-handed she bearded the German commandant, demanding urgently needed necessaries. For this service she subsequently received the Mons Star. Returning to Brussels she and her fellow nurses were carried off prisoners to Germany, and ultimately dumped down in Copenhagen. There she at once volunteered for the Russian front, where the nursing arrangements had almost broken down. To reach that front she had to travel through Sweden. At that time the country was all on the German side, and she and one nurse, who had offered to accompany her, were subjected to many petty annoyances.

Her first job in Russia was to take charge of a temporary hospital of 500 beds in the Polish town of Lodz. With poor food, and only the help of two semi-trained assistants, she went through the siege of that place. In the evacuation she narrowly escaped becoming a German prisoner for the second time.

She was now advanced to supervise a length of railway, with a special ambulance train to carry the wounded to the base hospital. She was dressing a wound when a shell burst near by. A piece of shrapnel made a long gash in one leg. Septic poisoning set in, and for a time she was in grave danger and convalescence was slow. During this enforced idleness she wrote her first book, ‘With Field Hospital and Flying Column,’ which rapidly sold out. This wound brought her the Royal Cross of St. George, the highest honour a grateful Government could bestow.

Returning to England, her next task was to lecture for Lord Derby’s appeal to men to enlist voluntarily and so avoid conscription. One of the cities she visited thus was Bath. Soon at the front again. This time she was matron of an improvised hospital of 1,200 beds, at La Panne, under the Belgian flag. This later brought her two more medals, this time from Belgium. At length, the British authorities decided to put women in the first line of receiving hospitals, and Miss Thurstan was chosen as one of these. A farmhouse and its outbuildings formed the main wards, while the staff were housed in tents all round. One night the ambulances were away collecting wounded, under cover of darkness, and the staff were resting in readiness for the rush hours. In the farmhouse a priest stood on one side of a wounded man, and an orderly on the other. It chanced that a German airman was cruising round. He dropped a bomb which killed the priest and wounded the orderly. The poor fellow was rushed to the first-aid tent outside. The airman saw the light, and dropped his ‘card’ to speed the good work. The whole structure was brought down, and Miss Thurstan was felled to the ground, concussed by the falling roof. She soon recovered enough to accompany a forlorn procession of stretcher-bearers carrying wounded away, over fields of sugar-beet, in pouring rain, to the next line of ambulance. Miss Thurstan was suffering from delayed concussion, and remained more or less unconscious for three days. This won her the Military Medal.

During this convalescence, she wrote a technical book teaching the main differences between nursing in war and in peace. At last her restless energy drove her afield again. This time she had charge of a field hospital on the Salonika front. Here, during a blizzard and snowstorm, the whole hospital was practically blown to pieces. Before the storm had spent itself, she had boarded a goods train on the way to Salonika, where she drew all supplies and was restoring order in three or four days. A sharp attack of malaria fever drove her back to England for a third long convalescence.

On recovery she was appointed to the Air Force. When about to be demobbed, she was appointed to command some Arab refugee camps. Here she supervised Arab women carpet making. The dyes she made with her own hands. Her success in this direction may be gauged by the fact that her carpets won the ‘Grand Prix d’Honneur’ at Beyrout, as well as medals at Alexandria and Cairo. This led to her present work as an organiser of arts and crafts. Her latest books have all been on the subject of dyeing and weaving; especially Swedish weaving. One of her designs in on permanent exhibition in the Kensington Museum. She has also assisted in restoring the old tapestries in Winchester Cathedral.

Among the foreigners fighting in Spain are Moors, Germans, French, Italians and Russians. Miss Thurstan has fluent Arabic, French and German. As a child she spoke Spanish well, and doubtless it will quickly return. She also knows a little Italian and a sprinkling of Russian and Greek. She will thus be able to understand all her patients and make herself understood.

Sue

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Stebie9173

Violetta's entry in the London Gazette for her MM:

London Gazette 19-11-1917

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Military Medal for bravery in the Field to the undermentioned Ladies, Non-Commissioned-Officers and Men:—

Miss Maire Lambert Chisholm Gooden Chisholm, Anglo-French Hospitals Committee, British Red Cross Society.

Sister Dorothy Ann Laughton, T.F. Nursing Service.

Baroness Elsie Blackall de T'Serclaes, Anglo-French Hospitals Committee, British Red Cross Society.

Nursing Sister Violetta Thurstan, British Red Cross Society.

And her promtion whilst in the RAF:

LG 28-2-1919

The undermentioned temporary appointments, Women's Royal Air Force, are

made:—

To be Deputy Assistant Commandants, with grade of Administrator, whilst specially

empld., if not already holding that grade: —

Administrator V. Thurstan. 12th Nov. 1918.

Hope this is of interest,

Steve.

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Igor Ostapenko

Somebody have photo of Violetta Thurstan with awards ?

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Sue Light

Steve

Looking at the other names in the list of MM awards, the exploits of Marie Chisolm and the Baroness T'Serclaes have been recounted on the Forum, but the other woman, Dorothy Laughton is interesting as well. Here is her MM citation included in her obituary:

MISS D. A. LAUGHTON

GALLANTRY ON WESTERN FRONT

Miss Dorothy Ann Laughton, M.M., who had a remarkable record in the 1914-18 War, died on Tuesday at Dover. She was 80.

She was the third and youngest daughter of the late Sir John Knox Laughton, and was educated privately, at the Notting Hill High School, and at the Ursuline Convent, Montaign, Belgium. Her training as a nurse was carried out in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. She joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service in November, 1909, and was called up for service in August 1914. She proceeded to France in the following October, where she remained for more than three years serving in various hospitals – including Boulogne, Bailleul, and Camiers – and was sister in charge of No. 57 Casualty Clearing Station from May to November, 1917.

In that month she went to England, on special leave for 10 months, doing duty afterwards in the 1st Eastern General Hospital until March, 1919. The award of the Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette of November 19, 1917, for her gallantry, on the night of August 19, 1917, when the Asylum at St. Venant, which was in part used as a casualty clearing station, was hit by five bombs. Many of the asylum patients were killed or died of wounds or were injured, and Laughton, “in spite of being knocked over by the blast of a bursting bomb, behaved with the utmost coolness and it was mainly by her example and presence of mind that order was restored, and that the wounded were speedily attended to.”

Sue

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Jonathan Saunders

Sue - she sounds quite a formidable and determined woman and a shame history has not given her a higher profile. Thanks for the info.

Jon

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Sue Light
... and a shame history has not given her a higher profile

Jon

She seems to have been remembered up to the present day, but not for anything that most of us are particularly interested in [unless you have hidden talents :unsure: ]. She was a profilic author of books on weaving, textiles and tapestries, and seems to have written the definitive guide to vegetable dyes. In addition, she also wrote fiction in later years - I'm not sure when she died, but had a book publised in 1964 when she would have been in her mid-eighties. I feel a bit of new research coming on!

Sue

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marina
I feel a bit of new research coming on!

Sue

:D Don't forget to report back, Sue! You usually come up with some great stuff! :D

Marina

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Sue Light

Marina

I just found that she lived to be 99, so it's going to be a long piece of research!

Sue

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marina

99! Oh, she really was quite a gal! Bet she was one of those marvellous old people who stay compos mentis and alert - she's the type!

Marina.

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royalredcross

A few added bits. I have a different date of birth and death for what that's worth. Born February 1881 educated Ladies College Guernsey, in Germany and at St. Andrews University where she gained an Honours degree or the equivalent. Nurse training at the London Hospital and was for some time Secretary of the National Union of Trained Nurses.

1913 joined Westminster 146 VAD BRCS and Sept. 1914 invited to lead a party of St. John nurses to Belgium. Captured at Charleroi and repartiated through Cologne, Hanburg and Denmark.

After leaving Russia in 1916 was Matron of the Red cross Hosp. at La Panne until July 1917 when transferred to 15th Corps Main Dressing Station. MM for bravery with this unit.

December 1917 to June 1918 with SWH in Macedonia as Matron of the Ostrovo Hosp. WRAF 12.11.1918.

Medal entitlement 1914 Star, British War and Victory Medals, Military Medal, Belgian Reine Elisabeth medal. Between the wars Director of Bedouin Industries. November 1939 appointed 1st Officer WRNS later Allied Control Commission in Austria. Died 13 April 1978 at Penryn Cornwall aged 97.

Norman

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royalredcross

A few added bits. I have a different date of birth and death for what that's worth. Born February 1881 educated Ladies College Guernsey, in Germany and at St. Andrews University where she gained an Honours degree or the equivalent. Nurse training at the London Hospital and was for some time Secretary of the National Union of Trained Nurses.

1913 joined Westminster 146 VAD BRCS and Sept. 1914 invited to lead a party of St. John nurses to Belgium. Captured at Charleroi and repartiated through Cologne, Hanburg and Denmark.

After leaving Russia in 1916 was Matron of the Red cross Hosp. at La Panne until July 1917 when transferred to 15th Corps Main Dressing Station. MM for bravery with this unit.

December 1917 to June 1918 with SWH in Macedonia as Matron of the Ostrovo Hosp. WRAF 12.11.1918.

Medal entitlement 1914 Star, British War and Victory Medals, Military Medal, Belgian Reine Elisabeth medal. Between the wars Director of Bedouin Industries. November 1939 appointed 1st Officer WRNS later Allied Control Commission in Austria. Died 13 April 1978 at Penryn Cornwall aged 97.

Norman

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Myrtle

1901 census has a Violet Thurston ( note spelling) Born: Brighton Sussex 22 years (ties in with 1879 dob) Hospital Nurse.

Myrtle

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marina

Igor - where did you come across this?

Marina

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Igor Ostapenko

This page in my collection.

I'm collect all about Russian Awards to foreighners.

Hier - Issy Smith ( 1st jewish VC + Russian st. George cross 4th class )

and Violetta Thurstan ( MM and Russian St. George medal

"For Bravery" 4th class )

post-7013-1128863633.jpg

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Sturmey

You can read "Field Hospital and Flying Column" as a free dowload from archive.org

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seaJane

The Oxford DNB article on her says, among other things: "In 1937 Thurstan went to Spain, where she supervised the universities ambulance and worked for prisoner release in Almeira until expelled after the end of the civil war. As war loomed again in Europe, the now sixty-year-old joined the WRNS, understating her age by eleven years."

Amazing ladies so many of them.

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NigelS

The Oxford DNB article on her ...

Today's (19th April '15) ODNB Life of the Day Click (notified as 'War & Weaving' )

NigelS

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Guest angiiiii

Hi

i just bought 2 albums and have a signed photo of the original owner's school friend. Voilet Thurston, but it will not post.... if someone likes to contact me I will gladly forward, my email is angiemharper2@aol.co.uk

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rthurstan

I am Richard Thurstan, great Nephew of Violetta Thurstan.  I endorse Jonathan Saunders comments above.  I have been astonished of 'Aunty Vi's' life achievements ever since I first met her in the mid sixties when my family returned to UK from a life in East Africa.  I understand the Red Cross is in the planning stage for their 150th anniversary next year.  What a great platform for raising the profile of Violetta, an extraordinary individual who had guts, determination and abundant skills to achieve the impossible to help others.  

I will do my bit of course.  I have contacted the head of media of the Red Cross and I am expecting a request for further information. Hopefully other members may have 'snippets' for consideration in support of my endeavour.   

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Marilyne

Richard,

your post just pushed the thread to the top of the pages, where I just found it. I just "got acquainted" with your aunt through Christine Hallett's book "Nurses of Passchendaele" and reading about her there makes me want to get to get to know her better, as she was herself acquainted with some of the women whom I'm researching.

She was a great woman, that's for sure!!

 

M.

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BullerTurner

I am making my 17 year old daughter read these threads, only hoping she is as impressed and inspired by their exploits and character as I am!

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tullybrone
On 29/10/2019 at 14:32, rthurstan said:

I am Richard Thurstan, great Nephew of Violetta Thurstan.  I endorse Jonathan Saunders comments above.  I have been astonished of 'Aunty Vi's' life achievements ever since I first met her in the mid sixties when my family returned to UK from a life in East Africa.  I understand the Red Cross is in the planning stage for their 150th anniversary next year.  What a great platform for raising the profile of Violetta, an extraordinary individual who had guts, determination and abundant skills to achieve the impossible to help others.  

I will do my bit of course.  I have contacted the head of media of the Red Cross and I am expecting a request for further information. Hopefully other members may have 'snippets' for consideration in support of my endeavour.   


Hi,

 

I’m sorry to have to let you know that Sue Light, the originator this topic, won’t be able to respond to your post as she passed away several years ago.

 

Her legacy is this website -

 

http://www.scarletfinders.co.uk/

 

Steve

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rthurstan

Just another story.  Unrecorded but true anecdote - Violetta happened to be in Cairo where she met and escorted into Tutankhamun tomb in 1924 by Howard Carter no less.  When she peered into tomb by candle light she described it as filthy and very disheveled.  In the mid sixties when the exhibition came to London she was sent a 1st class return train fare from her home in Cornwall for a private viewing.

'Very different from when I first viewed the tomb' she told me. 

 

 

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