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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Women on the Home Front 1: Elizabeth Abbey's Locket

Long term readers of my blog will know how much I like in November  to adopt the theme of "War and Remembrance"  in honour of all the men and women who have suffered in war. 

I am delighted to feature here a contribution from my guest writer Gordon Macdonald, local historian  and volunteer researcher  at the museum in Hawick, a  mill town in the Scottish Borders. 

In  the first of three article on "Women on the Home Front", Gordon tells the poignant tale of Elizabeth Abbey, nee Scott - a recently married hosiery worker whose husband John went off to war in 1916. 

The locket with photographs of Elizabeth and her hsuband John

In March 2015 a small gold monogrammed locket and a Ceramic Remembrance Poppy were donated to Hawick Museum by Mr Gormley from Dorset.  They had originally belonged to his great aunt Mrs Elizabeth Abbey. From these two items emerged a story of short-lived happiness and long-endured sadness.

Elizabeth Scott was born in  8 March 1882,  the daughter of Isabella and Richard Scott a chaise driver. Her future husband John Gibson Abbey was born on the 28 August 1885 in Perth, the son of Margaret and Andrew Abbey. He left his native city and was employed in Hawick  as a foreman with Messrs Turnbull's Limited, cleaners & dyers,

John and Elizabeth were married In Hawick Parish Church Manse on 1 August 1913. John Gibson Abbey enlisted on the 30th May 1916 with the 6th Battalion Black Watch. Perhaps on his first home leave, the couple had their photographs taken which Elizabeth placed in a gold monogrammed locket, and this token of love hung around her neck.

John was in action on the second Battle of the Somme on 21 March 1918, where the Germans drenched the battlefield with poisoned gas. By the end of the first day 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner, (40,000 casualties) and John’s battalion, was almost wiped out. 

It has to be remembered before war broke out in August 1914.  nobody could have  foreseen, the extent, length and carnage this would create. It was a conflict  where communication was limited, rumours exaggerated, and the biased newspaper reports were the only source of information. 

Elizabeth was led to believe that John was either missing, or killed. However, unknown to her,  he had been captured,  not wounded,  near the village of Pronville and transferred to Freidrichsfeld, a German prisoner of war camp. This was confirmed by a report which appeared in the "Hawick Express and Advertiser:"  John “…....has written to his wife informing her that he is a prisoner of war in Germany.” At this time there were around 66 local lads prisoners of war, and six were detained in the same camp as John. 

After the Armistice was declared in November 1918,  Elizabeth Abbey must have rejoiced that her husband John would soon be returning home at last. On his release from the prisoner of war camp,  he made his way home, but during the journey was taken ill, where we suspect he succumbed to the “Spanish Flue” pandemic which was raging at this time.  He was sent to the 3rd Canadian General Hospital, near Boulogne - an area of numerous hospitals and other medical establishments. Within a few hours after admission, he died on the 28 December 1918 aged just 33. 

The news of his unexpected death was reported in "The Hawick Advertiser & Express:" “Mrs Abbey was daily expecting news of his return home, when the sad information of his death reached her. Private Abbey had many friends in town, amongst whom he was a general favourite...”.   

John Gibson Abbey was interred in the Terlingthun British Cemetery  on the outskirts of Boulogne.  It now contains 4,378 Commonwealth burials of the First World War. John was also remembered in the Hawick Roll of Honour, held at Hawick Museum, beside the War Memorial,  and on the Scott  memorial stone of his wife's family  in Wellogate Cemetery on Hawick's hillside. 

 The Scott-Abbey gravestone in Wellogate Cemetery, Hawick

Elizabeth  like thousands of other women, was now a War Widow - she never remarried and wore the gold locket the rest of her life. She died in January 1959. 41 years after the death of hr husband,  and was interned along side her parents in Wellogate Cemetery. 

Her gold locket was left to her niece Mrs Elliot, who in 2014 in memory of her uncle John Gibson Abbey, subscribed to one of the ceramic  Remembrance Poppies, that  surrounded the Tower of London.  Sadly she died in Hawick   before she received the poppy. 

The locket and ceramic poppy are now in the collection at Hawick Museum.  Although they  are only two items, nevertheless, they illustrate the life of Elizabeth Abbey,  and others like her,  who experienced the roller-coaster of emotions: rejoicing when her husband had been saved,  which turned to a life-long sorrow at his untimely death. 

Wellogate Cemetery, overlooking Hawick 

  • Hawick and the Great WAr, published by "The Hawick News"   
  • Hawick Advrtiser and Express  newspaper
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission website - www.cwgc.org

 To Follow - two more  stories of Hawick Women on the Home Front

  • Mrs Maggie Shiell Laidlaw, nee Thomson,  who, born into wealth and privilege,  took-up the challenge of war time, and applied her natural talent for community organisation.
  • Mrs Ellen Wilson: a  schoolmaster’s wife, who galvanised her village  into action. 


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