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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Women on the Home Front 3: Galvanising a Community into Action

In the final part  of this month's series "Women on the Home Front",   the focus here is on Mrs Ellen Mary  Wilson, a schoolmaster’s wife in the Scottish Borders,  who, in the First World War,  galvanised her  Parish of Robertson into active support of its  fighting menfolk.   I am grateful  to my guest contributor,  Gordon Macdonald. local historian and volunteer researcher at Hawick Museum.   Gordon writes: 
Most of the focus on the Great War is usually on men.   Back home their mothers, wives, and loved ones still endured the daily grind. They had families to bring-up: bills to be paid, households to run on their own and uncharted waters lay ahead. Although these women were hundreds of miles from the war zone, nevertheless, regardless of their age, their circumstances, or their status in life they were at war, and mostly  without help.  


In 2012 a Dr.  Wilson from Canada donated his Uncle Lieut Tom Wilson’s WW1 archive to Hawick Museum. it was only while researching “Women at War” we discovered the contribution of Lieut. Tom’s Wilson’s step-mother - Ellen Mary Wilson.

Roberton. near Hawick in the Scottish Borders  is a scattered rural parish rather than a village with around 300 souls. Thomas Wilson was the long serving schoolmaster at Roberton. In 1875,  he  married Mary Grieve, and had three sons and two daughters.   Mary Wilson died in 1898 aged 49 years.  Eleven years later in
1909, Thomas Wilson married a school teacher, Ellen Mary Douglas, who now found herself step-mother to a grown-up family.

As the war progressed Mr Wilson witnessed the steady trickle of his former scholars enlisting in the War. His youngest son George enlisted as a doctor with the Army Medical Corps, and his other son Tom, a civil engineer in Singapore returned home in June 1915 and enlisted in the Kings African Rifles initially based in Nairobi. I

In a letter to his father in February 1916,  he wrote: “I hear from the Colonel that I have to be awarded a Military Cross”   In December 1916 he jokingly asks his stepmother  “Have you had any Zeppelins the length of Roberton?”

But In July 1917,  a telegram arrived at Roberton Schoolhouse with the news everyone dreaded -   Lieut Tom Wilson had been killed in German East Africa on 29th June 1917 aged 37. His Chaplain Archdeacon Chadwick sent his father a letter detailing his son’s death: “The Germans left a note on his body apologising for not burying him as they had no time. Despite the carnage,  it is reassuring to realise there was compassion in war. 

 Lieut. Tom Wilson

When the First World War broke out in 1914 , whither by choice or acclamation, Mrs Wilson found herself galvanising Roberton Parish into action by persuading women and men to knit items, and collect money on behalf of The Sailors and Soldiers Comfort Fund.  

Knowledge of Mrs Wilson's contribution to the war effort only came about by chance, when  at the Museum we came across a report in the Hawick Express in December 1919 commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Mr Wilson as Roberton schoolmaste. The local minister said

 “…Many had looked on Mr Wilson as having given them a start in life…but, so far as Roberton was concerned, the war had been won by Mrs Wilson…...She sometimes risked her life in stormy weather undertaking long journeys to carry out her various schemes.” 
What had Ellen Mary Wilson done to  earn this accolade? 
From the few local newspaper reports,  we gain an appreciation of her character and contribution.

The bulk of the money for the Soldiers and Sailors Comfort was raised with regular concerts and whist drives, and.  as there was no village hall in Roberton at the time, these  were always held in the Schoolhouse; a huge commitment on Mrs Wilson’s part. 

By 1915 Roberton, had produced 500 articles. From a concert in March 1918 they raised £63.12.6 - equivalent to £2.800 today,  On  that occasion, Mrs Wilson announced that since 1914,  the local community had made a grand total of 442 pairs of socks, 181 hospital bags, 139 mitts, 83 shirts and 71 mufflers. From a scatteredfarming parish, this was a remarkable achievement.   

In 1919 Mrs Wilson said, she was glad she had been of service, and thanked her band of loyal workers who had produced no fewer than 4337 articles of comfort for the soldiers and sailors during the war. 

A a press report of  late 1918 noted that Mrs Wilson’s work on behalf of the Soldiers and Sailors Comfort Fund had been “…characterised by an earnestness and enthusiasm worthy of the highest praise.”   Mrs Wilson died in 1945 aged 85.
Mr Wilson retired as schoolmaster in 1920 and in April the following year  he and Mrs Wilson made an emotional return to Roberton for the unveiling of Roberton War Memorial and Roll of Honour. During the memorial service Mr Wilson read out the names of 68 of his former pupils who had served, in the Great War including twelve who were killed - the final name was his own son - Lieut Thomas Wilson, M.C.

Roberton School, c.1905. 
Ten years later, how  many of these boys fought but did not return to their homes?

Although Armistice Day was declared on the 11th November 1918, the effects of war continued for these three women who featured in my series "Women on the Home Front".
  • Mrs Elizabeth Abbey was widowed only three years after her marriage, and like thousands of other women, never remarried.   Yet her story continued, through the decades, with her niece and her great nephew. 
  • Mrs Maggie  Laidlaw laid aside her personal sorrows and devoted the war years for the good of her community and carried the death of her two-son-in-laws and the death of her great grandson in World Ware Two for  the rest of her life.
  • Mrs Ellen Wilson worked tireless on behalf of The Sailors and Soldiers Comfort Fund, and supported her husband as he bore the death of his son, his former pupils and those who returned, some broken in body and spirit.
These women from three different backgrounds all shared the common bond of devotion to their family, and all are  linked with the loss of loved ones. Their experiences were far from exceptional, but they highlight that,  for them,   there was no official recognition, no war medals, and no victory parades for them; their daily war continued - unabated. 



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