Ethel and Minnie’s stories

One of the best known and loved volunteers at the Chippenham Red Cross hospital during the First World War wasn’t a nurse. Ethel Williams was the hospital’s head cook, a role she shared with Minnie Shipp, and is remembered fondly in the surviving documents from the hospital.

Ethel’s actual first name was Gertrude – a relatively popular girls’ name in the 1870s, when she was born – but by the time she was 12 she was known to everyone as Ethel.

Ethel, in her VAD uniform

She was born in Chippenham, to an ex-soldier turned landlord and a mother who was particularly good at running pubs. She had a half-brother and half-sister from her mother’s first marriage, and at the age of five gained another sister – Elsie.

When she was small, the family lived at the Bear Hotel, but her parents gave that up and moved to St Mary Street. When she was 9 her father died, and her mother went back into the pub trade – running several establishments in the town with the help of her children and step-children. Ethel would have grown up helping out in her mother’s pubs – she had at least two at one point – and serving customers.

Aged 21, in 1900, she married a vet – George Williams – who was ten years her senior. She was living in Chippenham’s market place, while he was resident up near St Paul’s Church. The 1901 census finds them together, at the rather innocuously named 2 Langley Road. In fact, 2 Langley Road was The Clift House, a rather grand property with grounds and a fountain in the garden, which was finally demolished in the early 1980s and replaced with sheltered accommodation flats for the elderly.

Former Clift House on Langley Road in Chippenham, taken in 1906, while Ethel lived there

They had two daughters, Margery in 1901 and Caryl in 1905. In 1908 Ethel gave birth to her third child, a son, who sadly did not survive. This boy was not given a name. Their household appears comfortable, with a sizeable property and several domestic servants to help with the chores.

When the First World War hit, in August 1914, Ethel’s daughters were 13 and 9 and at school, and the shortage of male workers meant that women were encouraged to work and volunteer outside the home. While many women took roles making munitions at places like Saxby and Farmer (later Westinghouse), going out to work wasn’t quite right for women of Ethel’s social standing. Instead, they volunteered with the Red Cross. Ethel was part of the committee who worked to provide Belgian refugees arriving in Chippenham in 1914 with food and accommodation. They had escaped the early horrors of the war during that autumn, and were housed in various places in Britain, supported by the local Red Cross.

The next big Red Cross project locally was the hospital that was set up at Chippenham’s Town Hall in 1915. Ethel was engaged here from the outset, alongside other women of her social standing – for example, one daughters of the Clutterbuck family from Hardenhuish House also served, as did the daughter of Lady Coventry of Monkton Park, many of the wives of prominent town businessmen, and even the wife of Ivy Lane School’s headteacher.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) provided nursing care for the wounded from the war, and were an important part of the war effort at home. Chippenham’s Town Hall initially had 40 beds, and received its first patients in early November 1915. Demand became higher, and the hospital expanded to include the Neeld Hall and the Corn Exchange, and by November 1916 there were 100 beds available.

Volunteer staff at Chippenham temporary hospital

Many of the VADs were nurses to the wounded, and – given Ethel’s sister Elsie was at this point nursing in London – it might be expected that Ethel took this role too. However, there were lots of other volunteer jobs needed in the hospital, such as cleaning the wards, attending in the mess room, and washing up.

Ethel became the hospital’s head cook, which she shared alongside Mrs Minnie Shipp from Foxham. Other women also cooked, and she had several volunteers helped prepare vegetables, but Ethel and Minnie were in charge. This meant that they served both patients and staff.

Minnie, who was born Minnie Hatton and originally came from the Bournemouth area, was the wife of a farmer and butcher in Foxham. She came from a food background – her father was a baker, alongside her husband being a butcher – so would seem to have been an obvious choice for the shared role of head cook.

Minnie Shipp, as a VAD

She and her husband Edgar had four children, three girls and a boy. Their son, Frederick, was old enough to serve during the war, so was sent away to the front while Minnie’s daughters stayed at home. They seem to have been a fairly wealthy family. Before setting up as a farmer in Foxham, her husband Edgar ran a butcher’s shop in Bath’s Northgate Street, and the family had several servants – including a “mother’s help” for Minnie. In addition to Minnie volunteering at the hospital during the war, two of her daughters joined her.

Records show that Ethel volunteered for many hours in alternate weeks during her time at the VAD hospital. Presumably, the weeks that Ethel didn’t work were the ones where Minnie was in charge. It’s Ethel’s food at the hospital that is well remembered, however, although Minnie’s fare was probably equally as good, perhaps because she remained in the town after the war where Minnie did not.

Ethel’s cookbook contains recipes for macaroons, nut loaf, pancakes, dried apricot jam and others to the delight of the recovering soldiers. Alongside her duties as a cook she was also in charge of entertainment, arranging visits to local homes and days out for the patients. One of her favourite activities was taking the men for picnics, especially to Cherhill (near Calne).

One picnic in particular would stay with Ethel forever. On 12th July 1918, whilst picnicking with the soldiers, nurse and their families, a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) plane crashed in a nearby field. Piloted by Captain Douglas Ridley Clunes Gabell, the plane was described as an R.E.8 C2236 (140 R et F or RAF WD/21146). He was only 20. Lieutenant George Frederick Delmar-Williamson (aged 19), of Black Watch Regiment, was the passenger on board. The aeroplane was a new machine, and it caught fire after it fell. The accident report recorded ‘both pilot and passenger died of fractured skulls’. The Court of Enquiry said the accident was caused ‘due to the wings collapsing in the air’. This incident affected Ethel greatly and she wrote to the father of Lieutenant Delmar-Williamson in Cheltenham to pass on her condolences.

Ethel served at the hospital until it closed in September 1917, and stayed with the Red Cross after the war ended. She was much loved by the patients, and one (Pte J. C. Dempsey) even wrote a poem about her. She was awarded a certificate of honourable service after the war.

After the war, Ethel returned to life as the vet’s wife, but still volunteered with the Red Cross. Her mother died in 1921, and her half-brother Joe Buckle ran a popular shop on Chippenham’s High Street.

By 1939 George had retired, and they’d left Clift House for a newer house on Malmesbury Road. Ethel was still in the Red Cross reserves during the Second World War. One of their daughters married, but the younger one still lived at home.

George died just after the end of the war, but left Ethel and other relatives a considerable amount of money.

Fellow cook Minnie did not stay in Chippenham. She and husband Edgar had moved to Dorset by the early 1930s, where one of her daughters ran a hotel. They were in West Parley by 1939. Edgar died in 1941, while Minnie lived on until 1946. When she died she left over £14,000.

Ethel lived on at Chippenham’s Malmesbury Road as a widow until the mid-1960s, when she died aged 87 leaving money to a solicitor.

She’s buried at St Paul’s church in Malmesbury Road, next to where her house once stood.

A book, Unity and Loyalty: The Story of Chippenham’s Red Cross Hospital, by Ray Adler, explores the full story of the town’s VADs. It is available at Chippenham museum and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

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