Margaret Griffin’s story

Margaret played a vital role in search and rescue during the Second World War, saving the lives of 21 people when she and her working dogs managed to locate them in the rubble of the doodlebug blitz. Training dogs to find buried people was an incredibly new (and incredibly dangerous) thing in the 1940s, and Margaret was at the forefront of this practice – and even was awarded a gong for bravery.

Margaret, in about 1913

Co-incidentally, a house she spent some of her early life living in later played an important part in saving people’s lives too, although long after she left. Rowden Hill House, just beneath Chippenham’s Hospital, was accommodation for nursing staff in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now in need of some tender loving care itself. Margaret lived there with her family from before 1909 until late 1913, but also lived in the USA, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

She wasn’t born in Chippenham, however. She was born down the Great Western Road in Marlborough in 1889, the second of three daughters of Robert (Bob) Chaloner Critchley Long and Maud Johnson. Her father Bob, sometimes given as a gentleman and at other times given as a brewer and wine merchant, was a younger son of a Welsh MP, albeit one with a long family heritage of landowning in Wiltshire, and thus had no title and few expectations than his elder brother, but went into the army as well as running a brewing business.

Margaret’s older sister Muriel was born in Berkshire, while her younger sister Joan came along while the family were in Devon, so it sounds like the family were quite mobile. By 1901, they were in a large house, Ludford Park, in Shropshire. This was a timbered property, dating from around the early 17th century, and sat on a river bank just south of Ludlow. Here the household had ten servants, including a governess to educate Margaret and her sisters.

Two views of Ludford House in Shropshire

While Margaret’s uncle Walter became an MP like her grandfather, held seven different constituencies over 41 years and spent 16 years as a cabinet minister, her father Bob also had some political ambitions. To that end, he bought Rowden Hill House in Chippenham at some point before 1909, and campaigned to be the Conservative and Unionist Party MP for West Wiltshire (at that time you did not need to live in your constituency) for the first 1910 general election, held in January.

This meant that Margaret and her sister Joan moved into Rowden Hill House (elder sister Muriel had married a few years earlier), and became involved in campaigning for their father’s victory. In Margaret’s case, that meant becoming part of the local branch of the Women’s Unionist and Tariff Reform Association.

Rowden Hill House in Chippenham, now in a state of disrepair

This group, from the days before women could vote, were a way some women could get involved in politics and have an influence on the way men voted. The Tariff Reform League, of which they were an offshoot, formed in 1903, was effectively a pressure group promoting British empire industry and products over those imported from elsewhere. The Unionist part of their name meant that they opposed home rule in Ireland. These values were extremely popular and aligned with the Conservative party, who at the time were known as the Conservative and Unionist party. One of the key tenets of the Women’s Unionist and Tariff Reform Association was that women’s engagement in political life was vital, both as citizens and as consumers of goods. This was part of a wider evolving of thought which was part of the process of women gaining a vote.

Despite Margaret’s involvement, her father did not win the West Wiltshire seat in January 1910, and did not stand again in the subsequent general election in December 1910, which was called to attempt to pass a mandate.

The family stayed at Rowden Hill House despite the end of her father’s political career, though it appears that he and his wife moved around in subsequent years. Margaret, aged 22, and her sister Joan were living at Rowden Hill on the 1911 census, with a houseful of servants. Neither of them has any profession given, and their parents aren’t at home.

From a 1900 advert offering the property to let, the house at that time had four reception rooms, servants’ accommodation, thirteen bed and dressing rooms, stables, a coach house, a gardener’s cottage and even two orchards.

This would seem slightly excessive for a family of four at the time, but a large house would have projected their monied status within the community, and room for entertaining and house parties was an essential part of life for people who moved in their circles.

An announcement of Margaret’s impending marriage was made in the society papers in March 1911 when she was 22. Her intended was Andrew Reynold Uvedale Corbett, of Crabwell Hall in Cheshire.

For whatever reason, this marriage did not take place. Andrew never married, and instead became an antique dealer in Hampshire. The end of the engagement got a quiet mention in The Gentlewoman in March 1912.

Margaret’s family remained at Rowden Hill until late 1913, when Robert and Maud moved them to Northcliffe House, just outside Bradford on Avon. It was from this house that Margaret actually did get married, in January 1914. Her new husband was Jack Giffard, a member of a prestigious family from Lockeridge, near Marlborough.

Margaret at the time of her wedding announcement in 1914

Jack was serving with the Royal Horse Artillery at the time, and as such might have expected to see action when the First World War began later that year. He was promoted to Captain that October, and does appear to have been involved in the early part of the conflict, even winning the Légion d’Honneur, as part of the British Expeditionary Force – but after his twin brother was killed in action in the first autumn of the war he seems to have stepped back a little from active duty.

Instead, he was specially employed by the war office from 1915. Margaret had their first daughter, Violet, in 1915, when they were living at Long Ashton just south of Bristol. She was pregnant with their next daughter – Sybelle – when Jack was sent to the USA on war business of the Anglo-Russian sub-committee in the Autumn of 1915, without her. Sybelle entered the world in Charlton in Kent in April 1916, presumably close to where Jack had been garrisoned before he left the country. She was then baptised near Marlborough, as Margaret had presumably brought her daughters back to Jack’s family in Wiltshire for support caring for them while her husband was away.

In June 1916, around two months after giving birth to Sybelle, Margaret arrived in New York to reunite with Jack. Neither baby Sybelle nor toddler Violet went with her, so they were cared for elsewhere. She spent two years in New York with Jack, and they arrived back after the war was over, in December 1918, with a third baby – Jacqueline – in tow.

Her mother died near Melksham in the early months of 1919, which may have been the reason Margaret and Jack hastened back to England. Later that year, Margaret and Jack purchased Shurnhold House at Melksham, perhaps intending it to be their family home.

In reality though, it appears Jack spent very little time there as he’s given as going back and forth to New York on ships over the next couple of years, and by the time the 1921 census was taken Margaret and Jack’s daughters were at the house being cared for by staff while Jack was on war business in London. Margaret was also not at home on the 1921 census, as she was visiting her younger sister Joan in Westminster. Joan had been married and divorced by this time, and was working as a dressmaker’s model.

After this, Margaret and the children (and Jack, when he was in the country), lived first in Amersham in Buckinghamshire, and then in Putney. Another daughter, Eleanor, joined them in 1923, and they rented out Shurnhold House.

It’s while they were in Putney that a glimpse of Margaret’s life to come starts to shine through. There’s a newspaper reference to a Mrs Giffard being involved in demonstrating the skills of working dogs, alongside a police dogs demonstration, in January of 1924 at Crystal Palace. The article radiates some excitement at the potential for the use of working dogs, since this was a particularly new idea anywhere other than the North East transport police forces who had been using dogs since around 1906. She was also an honorary secretary of the Alsatian Sheep, Police and Army Dog Society around this time.

However, there’s no further mention of her connected with dog training after this, and Jack seems to have decided to become a farmer in the newly formed British colony of Southern Rhodesia, so left for Africa in September 1925. Margaret’s father appears to have gone out there slightly earlier, so the plan may have been for the rest of the family to come and join him and become prosperous out there. At some point after that Margaret and her daughters followed him, and both her sisters ended up there too. Jack went back and forth between various African ports and England several times over the next few years, but Margaret never seemed to be with him.

Mrs Giffard has one last mention at a Catholic wedding in Harare in 1927, where her two younger daughters were bridesmaids, and then there is no more mention of Margaret under that name.

Two of Margaret’s daughters as bridesmaids in Rhodesia in 1927

Jack remarried in Penhalonga, Southern Rhodesia, in 1933, so their relationship had come to an end. Her father died in 1938, in Wraxall, Southern Rhodesia, and – alongside leaving his housekeeper £200 for looking after his grandchildren – his will refers to Margaret as Margaret Bruce Griffin, so it appears that she had remarried too.

This marriage took place in New Zealand in 1930, to Harold Desmond Griffin. They returned to Britain in 1935 and settled in Sussex, where Harold worked as a farm manager and Margaret started her own boarding kennels. This marriage does not appear to have lasted either, as by the beginning of the Second World War Margaret was in Surrey, living on her own. She kept goats and poultry, and was training dogs for both war and the police.

Margaret was, by this stage, a renowned breeder and trainer of German Shepherd dogs, or Alsatians as they were known at the time. She attended various dog shows with her charges, and was becoming well known for the breed. German Shepherds had been favoured as police and working dogs since the Hull force – the first in the country to employ dogs – had decided to use them in 1923. Forces elsewhere in the country gradually became interested, and the Home Office had set up a committee to evaluated the use of dogs in policing in 1934, with a couple of labradors added to the Metropolitan force in 1935.

There were two schools training dogs for war work. The Army’s War Dogs Training School was initially based at Aldershot, then at Ickenham and then in Hertfordshire. It started with just a few dogs but by 1944 had capacity for 750 canines. Margaret became part of the staff at the other school, the Ministry of Aircraft Production Guard Dog School (MAPGDS), which was based at Woodfold near Gloucester. This school had been founded in November 1941 by Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin, and started with just 15 dogs. Two years later there were 665 dogs either training or working at Ministry of Aircraft Production sites throughout the UK. The MAPGDS was absorbed into the RAF Police and retitled the RAF Police Dog Training School in 1944.

While working with training police dogs was important in terms of developing that relationship and the skills involved in policing, Margaret and a couple of other trainers actually played a far more important part in war work. She was involved in the instigation of training and using dogs to locate and find people needing rescuing from disasters – bombs, gas explosions and building collapses. The concept of Search and Rescue Dogs was an entirely new idea at the time.

The dogs used for rescuing, however, while trained at these schools, weren’t those used by the military or police but instead tended to be the personal dogs of these trainers.

The story of how dogs came to be used for rescuing trapped people from under rubble is rumoured to have come from Colonel Baldwin having watched The Siege of Stalingrad at Cheltenham cinema which gave rise to the idea that dogs – with their enhanced sense of smell – could be trained to locate buried casualties. Indeed, the first documented rescue of an avalanche victim located by an untrained dog occurred in 1937. Margaret lit on the idea and started working on it with dogs from her kennels, and recalled a couple of dogs that had previously been through the MAP school to see if they could be retrained. One dog she retrieved from New Zealand.

They began working on commands and tells, and eventually gave a demonstration to the Minister of Home Security where volunteers hid themselves on bombed sites amid burning rags. The dogs had located their targets within two minutes. The first dog to go into service was Jet, who had been trained by Margaret. The dog started working on a site that had been bombed by a V-1 attack in north London in October 1944, and was distracted by onlookers, but soon after that located three deceased casualties after another attack at Purley.

After this, Margaret formed a team with two of her dogs – Irma and Psyche – from her renowned Crumstone Kennel, and worked alongside rescue teams throughout the doodlebug blitz, where V-1 flying bombs fell on London, to locate casualties buried under collapsed buildings. Between them, Margaret and her dogs managed to locate 233 victims in the rubble, 21 of whom were still alive. They also located buried pets alongside the humans.

Crumstone Irma, one of Margaret’s top dogs

Irma was particularly good at locating. She would change the sound of her bark when she felt that a victim was still alive, and would often not leave the site until the casualty was found. On one occasion it took two days to unearth two girls, and Irma refused to leave. Another tell from the dogs that indicated that someone was to be found was for Psyche and Irma’s ears to suddenly lie flat on their neck, and they would also excitedly scratch at the remains of the houses if they believed someone was alive.

Margaret, who attended the sites with the dogs in a blue-serge civil defence great coat and a beret with a German Shepherd badge on it, would also put her own safety at risk while working with her team to rescue people. She appears to have been incredibly brave and stoical about the work in hand. Extracts from her diary, which is believed to be held by the Dogs’ Trust, read:

11 and 12.11.1944. Rocket at Shooter’s Hill. 20.05 hrs. Public House, Ambulance Depot and 2 offices. Put Irma on right away. Frightful mess. Most of the casualties known to be in bar and billiard room of Pub but a few “unknowns” had to be located. Irma gave strong indication to right of debris… Digging proceeded here and after 2 hours the bodies of 2 women were recovered in the exact position, under approximately 7 feet of debris below the dog’s indication.”

21.11.1944 – Rocket on Walthamstowe (sic), 12.30 hrs. Arrived on site 13.30 hrs. Four houses completely demolished, about twelve badly knocked about. Things were made no easier by water pipes burst in all directions and a bad gas leak under the debris. A smashed meter was pouring gas into the rubble. Worked Irma. In spite of the stench of gas, she indicated at a point at the back of the debris. From the front of the building, she and I went right under the floors crawling on our stomachs in water. She lay down here when we reached a point approximately dead below the spot where she had indicated. Below this the bodies of a woman and two children were buried 4ft under fine rubble and dust.

20.1.1945 – Call to Osborne Road, Tottenham at 21:00 hrs. In house No.1 Irma found two live casualties. In No.2 Irma again gave good indication just to one side of a fairly large and fierce fire burning through collapsed house debris. Thick smoke rising here. Family of five found. In No.3 a strong indication from Irma over the debris. Rescue found a live cat.

Margaret and her dogs working

Once the war came to an end in the spring of 1945, the direct services of Psyche and Irma, and therefore Margaret, were no longer needed with such urgency. However, their courage and wartime roles did not go unrewarded. Irma had been awarded the Dicken Medal (a bravery award for working animals during wartime) in January of 1945, and she and Margaret took part in the victory celebrations on Pall Mall in June 1946, alongside the first rescue dog Jet. They were the only two dogs to take part.

Margaret herself received the British Empire Medal in the 1946 New Year Honours, for her work training and working alongside the dogs.

Away from her war work, both her sisters had died in Harare (then known as Salisbury) during the war – Joan in 1941 and Muriel in 1943. The rest of the family also seem to have continued living in either Southern Rhodesia or South Africa. Margaret’s eldest daughter Violet, had married, then divorced, a wildlife expert. She then married again. Her third daughter Jacqueline married in India during the war, and eventually moved to Australia. And fourth daughter Eleanor became a nun in South Africa. However, there is no indication whether Margaret ever went back to Southern Rhodesia to see them. Her ex-husband Jack died in 1956, also in Southern Rhodesia.

Once the war was over, Margaret and her dogs returned to the dog school at Gloucester, where Irma and Psyche demonstrated their skills alongside another dog called Storm, who was also from Margaret’s Crumstone kennel. The trainers, including Margaret, also began to investigate teaching their dogs to search for victims in terrains other than rubble. Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin arranged for three of the dogs to search a mine in Cumbria after an explosion in 1947. The groundwork put in by Margaret and other trainers during the war built the foundations for modern search and rescue operations.

Later on, Margaret is known to have exhibited dogs from her Crumstone kennel at Crufts Dog Show. There are pictures of her with Irma and Psyche meeting children that she had rescued from rubble in 1945, at Crufts in 1950. Eventually Irma died, and was buried at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford.

Margaret meets children she saved, c1950

As for Margaret, after 1950 she disappears from public view. Presumably she continued to breed German Shepherds and train them when necessary for different purposes. She is known to have lived at Wallingford in Oxfordshire in the early 1950s, and have lived alone.

She died in Henley on Thames, in May 1972, aged 83. Her death went unremarked upon in the newspapers.

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