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  • Royal Dragoon Guards by Anthony Dawson

    The Royal Dragoon Guards are one of the oldest, and most prestigious, regiments in the British Army. Although the modern-day regiment was formed in 1992, its antecedents can trace their history back to the 1660s, representing over 350 years of continuous service.

    The charge of the Inniskillings at Le Cateau. (Royal Dragoon Guards, Amberley Publishing)

    Those regiments which make up the regiment were the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards; 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Dragoon Guards; 7th (The Princess Royal’s) Dragoon Guards and the Inniskilling Dragoons. They have a proud lineage – battle honours including Blenheim; Dettingen; Peninsular; Waterloo (where Corporal Penfold of the Inniskillings claimed to have captured a French Eagle); Balaklava (the more successful Charge of the Heavy Brigade) and Mons.

    Amongst those who have served are Robert Baden Powell, the ‘father’ of the Boy Scouts who was the youngest colonel in the British Army when he assumed command of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and Captain Lawrence Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons who took part in Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition in 1912.

    But, after 250 years of independent service, reductions following the Great War in 1922 saw the 4th and 7th Dragoon Guards amalgamated to create a new regiment with its own traditions the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. The Inniskillings and 5th Dragoon Guards were also amalgamated to become the 5th/6th Dragoons in the same year, and in 1935 gained the accolade 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.

    With such a long history, The Royal Dragoon Guards have amassed one of the finest regimental collections in the country, housed in York Army Museum, in the shadow of the Clifford’s Tower in the centre of York. The museum curates collections not only from the Royal Dragoon Guards but also The Yorkshire Regiment, caring for and celebrating the history and special connection between the people of Yorkshire and the army, serving on every continent on the globe. The service of the Inniskilling Dragoons, together with that of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, is remembered in Ireland at Enniskillen Castle. Both museums are well worth a visit, with knowledgeable and helpful staff, and interesting temporary exhibitions.

    Anthony Dawson's new book Royal Dragoon Guards is available for purchase now.

  • Nursing Churchill by Jill Rose

    Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse

    Doris receives her Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing from Miss Ruth Derbyshire, Head of the British Rad Cross and a former Matron of St Mary's Hospital, while the current Matron, Miss Mary Milne, looks. on. (Courtesy of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Archives, Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    My mother, Doris Miles, was a nurse at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington during the war.  In February 1943, at a critical time in the conflict, the 68-year-old Prime Minister Winston Churchill was stricken with pneumonia. His personal physician Sir Charles Wilson, Dean of St Mary's Hospital Medical School, asked the hospital to send their very best nurse to take care of his illustrious patient. Doris was the recent winner of the prestigious Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing and the daughter of a former Dean who had been once Sir Charles's mentor, so she was the obvious choice.

    I've lived abroad almost all of my adult life, and 'What did you do in the war?' was seldom a topic of conversation on my visits home. It wasn't until 2001 that I discovered that Mum still had in her possession a cache of letters that she had written to her husband Roger (my father-to-be) while he was serving as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Navy during the war. The correspondence covers her time nursing Churchill, as well as her life in London in the preceding months and immediately afterwards, and forms the core of my book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse.

    Doris was on night duty, and she and Churchill would talk in the wee hours. On February 23rd she wrote to Roger:

    Been having a long chat with the old boy, he’s been telling me his daily habits, did you know that he stays in bed until 12, sleeps from 3 to 5, never goes anywhere before 5, and never goes to bed before 2. What a man. He also tells me that he hates cigars, and never smokes more than a quarter of one! (Believe that or not). We have also discussed the progress of the war and the Beveridge Report, give me a little time and he’ll get my views on the Rushcliffe Report on Nursing! 

    The signed photography that Winston Churchill gave to Doris, March 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    During the PM's convalescence at Chequers in March, Doris had to cajole him to take his medicine or do his breathing exercises, matching her own strong will against his. At 1 a.m. she wrote,

    'I’m just pushing back hot coffee and biscuits, while waiting for the Patient to finish his whiskey and come and do his exercises before going to bed. There’s going to be trouble over the said exercises I foresee!  As I was away this afternoon he’s only done one lot today, and he will argue – quite rightly – that 1:30 a.m. is not the time to be doing exercises. I wonder who will win – somehow I don’t feel much like arguing tonight'.

    Her letter continues a few hours later: 'Well I won the argument and the exercises were duly performed. As a matter of fact it wasn’t an argument at all, I just said, “you’ve got to do some more exercises”, and he said, “no I won’t, I’m too tired”. So I said no more, and in about five minutes, during which time I did my best to look reproachful, he said, “Oh well, if you want to we’d better do them”. If I wanted to!!  Anyway they were done'.

    Doris and the others in his medical team saw the Prime Minister in a uniquely intimate and vulnerable position. She became very fond of him, despite his many idiosyncrasies. She had been told by Sir Charles at the outset, 'I must warn you, Nurse, the Prime Minister doesn't wear pyjamas', and indeed he didn't, preferring a natty little silk vest which barely covered his bottom,  a velvet jacket with a diamond V on the lapel, and slippers of velvet with 'PM' embroidered on the front.

    Doris and Roger at St. Peter's Church, Vere Street, 8 January 1942. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    As well as the perceptive and amusing descriptions of her time with the ailing Prime Minister, the letters paint a vivid picture of wartime life in a major London hospital. And it's also a poignant love story; Doris and Roger had been married just a few weeks when he went to sea in early 1942, and their relationship grew through their correspondence.

    As I transcribed my mother's letters in 2001, I would ask her about the people and events she had written about, although she was 85 by then and her memory was fading. My father had died of Parkinson's disease in 1990 so there was no one else to ask. There were no letters from Dad, and I wondered what had happened to his replies. Mum couldn't remember when they had disappeared; they must have been cleared out during one of the family's several post-war moves, she said with obvious regret.

    I put the letters away for the next 15 years, and didn't think much more about them until after my mother's death in November 2016, at the age of 100. Re-reading them in the spring of 2017, I was struck again by what a great story this was, and I felt sure that there would be considerable interest in a book.

    Fortunately the editors at Amberley Publishing agreed. I contracted to write an additional 50,000 words about the war, Churchill and my family to put the letters into their historical context.

    My sister still has my mother's old photo albums and quite a lot of parental memorabilia, as well as the original letters. However, once I got started on the book, I realised that there is so much more that I could have and should have asked my parents. I wish I had talked more to Mum about her letters when I first came across them. Dad rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but I think he would have elaborated if only I had shown more interest. When I was a teenager my Granny told me many stories about her eventful life, but I was young and, like all teens, very much wrapped up in my own concerns, so I didn't take much of it in and now only a few tattered, tantalising scraps of memories remain.

    Winston and Clementine Churchill returning to 10 Downing Street, June 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what I needed to write the book. To fill in the details and the gaps in my research I contacted several experts, and I was touched by their enthusiasm for my project and their willingness to share their time and expertise with me. The well-known historian Andrew Roberts wrote a very complimentary endorsement. I sent a copy of the manuscript to Emma Soames, and she contributed a lovely Foreword, way beyond my expectations. I'm so grateful for the generosity of these kind and helpful people.

    Doris writes about colleagues and friends at St Mary's, several of whom remained life-long friends, and I had great pleasure making contact with the children of some of them, including John and David Suchet, and pooling our recollections of our parents.

    I spent hours hunched over my computer digging around in the historical records, and found lots of information about my grandparents and great-grandparents. Not all of my research is directly included in the text, of course. However, all of it has added to the richness of the back-story and I believe my book is the better for it. Everything that I have learned and discovered has greatly enhanced my knowledge of my family, the circumstances into which I was born, and contributed to my personal journey.

    Doris was on duty at St Mary's Hospital during the terrible nights of the Blitz in the Fall of 1940 as the victims of the bombing were brought into the operating theatre. Working alongside her was the handsome Casualty Officer Roger Miles. They fell in love and were married on January 8, 1942.  It was just over a year later that Doris received the fateful summons from Sir Charles Wilson to attend the Prime Minister.

    Nursing Winston Churchill in February and March of 1943 was a defining experience in my mother's long life. She lived to be a hundred years old, and by the end of her life she could remember very little of her past, but she still knew that she had once been Churchill's nurse.

    Jill Rose's new book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse is available for purchase now.

  • The Servants' Story by Pamela Sambrook

    There were several reasons why I wrote my new book on the servants of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, the country home of the Dukes of Sutherland. In the early 19th century they were reputed to be the richest non-royal family in England and the largest private landowners in the UK, thanks to their huge land holdings in Scotland. But this is not what attracted me to them. Trentham itself is now only a ruin set in a beautiful landscape and garden, home to a bustling shopping centre. What draws a historian’s interest, however, is the huge family archive which survives in public ownership in the Stafford Record Office. This contains a wide range of records, including a large collection of letters between agents about servants. Surely, I thought, there is enough there to enable research into the people who worked for the family, and in particular enough to let us see them as real individuals, not just caricatures or fictitious representations on television.

    the-servants-story-1 Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, in the mid-ninteenth century, after the rebuildings by Sir Charles Barry. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    I was right! Helped by a good friend of mine, Linda Barton, it has taken the best part of five years to piece together mini biographies of a number of servants. Some of them have their family origins in Staffordshire. One of these was the Penson family, who provided men and women as both indoor and outdoor staff to work for the Sutherlands for at least 200 years. Some of them were highly successful, some had terrible stories to tell. One who experienced both was Mary Penson. She was born in the rural heart of Staffordshire in the hamlet of Standon, a member of the Wrights, another of the long-serving families of Trentham. In 1822 she was just twenty-one when she married Thomas Penson, a quarryman on the estate. In August of the following year she gave birth to a daughter, Frances, who tragically died before she could be baptised. Almost exactly one month later Mary buried her young husband, killed in an accident in the estate quarry. Widowed so young, Mary inevitably fell back on family tradition and went into service. After a couple of years she was set on by the Sutherland family as a children’s nurse, later became the nanny and eventually, in 1847 was taken over by the Duchess of Sutherland as her personal lady’s maid. She became close to the Duchess, accompanying her on her many travels both in the UK and on the continent. It was on one of these journeys that Mary was taken ill. The whole holiday was abandoned, Mary brought back to London, but after a short while the family had to announce that their ‘dear old friend Penson’ was dead. She was buried in the quiet country churchyard at Standon, in a tomb provided by the Sutherlands, for whom she had worked for forty years.

    By contrast many of the Sutherland servants were recruited in London, some from exotic foreign countries. One such was known as Zenon Vantini, described as an Italian, who in 1833 took the post of house steward to the family. No doubt his knowledge of a variety of European countries made him both attractive and useful to the Sutherlands, but the correspondence in the archive shows that he never really fitted into the household. He did not get on with the Duke’s private secretary, a powerful and discreet figure whose letters have a careful, measured tone in great contrast to those of the excited, emotional Vantini. Over a period of ten years they were constantly at war, mainly over the household accounts, usually under the same roof as each other in London or Trentham, sometimes on the family travels through Europe.

    the-servants-story-3 The front entrance to the North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood, opened 1841. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    Vantini eventually made his escape from this unfortunate situation in 1841, investing in the newly built Euston hotel, where he installed his wife and eldest daughter as managers while he went north to help set up another huge hotel at the other end of the railway going north-west, the North Euston Hotel at Fleetwood. Although this last was not a success for the Vantini family, Zenon went on to found other hotels, at Folkestone and Paris. He also founded and ran the first refreshment rooms attached to a number of railway stations including Manchester and seems to have been the first to organise an all-in package holiday to Paris and the battlefield of Waterloo, several years before the launch of similar holidays by Thomas Cook.

    the-servants-story-2 Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's formal house on Elba and the young Vantini's workplace as courier. (The Servants' Story, Amberley Publishing)

    All the time Linda and myself were picking our way carefully through this research we were intrigued by the problem of Vantini’s early life. Where did he learn his skills at running such a sophisticated household to the standards expected by the Sutherlands? There was just one clue, something Vantini had let drop during his stay in Fleetwood – as a young man he had been associated with the household of Napoleon! Neither of us really believed this – he was good at telling jokes was Vantini – but imagine our amazement when, through family history sources, we found this to be true. He was in fact born on Elba, brought up as a page by Napoleon’s sister’s household in Tuscany, and returned to Elba when Napoleon landed as an exile. He became one of the emperor’s couriers, accompanying him on his tours of the island and walking with him along the shore. He even played a part in Napoleon’s escape from Elba. What happened thereafter to the young Vantini, still only in his late teens, is unknown until he turns up in various records in London in 1825.

    Vantini’s career both before and after the Sutherlands is a complex story which I summarise in the Trentham book but which I am now following up in greater detail, to be published later. The story of both him and Mary Penson are just two of a number of narratives of the servants of Trentham which I have included. Individually they are intriguing, heart-wrenching, often frustrating, but together begin to sketch in some of the details of this amazing household.

    9781445654201

    Pamela Sambrook's new book The Servants' Story is available for purchase now.

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