02/05/1915

My Dearest Father

I was so delighted to get your long letter and Mother’s of the 27th. I have been to church this morning as I do not give sun-cure or hot air baths on Sunday. We went for a stroll (3 of us) on the quays after church and met a Tommy from the first Lincolns. He nearly cried with joy when I stopped and spoke to him and told him I came from Lincolnshire too and he read my shoulder badge. We had quite a pow-wow and he told me where all the various battalions were and how they were getting on. He himself had been wounded through the back of his ankle, but was still medically unfit. He came from “the city” he told me with pride, so I told him I often went there, especially to play hockey. The 5th are near La Bassee Canal. He said “it is a treat to speak to an English lady : there isn’t many about Rouong”. He was an awfully niceman and I was awfully bucked to meet a compatriot, so to speak. He wrung my hand fervently at parting and said it was real nice of me to have noticed him.

Yesterday I went out for a motor in between tea and supper.A new man has just been attached to the hospital, I don’t know how long for. He is a Belgian Baron of some sort, quite a gentleman. He has been in England a good deal and speaks a kind of broken English, and is quite English looking, and has decent manners. He has been attached because of his car I think. It is a huge Peugeot about 40 horses in power, and holds 7 people: an open touring car, a regular beauty. It goes 60 miles an hour without turning a hair. So he took 6 of us out for a run through La Foret Verte, an enormous state forest north of Rouen. It is absolutely lovely, nearly all beech trees and a few pines. There are heaps of roads through it and one can really go for miles through it. I believe it would take nearly a day to walk through it in its thickest part. The country round is practically one vast apple orchard. We always have cider to drink here, as well as boiled water. The cider is quite nice, but very very weak: not a bit like English cider. You’d have to drink gallons in order to get screwed!!

The wild cherries were a sight in the forest and we stopped at one place and picked bluebells and primroses.

I must stop now as I want to write to Mother as well. I hope He is behaving himself nicely. How is the farm going on? I went to the Credit Lyonnais and it being a very hot day, I specified that they should bring me a man who spoke English, as bank terms confuse me so much in English, I didn’t feel equal to struggling with them in French. I found that all was in order and I put in some of the money I had left from your £10 and they gave me a cheque book and pass book, and I signed my name at least ten times. The man would call me (H)eejins, so I had to gently suggest to him that the ‘g’ was hard and not soft!

My best love

From your loving Dorothy.

Dorothy’s War – first letter from home.

27/4/1915                                                                                                                                            Rouen

My dearest Mother

I was so delighted to get your letter yesterday: it was the first I’d had since I got here and was an absolute oasis.

I have been put in charge of a new departure thay have started now it is getting hot; it is heliotherapy or sun-cure. I manage it almost entirely myself, and my duties consist in collecting certain patients whose names are given me by one of the doctors and then I have séances, through the day in the courtyard and they sit in the sun and expose the injured part of their anatomy to the sun for a certain time. I keep a kind of case book of the whole lot and when I am not doing that , I do my ordinary work in the ward. Of course I get my time off just the same. If one is free after lunch the great thing is to trot down to the Censor’s office to take one’s letters before 3pm. Whoever is going, collects anyone else’s who is on duty, or has a desire to go elsewhere, and so anyone going to the Censor’s office generally  has a sheaf of letters. The posts are put out in the dining room and I was so bucked to see yours yesterday morning. I must dry up now and go to bed I’ll finish this to morrow.

28th I am sitting frizzling in the sun and looking after my sun-bath patients : it is very hot.

I wonder if my overalls have come from Hobson’s yet?  I hope so, as I shall soon want them. Perhaps you can send out my baby flash lamp when you send the overalls as I’m not in any hurry for it. I’m jolly glad Mrs —– isn’t coming here: B may say what she likes, I think she is a most objectionable woman. I’m sorry to hear about poor Captain Hadfield : it is rotten luck for him. I hope he isn’t seriously wounded.

I had a bath at the hotel last night: it really was a most comic affair. They brought me a big can of hot water and a bath which was not a yard across: it was called a bain de siege but I’m hanged if anyone but a baby could have sat in it. I suppose it could have been done if I’d stuck my feet out but I was in mortal terror of upsetting the whole thing as my room is somewhat smaller than Father’s dressing room !! So I stood and scrubbed myself in sections : it was a most complicated performance. The cream of the whole affair was that I was shouting remarks about my struggles to Mrs Garrard whose bedroom window is just above mine, and this morning I discovered that an English officer is sleeping next door to me and his window is next to mine and as he, I and Mrs G all look out the same way he must have heard our conversation and been tremendously tickled! The hotel really is awfully nice and we are very comfortable there.

Three of us took a tram into the country the other day and found some lovely beech-woods with hazel-trees in between. There were not any wild flowers there however, except a few wood anemones, and a darling baby solomon’s seal about 10 inches high, evidently wild. Coming home I saw a lot of stitchwort and yellow horned poppy which grows in some parts of England, but not round home.

It is beginning to be quite hot: I shall be glad when my thin coat arrives. How dreadful about poor Greenwood: I had a long letter from Gladys yesterday and she told me all the details: I suppose he wasn’t a very expert motorist.

I must go out now as I have several things to do. Of course I love having your letters, but be sure and not hurt your poor thumb, as I wouldn’t like you to do that. How is the garden ? Are Clara and the double cherry out yet ? and how are all the things in my garden and rock-garden and all the anemones ?

Thanks awfully for sending me the photos

With the very best love to you and father

Your loving daughter

Dorothy.

Dorothy’s War – Life in Rouen

L’Hopital Roi Albert I, Rue St Lo, Rouen.
L’Hopital Roi Albert I, Rue St Lo, Rouen.

The letters that follow over the next four years are separately addressed to her mother and father, offering different aspects of her life abroad, according to their own interests, and letters received. She wrote by flashlight, as all lights had to be extinguished by 9.30pm. In her Father’s first letter Dorothy explains that her letters will be censored by the English military censor. She continues to elaborate that she is therefore unable to share much of the exciting news that now comes her way or her letters will bear the stamp of the censor “how swanky”. After a short bout of illness, caused by her inoculations, Dorothy returns to form writing long letters home. However her enthusiastic tales of destroyers at work immediately fall foul of the censor’s stamp rendering many lines of her next letter illegible. Her feelings on hearing the news of 7th May 1915 remained very clear

Wasn’t the Lusitania devilish and diabolical, I hope bluffing , boasting America who has been up to now all swank, or talk and no deeds, will really wake up now. 

Miss Higgins’ work began at the Anglo-Belgian hospital, King Albert I, founded by Miss Dormer Maunder. The building was previously a school for boys. The French authorities had made the site available to the Belgians, funding was by private subscription. Due to a shortage of accommodation Miss Higgins and eight other nurses stayed at the Hotel Normandie, paying 40 francs per month for their accommodation. The British army offices were housed in the Bishop’s palace in Rouen and Sunday services took place in a small chapel of the palace, behind Rouen Cathedral. At her first service Dorothy notes that there are only 18 women present among the congregation which numbered well over 100 officers and Tommies.

Away from the front line and receiving men who have already healed from their initial wounds Dorothy appears to have been shielded from the horrors of war during her early days in France. She describes how the nurses stroll around the town in the afternoons, wearing Red Roses in honour of St George on April 23rd. They take tea at Potins “the swank café” and “a topping place, never have I had such chocolate or such éclairs”, English papers are available and Rouen is declared to be “a ripping place”.

Dorothy’s War – Who was Dorothy Higgins ?

Miss Higgins is well remembered by many people living in Alford, descriptions such as quirky, eccentric and forthright are swiftly followed by often repeated anecdotes to illustrate the point. Few people escaped her determination to ensure that everything met her high expectations. Colleagues were summoned loudly in the street by their surname, young relations had their letters returned with the spelling corrected, and woe-betide anyone who did not keep their garden tidy.

In 1967 she gave Alford Manor House to the town and was instrumental in the creation of a trust to preserve it. Alford and District Civic Trust continue to manage the property today.

Dorothy Emily Higgins was born on 21st August 1892, at Belsize Park in Hampstead, London. The daughter of Frederick Higgins and his wife Agnes Louisa (Lamb), she had an older brother John and a sister Agnes Mary, unfortunately a younger brother, Charles, died as an infant in March 1896. Frederick, like his father before him, worked as a land agent. He was born in 1844 at Alford Manor House, one of nine children born to John and Mary Higgins. Dorothy’s childhood home was in Park Lane, Alford.  She attended Miss Tate’s girl’s school, Caldecote Towers, in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire.

July 1914 Miss Higgins selling roses for Alexandra Day in London. Photo courtesy IWM

On 22nd April 1915 Miss Dorothy Higgins sailed from Folkestone to Dieppe to begin her work as VAD nurse in France. Having safely arrived in Rouen she pens her first letter to her mother. Each aspect of her journey is recounted, providing a particularly vivid description of the French countryside as seen from the train between Dieppe and Rouen.

D Higgins 1915 photo courtesey of IWM

At the close of her letter she writes

I was glad I didn’t make a beastly idiot of myself at the station this morning:  it was hard work not to though. I shall miss you and Father and dear old Alford fearfully.

Dorothy’s War

Research for a local history project has unearthed some interesting bits and pieces along the way, many of which are completely irrelevant to the original project, but most are relevant to Alford. Many people have shown an interest in our findings so they will be shared here for all to see.

In February 2014 research began into Miss Dorothy Higgins, the benefactor of Alford Manor House, who reputedly drove ambulances in France during WW1. One year later we have managed to discover how she spent her war and just about proved that she did not drive an ambulance. A treasure trove of letters, written home to her parents, describe her daily life as a VAD nurse in an Anglo-Belgian hospital in Rouen. Dorothy Higgins sailed for France in April 1915.

One hundred years later we can revisit Dorothy’s war years through her letters home. The full story of Dorothy’s War is the subject of an exhibition at Alford Manor House.