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​​​​​​​Inspiring stories from Stephen Perse Alumni: The Deighton sisters

Published on 29/05/20

This is the story of three sisters, all former pupils of Perse Girls in the late 1890s/early 1900s told to us by granddaughter Kate Mears. 

Kate relayed the inspiring story about the Deighton sisters, her two Great Aunts, Dorothy and Winifred, and her Grandmother Margaret and how their lives were shaped by the events of the early 20th Century including the Spanish Flu epidemic and the First World War (WW1). 

The three girls had five brothers and their stories have been collated by Kate in a book The Travelling Chest– a family’s voyage through time (as yet unpublished) based on documents spanning hundreds of years discovered in a chest left by Kate’s aunt (Margaret’s daughter). Kate explained: “I was left a chest brim-full of letters, documents, miniatures, photographs, you name it, dating from the early 1700s to just after World War 1. It is a treasure chest, whose contents depict a social history of Britain through one extended family, encompassing rural life, the industrial revolution, emigration to America, colonialism and even the slave trade.”

The chest left to Kate by Margaret's daughter

Kate explained that it was through her research into the contents of the chest that the connection with the Perse School for Girls emerged and the stimulation for the book. She went on to say: “It’s been the most enthralling project these past eight years.”  

The sisters all left Perse Girls aged 16, which was the norm for girls at the turn of the 20th century. They each became involved and played a significant part in the catastrophic events that affected the people of Europe in the first decades of the 1900s. In 1914 as war broke out across Europe, both Winifred, then aged twenty-seven, and Margaret, aged twenty, joined the British Red Cross Society (B.R.C.S.) as part-time Nursing Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) at the Red Cross Hospital in Cambridge.

In January 1918, in the final year of World War 1, Winifred was transferred to the Red Cross Headquarters at Devonshire House in London as a secretary and typist earning £2 a week. In April 1918 she was promoted to Head Clerk at the Red Cross HQ in Rome on 20 shillings a week, rising to 25 shillings by the time her role was terminated in April 1919.

Margaret, Kate’s Grandmother, worked part-time as a V.A.D. nurse at the Red Cross Cambridge hospital from November 1914 to May 1916. Then from October 1917 to November 1918 she had a full-time position at Guildford Hospital, latterly nursing victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Her salary was then £20 per annum. Spanish Flu, the name given to an influenza pandemic that lasted two years, particularly affected millions of people in the final months of 1918. The virus infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 50 million victims, more than all the soldiers and civilians who died during WW1.

Margaret Deighton 1918

Spanish Flu got its name because Spain was neutral during World War 1 and didn’t impose censorship on its press, unlike other countries involved in the war. In England, France and the United States newspapers were prevented from reporting about anything that could harm the war effort. The news that a crippling virus was infecting troops across Europe and the US was only reported by Spanish journalists and afterwards became known as “The Spanish Flu”.  

Dorothy, aged twenty-six at the outbreak of WW1, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (W.A.A.C.). Her mother noted in her Birthday Book on 2nd March 1918: ‘Dorothy went to France Asst Administrator W.A.A.C. Post in Intelligence Dept. of the Army’.

Dorothy had been posted to St Omer in Northern France as one of only seventeen Hush WAACs, women codebreakers in counterintelligence. The women were recruited because of their German language skills and due of a shortage of manpower in the British Army. Their work was highly confidential but was little spoken of outside the confines of the camp in Northern France.  It was envisaged that women would work in the rear or support areas of the Army, thereby releasing men for duty at the front. The women were educated, middle or upper-class, their ages ranging from early 20s to mid-50s. Within the W.A.A.C. they were graded as Assistant Administrators, the equivalent of male junior officers. And because of the requirement never to discuss their work beyond the office, the small group became known as the Hush WAACS. The women worked long hours alongside their male colleagues, withstanding German air raids. They suffered from gas attacks which affected Dorothy’s health for the rest of her life.

Dorothy Deighton 1905

Another former Perse Girl, Olivia Chevallier, joined Dorothy as a Hush WAAC in France in support of the war effort.   Her proficiency in languages is evident from this extract derived from her memoir written many years after she joined the Perse School for Girls aged 17: “‘I liked my school mates and classes on the whole and was able to hold my own in most subjects which I had learnt, but botany was new to me, and took a great deal of study on my part since the class was well advanced. In French and German, I was ahead of the others, in arithmetic somewhat backward, and I had done no maths. It was too late to start at the age of seventeen, and I must admit I have not regretted this, as it left me with more time for subjects of real interest to me.”

That the British army employed members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps as codebreakers in France during the First World War has been well-established by historians, but beyond the fact that they were known as HushWAACs, a reference to the secrecy of their work, details of their service have been elusive. Dr Jim Beach of the University of Northampton has pieced together the handful of sources that are available about the women who worked as codebreakers during 1917 and 1918 and you can read his account of their extraordinary story here: The story of HushWAACS

The Deightons were an academic family; the boys all got scholarships to the Kings School Canterbury and the youngest, Gerald, was an Eton Scholar. All the boys went to Cambridge University (like their father). Two were rowers and Kate told us that she still has their oars.  

The girls each made a significant contribution to the war effort, but, symptomatic of the times, none had the university education that was expected for their brothers. Winifred’s career was as secretary to a series of important men – the lot of many an intelligent woman in those days.  Margaret also tutored mathematics which is referred to in a letter from her brother Gerald in the trenches on her 21st birthday.  

Margaret, who was aged 20 when WWI broke out, beyond her VAD work, stayed home with her parents until she married in 1927. The entire family was devastated by the loss of three sons, one in an accident aged 15 and the other two (the rowers) at The Battle of the Somme. This was one of the largest battles of the First World War, fought between July 1 and November 1916, near the Somme River in northern France. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

References: 

The Travelling Chest– a family’s voyage through time, Kate Mears (unpublished)

The Hush WAACs - The secret ladies of St Omer, Dr Jim Beach of the University of Northampton, online at https://www.gchq.gov.uk/information/hush-waacs

Olivia Chevallier, a memoir (privately held)

The Battle of the Somme. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014

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