Doing Their Bit: Sarah Teesdale


Dorothy Higgins, British VAD nurse. Source: Sarah Teesdale

In the second instalment of my “Doing Their Bit” series I’m highlighting the work of Sarah Teesdale, a volunteer researcher at the Alford Manor House Museum in Lincolnshire.

Sarah’s passion for history inspired her to pursue a history degree at the Open University while continuing to work full-time. It also prompted the museum to ask for her help to research the men on the local war memorial and to get to the bottom of a local legend that claimed a Miss Higgins drove ambulances during the First World War. Sarah shares her research and stories on her About Alford blog.

Dorothy Higgins‘s family were closely connected with Alford and the Manor House for many generations. When the estate was sold in 1967 Dorothy purchased the house and donated it to the town and in doing so created the Alford and District Civil Trust.

Dorothy was a very independent, determined and forthright young women. Sarah’s blog provides a brief biography which includes this wonderful description of her eccentricities:

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.

Dorothy Feb 1916 Rouen

Dorothy in Rouen, 1916. Source: Sarah Teesdale

During the First World War Dorothy volunteered as a British VAD nurse with the French Red Cross and served at an Anglo-Belgian hospital. Sarah’s research uncovered three separate collections of letters that Dorothy wrote between 1915 and 1919. These letters, along with photographs of the hospital loaned by Dr Jerome Seyer and Dr Patrick Loodts, formed the basis of an exhibition that opened at Alford Manor House Museum in 2015.

The letters are wonderfully descriptive and Dorothy was never shy when it came to sharing her opinion. To date Sarah has published thirty of Dorothy’s letters on her blog, roughly one hundred years after they were written. Sarah has provided me with some quotes from letters that will be published in the coming months:


I have treated 484 patients in the month of August and given over 7,000 treatments – and for the hot air baths which are given by an orderly under my direction we treated nearly 300 patients and gave over 4,000 treatments. I didn’ t have the hot air baths before, they were in the same room as the electrical things and under Dr Stouffs’ direction but with a different nurse. Now they are put into my hands, which has given me a lot more work.

Winter 1916/1917:

It is bitterly cold and raw and bites into the marrow of one’ s bones. Fortunately we have a big stove in the mess and some little ones in our sleeping huts but in spite of them we scuttle quickly into our beds at night and throw on our garments in the morning very ha stily. We have snow and frost and rain and sleet by turns and damp fogs squeezed in between.

We have got our stove (paraffin) now: we call it ‘ Stuffy’ as it stinks somewhat. However it warms our little dog kennel nicely. I don’ t suffer from the cold except for chilblains, but these are very tiresome: my left foot is absolutely blobby with the beastly things…. However electrical treatment is excellent for them and so I am now giving myself a dose of electricity every day.

We have 8 degrees of frost in our barracks and everything is frozen as hard as a board. Even the flowers in our vases freeze solid….Little currents of ice cold air seem to pour through the cracks in the boards… We are on a strict ration of coal too as it is almost impossible to get hold of in France… All the rheostats for the electrical treatment are liquid and we spent ages this morning thawing them before we could start work, and the damp towels too were just like blocks of wood.

Dorothy in later years. Source: Sarah Teasdale

Dorothy in later years. Source: Sarah Teasdale

Dorothy moved to London shortly after the First World war but returned to Alford when she retired. She and a female colleague were very involved in the community, both as Councillors and by supporting many local organizations.

Sarah is considering compiling a small book on Dorothy and her letters which the Trust has offered to publish. I encourage you to read more about Dorothy and her First World War experience. The Dorothy’s War exhibit continues at Alford Manor House Museum. The museum will launch Phase 3 of its Alford Remembers 1914-1918 programme on April 29th.

Sarah pointed out a Canadian connection to this story. Dorothy’s sister Agnes Mary “Molly” Higgins married Robert Harrison, a Yorkshireman who emigrated to Manitoba and served with the CEF in the First World War. The Manitoba Historical Society website provides a brief summary of Robert’s service.

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