The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

I recently stumbled across a reference to Dorothy Lawrence while doing some research into the Great War. I was astounded by her story, and when I mentioned her name to a few friends, I was met with blank stats. Clearly, Dorothy Lawrence is one of the #AmazingWomenInHistory who needs to be remembered, not forgotten.

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Dorothy Lawrence in military uniform. I DO NOT OWN THE IMAGE.

Dorothy was born in Britain in 1896. Determined to be a journalist, at a young age she had some articles published in The Times. When war broke out, she pestered many people on Fleet Street with the hope of becoming a war reporter. When her calls went unnoticed, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Travelling to France in 1915, aged just 21, she applied to become an employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. When her application was rejected,  she decided to enter the war zone as a freelance war correspondent.

However she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, and ordered to leave. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write. “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish.”

Determined, Dorothy befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisien café, and persuaded them to smuggle her khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as “Khaki accomplices.”

Dorothy then began the process of transforming herself into a male soldier, by flattening her figure with a homemade corset, using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders, and with the help of two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She used a disinfectant called Condy’s Fluid to darken her complexion, razored the pale skin of her cheeks to give herself a shaving rash, and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Lastly, she persuaded her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march. She got her hands on forged identity papers, and headed for the frontline, as Private Denis Smith, 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.  

After being interrogated as a spy, she was declared a prisoner of war, and taken cross country to Calais and was unknowingly questioned about being a prostitute (or ‘camp follower’) as the term was.Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tunnel-digging sapper Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman amongst female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in and she worked as a sapper (a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.) with the 179 Tunnelling Company. However after ten days in horrible conditions, a few bouts of chills and fainting, and with concern that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered, Dorothy presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest.

The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security. Fearful of more women taking on main roles during the war if Dorothy’s story got out, Dorothy was made sign an affidavit swearing that she would not write about her experiences. Sent back to London, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and only published an account of her experiences after the war, which was still heavily censored by the War Office.

With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet.

Dorothy Lawrence died in 1964. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.

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Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

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I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.

Éire’s WWII neutrality?

When war broke out in September 1939, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera announced that Ireland was to remain neutral. The 26 counties of what is today known as Éire had gained de facto independence from Britain in the 1920s. But in 1939 it was still part of the Commonwealth and de Valera was keen to keep up the momentum for achieving a full Republic, especially as the Irish people had voted for a new constitution to be adopted just two years earlier, which gave greater autonomy to the fledgling state. More than anything, he wanted Britain and the rest of the world to recognise Ireland’s right to it’s own foreign policy. However, he arguably took this attempt too far in 1945 by extending his sympathies on the death of Adolf Hitler to greater levels than when the US President Roosevelt had died just three weeks earlier.

Churchill was always opposed to Irish neutrality. It irritated him so much that he and Roosevelt collaborated to try and persuade Ireland to join the war, but garnering support for the Irish war effort by Irish Americans. Churchill at many times throughout the war considered invading Ireland, as he knew that the questions of Irish unity and sovereignty meant that it would not be easy to persuade Éire to abandon it’s policy. Neutrality was a policy generally supported by the general public in Ireland and despite numerous barriers it remained throughout the duration of the war.

When Roosevelt passed away in April 1945, the Dáil (Irish parliament chamber), held a special sitting in which de Valera delivered a moving tribute to Roosevelt. As Taoiseach, de Valera was also Foreign Minister, and together with his aide  Joseph Walshe, he visited the German Embassy in Dublin on May 2, 1945, to sign a book of condolences for the Fuhrer. They also met with a German envoy to Ireland, Eduard Hempel, to express condolences.

 

The visits were met with major opposition, particularly in the United States. De Valera had arguably intended it as mark of statesmanship, reflecting the fact that Ireland was a now a nation separate from Britain. Additionally, the decision of President Douglas Hyde to send condolences to Hempel further ignited the anger, notably because there had been no presidential delegate had visited the American embassy after the death of Roosevelt. This was a move backed by the government, which further adds to the curiosity surrounding de Valera’s actions.

 

The visit to Hempel’s home has puzzled historians ever since, and it is likely that the decision was taken purely in a domestic context. Éire was a fledgling state, trying to exert itself on the world stage as a neutral nation. De Valera later argued that he offered his sympathies purely on moral grounds, stating, “During the whole of the war, Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. … I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

 

This “irreproachable” conduct could not be said for the American Ambassador to Ireland, David Walsh. Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle, he led efforts to persuade Ireland to join the war, to the point that de Valera even requested that Gray be removed from his position after Roosevelt had died. Perhaps the bad relations between the two men were part of de Valera’s reasoning not to visit the American embassy when Roosevelt passed away, and probably further ignited anger when he visited the German embassy when Hitler died. Either way, the visit to Hempel created a storm of controversy, and never before had Ireland received such worldwide attention – perhaps a happy by-product of the visit to Hempel on the part of de Valera, as it parachuted the neutral State to the world media and told the world that it had maintained it’s own neutral foreign policy for the duration – if if it was for all the wrong reasons.

 

CONCLUSION

The Republic of Ireland was formally declared in 1949, but with 26 counties and not 32 as was de Valera’s long-held wish. Churchill never agreed with Irish neutrality during the war, and de Valera would later accuse him of not being able to “find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression…” in his famous radio broadcast on May 16, 1945.

 

Despite it’s success however, the neutrality policy combined with the visit to Hempel was probably the final nail in the coffin in terms of de Valera’s chances of ever securing the 32-county Republic he had always dreamed of. The international storm caused by the visit to Hempel meant that the support for Irish independence which at one time was rife (de Valera had enjoyed support from Irish America for over 25 years), waned, and so did any general support for it from the United Nations when it was established in 1945. The visit was a small but yet significant glitch to de Valera’s dream.

Remembering the Balham Tube disaster

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Photo taken by the author in August 2018

The 14th of October marks the 76th anniversary of the one of the worst atrocities of the London blitz, in which nearly 70 people died while sheltered in a south London tube station, just two stops away from where I currently live.

The Battle of Britain and The Blitz were in full swing by 14th October, 1940. The population of Balham were well accustomed to their routine – once the air-raid siren went off, they proceeded to their shelters. Thousands upon thousands of people would seek shelter in Tube stations, sleeping on the platforms (and often on the tracks) for around 12 hours each night, while overhead the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign ravaged. Mid-October 1940 was midway through a consecutive 57 nights of bombing – but London fought on, determined not to be defeated by Hitler. Local communities were united nightly as they escaped the danger overhead.

13 metres below ground, around 500 people were sheltering at Balham on the night of October 14th, 1940. At 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi-armour piercing bomb penetrated the ground above, causing a massive crater in the ground. A photo emerged of a number 88 bus with it’s head nose-dived into the ground, which was to become symbolic of the event.

However, the explosion fractured a water mains pipe below ground. The subsequent flood of water and soil into the tunnel was to kill nearly 70 people. Water, mud, sewage and sand flooded the tunnels, causing people to drown. A rescue boat was sent from Clapham South but failed to get through. Water-tight doors that were designed to keep floods out, instead kept this one in. The lights also fused, adding to the chaos. A gas explosion also hampered rescue efforts

The official death toll records 66 deaths, although there is some discrepancy, with figures ranging from 64 to 66 people. More than 70 people were injured. It’s ironic to think that people had taken had gone into the Tube for safety, and instead found themselves in unimaginable danger.

With propaganda and censorship being active, news of the event was kept to a minimum. The government feared that news of the event might discourage civilians from continuing to shelter in the underground.

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The bodies were not fully recovered until Christmas, yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1841. The station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Today, as you pass through Balham station, all that reminds you of that terrible night is a tiny blue plaque commemorating the event. It’s hard to believe that if 70 people were killed today in a freak accident, that a blue plaque would be all to commemorate the site of it. However, this was not an isolated incident. The night before the Balham disaster, 16 people were killed when a bomb dropped on Bounds Green station. 56 were killed at Bank in 1941, due to a direct hit. But perhaps most shocking of all is the 1943 Bethnal Green station, in which 173 people were killed in a human crush was attempting to seek cover in the station. A previously unheard air-raid siren had struck panic into the people filing to safety. A woman and a child fell over, causing numerous people to scramble on top of them, leading to the crush.

Despite evacuations from cities, Anderson shelters, and crucially, the London Underground system, it is estimated that at least 32,000 civilians were killed in Britain during World War II.

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(I do not own this image)