An Afternoon with the ‘Gentlemen in Khaki’


Some days I really love my job.

My mission on Saturday 13th September: take the 15th Ludhiana Sikh regiment on a tour of the Royal Pavilion. It wasn’t supposed to work out like that. I’d been hired to be Brighton Museum’s French speaking meet and greet for its War Stories Open Day, a real pic n mix of an event where visitors could research their First World War ancestors, listen to poetry and prose inspired by the conflict, hear wartime songs, rub shoulders with costumed characters, have a suffragette explain to you just why women should be given the vote, get close to military uniforms and kit, and generally find out more about how the years 1914 – 18 were experienced by the people of Brighton. With the hordes of French visitors conspicuous by their absence, however, and my paper Tricolor quickly wilting, it was decided to find a better use of my time. And what better use… The gentlemen in question, although looking as if they’d just stepped out of a time machine from 1914, were from the National Army Museum, part of a living history project in conjunction with the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail called ‘War and Sikhs: Road to the Trenches’ ‘ . Made up of volunteers and staff from the National Army Museum, its aim is to ‘bring the Sikh military story to life’ by recreating a formation of soldiers from the 15th Ludhiana Sikh Regiment as they would have appeared on the battlefields of the First World War. This contemporary postcard shows them arriving in France… 128752

(Note the caption in French and English… ‘Gentlemen of India, marching to chasten German hooligans’.)  I’ve mentioned on this blog before that 1.3 million Indians fought in the First World War, 20% of them Sikh. The Brighton connection, of course, is that the Royal Pavilion Estate, as well as other premises in the city, became military hospitals for the wounded. Here’s a picture from the Royal Pavilion and Museum’s tumblr ‘A War Story A Day from Brighton Museums’ of our ‘soldiers’ being greeted by the Mayor in the Dome… tumblr_nbuguftfdO1trdkk1o1_1280

As I crossed the gardens from the Museum to the Royal Pavilion with the ‘gentlemen in khaki’ as the local newspapers were fond of calling them, I felt more like a celebrity minder. Camera phones clicked, flashbulbs popped, heads turned and jaws dropped as we made our inevitably slow progress across the few metres of path. It’s not every day, after all, that you see a regiment of Indian soldiers in full battle dress among the buskers, EFL students and sunbathers who throng this part of town on a sunny afternoon. ‘Uncanny’ was how I’d describe giving a guided tour to these very special visitors. For years I’ve done talks and tours about the use of the Royal Pavilion as a military hospital and I’ve spent hours poring over old black and white photos of Indian patients recovering in the gardens, sitting in beds in the Banqueting Room, posing in regimented lines on the lawns. To suddenly have these photos come to life, the characters from them slipping out of the frames and walking around, asking questions and patiently listening to me tell them about George IV and how many crystals are in the Banqueting Room chandelier, was one of the oddest experiences of my working life. (‘Uncanny’ is probably the word they’d use for my guiding style too… Lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ as I tried to remember whether I’d fallen down some kind of rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland-style, and been transported back one hundred years.) The spell was only broken when in the Music Room we happened upon a bride and groom posing for wedding photos and one of the ‘soldiers’ cheekily observed what a great photo-bombing opportunity we had. (We didn’t. Although the bride and groom didn’t look as if they’d have minded if we had). After having a look round the ground floor and sharing some of the inevitable Royal Pavilion wow moments, we went upstairs to spend some time in the Indian Military Hospital exhibition gallery where we all stood watching the crackly and silent 1915 film footage of George V and Queen Mary presenting medals to some of the injured soldiers in August of that year, one of them being Sebadar Mir Das, awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage at the second Battle of Ypres. We made the discovery that the displayed souvenir book produced by the military authorities in 1914/15 for the patients featured a soldier from none other than the 15th Ludhiana Sikh regiment on the cover.

. souvenir

For one of the volunteers, Kuljit Singh Sahota, bringing this part of the past to life had a particularly personal significance. His great great grandfather was Manta Singh, a member of the (real) 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, who was fatally injured while wheeling a fellow soldier to safety in a wheelbarrow during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and whose story is featured in the Museum’s current War Stories exhibition. Read more about Manta Singh here  Then it was outside once more for interviews, photos and filming. Celebrity minding time again. The people of Brighton, not known for their shyness, quickly mobilised around us. ‘Who are you?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Wow, they look fierce! I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of them.’ Hands were shaken, backs patted, and selfies with an Indian soldier became the hottest ticket in town. Ahem.

Brighton_and_Hove-20140913-00221 (2)

‘This might take some time,’ I thought as a coachload of Italian teenagers passing through the gardens suddenly congregated around us and a man with green hair and a Sex Pistols T-shirt took it upon himself to start relating the story of the Royal Pavilion’s past as a military hospital to passers by, soon ending up with a crowd around him. ‘What’s going on?’ some French tourists (arriving late for my meet and greet, no doubt) were heard to ask. ‘It’s sort of street theatre and public lecture all at the same time,’ someone suggested. I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who were asking questions and chatting to us were definitely not going or coming back from the Museum’s War Stories Open Day. What a great example of how props, costumes and living history can reach out to the places museum exhibitions can’t. Impromptu Q and A sessions abounded. One of the things that I found out about was the point of ‘putees’, i.e. the thin strips of cloth worn tightly around the lower leg, like these… puttees

When tied with sufficient tightness, they strengthened the leg and helped support the considerable weight of the equipment that had to be carried. And no, contrary to appearances, they don’t get soggy in the rain. Made of very finely knitted wool, they protected the lower leg from moisture, would dry easily, and stopped boots disappearing into mud.  As the afternoon drew to a close and evening fell, it was time for some last photos on the east lawns in front of the building before the party finished their day at the Chattri (the site on the South Downs where the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who lost their lives in the Brighton hospitals were cremated, now marked by a white marble memorial,) As the sun went down and a hazy sepia tinted light fell, the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs lined up for a very formal, straight-backed, military portrait. It was easy, again, to forget we were in the twenty-first century …Until a local man, caught napping in the grass in front of them suddenly woke up. ‘Oops, sorry, do you want me to move, mate?’ ‘That’s OK, one of the Indian soldiers called across. ‘We can photoshop you out.’ I learnt a lot that day, not least about how far costumes, props and simply getting out and about and talking to people can make history approachable and user-friendly. Thanks to the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs for their company and sharing their knowledge, as well as for providing possibly the most surreal moments of my career. (And working in museums, there’s a lot of competition for those.) I will be leading guided First World War estate tours across the Royal Pavilion Estate – and probably won’t be able to stop myself from talking about this – on October 18th, November 8th and December 27th starting at 10.30. I’ll be joined in guiding duties by my colleague, Paula Wrightson, and one of the Dome’s brilliant event managers who will take us behind the scenes in the Dome and Corn Exchange to explore further how these buildings were used during the war. For information, 03000 290900.

Thanks for bearing with me with this post and its lack of historical Brighton women, by the way.   Many, many more of our fantastic local women to follow shortly…


Good Housekeeping 1914

Fancy a piece of ‘Savoury Pudding’?

This optimistically named dish was made by Preston Manor Creative Programme Officer, Paula Wrightson, in her search for authentic, everyday meals eaten during the First World War. A stodgy and relatively cheap combination of oatmeal, flour, suet and eggs that must really not have left the 1914 diner wanting more, its flavour can be summed up, Paula says, as ‘astonishingly bland’. The pudding will be making a star appearance at Preston Manor every Friday in August from 8th as part of the ‘1914 House’ event, an intriguing house tour around the Manor which despite partly dating from the seventeenth century, lived through its golden years in the Edwardian period and was very much a functioning home during WW1. In 1914 the residents included Brighton power couple Ellen (below) and Charles Thomas-Stanford…
Charles was an MP and had been mayor. Ellen had inherited the Manor as well as the huge tranche of the town that made up the Stanford estate. The outbreak of the war saw them in Preston Manor with their 10 servants (photo below shows a handful of servants in 1920).
pm servants
By giving a close look at the residents of the Manor, their daily activities and the way they lived, the tour pieces together a fascinating picture of everyday domestic life that formed the backdrop of this most momentous year. If you’re interested in the little details – the small change of life, as it were – that tend to fall down the sides of the usual official histories with their dates and important events – this is for you. Not only food but cleaning products, grooming routines, toilet roll, toothbrushes, and the astonishing array of class A drugs that formed the acceptable and completely legal medicine cabinet are all covered with a vengeance by Paula and guide/lecturer Sarah Tobias. In her quest to leave no stone unturned, Paula has even acquired a bottle of the must-have perfume of the day (Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue – “fragrance of bluish dusk and anticipation of night” – how grimly right Guerlain’s marketing people were in summing up the spirit of the times) that the wealthier women of the time would have aspired to.
…So not only will we know what 1914 looked and sounded like but also what it smelled like. (Tasted like maybe not so much. In spite of what will no doubt be high demand Paula’s savoury pudding can be looked at but not eaten – sorry.)
What I like about the sound of this event is that it is so unashamedly domestic. At a time when the big things about the conflict – trench warfare, the politics, the technology, the harrowing statistics – are being widely covered, it’s easy to overlook that in Brighton, as in many other thousands of towns in Britain, some sort of life was having to go on as normal. People still needed to be fed, hair to be brushed, shoes to be polished, coughs and colds to be attended to. More often than not, this was still women’s work. We all know how the First World War flung women into the world of work as never before. Women were conducting trams, working in munitions factories, engaged in previously male territory such as farming and policing. All well and good, but, for the most part, they still had houses to run, children to care for, and the usual domestic chores that weren’t going to sit around and wait while they got on with their new ‘careers’. Juggling ever more responsibilities in ever straitening conditions (the cost of living rose by 87% between 1914 and 1915) – as well as holding down a job – probably didn’t feel like a great leap forward for the women struggling to keep the home fires burning. This tour I think will give us a glimpse of what it must have been like to stand in their shoes.

Through all this I can’t help thinking about my own great grandmother, Ellen Bramley from Birdwell, a mining village in South Yorkshire. Gentle, quietly-spoken yet uncannily steely (she remains the only person in the world who has ever succeeded in making me eat cabbage) she spent the war suffering in great penury as a single mother, taking in other people’s laundry and doing what work she could find. She didn’t lose her young husband on the battlefield but in one of the many mining accidents that happened with shocking frequency in South Yorkshire back then. I remember her house in the 1970s – her fridge always packed with bowls of dripping, tiny slivers of leftovers that she would never throw out, gravy made from the meat, home pickles and jams, plus the ubiquitous cabbage laid out on a plate as if for a banquet.
Thanks very much to Paula Wrightson for the pudding photo and much of the information for this post.
‘1914 House’ takes place at Preston Manor, Preston Drove, Brifghton, BN1 6SD on Fridays 8, 15, 22, 29 August 2014 11am–12.45pm & 2–3.45pm £15. For bookings call 03000 290900
(NB. This post isn’t in any way an advert for the event. I’m writing about it because it just looks good!)

World War One – Where were the women?


Brighton was an important town during WW1. Within weeks of war being declared in 1914, the town had made a sober transformation. Out were the ice-cream stands and the renditions of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ and in was a new very straight faced Brighton as it slipped into its new identity as one of the most important hospital centres in Britain. With its position on the coast, it was inevitable that, when space to care for the wounded ran out on the Western Front and the decision was made to ship the injured back to Blighty, Brighton would be an obvious choice. Not so obvious perhaps, the decision to change the former Prince Regent’s Pleasure Palace, The Royal Pavilion, as well as the 1,500 seat Dome concert hall and Corn Exchange into hospitals. But that’s what happened. In fact, the Royal Pavilion Estate became a 700+ bed, state of the art military hospital complex. (BHASVIC, Brighton General Hospital and several private residences also did their bit.) In a piece of thinking that today sounds like an episode of ‘Mind Your Language’ or ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’ (for any readers under 40, these are 1970s ‘comedies’ that relied heavily on racial and national stereotypes), it was decided to make these buildings, built in an Indian style, into hospitals for, yes, you’ve got it, Indian soldiers. This knowledge isn’t as common as it should be but 1.3 million Indians fought alongside Britain during WW1. During the early months of the war Indians made up 20% of allied forces. To be fair, the Royal Pavilion Estate functioned as well as could be expected as an Indian hospital. There were 9 separate kitchens to cater for the caste and religion driven dietary requirements, separate latrines, taps, bathing areas, facilities for worship, and carefully thought-out programmes of entertainment that included magic lantern shows, organ recitals, sports, games and trips to London. I love this picture, showing a party of Indian soldiers in a charabanc next to the statue of Queen Victoria in Hove.
indian soldiers
A colleague told me just the other day that they were going to Portslade. I would love to know what they were going to do there.
Between November 1914 and early February 1916, then, when the Indian divisions were redeployed to the Middle East, over 4,000 soldiers had received the attention of ‘Dr Brighton’. Local people didn’t see as much of their Indian visitors as they would have liked. A high fence was erected around the perimeter of the estate and any interaction with the patients was tightly controlled. The best anyone could hope for was to take a ride on one of the double-decker trams that ploughed the Old Steine outside and try to peer over the side. This picture shows the Banqueting Room converted into a hospital ward.
Note the presence here of a female nurse. Not a frequent sight. At the start of the hospital operation there were 27 women nurses, all from the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service, the nursing branch of the British Army. The ‘QAIMNS’ offered women the chance to take an active part at the sharp end of the war effort. They worked in France, the Middle East and in hospitals at home, on hospital ships, trains and in ramshackle field hospitals in disused convents, breweries and churches close to the battlefield. The nurses would have run similar risks of bombardment and injury to the men, as well as insanitary living conditions and the stress of being away from loved ones. But the requirements were steep. Not just any girl with a yearning to help and dreams of becoming the next Florence Nightingale could apply. Only unmarried women aged 25-35, who were well-educated and ‘of good social standing’ i.e. no working class women, thank you very much, were welcomed in their ranks. (They later relented and allowed married women to apply) The 27 QAIMNS nurses in the Royal Pavilion military hospital weren’t allowed to do any actual nursing. As the War Office was keen to avoid pushing any cultural boundaries, the women were not permitted to perform any hands-on care to the male patients as such a thing would have been beyond the pale in India. With the country being a ripe recruiting ground for further soldiers, no one wanted to rock any boats. The QAIMNS were therefore referred to as ‘supervising sisters’ and spent their time in a largely unseen supervisory role or training male ward orderlies. In May 1915 the word came from the War Office to retire all female nurses from Indian hospitals with immediate effect, no explanation given. Maybe a picture of a female nurse posing with an Indian patient that found its way into the Daily Mail in May 1915 had something to do with it. From February 1916 when the Indian army was redeployed, the Royal Pavilion Estate remained a medical facility but this time for British soldiers who had lost limbs. Less a hospital more a sort of holding post for the men as they waited referral to the Queen Alexandra hospital in Roehampton for the fitting of prosthetic limbs, the ‘Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men’ offered pioneering and forward thinking rehab treatment, that focused less on what they couldn’t do and more on what they could. The Queen Mary’s workshops were set up in the Pavilion Gardens under the motto ‘Hope enters all who enter here’ to teach the men skills that would help them to get a job in civilian life. There were sports days, confidence boosting trips, an activity laden timetable and a magazine, ‘Pavilion Blues’ written and published by the men. Kevin Bacon, Brighton Museum’s digital development officer sums up the ethos nicely in a recent interview with The Independent. “The Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men was more than a facility for treating wounds; it built new lives for its patients. Some of the patients had joined the Army as unskilled men, but through losing an arm or a leg and being treated at the hospital, they emerged from the war with a trade. That commitment… would not have been considered before the First World War, and it’s a sign of the changing social contract at that time. …It anticipates some of the thinking behind the creation of the welfare state…’
Here is a picture of the workshops where men could learn skills such as motor engineering, typing and shoe-making.
qm workshop
The other day while leading a tour around the estate that explored the role it played in WW1, a family showed me a picture of their relative, Daisy Simmonds, who is second from the left on the second row from the bottom.
Daisy worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary organisation of over 74,000 people, two-thirds women, who provided nursing services and worked as cooks, ambulance drivers, and took on other hands-on duties in military hospitals throughout the war. ( is a good place to find out more). As a VAD Daisy worked at the Royal Pavilion hospital while also, apparently, maintaining a side career as a dancer at the Brighton Hippodrome. Thanks to the Dracott family for allowing me to show this photo here.
The ‘Pavilion Blues’ magazine (all available to download from give a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in the Royal Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men.
Jokes, poetry, stories, reports on the regular sports days and hat trimming competitions (there was a lot to trim on a 1916 hat) accounts of tea parties in local benefactors’ gardens, visits by the local music hall stars of the day (including rising star Charlie Chaplin) and drawings give a glimpse of the doughty spirit that seems to have prevailed. Women, a hidden presence in the Indian hospital, now seem to be everywhere, from the ‘young ladies’ who ran the canteen and are always being praised for their gentleness and charm to the matrons. This is ‘The Matron’.
One ‘Miss Caruthers’, who, we’re told, ‘is a descendent of Scotsmen’, but born ‘on the English side of the border within sight of the beautiful Cumbrian lakes and mountains’. Miss Caruthers, a member of QAIMNS, spent her career in hospitals in Huddersfield, various London hospitals, Netley and Dartford before arriving in Brighton where, according to ‘Pavilion Blues’, ‘she is now devoting herself, making it home from home for us’.
Another figure worthy of a whole page profile is ‘Mrs William Taylor’, who was in charge of the hospital post office. For any readers familiar with the Royal Pavilion, this was a small room immediately to the left of the King’s Apartments on the ground floor, in front of today’s buggy park and now obscured by a display cabinet. Not only was it a post office but a small cafe serving shrimp and watercress sandwiches, books, scones and tea.
Mrs Taylor of Brunswick Square seems to have been another redoubtable presence, being the head of a club for laundry girls, working as a visitor for the Hove Relief of Distress Committee, the Prince of Wales’ Fund and being a ‘Woman Patrol’. These were volunteer policewomen who acted as aides to the established police. Without the powers of arrest they took on a more peace keeping role, patrolling local parks, public spaces and trying to nip would-be anti-social behaviour in the bud. Somehow, Mrs Taylor, described unsurprisingly as ‘a valuable organiser’ found the time to run the post office that, in the pre-texting and emailing world, must have been a lifeline to the injured men. ‘The efficient working of our post-office reflects the greatest credit on her and her able and zealous colleagues – to whom the boys are most grateful’, ‘Pavilion Blues’ says.
In Brighton, like most other towns, women were a rapidly growing presence in the working landscape. At the start of the war the number of British women in employment was almost three and a quarter millions. This had increased to almost 5 million by January 1918. Women could be seen engaged in agricultural work, transport and manufacturing. There are some wonderful pictures of women tram conductors and munitions workers in ‘Brighton in the Great war’ by Douglas D’Enno that can be browsed in the exhibition War Stories in Brighton Museum. This exhibition features the experience of several women and I will be telling some of their stories soon.

This Year’s Woman

margaret damer dawson 

This year I’m looking forward to talking about Margaret Damer Dawson, Britain’s first policewoman, born in Hove in 1863. I first came across her while doing some work in the Old Police Cells Museum in Brighton Town Hall (if you like the kind of tiny museums with jumbles of stuff everywhere run by enthusiasts who’ll talk to you for ages and maybe lock you in a cell if you ask them kindly, you need to go here). Margaret was already a high achiever before the forces of law and order called. She studied at the London School of Music, was a doughty mountaineer and was known for campaigning for animal rights and the anti-vivisection movement (apparently loudly and in a large hat) It seems, she started to think that having female police officers might be a good idea while volunteering at the outbreak of WW1 to meet and greet fleeing Belgian refugees arriving in London and seeing how vulnerable lone women were to the sex trade. She saw her chance when a call went out for volunteers to fill the gaps left by men going to the Front. The last thing anyone expected was for women to apply. Wouldn’t the sight of women running around the mean streets of London after criminals be a laughing stock?  Who was going to keep order in their kitchens?  And wouldn’t they trip over their petticoats?  Margaret joined forces with militant suffragette and journalist Nina Boyle to encourage women to apply nevertheless. The new Women Police Volunteers, soon to become the Women’s Police Service, was born and they were anything but a laughing stock. Many of the first ‘lady policemen’ (feel free to enjoy a fingers down throat moment here) were militant suffragettes who had had plenty of experience of policing already, albeit from the other side, having been arrested and imprisoned for disturbing the peace. Equality was still years away, though. The WPS had no powers of arrest, being deployed more in assisting with children being taken into care, giving a stern talking to women ‘in moral danger’ and educating women in giving evidence in court. They might not have had truncheons but they made the most, apparently, of rolled up umbrellas which they used to move on any disturbers of the peace or just to prod general miscreants. As Commandant, Margaret designed the uniforms herself (note – no flailing petticoat in sight.) After Nina Boyle left due to an ideological disagreement about being asked to police curfews for women, Mary Allen, who had previously been imprisoned for lobbing a brick through a Home Office window became Margaret’s right-hand woman. When the war ended it was expected that the WPS now numbering 357, would ‘go back to their washtubs’ as one male officer said. In 1916 the Daily Express had asked a Scotland Yard official whether women would ever be employed as police constables and had given a resounding no. ‘Not even if the war lasts fifty years.’ Luckily neither of these things happened. Margaret was given an OBE for her work during the war and there is now a blue plaque on her house in Cheyne Row, London.


Is this the man who said the ‘lady policemen’ could now go back to their washtubs?

More info on the history of women police officers here