LESLIE HILLS: WOMEN WENT TO WAR TOO
Documentary film-maker, veteran activist and full-time DAMN REBEL BITCH, Leslie Hills, is determined to memorialise female history and one heroine in particular.
Here is the story of a woman I have been bringing from the shadows for the last couple of years.
On the wall of St Paul’s Church, Rothesay, Isle of Bute, is a plaque on which is written, To the glory of God and in grateful remembrance of the men of St Paul’s who fell in the Great War. One of the men listed is Margaret Davidson.
The friendly person on duty in the church when I first saw the plaque, had been a member for many years but was not aware of Margaret’s name among the fallen. St Paul’s website notes that the plaque lists names ‘including one Margaret Davidson’ but comments no further. An appeal for information, through the website of the Scottish Episcopal Church Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, to the present rector, Andrew Swift, received no reply. I contacted the local Council who were extremely helpful and told me that people of St Paul’s were buried mostly in the graveyard on the High Street but could offer nothing more.
I searched for Margaret Davidson’s death on all the usual sites – casualty lists, Red Cross Nurses, Voluntary Aid Detachment or VADs (who were female medical staff), the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – to no avail. The search was complicated by the fact that there are three other Margaret Davidsons, two of them well known, active in the field in Serbia and France. But all of these women survived the war.
At the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, I found the record of Margaret Davidson, a casualty of WW1. Most of the details are missing – except that she was in the Women’s Services, her unit name given as Scottish Branch of the British Red Cross Society, Scottish VAD Casualties. And the final identifier: on the line which is headed Other Detail, is the word “Bute”.
She is also memorialised in York Minster on a beautiful memorial to the women of the Empire who fell in the Great War.
Margaret Wood Davidson was born in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire, in 1896 to John Joseph Davidson, a gardener and his wife, Barbara Janet, Wood who married on 3rd January 1895 at Stitchell.
In 1901 Margaret, aged five, was living with them at Shakenhurst Hall, a grade II listed building with 13 bedrooms and an estate with 12 houses and cottages. John Davidson was a gardener and lived in the lodge. Margaret had a brother, John James, who was three.
By 1911 the family was living in Ardencraig Cottage, Bute. Ardencraig House and its lovely gardens stand, still, high on a hill overlooking Rothesay Bay. Margaret was fifteen, John James was eleven, a further son, George, was nine and a daughter, Agnes Barbara, born 29th October 1909, was one.
John and Barbara Davidson lost both a son and a daughter to the Great War 1914 – 1918.
On the plaque in St Paul’s church, Margaret is commemorated alongside her brother, John James Davidson. His war record, sadly, was easier to find.
John James, John and Barbara’s elder son, four years younger than Margaret, was a private in the 96th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry and died, in training, of spinal meningitis at Camp Hughes Training Camp, near Carberry, Manitoba. He was 18. He is buried in Camp Hughes Cemetery. On the Saskatchewan Virtual War Memorial there is a page in his memory – admitted to hospital on 28th June 1916 and died of non-combat causes on 13th July 1916. The narrative comments that John James was farming when he enlisted at Saskatoon four months before his death.
He is not listed as a casualty on the Scottish War Memorial pages but he, who died in training in Canada and did not see action, is commemorated on the Rothesay War Memorial on the Esplanade. Margaret, who worked in the field, is not on the memorial. He is also commemorated and his photograph included in the book held at the Bute Museum “The Burgh of Rothesay and Island of Bute War Memorial 1914-1919” She is not.
The National Records of Scotland show Margaret Davidson died in Ardencraig Cottage, on 19th August 1917. She died of a Cerebral Embolism, Valvular Heart disease and Rheumatism. She was 21 years old. One must assume, as she is listed as a casualty on the Scottish War Memorial and in St Paul’s, that the conditions which led to her death were brought about by her service in the war.
Her father, John, notified her death. He was still at Ardencraig Cottage working as a gardener in 1925. He died on June 7th 1947, thirty years after his two elder children, at 8 Bellevue Road, Rothesay. The death was notified by Barbara Hansford, his younger daughter.
Barbara Davidson Hansford was married, by Kenneth Mackenzie Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, to George Stanley Hansford of Maidstone in Kent on 21stApril 1937 in St Pauls, Rothesay. She died at Redbridge in Essex in 2004, aged 94. Her mother, Barbara Janet, died in Essex in 1960 aged 90. It is very likely that the last Davidson to live on Bute left in 1947 before the war memorial was erected.
Of George, the youngest child, there is little trace. Certainly none of the George Davidsons listed as casualties at Edinburgh Castle was born in the right place and there is no sign of his death in any UK record.
To my piece on the Buteman website there was a reply from a distant relative of the Davidsons. His family’s legend was that John James died bravely in battle – but that Margaret, known as Madge, also died on active service in the field. He was able to tell me that George whom he knew and liked, had gone abroad.
We met up in The Graveyard of the High Church and he showed me the Davidson’s gravestone on which the parents inscribed the names of three of their children.
Sacred to the memory of Margaret Wood Davidson 16655 Red+ VAD Died 19thAugust 1917 aged 21 years
Pt John James Davidson 204381 96th Canadians died 13th July 1916 aged 18½ years buried at Camp Hughes Manitoba
THEY DID WHAT THEY COULD
George Davidson NDD NDAR died 28th January 1941.
George is not on the lists of service dead in the National Archives and in the light of research, I believe that George was in a Spanish-speaking Navy, most likely the Brazilian Navy which was involved against German submarines in the North Atlantic.
George Davidson, seaman, is listed on the Rothesay war memorial under WW2 deaths. So, again, he is on the war memorial – and Margaret is not.
The Buteman put my notes on Margaret on the website but not in the paper, noting that the words were the author’s own – it is a small island. The Museum ladies in bemused fashion noted my interest in the memorial book. I visited the British Legion. David Boe of the British Legion Museum, on Deanhood Place, Rothesay, knows of Margaret but it appears only because he read a piece I wrote in the Buteman asking for information. He was singularly uninterested.
And why should I care? Because this is how history is written and unless we unearth the stories such as those on the Mapping Memorials site and the Sheroes blog and publicise the excellent academic work being done by feminist academics who are pulling the work and achievements of women into the light, our daughters and our sons will not know how influential and important the work of women has been – almost always in the building and the bettering of our world rather than the dismantling and destruction of it.
And also because I am outraged by the neglect of a woman who died because she wanted to do the right thing and was so casually disregarded and forgotten just because she happened to be born female. It is not good enough.