The Baroness de T'Serclaes (Elsie Knocker)
Recruitment poster for WAAF
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
There was once a 'character' in Ashtead, Surrey. She would walk the Common, dressed in a voluminous cloak and large earrings, with home-bred chihuahuas in tow. From about 1928 until her death in 1978 she lived in the Earl Haig Homes in Park Lane, Ashtead. Today, the charity, known simply as Haig Homes, still rents out accommodation to ex-Forces personnel who are in housing need.
During the Second World War she had been an officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and, since then, had carried out voluntary work - in fact, she had been volunteering for almost her whole adult life. In 1946 she was appointed as Welfare Officer of the Epsom branch of the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA), which entailed visiting ex-RAF personnel and their dependants in homes and hospitals in and around Epsom and assisting them in any way possible: this was full-time and hard work. Fund-raising was key to the work of RAFA and she collected jumble, which she sold from a stall in Epsom Market. The scale of the jumble was such that it required a storage shed in Ashtead and was transported to the market by furniture van. On one occasion she went to Holland with David Downs and Philip Pullinger of Epsom to represent RAFA at a special ceremony commemorating British aircrews who had been shot down during the Second World War: these included her own son. She was also involved in the local 'Lest We Forget Association', which offers entertainment and outings to disabled ex-Service personnel.
In 1949 she began 11 years of voluntary service in Surrey for the RAF Benevolent Fund and was Welfare Officer to the RAF Homes in Morden.
But, invaluable as these activities were, none of them was her real claim to fame and she had been largely forgotten until recently, when author Diane Atkinson wrote a book about her and Mairi Chisholm1 (we shall meet Mairi shortly): now, a film is in production2 and, 33 years after her death, she is back in the limelight.
Her name was Baroness Elizabeth Blackall de T'Serclaes, but she was better known as Elsie Knocker. In her own words, 'Only in time of war have I found any real sense of purpose and happiness'3.
Linda Jackson © January 2012
1. 'Elsie and Mairi Go to War' - Preface Publishing 2009
2. 'Four Saints'
3. From 'Flanders And Other Fields' © Baroness de T'Serclaes 1964