The Baroness de T'Serclaes (Elsie Knocker)
Part 3 - What Elsie Did Next
The Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF)
Despite her experiences, Elsie felt that there was more work to be done, so she joined the WRAF. Diane Atkinson reports that Mairi was with her in the Service, but Elsie doesn't mention it.
After training Elsie became Administrator in charge of catering and welfare at Eltham (Greenwich) and then head of the Motor Transport Section at Hurst Park (Molesey, Surrey); she was billeted in the mews at Hampton Court Palace. However, the war was almost over and she knew it would not be long before she was out of work, but, although she regretted the fact that she had not been with the Army as it drove the Germans out of Belgium, she did look forward to her future with Kenneth and said that this would perhaps be the hardest battle of all. The WRAF was disbanded in 1920.
The WRAF on parade in London at the end of World War I, 1918
Photograph by Thomas Frederick Scales. Image source Wikipedia
The past six years and the gas had taken their toll on Elsie and she went to recuperate at the country home of the Countess of Warwick (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daisy_Greville,_Countess_of_Warwick
) in Dunmow, Essex. The Countess was a former mistress of King Edward VII (or 'a great friend', as Elsie delicately puts it) and kept pet monkeys. This hiatus seems to have done Elsie the world of good: she found Daisy Warwick and her social circle (including the author H G Wells) amusing and fascinating
Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick.
Image source: The Bystander magazine, October 1905 via Wikipedia
Chapter 12 of Elsie's book is entitled 'Medals Aren't Everything' and how right she was. Her intention was to work for the benefit of ex-servicemen and so she did, but still had to find jobs to provide herself with an income. She joined up with a General Macfie and his wife and together they established a small welfare organisation. Elsie's role was to drive all over Britain, relating her war experiences, in order to attract funding, but her stamina was ebbing away and matters came to a head in the person of Horatio Bottomley (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Bottomley
), proprietor of the famous magazine 'John Bull', Member of Parliament and patriot. He published a critical article entitled 'The Brave Baroness and her Business' (concerning a filming enterprise that Elsie had tried to establish and insinuating that it was a fraud). This article was the final straw for the exhausted Elsie: she collapsed and resigned from the General's organisation, which was then disbanded. The hypocritical Bottomley knew all about fraud. Not to mince words, he was a crook and was ultimately jailed for swindling.
Eventually she got a job as live-in supervisor at the country house of industrialist H G Tetley in Cranleigh, Surrey. This position really suited her but, unfortunately, Mr Tetley died about eighteen months later and the house was sold. Her next job was to make a luxury hotel out of Addington Manor in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, where she stayed for two years, following which she became general manager for a businesswoman called Mrs Stevenson, who also owned hotels. Then she moved to Torquay, near to her now-retired 'foster parents' and set up a knitwear shop (which she later sold at a good profit), did some nursing and finally returned to London, having seen Kenneth settled into naval training.
The General Strike
The General Strike of 1926 had its origins in the First World War, when so much coal production went into the war effort. Afterwards there was less coal to mine and the export trade suffered; additionally, in 1925 Germany had been allowed to resume sending coal to France and Italy as part of a war reparation plan, which reduced Britain's export market. Then, the Government reintroduced the Gold Standard11, which had the effect of strengthening the pound, but at the cost of making exports more economically difficult and raising interest rates. This severely affected the mining industry (and all other industries which depended on coal) and the private mine owners (this was before nationalisation) began to take measures to maintain their profits, such as reducing wages. Matters came to a head when mine owners announced that they would reduce wages and increase working hours from 1 May 1926 on penalty of lock-out. Negotiations were started but the strike, called by the TUC, went ahead on 4 May.
Although the Government had drawn up contingency plans to keep vital services running and maintain the flow of essential supplies, the scale of the strike surprised them. It lasted for a mere nine days, but there were violent incidents in some places12, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods.
A van overturned by strikers in London's Blackfriars Road
In typical Elsie fashion she saw the strike as an opportunity for adventure and immediately decided to volunteer. Whilst waiting to enrol she overheard someone say that Poplar was a dangerous no-go area and so, of course, she volunteered to go there. She managed to persuade a Red Cross official to lend her a car and driver and off she went, the intention being to set up a post to provide medical assistance because the hospitals were largely closed. The local police found her an empty butcher's shop to use (patients were treated on the meat slab) and she and the driver, called 'Scottie', set up an encampment. This may not have been the Belgian trenches but the locals were very hostile, to the extent that the Police Superintendent told her she would have to leave, as the Strike Committee intended to burn down the shop. Elsie refused to go, as did Scottie, but their two male helpers left. Apparently, the strikers believed that troops were about to be sent in and that Elsie's new establishment was a first-aid post for wounded soldiers, an impression that was reinforced by the fact that she was wearing a uniform and flying her Red Cross flag from Pervyse. She was then summoned to appear before the Strike Committee to explain herself. Meanwhile Scottie was sent to London to pick up two young actors, who were friends of Elsie from her time in Belgium and 'resting' because all the theatres were closed: one of them was Walter 'Dicky' Hudd, who made a very good career playing character parts in films and on television.
Police escorting a supply truck during the General Strike
Elsie imagined that her appearance before the Strike Committee was 'rather like being hauled in front of a Citizens' Committee during the French Revolution'. She was interrogated about what she was doing and suspected of belonging to a feminist organisation called the 'Six Points Group'. Undoubtedly they just could not believe that a woman would walk into this strike hotbed to help the populace. Anyway, her answers passed muster and straightaway the local folk started to come into her shop to shake hands and offer help.
After the strike ended, on 12 May, Elsie and her helpers decided to remain for a few days, until services returned to normal, and on the thirteenth there was a very ugly event. A stream of casualties came in, mostly suffering from head injuries, and then a large black van pulled up outside. It was full of men in dark uniforms and police helmets who attacked people with truncheons and bars; they smashed up the adjacent pub, seriously assaulting an elderly customer and the landlord's wife. The identity of these 'policemen' was never established, but it was thought that they might be youths who had been hired to assist the police during the strike.
As a postscript, many miners remained on strike but were eventually forced back to work because they needed their wages. The coal industry was irreparably damaged.
Elsie moves to Ashtead
For just a couple of weeks Elsie had re-experienced something of the exhilaration of her days in Belgium, but she was now back to earth with a resounding bump. At the time she had a small flat in Bayswater (West London) and Kenneth joined her there. He had decided not to pursue a career in the Navy and was considering joining the RAF, which he did. Elsie's next job was in a private nursing home, where her salary was just £1 a week. She stuck it out for a year and then found some driving jobs, but she eventually collapsed and friends arranged for her to stay at the Red Cross Nursing Home in Weybridge to rest. In effect she was physically and emotionally exhausted by the many years of stress and hard work and she remained in the Nursing Home for three months.
(A typical example of Elsie's 'airbrushing' in her memoirs occurred in 1921, when she mentions that Kenneth had come into a legacy which enabled them to move into a larger flat. What she does not say is that the source of this legacy was her ex-husband, Leslie Knocker, who had recently died.)
When Elsie emerged from the Nursing Home the Red Cross had arranged for her to be offered a small cottage at Ashtead via the Earl Haig Homes charity and at last she had a proper home of her own, which she kept for the rest of her life. She called the cottage 'Pervyse'.
Elsie does not say very much about the 1920s and 1930s, but Kenneth seems to have been with her for a lot of the time, until his RAF duties took him away. She had a variety of jobs, including private nursing and lecturing, and became good friends with the jockey Steve Donoghue.
When war threatened once more she was asked to supervise training of female ambulance drivers in South-west London and undoubtedly felt useful again. In 1939 she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
Linda Jackson © January 2012
11. In brief, the Gold Standard is a system whereby the value of the currency unit is related to the price of gold bullion, with the aim of keeping inflation low. In the period between 1914 and 1920 the value of the British pound had fallen by over 60%. The effect of the re-introduction of the Gold Standard in 1925 was to make the British pound too strong in relation to other currencies and reduce the ability of exporters to make profits.
12. For example, the Flying Scotsman train service, with a large complement of passengers, was derailed by striking miners in Northumberland, angered by the 'scab' trains which had been transporting coal. Miraculously, there was no loss of life.