My Fascination with Dorothy Earnshaw

Dorothy Earnshaw Friendship Album
Dorothy Earnshaw Friendship Album
A sketch from Dorothy’s album (Step Short/Folkestone Library)

Dorothy Earnshaw was a Red Cross nurse (VAD) based at the Manor House Hospital, Folkestone during the First World War. I first heard of Dorothy when I started helping local WW1 charity Step Short to update content on their website. Hidden among the pages of educational resources was a digitised copy of Dorothy’s friendship album; not just an autograph book but a wonderful, personal and poignant record of one woman’s Great War.

Folkestone Library holds the original so I went along one morning to have a proper look. It’s amazing to me that we can touch something today that so many people held 100 years ago, and something that was surely treasured. Holding the original hardback notebook (much smaller than I imagined) in my hands, and carefully leafing through the pages of handwritten poems, letters, sketches, signatures, newspaper cuttings and photographs, I wanted to know much more.

Where had Dorothy come from? What friends did she make at Manor House? Did she fall in love there? Who did she stay in touch with from her time at the hospital? What was life for Dorothy like after the war, and in what ways did it affect her? Did she marry or have children? How did the book end up in the library? And what about all those men who wrote in her album?

 

Dorothy Earnshaw, Manor House, Folkestone, WW1
Dorothy and friend (Step Short/Folkestone Library)

Dorothy’s War

According to Red Cross records, Dorothy Russell Earnshaw signed up in Wimbledon, Surrey and served for two periods in Folkestone between June 1916 and September 1918. Her friendship book appears to begin in November 1915 though, when she was 22 years old.

Love and Friendship

There are many cheeky or ‘standard’ comments or rhymes in the album as well as heartfelt messages from a wide range of Allied servicemen. Tucked away in the original book is a newspaper article about an underage Welsh soldier, Clifford Probert, who signed up under a false name (William Gordon Williams). Williams served bravely and was promoted to Lieutenant and awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) before losing his memory and disappearing from Harefield Military hospital in Middlesex on 9 February 1916. He was eventually found in Darlington at the end of the same month. Along with the newspaper cutting, Dorothy has a handwritten letter from a Lieutenant G Williams DCM, inviting her to meet up with him in London…how did their paths cross? And what happened between them?

Dorothy – maybe people called her something more informal like Dottie, Dory or Dolly – was clearly the object of many servicemen’s affections, and huge gratitude. It must have been a unique and life-changing experience for all of them. In her photographs she looks fun and very cute; I’m sure there were all sorts of romantic shenanigans.

Dorothy’s Family

After some free online digging, I discovered that Dorothy was born on 6 March 1893 in Bromley, Kent and baptised on 15 April the same year at St Stephen’s, Clapham Park, London. Her mother was Clara Marzetti (born in Wandsworth) and her father, a Clapham-born Surrey cricketer and wine merchant, George Russell Bell Earnshaw. It seems that he died, intriguingly, in December 1894 in Merano, Northern Italy aged just 37. I wonder how he died and in what circumstances his family then found themselves?

Interestingly, in the 1901 census, Dorothy was listed as a paying guest at 17 Christchurch Road, Folkestone, the seaside town in which she was to spend much of the war. By 1911, she was living at 86 Kings Avenue, Clapham Park South in London, with her grandmother Julia Marzetti, her mother Clara Earnshaw and four other women. This house no longer exists but is likely to have been a large property, as this was an affluent area and in 1930 was substantial enough to become a children’s home. The other women were possibly lodgers or servants, depending on the ladies’ financial situation – I didn’t part with any cash so didn’t have full access to these records!

After the War

With my amateur tracking skills, the next sighting of Dorothy I found after the war was in 1929, when she lived at Park Road, Farnham in Surrey. Then in March 1931, aged 37, she married a Mr Howard Shaw Savill. He was 59 or 60 years of age on his wedding day and it doesn’t look as if Dorothy ever had any children. She was widowed in July 1954. Both during and after her marriage she seemed to enjoy a rather jetset lifestyle, with her name (Dorothy Russell Savill) popping up on all sorts of international cruise passenger lists. Dorothy died in Eastbourne, East Sussex towards the end of 1979, aged 86.

I find these little morsels of information about Dorothy’s experiences absolutely fascinating and would love to delve deeper when I get the chance. She was just one young woman, yet her little book and life story can tell us so much about people and the 20th century world.

Kent’s Hidden Coastal Heritage

Hythe Fisherman's Beach Fishing Boat

Isn’t it time we valued Folkestone and Hythe’s social history?

We all know about the Leas, Royal Military Canal, Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and other local heritage stalwarts, but what about the stories of the real people who have lived in and passed through our towns for centuries?

Over the years I’d forgotten about my love of history, what with all the working, gadding about and starting a family. Lately I’ve been lucky enough to indulge my history geekery and help out at three heritage organisations in Kent. As well as being top class material for sitcom writers, the last six months as a volunteer have been quite an education.

Firstly, I’ve discovered what an amazing and broad range of community and cultural ‘stuff’ is going on all the time across our villages, towns and cities. Stuff, that if you’re working hard at the 9 to 5 and/or family life, you’ve probably missed. Much of this is powered by supreme, super-motivated community-minded people – some employed in this capacity and many of them volunteers who have a bit of time and care enough to get stuck in for free.

Step Short Visitor Centre board

Stepping Short down to the Harbour

One of the projects I’ve been involved in is Step Short, a First World War charity devoted to remembering the soldiers and nurses who passed through Folkestone between 1914 and 1918.

As far as I can tell, until recently the seaside town’s role in the Great War was largely ignored, aside from a few military historians and the annual Remembrance Day services. However this began to change when community groups started gearing up for the 1914 centenary commemorations.

Step Short was established in 2008 when members of the Go Folkestone Action Group decided that improvement of the historic Road of Remembrance area should be a focus for the First World War’s 100th anniversary.

Mole Cafe Visitor Books Step Short
Image: Step Short

A nice cup of tea

A real turning point was the discovery of some old visitors’ books in the East Kent Archives Centre in Dover in the same year, by historian Charles Fair. Books which just happened to contain the signatures, comments and poetry of thousands of WW1 servicemen and nurses, written as they tried to savour a final cup of tea and slice of cake in the Harbour Canteen (also known as the Mole Cafe) before sailing across the Channel from Folkestone to the Western Front. Wow!

These eight volumes of precious wartime history were carefully bound after the war, catalogued and then forgotten. Within their leather covers are an estimated 42,000 names, including normal soldiers, sailors, nurses, generals, politicians and even King George V; and perhaps the key to unlocking thousands of untold Great War stories.

Step Short realised the significance of this find for Folkestone and by January 2014 they had successfully transferred the Mole Cafe books online, finally making them accessible to millions. This took years of scanning (by Kent County Council) and transcribing by volunteers. At the time the charity’s chairman, Damian Collins MP, noted that digitisation of the visitors’ books had taken longer than the First World War itself!

I grew up in the area but somehow had missed this powerful and poignant piece of local history. Step Short has a staggering amount of unique WW1 material and resources, having worked with local and military historians including Michael George, Charles Fair and Alan Taylor. How many local people, let alone those from further afield, know about this?

Folkestone Harbour Arm Kids' Music Event 2016

The Harbour Arm Revived

Despite the Mole Cafe books and all the charity’s hard work to install the stunning Memorial Arch on the Leas in time for August 2014, the first I’d heard of Step Short was when the newly restored Folkestone Harbour Arm opened in the summer of 2015.

Along with all the brilliantly cool events, restaurants, food trucks and lighthouse champagne bar, the modest Mole Cafe was given its rightful place in its original wartime home on the railway pier. Volunteers in period dress sell mugs of tea and coffee and slabs of cake every weekend during the summer season, and have been going down a storm.

It’s heartening that the big bosses value this little historical gem, despite it not being a money-spinning hipster hangout. Originally Step Short had ambitious plans for a visitor centre, a fantastic glass construction emerging from the cliffside. Somehow over the years this vision has been lost (or reluctantly packed away) and since 2011, Step Short’s hub has been the uninspiring old tourist information office in the Harbour car park. An interim location long past its sell-by date.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Step Short was given more space on the Harbour Arm as the old railway station is restored? Imagine the moving tales that could be told here in a real visitor centre, right where it all happened?

Salt Festival Folkestone Trawlermen Exhibition 2016

Folkestone’s Trawlermen

And the centuries-old Folkestone fishing community would be right at home here too. The seasonal Fishing and Heritage Museum is currently housed in the tatty Old Booking Hall near the Harbour Arm car park. Yet a spot on the restored Harbour Arm would be so fitting, and appealing to visitors. The recent Salt Festival Folkestone Trawlermen exhibition by photographer Andy Aitchison was a good start; and the very exciting new Folkestone Museum will feature the town’s fishing heritage.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought about this over the last few years, and naturally I am completely clueless about any discussions and negotiations that have taken place between the powers-that-be. I’m just a volunteer after all.

Folkestone Harbour 2016

People’s History

Let’s invest in Folkestone’s often undervalued heritage. It’s not only the likes of Whitstable, Margate and Hastings that have a local culture worth celebrating. And why not also pay a little more respect to Hythe’s social history? This little town owes much to generations of fishing families too; and is so much more than a canal, a light railway and some old skulls.