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New database: British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries

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By | In the Library

The Library has recently subscribed to the online database British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries. It includes diaries and letters from approximately 500 women. All of these women have something important to share, and give fascinating perspectives on issues and events that have impacted their lives.

Here is an example of one of those women:

Florence Farmborough (1887-1978), born in Buckinghamshire, travelled to Moscow in 1908 to become a governess to the family of a heart surgeon. Florence loved Russia and all it had to offer. But when war broke out in 1914, it became the most challenging period of her life.

“When I am asked: ‘Which land did you love the most?’ unhesitatingly, I answer: ‘Russia; because she taught me the meaning of the word “suffering”.” (from Nurse at the Russian Front: a diary, 1914-18).

Photograph of nurse Florence Farmborough

Portrait of nurse Florence Farmborough. Image credit: © Imperial War Museum

Florence became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) Nurse in the Russian Red Cross. After six months training she was sent to the Eastern Front. Florence kept diaries throughout the war that give a valuable extra dimension to the narrative of World War I. These are reproduced in British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries.

“Florence’s writing is particularly important because the female perspective is often neglected in the traditional narratives of the World Wars. Generally historians have focused more on those that fought in the military, and even if they did explore the medical units, study was focused on doctors and surgeons rather than nurses.” (Hallett, C.E., Canadian Bulletin of Medical History).

Florence worked as part of a mobile unit that moved with the front line and was often in what can only be described as dire conditions. This means that the original diaries have a real sense of urgency – of her grabbing any moment she could to document the chaos around her:

“Tues. June 20th 1915: In evening sister comes & helps – & then hear that our division has been so smashed must go in reserve. We will go next day. Very concerned & sorry to have to go – a kind of retreat for us & so unexpected. Sister sends me to bed from 10 — to 3 – & then I get up again. Again a night of horror & noise – another German attack they say. Explosions come nearer & nearer. At night 2 more die.” (Florence Farmborough in British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries).

Through her diaries we can build a picture of the types of injuries soldiers faced, and the daily routine of a VAD. In 1974 Florence wrote an embellished version of her diaries: Nurse at the Russian Front : a diary, 1914-18. Some interesting comparisons can be made between Florence’s original diaries and her later recollections.

Florence was also a photographer and produced a photographic book: Russian Album 1908-1918. This is an extremely rare photographic record of the Eastern Front and is a captivating accompaniment to Florence’s diaries. The photographs are not only historically important, but are accomplished works and a testament to her tenacity as she dragged her photographic equipment with her when serving.

There’s so much more to learn from Florence. And, there are writings by other nurses in the database and the Library’s print collections if you really want to get stuck in!

British and Irish Women’s letters and diaries is available in the catalogue to Library members from anywhere online with a Library card.

Melanie Grant

Melanie Grant

Melanie Grant is the Acquisition Services Manager for the Wellcome Library. Melanie and the Acquisitions Team support the work of the Library by enhancing its collections and promoting its resources. Melanie studied History of Modern Art before becoming a librarian as a means to work with important and inspiring artefacts.

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