An Archival Moment: Ongoing mysteries

Jenny Seeman
Lena, found in castle

Some may remember a Crossroads post from several years ago about the mysterious Nurse Lena. According to an attached note in the archives, this postcard photograph of Lena was “found on 3rd floor of castle in wall”. The previous article posed some important questions of provenance, which is a term in museums and archives used to define the chronology of the ownership, custody, or location of a historical object. Questions such as: How did it get into the walls of Hatley Castle? And who found the photo? One assumes from the material it was stored with it that it must have been found during the time the military college was using the castle. Is this a safe assumption? If so, did they uncover any answers about the photo at the time of discovery?

The photo itself offers us some clues as to its origins. It is signed ‘Lena’ on the front, and we can date it from December of 1918 because on the back of the postcard is written ‘With fondest love from your loving sister Lena, Brighton 15-12-18’. The pin on Lena’s uniform reads ‘Netley’, which was the Royal Victoria Military Hospital near Southampton, England. A little online digging about Netley, which was demolished in 1966, shows that it was an enormous hospital built in the Victorian age in response to the Crimean War, and was designed to serve the vast British Empire. The size of a small town, it had a working farm, stores, a school, its own gasworks, a reservoir, and a prison. There was also a ballroom inside the officers’ mess. It saw constant horrors during the First World War as ship loads of injured and shell shocked soldiers were deposited there for treatment and convalescence. Further research showed that an anticipated shortage of staff to aid the wartime casualties was relieved by the Red Cross, whose Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) provided over 125,000 staff during the course of the war, not just at Netley but at battle hospitals all across Europe, and who worked in roles such as nurses, radiographers, pharmacists, clerks and laboratory assistants.

From the excellent online resources of the Red Cross Archives, it is possible to search the personnel records of the VAD. Knowing only the first name Lena and the Netley location, there was only a small chance any further information could be found, but there was indeed one record result: Miss Lena Alice Lawrence. She was engaged at Netley from January 30, 1917 and continued to work there after the war’s end. She worked as a clerk and lived at 75 Butlocks Heath, Netley Abbey. She had had no previous hospital employment.

Assuming this is our Lena, the questions about her still remain: whose sister was she? Did she ever spend time at Hatley Park? Perhaps she knew Kathleen Dunsmuir, who had also volunteered in a canteen in France in 1915. The question of Lena’s provenance is only one of the many mysteries here on the grounds of Royal Roads University. If you know anything about this photo, or have any historical details of the site that you would like to explore, feel free to drop by my office in the RRU Library, send me an email, or give me a call at extension 4122.

Jenny Seeman

Further reading about Netley and the Volunteer Aid Detachment:

Palace of pain: Netley, the hospital built for an empire of soldiers

War-time volunteers and personal records