Caring for Women Veterans: A Brief History of the Cowdray Club
We are quickly approaching the 1918 centennial, commemorating the end of the First World War, with ceremonies and events being planned around the world. It’s increasingly important, however, to realize that for those who served in and survived the First World War, the end of hostilities did not mean a return to the world as they had known it in 1914 — it was the beginning of a whole new life as veterans. The vast majority of men and women survived their service in the First World War, returning home to a world where issues of veterans’ care and rights emerged as a major aspect of postwar life. However, the history of veterans’ organizations after the First World War tends to overlook the experiences of the female veterans who served as nurses, ambulance drivers, and medics during the war, and who were in similar need of care, comradeship, and aid in returning to civilian life.
Some British organizations were willing to take on the issue of female veterans immediately after the war’s end. For example, the Ex-Services’ Welfare Society, which was established specifically to advocate for “shell-shocked” veterans, originally announced that they included women who had suffered breakdowns in their mission.1 However, the focus both of the organization and of society in general was primarily on “shell-shocked” male veterans. Returning to imagined pre-war gender norms, the focus on women within the propaganda and projects of the Ex-Services’ Welfare Society faded rather quickly.
Around this same time, the groundwork was being laid for what would come to be known as The Cowdray Club, a surprisingly progressive institution that placed support, advancement, and professionalization of women nurses at the forefront of its mission until its closure in 1974. In 1918, Queen Alexandra (wife of King Edward VII, after whom the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service was named) and Sir Arthur Stanley, MP, began discussing the need to provide for female veterans. In a letter to Sir Arthur, Queen Alexandra observed, “I recognize the need of providing a Fund for the care of those Nurses who through this great War have worked so magnificently and unselfishly, and who through strain and overwork have broken down in health and require special care and attention.”2
Queen Alexandra also laid out a vision for an institution that would “be in a position to promote their future welfare, not in any way as a charity but as an act of justice and gratitude for their services towards our sick and wounded Soldiers and Sailors and to the civil population.”3 That recognition of nurses’ competence, and their vital importance to all aspects of society in peace and in war, would provide the foundation of the organization.
Funding and moral support for this organization came from Lady Cowdray, whose full name was Annie Pearson, and her husband, Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray. Their youngest son, Francis Geoffrey Pearson, was a motorcycle courier in the Motor Transport Division of the British Expeditionary Force who died after being captured in France on September 6, 1914.4 The family’s support of veterans was therefore very personal. However, Lady Cowdray was a woman with uniquely visionary ideas.
As a member of the nobility, she knew her duty was to support charities and social organizations, but as the daughter of a self-made merchant she came to her duties with a very different perspective on the kind of social good she wanted to achieve. As her biographer noted, she was “possessed of a driving social ambition, a determination, with her husband’s wealth and achievements, to surmount Victorian and Edwardian barriers of caste.”5
She was involved in the Women’s Institute, which organized women to meet Britain’s food supply shortages during the First World War, the London Committee of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, and the South London Hospital for Women, as well as supporting a number of women’s suffrage organizations, and the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.6 It therefore is not surprising that she chose to devote her time and energies to support female veterans of the war.
The Club that Lady Cowdray helped to organize demonstrated not only her drive to help women’s professional advancement, but also a keen understanding of how to do so in a way that would attract positive press (and financial contributions) from influential sources. She and her fellow board members held social evenings, concerts, and similar events that brought upper-class society together in refined settings where they emphasized the need to secure a respectable address for the club. They also used these events to advocate for female veterans who had suffered breakdowns as a result of their service, and to emphasize the need for nurses during peacetime as well as war.7
The gentility and refinement of the Club was further touted in the press when the Club was opened in 1922. Newspapers delighted in discussing the fact that Lady Cowdray brought things to the club, located at 20 Cavendish Square, from her home, and that “she took pleasure in deciding on and choosing furnishings.”8 In these pieces, the Cowdray Club comes across as a kind of ladies’ club that was primarily concerned with keeping up appearances and presenting an elegant facade.
To describe the Cowdray Club as simply a kind of genteel showroom would be to miss the very real benefits that it offered to members, and to the nursing profession. While the Club’s dining room was being fitted with “busts of Florence Nightingale, Nurse [Edith] Cavell, and Viscount and Viscountess Cowdray,” Lady Cowdray was also overseeing the construction of a building to house the Royal College of Nursing on the Cowdray Club’s property.9
With such a headquarters, the Royal College of Nursing was able to provide a curriculum that would “raise the educational and professional standards of nursing in the future,” ensuring jobs and economic advancement for another generation of women.10 By only allowing women to become members, Cowdray Club served as a counterpoint to the numerous men’s social and professional clubs that had consolidated financial and social hegemony while explicitly excluding women. It also ensured that women had a space in which to share ideas openly, and also that the nursing profession in Britain remained largely controlled by women.
Moreover, the board of the Cowdray Club and its branches worked throughout the interwar years with various charities and funds to ensure that women who did not qualify for military pensions received the support due to them for their war service. They placed considerable emphasis on helping women who suffered psychological trauma as a result of their service, a condition which went more and more overlooked as the interwar years progressed.11 In 1929, one pamphlet argued:[gblockquote]These applicants are people who have devoted their own lives in helping and nursing their fellow country folk in their hour of need and suffering, surely it does seem ironical that when they, in their turn, are in some distress, so little can be done to bring them aid and comfort.12[/gblockquote]
Thanks to their efforts, female veterans from England to South Africa who were unable to earn a living after the war received financial support. By calling this support a “pension” and not charity, the Cowdray Club’s Board Members paid respect to these women’s service, as well as their professional expertise.
It’s true that the Cowdray Club was a product of its time, with an emphasis on its fashionable address and stylish furnishing. It was also representative of the class ideologies of many of its founders. There were strict rules about members’ behavior and propriety, and though pro-rated fees and scholarships aided some women, the organization remained very much focused “proper” middle- and upper-class women. It also had its quirks: all the clocks were all set 5-7 minutes fast, for no reason, which confused a number of incoming members.13 However, it’s important to realize the impact the Club had on the nursing profession in Britain, as well as its determination to empower its female members and nurses.
The postwar period was largely concerned with aiding male veterans’ return to society, to the exclusion women who had also served. The Cowdray Club offered an important counterpoint, creating a space where female veterans were supported, financially, professionally, and socially. Remembering the work of the Club in postwar Britain should also serve as a reminder that our commemoration of the First World War should remain focused on the people who endured it. Many of their stories continued beyond November 11, 1918, and a real commemoration of the war should, as well.
- For more on the Ex-Services Welfare Society, see Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment, and Recovery in Britian 1914-1930 (London: Continuum, 2010). Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/B/9, Letter to Sir Arthur Stanley, July 3, 1918. Though the Ministry of Pensions allowed women to apply for pensions in 1920, not all women qualified for pensions. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/B/9, Letter to Sir Arthur Stanley, July 3, 1918. Return to text.
- “The Hon. Francis Geoffrey Pearson,” Casualty Details, accessed Aug. 14, 2017. Return to text.
- Quoted in Eizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928, (Psychology Press, 2001), 145. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/C8, Letter to Mrs. Coventry, July 9, 1917. Return to text.
- London Metropolitan Archives, ref: A/COW/87 – a memorial booklet written by Agnes L. Douglas, who was private secretary to Lady Cowdray 1920-1932. Return to text.
- “Cowdray Club,” Nottingham Journal, June 20, 1922. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/B2/1-2, The College of Nursing, Limited, Fifth Annual Report, 1920. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/D4/1, The Queen Alexandria Relief Fund for War Nurses, Minutes of Tuesday, September 10, 1929. Return to text.
- Wellcome Library, SA/NFN/B2/1-2, The Nation’s Fund for Nurses Report for January 1 to December 31, 1929. Return to text.
- London Metropolitan Archives: A/COW/034: Cowdray Club, Minutes of the House Committee, Tuesday January 12, 1932. Return to text.
Bridget Keown is a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is leading their gender and science initiative. She received her doctorate in history from Northeastern University, and her MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History from King's College London. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World War. She is also researching the history of kinship among gay and lesbian groups during the AIDS outbreak in the United States and Ireland.