Saturday 14 September 2019

Ella Dunnington Jefferson (1888 – 1934) - WW1 VAD and poet

Ella's Red Cross Record Card
It is always exciting to find a hitherto undiscovered poem – here is one, written by Ella Dunnington Jefferson during the First World War - with thanks to Historian Debbie Cameron for this post and to Anne Houson of Clements Hall History Group for sending me the full poem.

Before World War One, the world famous York firm, T. E. Cooke, had been making scientific instruments and equipment for the military, including rangefinders and surveying equipment. They opened a new factory in Bishophill in York in 1915 and took on women to help with production.  Ella Dunning Jefferson was one of those women.
Ella Dunnington Jefferson (1888 – 1934) was born in York, Yorkshire, UK in May 1888.  Her parents were Mervyn Dunnington Jefferson, a former Army officer and Justice of the Peace, and his wife, Louisa Dunnington Jefferson, nee Barry.  Ella had two older sisters and a younger brother.

The family lived in Middlethorpe Hall, Middlethorpe, Yorkshire until 1911, when they moved to Thicket Priory, near Thorganby, which they owned. Their home had originally been a priory but the Dunnington Jefferson family demolished this in the 1840’s and built a brand new country house. Curiously, the family sold Thicket Priory in 1955 to the Carmelite sisters of Exmouth and it became a religious house once more. 
With thanks to the Red Cross WW1 website

Ella joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and worked as a nurse and orderly at Clifford St and Nunthorpe Hall Auxiliary Hospitals, before going to work at Cooke’s.

Records for T. E. Cooke which are now held at the Borthwick Institute, include the humorous “A Munition Dirge” that Ella Jefferson wrote about her experiences at Cooke’s. It paints a picture of an assortment of displaced ‘ladies’ who are only working at the firm ‘on suffrance’. Their foreman, Harrison who terrifies them, holds them in check. The Dirge includes the following line “There was Harrison our Overseer, Who caused us all to quake with fear” but ends on a patriotic note, however and Ella seems proud to be doing her bit towards World War One.

Photographs of the women at work at Cooke’s in 1916 showed that the work was clean enough not to require overalls – it looks as though most of the girls are wearing their own clothes with some, but not all of them wearing aprons. It is highly likely that some of the girls on the photograph are the ones mentioned in Ella’s Munition Dirge.

"A Munitions Dirge"

I was a nurse, a nurse was I,
Methought at Cooke’s I’ll have a try.

The rain poured down, the wind blew shrill, 
O’er Cookes-s’ss works at Bishophill.

I knocked upon the factory door, 
I stood upon the office floor.

The manager spoke unto me:
“Munitions worker you would be?”

Quoth I, “I am a V.A.D.
But if you’re kind I’ll work for thee.”

Quoth he, - “It is a stiffish job’”
You’ll have to come for 17/- Bob.

‘”Be here quite sharp at early dawn
And unto secrecy be sworn.”

“At Bishophill you’ll stay until 
You faint before the awful drill.”

They led me from the fated room
Into a dungeon full of gloom

I sat upon a wooden stool, 
I vowed I was an awful fool.

I painted reel, I painted drum
I cut my hand, I pierced my thumb.

I drove the nail, I turned the screw
I did whate’er there was to do.

But when I saw the ladies there, 
My heart leaped up, they were so fair.

Miss Tennant took me by the hand, 
“Oh welcome to Munitions Land.”

“I’ll give you buns, I’ll give you tea, 
And Chocolate Biscuits I’ll give thee”

And dear Miss Carr, She said to me:
“We’re only here on suffrance see” – 

Miss Blaylock works whate’er may hap, 
She swallowed strip, she swallowed flap

E D Jefferson