The amazing ‘Ladies of Ipswich’ who helped the war effort 100 years ago

Stella Cobbold, c.1903 Picture: Cobbold Family History Trust archives

Stella Cobbold, c.1903 Picture: Cobbold Family History Trust archives - Credit: Archant

A trip to Kentwell Hall six years ago led Julia Barrett to uncovering the charitable work of Stella Cobbold, Charlotte Ridley and Mabel Pretty during the First World War - drawing parallels to the current Coronavirus situation

16 Lower Brook Street, the birthplace of Mabel Pretty (n�e Paul) Picture: Julia Barrett

16 Lower Brook Street, the birthplace of Mabel Pretty (n�e Paul) Picture: Julia Barrett - Credit: Archant

Throughout history, communities of people have banded together in times of need, showing just how well we can adapt in a crisis, offering help to those who need it.

Julia Barrett, of Ipswich, has noticed strong parallels between the work of ‘Sewing Scrubs’, an Ipswich Facebook group working tirelessly round the clock to stitch much-needed scrubs for the staff at Ipswich Hospital, and three women who, over 100 years prior, came together to help the people of Ipswich during the First World War.

Stella Cobbold, Charlotte Ridley and Mabel Pretty were a trio of local women who put their heads together during the Great War to form a hospital supplies depot in what is now the town library.

So just how did Julia first come across the resourceful trio six years ago? She told us: “I was due to take part in a living history event at Kentwell Hall, to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. We were focusing on the weekend in early August 1914 that was immediately before war was declared, and I was looking for a local woman who would be interesting to portray.

16 Lower Brook Street, the birthplace of Mabel Pretty (n�e Paul) Picture: Julia Barrett

16 Lower Brook Street, the birthplace of Mabel Pretty (n�e Paul) Picture: Julia Barrett - Credit: Archant

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“I happened to be in the field of remembrance down at the old cemetery and noticed the stone at the entrance that refers to the field of remembrance being established very early in 1915 by the ‘Ladies of Ipswich’,” she said.

“Curious as to why this should have been so early and who these women might have been, I was further piqued by the memorial right in the centre – it commemorates Lt. Donald Pretty who was the very first officer from Ipswich to have been killed.”

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Shortly after her trip to Kentwell Hall, a visit to a local chapel hall led Julia to uncovering the next step in the story.

“Completely coincidentally, I was taking my daughter to a birthday party at the Alan Road Methodist Church chapel hall, and noticed the foundation stones there, recognising the good works of William Pretty.

The foundation stone at the field of remembrance that led Julia to uncovering the three women Pictur

The foundation stone at the field of remembrance that led Julia to uncovering the three women Picture: Julia Barrett - Credit: Archant

“A quick internet rummage linked the family to the William Pretty corset factory and Footman Pretty department store, as well as the Prettys of Sutton Hoo – and that was it. I was convinced there was a story to unearth. The bigger picture involving the rest of the ladies has been developed over the years ever since,” she said.

An active historical researcher, Julia has plenty of experience when it comes to delving deeper into local history, having previously done degree-level research at Suffolk College revolving around women in Suffolk.

“Much of my early research was down at the Suffolk Records Office in Gatacre Road, but as the worldwide interest in the Great War grew due to the centenary activities, more and more information became available online,” she said.

“My go-to search engine was Findmypast, through which I was able to access the full family information and inter-family links of the ladies, unearthing much closer links than just business colleagues.”

The foundation stone laid by the ladies at the field of remembrance in 1915 Picture: Julia Barrett

The foundation stone laid by the ladies at the field of remembrance in 1915 Picture: Julia Barrett - Credit: Archant

Throughout the course of her research, Julia also got to know local historian Roger Kennell, who has extensive knowledge of local history and the Prettys. “Roger was delighted to have an insight into the family side of things, and we have both fed each other new and interesting bits of information on a regular basis over the years,” Julia added.

Additionally, Julia consulted newspaper archives to aid her research. “The ladies turn up over and over again at social events, each others’ weddings, fundraisers, political events, suffrage meetings and charity AGMs,” she said.

Already founding members of the Suffolk Branch British Red Cross, by using their philanthropic connections, the three women managed to set up what would later become a countrywide network of hospital supply depots.

“Philanthropists, suffragists and political campaigners in their own right, these women also had access to textiles, pharmaceuticals, storage facilities and transport networks,” Julia said.

Northgate Street hospital depot Picture: SRO

Northgate Street hospital depot Picture: SRO - Credit: Archant

Three days after the outbreak of war, the trio had managed to organise a shipment of goods to soldiers in France.

“Within months, they had satellite depots in every Suffolk town possessing a railway station and many more sub-depots in the surrounding villages. The Framlingham depot alone supplied more than 46,000 items to the hospitals over the duration of the war.

“These depots supplied every single item of equipment needed by the Red Cross hospitals as well as shipping supplies to frontlines all over the world.”

Much-needed items that the women managed to source included shirts, pneumonia jackets, towels, sheets, flannels, handkerchiefs, assorted bandages, dressings and cloths.

In unearthed documents, on November 6 1915, the women sent away about 1,142 bandages over the course of the month.

A newspaper report from the Framlingham Weekly News dated January 29 1916 also revealed: “We are now sending direct to the Ipswich Depot, which is under the control of the War Office. Since December we have forwarded 1,322 articles, which shows how energetic our workers are, considering that we took a fortnight’s holiday at Christmas and that we only meet two days a week. We have also sent to the Easton Hospital 272 bandages and packing.”

“I am still awed and completely bowled over at how those women in 1914 managed to organise such an extensive network of hospital supply depots, on an entirely voluntary basis,” Julia added.

After spending years researching the incredible work that these women did, Julia has drawn parallels between them and the work that she’s currently doing now in her scrub sewing group.

“The way the ‘Sewing scrubs’ group has taken off, started by the ‘For the love of scrubs’ Facebook group, shares very many similarities. Much like back in 1914, there are those good at organising and doing the coordinating, those good at sewing, fundraising for fabric, loaning and sharing sewing machines, as well as groups of organised delivery drivers, knitters and crocheters, organisers of suppliers – and the vital administrative links to the hospital,” she said.

“The only fundamental difference is that the current work has been achieved through the power of the internet, whereas the Great War hospital supplies depots were organised when even the telephone was in its infancy.”

Bowled over by how much Stella, Charlotte and Mabel achieved during the war, Julia has spent the last few years turning her research and findings into a book.

“I’m mostly writing the book out of loyalty to those women – they deserve to have their story told. Their family names are very well-known locally, but virtually nothing about the woman who achieved so much.

“The book itself is already overdue. I had hoped to be able to release it in time for the centenary of the signing of the peace treaty in 2019, but have been hampered both by working full-time and health problems. Also, because every time I do that one last check of some evidence, I disappear down another rabbit hole,” Julia explained. “The current situation however has re-focused me and now I aim to have it out by autumn this year.”

“I’d like to raise awareness of quite how much incredible philanthropic, early welfare and organisational work was carried out by these local, quite ordinary women,” Julia added. “Ipswich and the Prettys were at the forefront of many improvements and developments at the start of the century. I am proud beyond all measure of what Ipswich and Suffolk women have done in the past and continue to do today.”

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