Back in June, when we published our series of blog posts about Ethel Moir, a nurse who had served during World War One in the Scottish Women’s Hospital, we received an intriguing comment from someone called Jonathan. He had read the story and was getting in touch to tell us about his grandmother, Sheila Macbeth Mitchell, a nurse who had been on board HMHS Britannic when she’d sunk in the Aegean in 1916. Sheila had left him a large scrapbook containing photographs and ephemera from the time –
“If Capital Collections would be interested in seeing this sometime and copying pictures to add to the special collection – get in touch”.
After meeting with Jonathan, seeing the scrapbook and hearing stories of his grandmother, we were extremely keen to take up his offer of sharing the contents and the story of another remarkable woman who led an extraordinary and adventurous life. The scrapbook is now available to discover on Capital Collections.
Sheila Macbeth was born on 12th June 1890 in Lancashire and was educated at Polam Hall in Darlington. An accomplished golfer in her youth, she wanted to become a teacher of physical education, but her family would not let her have a job. World War One, however, enabled her – like many other women of her generation – to leave home and develop her independence. She served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services.
Sheila’s roots however were in Scotland, her great-grandfather James Macbeth had been an Excise Officer in Port Glasgow and both her grandfather and father were born in Greenock. Her grandfather Norman was a portrait painter who, when he came to Edinburgh in 1861 gained employment as a portrait painter and was elected A.R.S.A (Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy) in 1870 and R.S.A. (Royal Scottish Academy) in 1880.
Her father’s first school was Mr Henderson’s Preparatory School in India Street where he was in the same form as Robert Louis Stevenson. He later attended The Institution (later to become Stewart’s Melville) in Queen Street and Edinburgh Academy. When he left school he went to Friedrichshafen in Germany to study engineering and was apprenticed to an engineering firm in Leith Walk. He later relocated to Lancashire where Sheila and several of her siblings were born.
In 1908 aged 18, Sheila went with her elder sister Flora to live in Paris for a year. Here she attended the Cours de Musique, a music course run by Mlle [ Miss] Yvonne Galliet.
Sheila also started to get interested in golf around this time. In her notes she relates:
“Flora & I joined the Surrey County Golf Club as well as one at Purley Downs & until Flora married, Father let us have the use of a car & chauffeur – but when she went & I was the only golfer – I had to go by train & it made a hole in my Dress allowance of £50 per annum as I had to take caddies & have new balls when playing matches”.
When war broke out in 1914 one of her first introductions to it was cooking in the hospital of the Camp of Public Schools Battalion:
“which was built high above Mother’s house in Surrey. We let soldiers use our dining room each night where we left newspapers etc. & we gave them the use of one bathroom. Many of them filtered into the drawing room with the family – & we had a dance there on occasions – & much music”.
In 1915 and with the war continuing in Europe, Sheila served as an auxiliary in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Hospital Nursing Services, noting sometime later,
“In 1915, the London Hospitals were asked to take people like me for 6 months training – so that there would be enough nurses to look after the wounded. I went to Training School of London Hospital for 6 weeks in Bow – & then worked at the Hospital in Whitechapel for 6 months – after which I became a Special Military Probationer attached to Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service Q.A.M.N.S. My 1st Station was outside Nottingham”.
Having completed her training, Sheila joined the crew of HMHS Britannic in November 1916 as she set off for what would be her sixth and final voyage…