To discover that a fascist sympathiser spent much of her life caring for sick children at her home may surprise modern readers. Still more shocking is to learn she was the confidante of a notorious traitor. But before the second world war, fascism was a more ‘respectable’ creed than it is today, and in all ages personal loyalties may transcend political or national ones.
Researching a previous article on the West Sussex connections of William Joyce, the future ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, I found references to his friends Ethel Scrimgeour and her brother Alexander. Joyce regularly visited Ethel’s home at Pigeon Hill, Redford, near Midhurst, and Alexander’s at Honer Farm, South Mundham. His friendship with the Scrimgeours even aroused jealousy in some fellow members of the British Union of Fascists, who suggested (almost certainly falsely) he was not handing over all the money which Alexander and Ethel had donated to the movement.
Alexander Scrimgeour died in 1937, but Ethel’s friendship with Joyce and his second wife Margaret survived all the later events – the Joyces’ escape to Germany, their propaganda broadcasts to wartime Britain and William’s trial and imprisonment, culminating in his execution. Just before they left for Berlin in 1939, Margaret took some belongings to Miss Scrimgeour’s home, including William’s pistol, which she buried under a tree close to the house. One of the couple’s first acts on reaching the German capital was to send Ethel a postcard confirming their safe arrival. When Special Branch officers called on her looking for Joyce, they were too late.
After the war, Ethel travelled up to London every day to attend Joyce’s appeal hearing by the House of Lords. Rebecca West describes her vividly in the book The Meaning of Treason – ‘a tall and handsome maiden lady... whose appearance was made remarkable by an immense knot of hair twisted on the nape of her neck in the mid-Victorian way’. Age had turned her into ‘an apocalyptic figure... bowed’, her hair ‘shining snowwhite’. She appears to have been a kind of second mother to Joyce, who wrote some of his last letters to her. He thanked Ethel for her friendship which, with that of her late brother, ‘did so much to contribute to my happiness during my stay on earth’.
Joyce’s biographers touch on another side of Miss Scrimgeour’s life. A trained nurse, she cared for children with tuberculosis and other illnesses at her home, running a kind of small-scale sanatorium.
Some of the children were apparently orphans from London. In our modern age of vaccinations and effective drugs, it is easy to forget the scourge that TB once was. In the early 1930s, it accounted for almost half of UK deaths for people between the ages of 25 and 35. TB affected all classes, but was particularly prevalent where there was poverty and overcrowding. With no drug treatment possible, the medical profession’s main response was to remove sufferers to special hospitals – sanatoria – where there was a regime of fresh air, graduated exercise and a healthy diet.
The King Edward VII Sanatorium, Midhurst was close to Miss Scrimgeour’s home and opened in 1906, soon after she started her work at Pigeon Hill.
I have not been able to establish any direct connection. The nearness may have been a coincidence, except in the sense that sanatoria tended to be in isolated south-facing locations, so that patients received as much sunshine and fresh air as possible.
Ethel was born in 1865, the daughter of Alexander Scrimgeour, a London stockbroker. The Scrimgeours made West Sussex their rural base and an outlet for their wealth. Ethel’s father had the large house ‘Wispers’ built near Stedham in the 1870s (now St Cuthman’s, it has lately become the focus of a row about a proposed new school for London children). John, another of Ethel’s brothers, acquired Stedham Hall in 1910 and he and his wife Jessie were notably generous to the village.
For this family, financial security was no excuse for idleness. The Scrimgeours also bred a number of strong, independent women.
Elizabeth, one of Ethel’s sisters, reared horses and owned a riding school at Selsey. ‘Good works’ are a recurring theme too: other Scrimgeour ladies ran an orphanage at Myrtle Cottage, Stedham and a school at Elsted.
Nursing was another option for women from privileged backgrounds wanting to do something worthwhile. By the late 19th century, reforms by Florence Nightingale and others had transformed the profession – it no longer recruited only from the humbler ranks of society.
Ethel trained at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London where she came top in the examination results in 1897 and won the gold medal funded by the Clothworkers livery company. Glowing reports on her progress from ward sisters during her training describe her as ‘punctual... most kind and attentive... always obedient... clean and neat... tactful and capable...devoted to the children’.
The 1911 census lists 14 ‘invalids’ (nine girls and five boys) as resident at Pigeon Hill, ranging in age from five to 17. All were from London or the home counties, although, perhaps confirming their orphan status, some have question marks against their birthplaces. Patients would sometimes find work as cooks or other helpers at the home after treatment.
Interviewed in about 2008 at the age of 94, Midhurst resident Marjorie Bishop recalled being treated at ‘Scrimmages’ for tuberculosis of the bones. At Pigeon Hill there was fresh air, good food and, less appealingly, cod liver oil. Mrs Bishop lost a finger from the illness but otherwise recovered her health, as her longevity indicates.
Ethel’s work with sick and crippled children at Redford lasted for nearly 50 years. She died in Midhurst Cottage Hospital in 1953 at the age of 87. Curiously for someone who believed diet was important in treating illness, her death certificate shows that scurvy (due to Vitamin C deficiency) contributed to her demise.
An interesting footnote is that in the next generation, another Scrimgeour descendant also devoted her life to the care of sick children. Ethel’s niece, Isabella Forshall, carried out pioneering work as a paediatric surgeon at Royal Liverpool and Alder Hey Children’s Hospitals.
Acknowledgements: Archives staff of St Bartholomew’s Hospital; Christine Dicks and Sanchia Elsdon, authors (with Colin Dunne) of Stedham and Iping Remembered; Phil Dixon of www.gravelroots.net