Recently we have been asked about the involvement of ladies in the Legion of Frontiersmen, especially in the early years. Nowadays they are accepted on equal terms. In those early years many Frontiersmen had seen how much hard work women were able to do to survive and to thrive on the frontiers, so there were no problems welcoming them, although they were not often given an official position. Over the years this tended to change and the Legion became an exclusively male-only “club”. In the complete re-write of the Legion constitution in 1956, it was clearly stated that membership was open only to men, although Commands in other countries had the right to vary the constitution to a limited amount. By 1974, the new constitution referred only to “members” until the Legion slowly came to accept the enlightened view of today that the Legion welcomes women and men on an equal footing.
It is to New Zealand we must look for the first official involvement of women in the Legion. In 1918 Lt. Col. Driscoll enthusiastically approved New Zealand organising officer Ernest d’Esterre’s proposal for a special ladies’ membership.
I am going into this matter and we will arrive at something to please all; as you say, we must not lose them. We must on the contrary encourage the movement all we can, as they will prove our Guiding Star.
Thus was formed the Circle Cross League and a special badge was struck to be worn by the ladies. Early stalwarts were nurses Miss Compton, Sister Pritchard and Nora Ross. Sister Ross served with “R” Squadron, Dunedin. On joining the Squadron, she announced that she would be a “cog” in the Squadron and not a “clog”. Nora Ross had volunteered for service on the first day of war in 1914. After service in British military hospitals she was sent to France in April 1915 where she served near Verdun, Rouen and Yvetot. She was demobilised in December 1918, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm and two stars. The Circle Cross League later became the Womens’ Auxiliary Legion of Frontiersmen with Nora Ross as commanding officer with the rank of captain. By 1939 the unit had a membership of 90, trained for emergency precautions. In 1944 the unit came under the wing of the police for special duties and the ladies were advised in clear terms of what to expect should the Japanese invade. Not one of the ladies offered to resign After the War the Corps was re-formed with Nora Ross again at its head. She was awarded the O.B.E. Nora Ross died in 1970 at the age of 85.
Dr. Jessie Scott, who was made an Honorary Lieutenant in the Legion in 1918, was born at Brookside New Zealand in 1883 and educated at Girls High School, Christchurch. She travelled to Great Britain where she graduated as a Doctor of Medicine from Edinburgh University in 1912. She filled a number of hospital posts in England specialising in Womens’ health and completed a Diploma in Public Health at the University of London. At the outbreak of World War One Dr. Scott volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps, but after being turned down joined the Scottish Womens’ Hospital for Foreign Service as a surgeon and travelled to Serbia in 1915. Attached as a Medical Officer to the Serbian Army she was taken prisoner of war in 1916 and held for three months before being released in Switzerland. Dr. Scott then returned to continue her attachment with the Serbian Army in 1917 and served for a period on the Russian front in Romania in 1918. She was attached as a surgeon to the 61st General Hospital Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika in 1918 and France in 1919.
For her services with Serbian forces during the War Dr. Scott was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava 4th class. She returned to New Zealand and worked as a gynaecologist at Christchurch Hospital from 1926 to 1935. During the Second World War Dr. Scott served as deputy chairperson of the Christchurch branch of the Womens War Service Association. She died at Christchurch on 15 August 1959. Dr. Scott’s medals are held in the collection of the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps Museum, at Burnham Military Camp, Christchurch New Zealand. A number of Frontiersmen volunteered for service in Serbia and fought there but, as none apparently survived, we have no records of their experiences.
On a lighter note, here is some advice to ladies on the frontiers of the world written by a popular lady novelist of Edwardian times, Elizabeth Robins, and once again taken from the “Frontiersman’s Pocket Book” (1909).
Perhaps greatest among our problems in this connection is the hair and hat question. Of women who have not travelled the unbeaten ways, only a few who ride or yacht have much idea of the difficulty of keeping on (in rough weather) any of the usual forms of feminine headgear; and none perhaps but the traveller knows the drafts on energy and temper made by the need to be clutching at a veering cap and a clinging veil which are wobbling about on a roll of hair that is loosened from the grip of its pins.
In the depths of my heart I fear that a reconstruction of the fashion of women’s hair will be inevitable, as the hitherto stay-at-home sex moves more about the world. Until that day, let the long-haired ones braid rather than twist their hair, and let them tie it securely an inch or so from the roots before pinning it up.
As to the first British lady Frontiersman/woman there can be none earlier or more enthusiastic than Mrs Catherine Coventry, wife of Captain Charles Coventry, o.c. of the Birmingham Command of the Legion from about 1908. Her enthusiasm can be seen by the fact that she designed her own ladies’ LOF uniform, wearing it with a peaked cap sporting the Legion button badge. In a newspaper interview of one of her friends from 1911 told of her involvement:
Mrs. Coventry is a high-spirited, generous-minded and talented woman. She speaks French fluently, and also Italian, and is an accomplished singer. When Capt. Coventry organised the Birmingham Troop of the Legion of Frontiersmen she aided him in every possible way, became an honorary member of the Legion, and wore a costume of green and the Legion’s cap, with button. So greatly was she liked by the members that she was popularly called ‘The Adjutant.’ She attended camp regularly, and three years ago in Streetly I saw her at four o’clock one morning making fancy cakes for the officers and men.
Her story was to become tragic and end in tragedy itself. Born in 1865, she was fifteen years younger than her husband. The Coventrys lived in an idyllic English cottage, Spring Cottage, Orphanage Road, in an area since much developed. Captain Coventry was very proud of his garden and his aviary of many kinds of birds. Born into a military family, Captain Coventry joined the 17th Lancers in 1869. He rose through the ranks, serving with distinction at the Battle of Ulundi in the Zulu Wars in 1879. After this he was commissioned and served from 1885 as adjutant until his retirement with the rank of captain in 1890.
At five o’clock of the morning of 19th October 1911, a lamplighter passing down the quiet Orphanage Road was surprised to see that the gas lamp opposite Spring Cottage was not on, although it was not faulty. On lighting it he discovered the body of a man lying on the path outside Spring Cottage. When the police attended they found blood both inside the house and on the path. Mrs. Coventry admitted dragging the body out to the path but not to killing the man. Both Mrs Coventry and the dead man smelled strongly of alcohol. At the magistrates’ court hearing it transpired that the dead man was Charles Gilks, a labourer, of about the same age as Mrs Coventry. Gilks’ daughter had worked for the Coventrys for a year but had been dismissed when Captain Coventry discovered that the girl had been smuggling alcohol into the house against the Captain’s instructions. It then appeared that Gilks and Mrs Coventry used to drink together at the Wylde Green Hotel; she also visited him at his lodgings and, according to the prosecutor “an intimacy arose between her and Gilks.” Captain Coventry had been away from home during the relevant weekend staying with a friend, Roland Benton, who was distressed as his mother had just died. In case anyone thought that the Captain might have sought revenge, Benton gave the Captain an alibi by saying that they had slept in the same bedroom – but not in the same bed. Gilks had died from a fracture to the base of the skull caused probably by hitting the back of his head on a stair. There was an unexplained mark on Gilks’ chin, although the defence pointed out that Mrs Gilks was a slight woman and a punch from her could not upset a burly labourer. The case was placed before a Grand Jury, which in those days before the Crown Prosecution Service decided whether a case should go to trial.
Mrs Coventry was lucky that the judge was Sir Edward Ridley, who was not held in any regard by his contemporaries and was known to have a ‘perverse instinct for unfairness.’ Perhaps influenced by the considerable difference in class between the cavalry officer’s wife and the labourer, Ridley and his jury threw out the case, although the judge did suggest there might be a case for manslaughter. What did happen? The evidence showed that Gilks had bought a bottle of whisky that evening and gone to visit her. Only he could have turned off the street light. He had certainly been on top of the stairs by the door to her bedroom. Did the advances of an inebriated man in her own house cause her to push him away and he fell down stairs fracturing his skull? She could have claimed self-defence, but perhaps in a panic and not wanting the sordid tale to be made public she dragged his body outside in the hope that it would be thought he had fallen down when drunk.
Captain Coventry stood by his wife for the rest of his life and must have tried to keep her on the straight and narrow. They moved away from their picture book cottage until the Captain died in 1929, aged 78. The story has a sad ending, as it seems that after his death Mrs Coventry returned to her alcoholic ways. A few months after the Captain’s death her body was found at their house in Court Lane, Birmingham. She had been dead for several days and her body was surrounded by empty and half-empty bottles. The Birmingham Frontiersman would not have held records and those who had enjoyed her company at early Frontiersmen camps would also mainly have been gone or have lost their lives in the First War, so neither hers nor her husband’s funeral appear to have been attended by them. She should be remembered, not by the sad ending to her life, but as as the much-liked and admired lady “adjutant” who attended Legion camps and who arose at 4 a.m. to cook fancy cakes for the Frontiersmen.
We cannot finish with a sad story, but must pay tribute to our much-loved Patron, Lady Patricia, the Countess Mountbatten. Whilst everyone who meets her is charmed by her, members of the original 110 year old Legion of Frontiersmen (now Countess Mountbatten’s Own Frontiersmen) have also great pride in her outstanding bravery. Around thirty-five years ago she was on board the boat Shadow V when an I.R.A. bomb exploded under it. When she served as a member of the House of Lords, she had a particular interest in the rights and welfare of children. Today, when the world again faces terrorism from yet another tiny minority of extremists we can only take great inspiration from this brave lady and say,
Ma’am, your Frontiersmen salute you, and may God Guard You.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.