In honour of Nurses Day yesterday and the 75th anniversary of VE Day last week I would like to pay my respects to my ancestor, Mabel Annie Maultby. Though not a close relation, Mabel’s story particularly touched me.
Mabel’s father Sidney Skinner Maultby, an Inspector of Weights and Measures, was the first cousin of my 2xG grandmother Eliza Ann Maultby, but he was estranged from his parents and raised by my direct ancestors. Mabel’s mother, Mary Jane Turner, somehow managed to have 9 children (7 surviving) and also run her own business as a confectioner and tobacconist. Sidney and Mary Jane had married in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1897 but returned to England after the birth of their first child. Mabel Annie Maultby was born in Edmonton in 1903.
In 1919, Mabel was working as a telephonist for the postal service. When war broke out in 1939 she was living in shared accommodation in Lewisham and working as a ledger clerk. Her three younger sisters were still living at home in 1939 but they all had jobs as well, two as typists and one as a comptometrist (mechanical calculator) operator. This was a family of educated and independent women, and in fact, none of the four ever married.
Sometime between 1939 and 1944 Mabel became a nurse. Mabel’s older brother had served in WW1 and her two younger brothers, both railway clerks, may have been deployed in WW2. Although it’s possible Mabel had lost her job as a clerk, I believe that as an independently-minded, single young woman, she wanted to do her bit for the war effort.
Mabel was a member of the British Red Cross. The BRCS helped people affected by the Blitz. Volunteers drove ambulances, carried stretchers and rescued people from buildings that had been demolished by bombs. They ran first aid posts in the London Underground stations used as air raid shelters, and much more.
Mabel became friends with another new nurse, Edna May Shooter, who was a few years younger than Mabel, and had previously worked as a bank clerk. Mabel lived in Pimlico, whereas Edna worked at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, so perhaps they had met during training. Together, they often attended services at the Guards’ Chapel in Westminster, near Buckingham Palace and 2 miles from Mabel’s address, sitting in the pews that were reserved for nurses.
On 18 June 1944, Mabel and Edna were both killed in an attack on the Guards’ Chapel. The following description of the event is taken from westendatwar.org.uk, which features photographs of the aftermath as well.
‘At 11.20am, 18 June 1944, a V1 flying bomb hit the Guards’ Chapel on Birdcage Walk SW1, not far from Buckingham Palace.The blast demolished most of the building and caused large loss of life. The Chapel – built in 1838 and also known as the Royal Military Chapel, St James’s Park – formed part of Wellington Barracks, home to the Brigade of Guards. Parts of Wellington Barracks had been badly damaged four years earlier, after the rear of the building facing Petty France was hit by a high explosive bomb on 16 November 1940.
On Sunday, 18 June 1944, a mixed military and civilian congregation had gathered at the Guards’ Chapel for morning worship. The choir had just started the Sung Eucharist when a V1 flying bomb cut out and nosedived onto the Chapel roof. The direct hit completely destroyed the roof, its supporting walls and concrete pillars and the portico of the Chapel’s western door.
Tons of rubble fell onto the congregation. 121 soldiers and civilians were killed and 141 others were seriously injured. The high death toll included the officiating Chaplain, Revd Ralph Whitrow, several senior British Army officers and a US Army Colonel. The Bishop of Maidstone, senior cleric present at this morning service, was one of the few left uninjured.
As the clouds of dust subsided, first aid teams and heavy rescue crews arrived to find a scene of utter devastation. An initial City of Westminster ARP assessment put the number of casualties at 400-500. At first, the debris appeared impenetrable; the smashed remains of walls and the collapsed roof had trapped dozens. The doors to the Chapel were blocked; the only access point for the rescue teams lay behind the altar. Doctors and nurses were obliged to scramble in between the concrete walls to administer morphine and first aid. Several rescuers and survivors later recalled that the silver altar cross had been untouched by the blast and candles continued to burn. The rescue services and Guardsmen from the Barracks immediately began freeing survivors from the wreckage and carrying them out. The operation to free them all took 48 hours. The Guards’ Chapel incident was the most serious V1 attack on London of the war. The flying bomb left only the apse of the Chapel intact. Nearby mansion flat blocks – among them Broadway Buildings and Queen Anne’s Mansions in Petty France – also suffered blast damage, including one used by US news correspondent Walter Cronkite.’
In 2017, historian Jan Gore published an excellent book about the tragedy: Send More Shrouds – The V1 Attack on the Guards’ Chapel 1944 (published by Pen & Sword Military). A description of the book is as follows:
‘On Sunday 18 June 1944 the congregation assembled for morning service in the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, St James’s Park, central London. The service started at 11 am. Lord Hay had read the first lesson, and the Te Deum was about to begin, when the noise of a V1 was heard. The engine cut out. There was a brief silence, an intensive blue flash and an explosion and the roof collapsed, burying the congregation in ten feet of rubble. This was the most deadly V1 attack of the Second World War, and Jan Gore’s painstakingly researched, graphic and moving account of the bombing and the aftermath tells the whole story. In vivid detail she describes the rescue effort which went on, day and night, for two days, and she records the names, circumstances and lives of each of the victims, and explains why they happened to be there. Her minutely detailed reconstruction of this tragic episode in the V1 campaign against London commemorates the dead and wounded, and it gives us today an absorbing insight into the wartime experience of all those whose lives were affected by it.’
Jan did indeed painstakingly research every victim of the disaster, and included biographies of Mabel and Edna within her book. She kindly corresponded with my mum (who has been the main researcher of this branch of our family) about Mabel, and we were able to provide her with more details about Mabel’s life. Thanks to Jan, we know that Mabel and Edna were such close friends, that after the attack, Mabel’s family enquired after both of them (Edna had been orphaned since her teens, so she had no parents to search for her). We also know that Mabel had black hair and grey eyes, and her friend Edna had long ginger hair. I can’t help but be reminded of Patsy and Delia from Call the Midwife; however, it would be wrong to speculate about their relationship, and I simply take some comfort in the fact that such close friends died together. I’m very grateful to Jan Gore for helping to preserve their memories and their friendship.
I unfortunately don’t know where Mabel was buried, but Edna was laid to rest in the communal Commonwealth War Department grave at the City of Westminster Cemetery (now Hanwell Cemetery), where a memorial commemorates all civilians killed in Westminster by enemy action in WW2. I think it’s very likely Mabel was buried in the same grave. I’m very keen to visit and pay my respects in person, hopefully later this year. I am also working on contacting living descendants of Mabel’s siblings, in the hope of finding a photograph.
Although Mabel and Edna died as civilians, they had left desk jobs to provide the hands-on medical skills and care needed by Londoners in wartime. These women of action embody the courageous sentiment expressed by Florence Nightingale, born 200 years ago yesterday:
‘Rather, ten times, die in the surf, heralding the way to a new world, than stand idly on the shore.’
I am incredibly grateful to all of the nurses around the world who are currently putting their own lives at risk to help the rest of us in our time of need. Thank you.