Home Office Civil Servants in the SWH

Louise Horton got in touch with us from the Home Office with regards to a project they are putting together to remember those in The Home Office that served in the first world war, we were happy to help with some details and here is the two story’s.
In the First World War the Home Office released 268 of its civil servants for active service overseas. Only two of those 268 officials were women, and they both served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH).
Over the years their joint contribution to the war effort and to the work of their department has been mostly forgotten. But now we’ve combined the records of the SWH and Home Office to recover the lives of two remarkable women.
Dr Mary Gordon, Lady Inspector of Prisons 1908 – 1921
In July 1916 Katherine Harley wrote to the Home Office asking for the services of the first woman to be appointed as a prisons inspector. Dr Mary Gordon was needed for the SWH Motor Ambulance Column heading for Salonika.
“The experience she must have gained during the ten years of supervision in the Prisons hospitals under the Civil Service will, I feel sure, be of great value in the work she would have to do for us.”1
Dr Gordon was equally keen to be released for active service, informing her employer five days before Mrs Harley’s letter that “I am not anxious to be enclosed in a hospital but I have an offer of work which I should greatly like to accept.”2
That offer, joining the SWH, seemed an ideal opportunity for Dr Gordon who had long felt underworked and undervalued in her prison inspection role: “I do not think that any part of my proper work will really suffer for my absence.”3 Her supervisors were inclined to agree.
Dr Gordon’s progressive and, in her own words, “unconventional” views on female prisoners, coupled with her friendships with prominent suffragettes had made her tenure at the Home Office a challenging period.4 Whilst accepting the need for political impartiality in her role; her interpretation of her responsibilities, vocal stance on the treatment of female prisoners under her own department’s Cat and Mouse Act (1913), and financial donations to the Women’s Social and Political Union, severely questioned her suitability to be a Civil Servant. For her supervisors her appointment was a “sop to feminism”. 5 It is clear that Dr Gordon saw the SWH as a place where her ability would be appreciated and well used, and that she associated herself with an organisation that had been “refused by the War Office” but that had “flourished and grown ever since.”6 She was looking for a place where she would fit.
Born in 1861 in Seaford, Lancashire, Mary Gordon qualified as a physician and surgeon in 1890. Twenty-four years later at the outbreak of war “women doctors made up only 2% of medical practitioners”.7 Viewing her in this context means that it’s not hard to understand why she wanted to join the SWH – an organisation that had had over 600 women doctors, nurses, VADs, and orderlies in Serbia the previous year.8
Sadly for Dr Gordon the five months she spent in the SWH do not appear to have been happy. Katherine Harley had lauded Dr Gordon organisational and discipline skills but neither appears to have been “an easy colleague” to work with, nor of being capable of taking orders.9 It also seems quite possible that the lack of discipline noted in the column was of major concern to the prison inspector, who again complained of her talents going to waste.
Mary returned to the Home Office at the end of 1916 and continued to work as a prison inspector until her retirement in 1921. Campaigning for a pay rise, equal pension rights and the right for women not to resign when they married she continued to be a thorn in the side of the Civil Service. On her retirement, she published a book on penal reform and in 1937 (four years before her death) her second novel, The Chase of the Wild Goose, was published by Virginia Woolf.
Doctor, civil servant, novelist, campaigner and suffragette – Dr Mary Gordon defies easy categorisation. What cannot be in doubt, though, is her courage and commitment to what she believed in. Whether sailing the heavily mined Mediterranean, facing the risk of zeppelin raids or tackling the conditions of prisons (and her employment), Dr Gordon was a woman of great strength and conviction. Indeed, as her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concludes she was:
“Historically significant as a pioneer of women officials at the top echelons of the prison system, she experienced great isolation and distrust even before the suffragette issue and yet remained convinced that knowledge and dedication would lead ultimately to freedom of the whole human spirit.”10

Isobel Watson Shepherd Meiklejohn: Female Factory Inspector
Isobel Watson Shepherd Meiklejohn travelled. From Shetland, to London, Morocco, Malta, Serbia, India and back to Scotland, these traces of a life well-travelled offer a tantalizing glimpse of one of the Home Office’s pioneer women.
Born in Bressay in the Shetland Isles in 1879, she joined the Home Office as a Female Factory Inspector in 1906, holding a MA and having previously been a lecturer in hygiene.11 The entry qualifications for the Factory Inspectorate were high with candidates required to pass tests in composition, arithmetic, general knowledge, and specialist knowledge of factory regulations and science. With a focus on appointing middle class educated women, many of Isobel’s colleagues, like her, held university degrees.
Factory Inspectors lived peripatetic lives, travelling across their districts to inspect the conditions of factories and the welfare of their employees. Isobel’s responsibilities included her childhood home, and records show her conducting an enquiry into illegal payment methods (known as truck) for hosiery workers which led to prosecutions across Shetland in 1909.12 Five years later in July 1914, only three weeks before the outbreak of war, Isobel was prosecuting owners of herring companies in Lerwick and Scalloway for breaching regulations on working hours.13 As the 1911 census records Isobel living in Chelsea it seems very likely that she spent the years before the war travelling between the Home Office in Whitehall and the factories of Shetland.
Clearly, travelling was a major part of her life. Passenger records for February – March 1914 show she took a month long trip to Morocco, whether for work or not is unknown but it was an interesting time to be in Morocco as opposition to French rule led to fighting in February 1914. In April 1915 she was on the move again. This time to Serbia with the SWH.
It seems very possible that Isobel’s background in hygiene informed her decision to serve as an orderly in the SWH. Serbia in the winter of 1914-1915 was enduring a typhus epidemic, thriving on poor sanitation, dirt and overcrowding caused by the dire refugee situation in the country.14 In Valjevo, 80 miles north of Belgrade, where Isobel was heading, the mortality rate in the hospitals was 70% or 150 deaths a day. Soldiers lay in unchanged dressings and “all the doctors in the town were ill”, with 21 dying in the spring before Isobel arrived.15 The SWH was needed.
Isobel was one of four orderlies who sailed in April 1915 from Cardiff in Dr Alice Hutchinson’s unit. “The Unit, drawn from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, was composed of 4 doctors, administrator, sanitary inspector, matron, dispenser, clerks, 25 nurses, laundress, 2 cooks, 4 orderlies, 2 handymen.”16
On 28 April the unit landed at Malta, diverted at the request of the War Office to help receive 1000 casualties from the Dardanelles. Just under a month later the unit set sail for Serbia, “prostrate” at leaving but “blessed by myself [the Governor Lord Methuen], surgeons, nurses, and patients alike, for they have proved themselves most capable and untiring workers.”17
At Nis the unit spent a few days living in a dusty and stuffy railway carriage, close to a concentration camp for Austrian prisoners of war. The unit finally arrived at Valjevo in pouring rain and saw that the “conditions of the hospitals were too disgusting for words.”18 Over the following days a camp of forty tents was built for the unit, until finally they were able to run up the Serbian flag, the Red Cross and the Union Jack ready for the first intake of patients “suffering from the after-effects of typhus, scurvy, untreated old wounds, and enteric”. Conditions in the camp were difficult, millions of flies swarmed, creating black masses over the walls and roof of the kitchen. Dogs plagued the camp, hunting for food, and when it rained the camp became surrounded by a quagmire of mud.19 However, over the summer conditions improved and the unit staged a costume ball and ‘at homes’ which would often end with bugle playing the Serbian national dance.20
Here too were Austrian prisoners of war working with the unit as orderlies, and it seems that Isobel become friendly with at least one, Austrian-Hungarian Medical Officer Acrèl, as he would write to her in February 1916 after her return to England in September 1915. In his letter he details the conditions of the death march across Serbia and Albania, and his eventual arrival in an Italian prisoner of war camp.21 By the time she received it she was back in Chelsea and working for the Home Office. The survival of the letter offers an intriguing insight into Isobel’s life at Valjevo. Here was a woman, a Home Office official, two thousand miles away from her life inspecting Shetland factories, giving her London address to a foreign prisoner of war. It’s tempting to ask what were Isobel’s views on the war, and how had her experiences in Serbia affected her?
The next trace of Isobel is in 1922 signing the retirement card of the Principal Lady Factory Inspector, and then finally returning from India in 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War. She died aged 78 in 1957 in Haddington, East Lothian.
1 Katherine Harley to Home Office, Letter dated 6 July 1916, National Archives, HO45/163497.
2 Mary Gordon to Home Office, Letter dated 1 July 1916, National Archives, HO45/163497.
3 Mary Gordon to Home Office, Letter dated 1 July 1916, National Archives, HO45/163497.
4 Mary Gordon, Penal Discipline, (London: Routledge , 1922), p. 70.
5 File note, 2 December 1919, National Archives, HO45/163497.
6 Mary Gordon to Home Office, Letter dated 1 July 1916, National Archives, HO45/163497.
7 Deborah Cheney, ‘Dr Mary Louisa Gordon (1861-1941): A Feminist Approach in Prison’, Feminist Legal Studies, 18:2 (2010), 115-136, p. 123.
8 Monica Krippener, The Quality of Mercy: Women at War Serbia 1915-18, (London: David and Charles, 1980), p. 91.
9 Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Katherine Harley’ in The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928, (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 275 – 276 (p. 276).
10 Bill Forsythe, ‘Gordon, Mary Louisa (1861–1941)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/56108, accessed 26 April 2014]
11 Barbara Harrison, Not Only The Dangerous Trades: Women’s Work And Health In Britain 1880-1914, (Oxon: Taylor & Francis, 1996), p. 262.
12 Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, 1909, Appendix on Truck in the Shetlands (Miss Meiklejohn), PP. 1910, XXVIII.
13 Marsali Taylor, Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, (Lulu.com, 2010), p. 237.
14 Krippener, p. 51.
15 Krippener, p. 34 and pp. 56-57.
16 British Hospital Work In Serbia: Diary Of A Member Of Dr. Alice Hutchison’s Unit in The Glasgow Medical Journal, LXXXVIII: July to December (1917), p. 20.
17 Diary, p. 23
18Diary, p. 26
19 Diary, pp. 31 – 33
20 Krippener, pp. 85 – 86.
21 Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 142 – 143.