By Steve Smith
This blog is primarily an update to my blog on the Women Foundation members published back in January 2020. And yet it’s much more than that since it is also a potential revelation, at least in Toc H history terms. It won’t rock the academic world of history and historians but it does at least give me a little frisson of excitement.
First some context. Foundation members of Toc H were those men – and clearly, as this article demonstrates, women – who visited the original Talbot House whilst it was open between December 1915 and December 1918. Now, immediately I am faced with one uncertainty. Were they only Foundation members if they later joined Toc H the post-war organisation, or were they Foundation members simply by the fact they visited the Old House during the war? If the former, were there many – men and women – who visited the Old House during the war but never joined the post-war movement and thus are not counted as Foundation members?
Then the biggest issue about knowing who the Foundation members are is how their visits were recorded. There are a few official records such as the Officer’s Book where those officers who stayed in the House were recorded and also the slips completed by those who took communion in the chapel. As you may know about half of these were lost when the sandbag containing them went missing during a fraught time at the house. Nonetheless these records containing several hundred names, formed the original register compiled by people like the Reverend Richard Ridge and used by Tubby to make contact when he wished to reopen a Talbot House in the UK. Otherwise the names of Foundation members came from those who by their own volition recounted visiting the House. Jan Louagie and others are doing much to build a complete list of such people from these various sources though there is a long way to go.
However, as far as female Foundation members go, it has long been established that there were eight women whose names could be listed as such. This figure varied a little in the early days. In 1930 Tubby says ‘six nurses’, a figure which survived as late as the 1951 Annual Report. However by the time Alison Macfie came to write her first history of the League of Women Helpers in 1956, eight names had been settled upon. Those names are as per Macfie’s book and echoed in my blog linked above.
When I was researching a more recent blog on War Service Clubs I was astonished to find the following newspaper cutting.
The cutting that started this blog – Middlesex County Times November 1940
Here, literally in black and white, Mrs Grey-Clarke claims to have visited Talbot House during the Great War. And that’s it really. I have no further evidence to support her claim. In fact I can pick holes in the information given in that the British Legion did not form until 1921 so she was certainly not serving with them during the war. At the time of writing this blog, the British Red Cross VAD database has been offline for some months and is likely to remain so for a few more weeks, so I can’t even check if she was listed working in Belgium with the Red Cross or a similar organisation.
It is possible then, that Mrs Grey-Clarke is lying, or that the newspaper somehow got the wrong end of the stick. But I have no reason to make that assumption and it is also quite possible that Mrs Grey-Clarke is in fact the ninth woman Foundation member of Toc H. On that basis I will tell you a little about her life.
She wasn’t born Grey-Clarke of course! She was actually born as Marjorie Muriel Ashmore Kean in South Africa on the 16th August 1895. She was still only 19 when she married for the first time, wedding Henry Harold Cox on the 28th April 1915 in Durban, her home town being Pietermaritzburg at the time. Sometime after that she apparently signed up with one of the women’s medical services where, as Marjorie Muriel Cox, she served in Europe and, by her own account, visited Talbot House. Later sources say she worked in hospitals in South Africa and on hospital ships but she must also have served in French or Belgian hospitals to have visited TH.
We next pick her up in 1923 when – now divorced from Henry – she comes to England as a teacher and lives with a family called Grey-Clarke in Manor Park, Lewisham. One of the sons, Captain Edmund Frewen Grey Clarke, had gone to Canada as a boy and later served in the Canadian army. He caught TB in France – he was not gassed as one later newspaper article claimed – and somewhere along the line became a patient of Muriel. He remained in poor health for the rest of his life. They wed in the Lewisham area in the last quarter of 1926. Incidentally their surname is given sometimes as just Clarke, sometimes Grey-Clarke and occasionally Gray-Clarke.
The couple move to South Zeal on Dartmoor (though they maintain a London address) where they become very involved in community life. In particular, both are deeply ensconced in the work of the British Legion and Muriel was also a member of the local Women’s Institute. It was to the Legion she devoted most of her time and in the spring of 1936 became Organising Secretary for the South Western Region. Aside from this Muriel ran Brownie’s packs, produced Am-Dram plays and was a proficient public speaker often sermonising on the benefits of co-operation and comradeship in public service.
Around 1938 she and Edmund appear to be separated and will eventually divorce and Muriel seems to locate more permanently to the London area, specifically Ealing.
In September 1939 she joined the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and organised six warden’s posts becoming Deputy District Warden for Ealing District E. She is living in Queen’s Road at the time. It was almost certainly in the ARP that she met Frederick Charles Barrell, the Chief Warden for the district. She would later marry Mr Barrell (who was generally known as Charles)
In 1940, and living in Hillcroft Crescent which adjoins Queen’s Road, Muriel was appointed joint organiser of the Women’s Voluntary Service in that borough. Come November – and described as head of the Ealing WVS – she was establishing a Social Centre based on the ideals of Talbot House which she knew from visiting it during the Great War. The Ealing branch of Toc H were helping her with her mission. The branch’s hall at Northfields was made available to the WVS so they could offer services to those who had lost their homes in the ongoing Blitz. Toc H members were there to help out. And that small piece of information from a single newspaper cutting forms the entire basis of this short article.
All we know about Muriel after her third marriage and after the war is that in the summer of 1945 she retired as Honorary Secretary Southern Area Women’s British Legion and she died in Horsham in late 1986.
I simply don’t know why Marjorie Cox’s name didn’t appear with the other eight when Alison Macfie listed them in her books. Had she gone through her life without ever coming into contact with Toc H again, then I could perhaps understand it but we know she knew Toc H in Ealing during World War II. Perhaps it was because she was never a member – preferring it seems to hitch her wagon to the British Legion, the Women’s Institute, and the Women’s Voluntary Service. However, in my original article about the eight Foundation Women I found no definitive evidence to suggest all eight were tied in with Toc H after the Great War; the Macfies, Dorothy Allen, Rose Stapleton and Kate Luard certainly but the other three, perhaps, perhaps not! It is a small mystery that may one day be solved but until then I hope I have given Marjorie a little of the credit she deserves.
Grateful thanks are due to members of the Ancestry UK Discussion facebook group who helped me track down certain details about this sometimes elusive, oft-married, lady.