First World War nurse, educator & textile pioneer
13th April 1978
Falmouth Cemetery; Catholic section
Violetta Thurstan, born as the eldest child of a medical doctor in 1879 in Sussex, lived a long life that was touched by some of the most notable historical events of the 20th century. She and her three younger brothers travelled with their parents and were educated partly abroad; maybe this was the seed of Violetta's interest in, and talent for, language which widened her horizons beyond that thought 'typical' for women at that time.
As a young woman, Violetta gained experience, and then trained in, the nursing profession, one of the few avenues open to young, unmarried women which allowed them respectably leave the family home prior to marriage. Violetta received her Honorary certificate for nursing in 1905, from the London Hospital at Whitechapel, then worked in the UK and Greece in the following two years. Perhaps inspired by experiences or people she met on these travels, in 1907 Violetta began studying via distance-learning courses provided by St Andrews University. Over the next six years, Violetta received awards in French, Geography and English all to Honour’s standard, and Fine Art and physiology to a pass grade - an impressive academic achievement, and one which demonstrates Violetta's determination and intelligence.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Violetta was called up for service in the British Red Cross Society, and after an initial posting in the UK, was sent to work in Brussels. Her experiences in the following years were intense: within 24 hours of arrival, she had been taken hostage by the Nazis who were poised to enter Brussels, but found a useful outlet for her nursing skills as Matron at a large hospital outside Charolais, where she nursed French and German casualties for many weeks with little equipment and even less chance to rest, until she and her fellow nurses were impelled to leave and were exchanged at the Danish border.
At this juncture, in October 1914, Violetta could have opted to travel home to the UK, but instead she volunteered with the Russian Red Cross – first at a hospital in Warsaw, then with the Volkonsky Flying Field Ambulance – which took her close to intense fighting in and around Lodz. Violetta learnt enough Russian to work alongside her fellow medics and drivers, and tended to catastrophic injuries in very challenging and often primitive conditions. The intensity of the experience drew her close to those she worked alongside, including a Russian ambulance driver, Nicholas, who she portrays as a romantic interest in her book ‘The Hounds of War Unleashed’. Sadly, their relationship did not have time to develop; Nicholas was shot and killed while driving his ambulance near the front line, in July 1915, at around the same time that Violetta and her colleagues were awarded the St George Medal in recognition of their service in the field.
Violetta had a period of recuperation from septic poisoning in the UK in early 1915, during which time she wrote ‘The People who Run’ about war refugees. She had returned to Russia by 1916 to help with distribution of medical to the refugees who had fled from the advancing Russian army, and subsequently in Belgium as the Matron of a 1000 bed hospital at La Panne for nine months, until symptoms of shell-shock necessitated her return to England in October 1917. Her final engagement with the First World War was as a matron in Macedonia, where she worked for six months until June 1918.
After the war, perhaps following-up some contacts made during her recuperation in Denmark in 1914, Violetta trained in weaving for 6 months in Sweden and a dedication to handcrafts was to be a pervasive theme in her life thereafter. In the early 1920s she was appointed as the Director of the Bedouin Industries for the Egyptian government: the length of her stay in Egypt is not clear – she left this post in either 1924 or 1927 – but her influence during her stay there was strongly felt, and she must have had many and varied experiences which were unusual for a single woman in that time.
In the interlude between the two world wars, Violetta lived first in Somerset, then in Dartford, Devon, where she kept up her interest in weaving, in which she also gave courses, but also exhibited her work, travelled, and published two books: in 1930, 'Vegetable Dyes for beginners', a book that is still in demand today, and in 1934, 'A short history of decorative textiles'. Violetta was travelling in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and was expelled from Almeria.
As the build-up towards the Second World War continued, Violetta joined the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) with a brief to take responsibility for educational duties. She travelled extensively in the UK to recruit members, set up Centres, gave lectures and organised social events, some of which were based on her handicraft talents. Her extensive knowledge of languages was put to good use when she worked with the Navy, searching ships coming in to Falmouth. She formally left Service in 1944, and then enrolled with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association (UNRRA), working to help those displaced by the war – a complex task, made more difficult by the movement of national boarders at the end of the war, and the scarcity of official personal documents of those who had fled their homes. Violetta worked between Egypt, Italy, Libya and Austria, where her knowledge of the languages and cultures of these countries, gained earlier in her life, must have been extremely important. Her role with the UNRRA did not come to an end until 1948, when Violetta was in her early fifties.
From the late 1940s until the mid 1960s, Violetta lived in Flushing, Cornwall. In 1955, she was a founder member of the Cornish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, and their President from 1957 until her death. Violetta also set up her own school of weaving at her house (Mary Mount) in Flushing, and continued to be active in giving lectures, exhibiting her work and publishing another book (‘Weaving without tears’ in 1956), in addition to finding time to follow her Catholic faith, and be President of the Women’s Catholic League of Cornwall between 1960-63.
By June 1966, Violetta was living at the Old Mill in Penryn with a female companion/housekeeper, Kathleen Defee, who developed a friendship with Violetta that lasted until her death. She published a novel that year, ‘The Foolish Virgin’, and travelled in Greece to advise on the revival of weaving as a source of economic regeneration, seemingly unimpeded by her advancing years: she was 88 years young!
Violetta continued to play a very active role in the crafting community, giving talks and tutoring courses in her early nineties, and advising a participant in 1971 that bilberries were excellent for giving a rich purple colour “if you can bear not to make them in to a pie”. She still travelled overseas, and had extensive involvement with the creation of The Dyers Garden at Probus, north of Truro, in 1976, but which sadly closed in 2004. In 1977, five days after her 97th birthday, Violetta gave a talk to the Guild, and attended the Guild's AGM in Probus in March 1978, a month before she passed away. Her obituary noted that ‘Her fragile appearance masked an indomitable spirit’ – undoubtably true, and her lasting legacy of books gives us an insight to her interests, and inspiration to follow her determined pursuit of that which is important to us.
Books by Violetta Thurstan
Field Hospital and Flying Column - April 1915
People Who Run – Being the tragedy of the refugees of Russia – 1916
A text book of War Nursing – 1917
Vegetable Dyes for beginners - 1930
Weaving patterns of yesterday and today – 1930s
A short history of decorative– 1934
Weaving without Tears – 1956
Stormy Petrel – 1964
The Foolish Virgin – 1966
The Hounds of War Unleashed - 1978.