20th Century

Flora Sandes (1876-1956)

Ever heard of a British woman fighting on the Serbian front line in WWI? Read on to discover more about this fascinating woman with a true passion for adventure…Bvdy4N0CUAAR8nlFlora was born into a hardworking middle class family from Yorkshire. Eschewing the normal forms of amusement for little girls, Flora adored horse-riding and shooting. She spent hours out of doors, running wild through the woods and fields around her home. Flora wished she had been born a boy so she could become a soldier, but this of course was absolutely impossible at the time. As she grew older, her sense of adventure and desperation to see more of the world could not be abated. As soon as she turned eighteen, Flora used her secretarial skills to travel to Cairo, across British Colombia and the United States. On her return she became of the first women in Britain to obtain a driving license and bought a French racing car. She joined the shooting club and trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

Flora’s first opportunity for adventure was on the horizon. In July 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and the European powers agreed to send support. Flora soon found herself on the way to the front line in Serbia as part of St. John’s Ambulance. Working on the front tending to the sick and wounded, at first Flora communicated using only sign language. By October of the following year however, Flora was fluent in Serbian. She joined the Serbian Red Cross, working for the 2nd Infantry Regiment- known as the ‘Iron Regiment’ because it spent so much of their time at the front. Flora showed such courage and fortitude that she was soon regarded as an invaluable resource for the Serbian troops. The war was going very badly, and as the army was pushed further back through the Albanian mountains, Flora was able to become more and more the soldier she had always dreamt of being.

Flora Sandes portrait with medalWomen were actually allowed to join the Serbian Army, something that would never had been allowed back in Britain. Flora jumped at the first opportunity to join as a private in the infantry. No British woman had ever done so before, so it really was an extraordinary thing to decide to do, in the midst of a war. The Serbs in turn greatly appreciated Flora’s commitment and many skills. She was the utmost professional, game for everything, but also had a humour and humility that endeared her to soldiers from all ranks. For the Serbs she personified Britain’s commitment to help them in their hour of need. Flora was also fantastically brave. She was twice mentioned in Dispatches, and was awarded the Serbian equivalent the Victoria Cross for her bravery during a particularly vicious attack. This attack left her seriously wounded from twenty-eight individual shrapnel injuries down one side. By this time she had been promoted to the rank of Sargeant- Major, and on sick leave in England, raised as much money as possible for her beloved Serbian troops. She returned to the front line in May 1917.

After the war ended Flora became the first woman or foreigner to be raised to the rank of Captain in the Serbian army. It was a huge honour, and Flora was delighted to be given command of her own platoon. In 1922 Flora left the army as the Serbian forces were scaled back after the war. Flora returned to England, but felt very out of place. She said ‘I felt neither fish not flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on woman’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ Living on her army pension, she survived by teaching and writing her second autobiography.


Flora with Yurie (sandesancestry.net)

In 1927 she married a Serbian called Yurie Yudenitch who had been a Colonel in the White Army and had escaped Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They had met when Yurie was serving in Flora’s regiment, and they had fallen deeply in love. The couple moved to Paris where Flora worked for a time as a chaperone for young ladies at the famous Folie-Bergere bar. Flora and Yurie then moved to Belgrade where Flora worked as one of the city’s first taxi drivers. She also spoke about her experiences in the Serbian Army extensively, lecturing all around the world. She always gave her talks in her Captain’s uniform, which she wore with great pride.

When WWII broke out, having refused to leave Yogoslavia, Flora was arrested and imprisoned by the Gastapo. Flora later recalled of prison life: ‘There were fourteen women in that room–British and Serb. There were also streetwalkers and so on, but we were bound together by our common misfortunes and became good comrades.’  Later one of Flora’s cell mates recalled that she ‘possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully.’  After her release she had to report weekly to the Gastapo. Devastatingly Yurie fell ill soon after her release and died of heart failure.

bhbFlora was forced to endure three and a half years of solitude in Belgrade, cut off from friends and family. When the war  ended Flora was free to return to England, but without her beloved husband, it was a difficult decision. However her sense of adventure had not diminished, and so Flora decided to go and live with her nephew in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She loved living there but was forced to leave after only a few months as the locals were appalled to find her smoking and drinking with the African locals, in a fashion that was deemed totally unacceptable! Flora reluctantly returned to England, where she lived out her remaining years dreaming of more adventures. She even renewed her passport in the months before her death in 1956, in the hope that she might get to explore more of the world.

A real heroine of the First World War!

Categories: 20th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014)

avt_deborah-devonshire_9082Last month saw the sad news of the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has personal heroine of mine since I began to read the novels of her sister Nancy Mitford at school. As I learnt more about anecdotes and antics of her family, I developed a real soft spot for their youngest daughter, Deborah. I thought a short piece on her life might be interesting. Variously known in society as ‘Debo’, as the saviour of Chatsworth House, and as an all round ‘good egg’, Debo was a national treasure; and shall be remembered warmly in the hearts of many.

Our heroine was born the Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford. She was the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, who became stars of the literary and political social scene in pre and post war London. Daughter to the 2nd Baron Redesdale, the ever growing Mitford family grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, They enjoyed a rough and tumble kind of life, surrounded by numerous ponies, dogs and chickens. With six older sisters and one brother, Debo was reminded at every opportunity that the Mitford’s would have loved another son. None of the sisters were educated beyond reading, writing and learning to hunt, but luckily they all ended up highly proficient in all three disciplines. Always happiest out of doors, Debo adored all animals. The younger children concocted many secret languages, stories, family jokes and nicknames with which to entertain themselves. Their unique humour and sharp wit made them a hit with friends and peers alike.  Debo was routinely terrorised by her older siblings, especially by the acid tongue of the eldest Nancy; who was soon to become a successful novelist. Nancy (pictured below) had a wickedly sharp humour, and was idolised by Debo.

The family already knew the Churchills, the Kennedys and Evelyn Waugh. As Debo’s older siblings, Nancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, and Jessica (known as Decca) grew older and began to socialise in 1930’s London, Debo was introduced to even more extraordinary characters.  But the political scene in London was changing, and two of the older sisters, Diana and Unity, became infatuated with the cause of the right wing Nazi movement in Germany. Both went to stay for a time in Germany, and Debo and her mother visited Unity there. It was at this time, in 1937, that Debo took tea with  none other than Hitler himself. Unity had fallen deeply in love with the despotic ruler, and the pair chatted away for hours. However but Debo recalled that the ‘atmosphere was rather awkward because neither my mother nor I could speak German’. Hitler made little impact on Debo, and in general she did not take an active interest in politics, saying to one newspaper ‘Well, I’ve never been very interested in politics, you see….and the truth is that I didn’t give it much thought. If you sat in a room with Churchill you were aware of this tremendous charisma. Kennedy had it, too. But Hitler didn’t – not to me anyway’.


Debo, far left, and her sisters

Diana Mitford caused a tremendous scandal when she divorced her Guinness husband, and married instead Oswald Mosley, Leader of the British Union of Fascists. During the Second World War both Diana and her second husband were imprisoned for their extreme right wing views. Unity was in Berlin when Hitler declared war on England, and in despair of the thought of her beloved Germany at war with England, she shot herself in the head with a gun Hitler  had given her. She suffered severe brain damage but the family were able to get her back to England and care for her. Never fully recovering, she died in 1948.

Debo had always been particularly close to her sister Decca, who was only a few years older than her. Decca grew into a very left wing mindset, often clashing with Diana and Unity. At the age of 17 she ran away from home, eloping to America with Esmond Romilly, a committed left wing activist.  One newspaper reported wrongly reported that it was Debo, not Decca, that had run away to marry across the pond. The Mitford’s jumped into action, suing the newspaper for damaging Debo’s marital prospects; for which they were made to pay her the grand sum of £1000. Debo later admitted ‘That really was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Just wonderful: £1,000 was a huge sum of money in those days’. But her relationship with Decca was never to recover from this betrayal. In the end greater sadness was in store for Decca, as her young husband was killed in the war in 1941. She never returned to live in England, choosing to stay in America.

It was during the war that Debo ‘came out’ and enjoyed her first London season. It was at one of these grand parties that she met her future husband, Andrew Cavendish: ‘That was it for me’, she later wrote, ‘the rest of the Season passed in a would-he-wouldn’t-he be there sort of way; nothing and nobody else mattered’. They married in London in 1941 during the Blitz, in a ball-room with shredded curtains, the floor covered in broken glass. Andrew was the younger Cavendish heir, and Debo married him in the belief that they would probably be ‘terrificially poor’, but at least they could enjoy having lots of dogs. Debo lost many close friends to the war, as well as her only brother Tom; who was shot dead in Burma by a single bullet through the neck. Andrew’s brother was also killed in the war, meaning that Debo and her young husband faced a future as Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. When Andrew’s father died in 1950, the couple were saddled with not only grand titles and the gorgeous house and estates of Chatsworth, but with millions of pounds of inheritance tax and death duties.

Deborah_Mitford_Duchess_of_Devonshire_with_familyAfter moving into Chatsworth, Debo developed a real prowess for business, a talent never considered a necessity in the pre-war partying years of her youth. The Mitfords were from a class of English family had rarely been forced into work. But as a Cavendish Debo proved her worth. The couple set about opening Chatsworth to the public for the first time in its long history, setting a precedent for many other country estates which had fallen on hard times since the end of the war. Restoring the house to its former glory and opening a farm shop, cafe and restaurant on site, Debo worked tirelessly to improve the management of the estate and make Chatsworth self sufficient. It it now a shining example of how a stately home with a large amount of land can be an important provider of jobs and tourism to rural England.

The Duke and Duchess entertained many eccentric and influential people in their home. Debo became very close friends with Lucian Freud, and used to bring him eggs from the country when she visited his flat in London. His portrait of her has become very well known.


Despite her lack of education, and the fact that she claimed never to have read a book in her life, Debo proved a dab hand at writing. She published several popular books over the years, including several books about Chatsworth House, ‘The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters’ (2007), ‘Home to Roost, and Other Peckings’ (2009), and her excellent biography ‘Wait for me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister’ (2010).

The Duke once told an interviewer ‘wonderful things have happened in my life…When I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what. Now my idea of Heaven, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the hall of Brooks’, having tea’. After he passed away in 2004, Debo became the Dowager Duchess, and moved into a house on the estate. Her son Stoker, became the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and continues Debo’s hard work with his wife Amanda. Debo was still involved in the management of the house and estate, and continued to write and give interviews until very recently.

At her passing, the Prince of Wales offered this unusually personal and moving epitaph: ‘My wife and I were deeply saddened by the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whom both of us adored and admired greatly. She was an unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality. The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we can miss her so very much.’ Couldn’t have said it better myself.


Debo feeding her beloved chickens

Categories: 20th Century, 21st Century, Amazing Women in History | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911)


Sir Francis Galton was a powerhouse of science, producing over 340 books and papers on a variety of subjects including hereditary genetics, inheritance of intelligence, and anthropological studies into characteristics of the human subject. He conducted one of the first mass data collections on the ‘subject’ through the use of surveys and data analysis, attempting to chart hereditary behavioural patterns.

Galton’s grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, and his half cousin was Charles Darwin. The Galton’s were a distinguished family of Quakers who were mostly bankers and gun-makers. Galton however, who was something of a child prodigy, was instantly drawn to the study of science, the body and mathematics. He studies both medicine and mathematics before his father died in 1844. This left Galton financially independent, and he was able to explore several avenues of scientific exploration. He also travelled extensively, from Eastern Europe, Eygpt, the Sudan and down the Jordan. He began to publish books about his adventures, some of which proved very popular, and one (‘The Art of Travel’) is still in print today. 

In 1853 Galton met and married Louisa Jane Butler (1822-1897) but the couple did not have any children. 


For me the most fascinating aspect of Galton’s varied professional life was his studies into human variation and his theory of Eugenics; which is now viewed as rather absurd but proved very popular at the time. Galton was inspired by Darwin’s 1859 publication ‘The Origin of the Species’ which hinted on this subject when discussing the breeding of domestic animals. Galton’s fascination with the idea of the survival of the fittest inspired him to undertake large scale data analysis. He surveyed thousands of people, producing theories from the data he meticulously collated.

Most of these subjects came from the lower classes, who had had little or no contact with the state before. They had very little visibility beyond records of their birth and death, with very little statistical evidence to plot any trends in the life, health or reproduction of these lower classes. Therefore there was a certain amount of anxiety from the middle classes about their apparent lawlessness, poverty and ill-health.

Visualisation of the subject in this way was facilitated by the vast expansion in state controlled hospitals, schools and prisons. Although set up with the intention of providing for the public’s needs, these state apparatus recorded each patient, student or convict as they entered the institutions, therefore increasing the visibility of the subject. They recorded ages, heights, addresses, and any previous convictions. This information was then used freely, and without the subject’s prior knowledge, to make hypothesis about any hereditary characteristics that they might be passed on to any current or future offspring. 


Galton himself coined the term ‘Eugenics’ in 1883 in his book ‘Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Developments’. The term refers to the the belief that the genetic population of the world can be consciously improved. Those considered ‘positive’ citizens, hard-working with no genetic or hereditary health problems, would be encouraged to reproduce. Those considered ‘negative’ citizens, the homeless or unemployed, those with a mental or physical disability, would be actively or forcefully encouraged not to reproduce. Galton gave examples of this group of people, ‘the lunatic, idiot and pauper asylums, the prisoners, the patients in hospitals…the crippled, the congenitally blind.’ Galton encouraged these lower echelons of society, the ‘residuum’ not to reproduce.  This was described as ‘Negative Eugenics’. These people would be encouraged to live apart from the ‘normal’ sections of society. They would be encouraged or forced into sterilisation. As the popularity of the Eugenics movement grew, this did begin to happen, but it was never a universal policy in Britain. Eugenics proved to be rather popular with the middle classes, who were anxious about the apparent barbarism of the lower classes. By claiming that these sorts of people were lost causes, they could feel better about their complete lack of sympathy or practical aid to help them out of their position. 





Galton used photography to try and categorise was he called the ‘Criminal Type’. By collecting a vast number of photographs and creating a composite by merging the images together, he thought he had caught an image of what a criminal type looked like. The plan was to use this to stop future crimes. Of course such a scientific proposal would now be thought of as laughable. Indeed Eugenics received continual criticism despite its popularity amongst the middle classes. Its lack of scientific proof and the fact that it was a clear attack people’s human rights meant that it was considered by many to be a dangerous movement. Its policies mirror those of the Nazi party in their treatment of ‘undesirables’ during the Second World War. Indeed after the war, the popularity of the Eugenics movement would never recover.




In 1909 Galton was knighted, and he continued to work on his theories until his death two years later. University College London holds most of Galton’s papers and his composite photographs. Having recently been open again to academics, it provides a wealth of research opportunities into Galton’s life and theories. 



Categories: 20th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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