The Ladies: Capable Women

Not all of the ladies travelling to South Africa fell into the category of ‘social butterfly’. Many travelled to South Africa with their husbands who were themselves serving in the Field Force sent to South Africa. Others took advice from government and military officials about how they might help and support the war effort, most usually by supporting the medical and nursing services.

Lady Rolleston

The experience of Lady Maud Rolleston was in stark contrast to that of Mrs Chamberlain. Lady Rolleston was married to Colonel Sir Lancelot Rolleston who was a serving officer in the Imperial Yeomanry, and whom she accompanied to South Africa. Using her skills at managing houses and estates, and her wide range of contacts, she set up a convalescent home. She was very careful to differentiate between those who needed nursing care and those who were convalescing. She made no comment on the management of the military hospital or the care patients received there, and was supported by the local hospital who were pleased to move some patients on to a more suitable environment. She also helped with letter writing and posting letters home.

Her descriptions of the routines, facilities, and the newspapers and books provided, sounded like the services the St John Ambulance welfare and Women’s Royal Voluntary Service supplied in more recent times. “One table was always laid for tea and the other was covered with books and papers, writing-paper, pens and ink, and it used to delight me to go in in the afternoon and see the men hard at work writing letters home, which I always posted for them”1. Lady Rolleston was as highly connected as Mrs Chamberlain but her approach was more effective. She opted to set up a facility that was badly needed, and refrained from interfering in the work of the military hospitals and also from commenting on them in public. The contrast between Lady Rolleston and Mrs Chamberlain was not necessarily that of intention, but rather that of the political astuteness required to achieve what they wanted.

Lady Wilson

Lady Sarah Wilson, a member of the Churchill family, was in South Africa when the Boer War commenced, and made her way to Mafeking where her husband was serving with Baden-Powell. Once casualties started arriving she offered her services to the nursing staff2. Along with Miss Crawford3 and four other women she was asked to remove convalescent patients from the hospital to make way for the wounded. The convalescents were to be taken to the Railway Institute. Miss Crawford could not stay and only visited once a day to give advice. Lady Sarah Wilson and the other women took turns being on duty.

Lady Sarah Wilson at Mafeking
‘Boer War: three soldiers with a grand lady outside her bomb-proof shelter in Mafeking. Halftone, c.1900, after F. de Haenen.’ by F. de Haenen. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

During her time in Mafeking Lady Sarah wrote regularly for the Daily Mail as well as to her family4. She drew attention to the plight of those suffering in the siege including the nurses. Newspapers worldwide wrote about her and her exploits, and in doing so also mentioned the nurses and nursing care5:

“Heroines of the war are a party of nuns who had to leave the shelter of their convent walls owing to the persistent manner in which the Boers fired thereupon, and who devoted themselves heart and soul to the tending of the sick and wounded; and with them are to be mentioned the nurses at the Mafeking Hospital”.

Lady Sarah Wilson worked hard at caring for her patients who at one point included her husband, and was herself ill for a short time2. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross for service in Mafeking as were several others. In her diaries she said that4:

“… the medal which I prize most highly is the same which the soldiers received for service in South Africa, with the well-known blue and orange striped ribbon. This medal was given to the professional nurses who were in South Africa, but I think I was, with one other exception, the only amateur to receive it, and very unworthy I felt myself when I went to St. James’s Palace with all the gallant and skilful sisterhood of army nurses to share with them the great honour of receiving the same from His Majesty in person”.

Mrs Makin

Mrs Makin was the daughter of General Vesey Kirkland, and widow of Major-General B. Fellowes. As Miss Kirkland she accompanied her father wherever he was engaged in military service; as Mrs Fellowes she travelled with her first husband to South Africa, the West Indies, and Ireland. When he died in 1879 she entered the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’s Hospital and, after a short training, was selected by Florence Nightingale to accompany Sir Frederick Roberts’ force to the Transvaal in February 1881. On her return to England she was appointed sister-in-charge of Leopold ward at St Thomas’s Hospital, and in 1882 she was seconded for service in the Egyptian war. She again returned to St Thomas’s Hospital, and in 1884 was amongst the first to receive from Queen Victoria the decoration of the Royal Red Cross. She accompanied her second husband, G. H. Makins, a well known civil surgeon, to the Boer War in 1899.

She recognised the role that ladies could play in the care of the sick and wounded, and had written to the Nursing Record and Hospital World6 to make sure people understood the real help being given by local ladies who had made sure they were at train stations when hospital trains came through to offer what refreshments they could, These ladies had made available what special treats they could for the hospitals in their vicinity even though food for themselves was scarce. Lady Rolleston also commented on how local ladies contributed7:

“There is a lady living at Wellington, a Miss Cairncross, who has done a wonderful work there during the whole of the war. She meets every ambulance train coming down with wounded or sick, and gives them fresh milk, flowers or fruit, and the nurses and patients say it is the greatest boon and blessing. She spent her own money as long as it lasted, and then asked her neighbours to help her. She was there this day, and one could see by the welcome the nurses gave her how much they looked forward to seeing her”.

The Portland Hospital

Mrs Bagot and Lady Cavendish-Bentinck were inspired to begin a voluntary mobile hospital unit for the war effort in South Africa. Lady Cavendish-Bentinck was married to Lt Col Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck serving with the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa. Mrs Bagot (later Lady Bagot) was married to Capt (later Lt Col) Josceline Fitzroy Bagot who served in South Africa as the Military Censor.

After soliciting funds for the unit (including a large donation from the Duke of Portland (Lady Cavendish-Bentinck’s brother-in-law)) they established the Portland Hospital at Bloemfontein, which operated until August 1900 when it was handed over to the military. Although Mrs Bagot had little nursing experience at the beginning of the war she was soon assisting in every aspect of the hospital and came to enjoy her work in the wards8. Like Lady Rolleston, they used their contacts, knowledge and skills to help in a way that was supportive of the military medical deployment. They took advice about the surgeons and nurses to deploy and the nurses became members of the Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service (Reserve). Mrs Bagot was happy for the nurses to teach her skills and to do what they asked of her. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross9 and appears in the Queen’s South Africa Medal Rolls for nurses10.

A group of nurses at The Portland Hospital
Group of Army nurses before a tent, Portland Hospital Credit: Wellcome  CC BY 4.0

The Portland Hospital was well regarded in the official reports from South Africa, and in the contemporary press by those who visited it, for example, James Rosslyn described a visit11:

“I next caught the train to Rondebosch, near which station (about six miles from Cape Town) the Portland Hospital is situated, determined to ascertain how it was getting on under the management of its two chief nurses, Lady Henry Bentinck and Mrs Bagot. A drive of about a mile through shady pine groves in a country interspersed with smiling villas gave me my introduction to some of nature’s finest scenery. Everywhere happiness seemed to reign, despite the war which was raging at no great distance; on all sides the birds were singing, the turtle-doves cooing, and the bright plumbago and bougainvillea twining their network of antennae in a natural growth. And then, forced upon my view, came the hospital camp of white tents, and the orderlies and nurses hurrying hither and thither in their business-like way, extending all the comforts a great and civilised nation can afford for the welfare of the men who are wounded in her cause. I sent my card in, and was at once ushered into the mess-tent where Lady Henry and Mrs Bagot were sitting, and soon I was deep in conversation with the former while Mrs Bagot ‘went the rounds.’ Imagine a dream of beauty in brown holland dress, a soft white fichu round her neck, a pretty straw hat with pale blue ribbon to match a belt of the same colour, and, over the whole, a dainty workmanlike pinafore and Red Cross armlet, and you will picture one of the angels of mercy who has given up the comfort of her home to take her share of the work (as Mrs Harter puts it) that ‘none else can accomplish but they.’ When I saw Mrs Bagot visiting the tents with a basket-load of cigarettes and other luxuries, I understood why the soldiers looked so contented and happy, and I almost hoped that if I was wounded I might occupy a cot in the Portland Hospital!”

Lady Maud Rolleston also made a visit to the Portland Hospital12:

“Lady Henry Bentinck was flitting about the Portland Hospital like a guardian angel. Many of the men told me, both here and whenever I met them in hospital afterwards, that it made them feel better only to see her come into the tents. She always wore pretty clothes, not in the least unsuitable, but simply cheerful, and not in any way suggestive of sickness or a hospital, except for the well-earned Red Cross on her arm.”

Lady Gifford

Lady Sophie Catherine Gifford was involved in the nursing care of the sick and wounded during the siege of Kimberley13,14, and was already in South Africa at the start of the Boer War. Her husband, Lord Edric Frederick Gifford was a director of the British South Africa Company. She subsequently also assisted at No. 17 Stationary Hospital in Middleburg15. After the war she continued her interest in the welfare of the sick and wounded. Princess Louise’s convalescent home for nursing sisters was opened at Hardelot in 1914 by Lady Gifford under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society, and transferred to Cannes in 1917 as a winter home for nursing sisters.

The Imperial Yeomanry Hospital

Lady Beatrice Chesham together with Lady Georgiana Curzon was instrumental in raising the funds and the establishment of the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital. The fundraising committee had the Princess of Wales as President16. When it was time to set up the hospital in South Africa it was decided that Lady Chesham would go out and supervise it17. Lady Chesham’s husband Major-General Charles Compton William Cavendish, and son Lieutenant The Honourable Charles William Hugh Cavendish, 17th Lancers (who was killed in action on the 11th June, 1900) were already serving in South Africa. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her services to nursing in 190118.

Mrs Jane Darling Leather-Culley

Mrs Jane Darling Leather-Culley was not a nurse but took great interest in their welfare. She organised a fund to pay for essential items for the nurses and then took these out to South Africa where she travelled around the hospitals giving out the items she had brought with her. She also spent time with the patients helping them write letters and doing other tasks that she was able to do to release the nurses to carry out the nursing care of the sick and wounded. She wrote about her time in South Africa19. Her son (Arthur George) served in the Boer War as a Lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards. She organised and took to South Africa many useful items for the patients, but more importantly she recognised the shortfall in the provision of items for the nurses.

The military itself, and in particular the logistics chain, had no real experience of the deployment of nurses and these two factors meant nurses were often personally ill-prepared for nursing in South Africa. The Nursing Record and Hospital World20 observed that,

“their stocks of shoes and stockings (provided by themselves) have quite given out; and it is impossible to get the former mended; also, several of the Sisters who went out before the hot season, never contemplated remaining in South Africa during the winter, and in consequence, did not provide themselves with warm under-clothing. The uniform allowance from the War Office is quite inadequate for Nursing Sisters to supply themselves with any articles of clothing excepting for outside wear, and in consequence, those amongst them who are not well off, have had to deny themselves many necessaries”.

Mrs Leather-Culley listed: “combinations, stockings, shoes, parcels of pins, needles, tapes and sundries, eau-de-Cologne, scented soap, etc.” as some of the things she appealed for and planned to take with her. One of the examples she gave in her letters was that when she arrived at the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein the nurses told her that for weeks they had been going about in knee-high mud with nothing but ordinary shoes, when what they really wanted was sea boots.


  1. Rolleston, The Lady Maud (1901) Yeoman Service: Being the diary of an Imperial Yeomanry Officer during the war. London: Smith, Elder & Co Ltd []
  2. Roberts, B. (1991) ‘Those Bloody Women’: Three Heroines of the Boer War. London, John Murray [] []
  3. The National Archives: War Office 100/229 Queen’s South Africa Medal Roll for the Victoria (Civil) Hospital, Mafeking dated pp.153-154 []
  4. Wilson, Lady Sarah (1909) South African Memories: Social, Warlike and Sporting from Diaries written at the time. London: Edward Arnold [] []
  5. The Story of Mafeking. Marlborough Express, 19 May 1900, p.4 []
  6. Letter. Nursing Record & Hospital World. 2 June, 1900. p.437 []
  7. Rolleston, The Lady Maud (1901) Yeoman Service: Being the diary of an Imperial Yeomanry Officer during the war. London: Smith, Elder & Co Ltd p.54 []
  8. Bagot, Lady Theodosia (1900) Shadows of War. London: Edward Arnold []
  9. The London Gazette, June 26, 1902; p4193 []
  10. The National Archives: War Office 100/229 Queen’s South Africa Medal Roll p49 created at No. 6 General Hospital, Johannesburg; dated July 23, 1901 []
  11. Rosslyn, James Francis Harry St. Clair Erskine, 5th Earl (1900) Twice Captured: A Record of Adventure during the Boer War. London: Blackwood and Sons p. 48-51 []
  12. Rolleston, The Lady Maud (1901) Yeoman Service: Being the diary of an Imperial Yeomanry Officer during the war. London: Smith, Elder & Co Ltd p.34 []
  13. The National Archives: War Office 100/229 Queen’s South Africa Medal Roll p149 created at The Kimberley Hospital []
  14. The National Archives: War Office Defence of Kimberley Medal Roll AG2/M/2426 p147 created at Civil Hospital, Kimberley; January 3, 1928 []
  15. The National Archives: War Office 100/229 Queen’s South Africa Medal Roll p121 created at No. 17 Stationary Hospital, Middleburg; August 8, 1901 []
  16. Army Nursing Notes. The Nursing Record & Hospital World. Jan 13, 1900. p. 33 []
  17. The National Archives: War Office 100/229 Queen’s South Africa Medal Roll p240 created at AMD; July 18, 1903 []
  18. The London Gazette, September 27, 1901; p.6324 []
  19. Leather-Culley, JD. (1901) On the Warpath: A Lady’s Letters from the Front. London: John Long []
  20. Army Nursing Notes. Nursing Record & Hospital World. 16 June, 1900. pp.477-478 []