Women in the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation (1)

The Letters 1916-1923 team collect and publish Irish-themed letters, but we are also actively analysing the life stories of the people whose correspondence we add to our database. At the moment, we are trying to find out more about the volunteers who were involved in the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation (till spring 1919), helping to produce and ship surgical supplies for military hospitals in the British Empire, Belgium or France. In the current issue of History Ireland (Nov/Dec), we give a first impression of our current research, and there is more to explore.

In the context of Irish contributions to the First World War, the Irish War Hospital Supply Organisation (IWHSO) is particularly noteworthy because it was essentially staffed and run by women. This predominantly female war effort was very visible and well respected at the time. However, these women were often marginalised in later historiography. Re-discovering the personal or professional connections between female volunteers and their relationships with government bodies, the armed forces or the Red Cross offers a fascinating insight into early-twentieth-century social hierarchies, gender roles, and how the experience of the Great War altered them.

The war called for the active commitment of every member of society and gave women an opportunity to carry out work which had previously been male-dominated or entirely restricted to men. Newspapers and specialist journals such as The Hospital praised the “noble women workers in the war” (The Hospital, Volume 62, 21 April 1917). The report “Women of the War”, first published in 1917, painted a colourful and differentiated picture of female wartime labour as it highlighted the achievements of women in fields as diverse as nursing, science and car repairing.

40 Merrion Square, Dublin, location of the former Irish War Hospital Supply Depot

Although wartime charities were frequently presided over by aristocratic patrons, many women who occupied influential managerial and secretarial positions were in fact members of well-to-do Protestant and Catholic middle-class families whose education and social skills were highly valued. In the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot in 40 Merrion Square, which was the main depot for medical supplies in Ireland, Letitia Overend, the daughter of an affluent Protestant solicitor, and Eleanor Dallas Pratt (née Palles), the Catholic wife of a respected Dublin surgeon, served as Honorary Secretaries. In this capacity, Eleanor Dallas Pratt and Letitia Overend took care of official correspondence with tool dealers, government officials and different customers across the British Isles. The Manchester Central Library, for instance, have kindly permitted us to digitise letters from a three-sided correspondence between the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot, the Belgian Funds Committee in Manchester, and the Belgian Red Cross in London. The Belgian Funds Committee, represented by John H. Billinge as Hon. Secretary and Treasurer, arranged for the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot, represented by Eleanor Dallas Pratt, to regularly ship medical items to the Belgian Red Cross in London, where they were used to treat wounded Belgian soldiers. The bound volume of Belgian Red Cross letters kept in Manchester also contains detailed lists of all dispatched supplies alongside letters of thanks or supplication from soldiers and their families. The letters on behalf of the Belgian Red Cross were written by M. Albert Maeterlinck and C. E. R. Abbott. Maeterlinck was a Belgian national and returned home in January 1919. We are looking forward to making this correspondence public soon.

Besides, we have we have been able to draft a family tree of Eleanor (Bruce) Dallas Pratt’s birth family on the basis of the Irish census and testamentary records, but we need your support in completing it.

Draft family tree of the Palles family, the birth family of Eleanor (Bruce) Dallas Pratt, who served as Hon. Secretary to the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot in Dublin.

Eleanor’s son, Captain Mervyn Palles Pratt, died in his twenties, and we do not know if her daughter ever married. Descendants of Andrew Christopher Palles are now living in Australia, but we would also like to learn about family members in Ireland. If you know more about Eleanor Dallas Pratt or other women who volunteered in the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot in Dublin or local workrooms, please get in touch.

We will be glad to feature your stories on our website. Your contribution could help us uncover some of the hidden lives of Irish women a century ago and give us a better understanding of volunteering and charitable work during the First World War.

Further reading:

Burke, Tim. “The Other Women of 1916.” 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, 14, no. 5 (Sep/Oct) (2006). https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-other-women-of-1916/.

Department of the Director-General of Voluntary Organisations. National Scheme of Co-Ordination of Voluntary Effort Resulting from the Formation of the D.G.V.O. Department, Appendices 3 and 4 : Being a Detailed Record of the Work of the Recognised Associations. London, 1920. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.31951002310080a.

Hendley, Matthew C. “Peter Grant. Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War: Mobilizing Charity.” The American Historical Review 120, no. 2 (April 1, 2015): 718–19. https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.2.718.

McLaren, Barbara. Women of the War. New York, [c. 1918]. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t3rv12j4c.

Sanz, Catherine. “How the War Became Irish Women’s Work | Ireland | The Times.” The Times, March 21, 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-women-became-nation-s-war-backbone-tcg9njh68?t=ie.

Thom’s Irish Who’s Who :A Biographical Book of Reference of Prominent Men and Women in Irish Life at Home and Abroad. Dublin, 1923. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/bc.ark:/13960/t7dr37617.

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