In the final part of our series looking at Wimbledon's role in the First World War, we remember how a Wimbledon woman's simple idea quickly captured hearts and minds across the world.
Of all the voluntary support work for wounded servicemen by women on Britain’s home front during the First World War, one spectacularly successful initiative in Wimbledon had the greatest possible effect but the simplest possible origin.
Like most other women a century ago, Miss H. E. Hope-Clarke of Wimbledon spent a lot of time on needlework at home, especially after being temporarily disabled in an accident.
She decided to “sew for the soldiers”. One day, noticing a hole in her silver thimble she found two others in a similar state.
Reasoning that plenty of other women probably had the same problem, she decided to collect as many damaged silver thimbles and other unwanted trinkets as she could for the war effort. In a couple of years, she thought, she might raise £400 for an ambulance.
On 8 July 1915, she appealed through The Times newspaper for unwanted thimbles and jewellery. The Silver Thimble Fund was born. Another Wimbledon lady, then living in Surbiton, responded immediately, bringing in a parcel of trinkets in person. She was the first of many that day and within just a month the ambulance was assured.
From then on, not a single day passed without more contributions for the rest of the entire war. Interest in the Silver Thimble Fund rocketed.
Miss Hope-Clarke and her sister were soon joined by Lady Maud Wilbraham and a staff of volunteers. Some 60,000 thimbles were rapidly converted into two ambulances as vast quantities of trinkets arrived at the Hope-Clarkes’ Wimbledon house, which remained the fund’s headquarters for nearly the entire period of the war.
Queen Alexandra, mother of King George V, became the fund’s patron. But this was no elitist organisation and letters of support poured in from every class of society.
What had started in Wimbledon instantly became a national cause, then an international one as no fewer than 160 collecting centres were established as far away as New Zealand, Canada and China. Branches of the fund were established in the USA, South Africa and France. Vast sums were collected for Red Cross work inspired by the Silver Thimble Fund.
The fund made over 30 appeals and every one brought in contributions. Not one but 15 ambulances were supplied for the war, as well as five motor hospital launches, two dental surgery cars, and a disinfector. The hospital launches were used especially in Mesopotamia (Iraq) where Wimbledon’s own reservist troops from the East Surrey Regiment were battling against the Turks.
Another element of local voluntary work carried out in Wimbledon during the First World War
One of the ambulances was named Wimbledon and Merton, one of the hospital launches just Wimbledon. The latter was financed following a single special collection and sale of gifts day at the Wimbledon Council office in October 1916, supported by Mayor Alderman Barry. It was styled “One Wimbledon Day”.
In March that year, a solid ton of old bracelets, brooches and other items had been collected in a one-week collection at Central Hall, Westminster. By the time of the armistice in 1918, a complete radiological outfit was being constructed thanks to the Silver Thimble Fund, although it was then dropped at the request of the War Office.
As well as the frontline equipment, the fund gave huge sums towards the Star and Garter Home for totally disabled soldiers at Richmond, to St Dunstan’s Hostel for after care of the blind, to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Help Society and Navy Employment Agency to help disabled men start a new life. Many thousands more went to help disabled merchant seamen, to the Seamen’s Hospital at Greenwich and other war hospitals. Wimbledon’s own two hospitals at Copse Hill and the Nelson had their own fund-financed beds for injured servicemen.
A few years after the war, Miss Hope-Clarke moved to the USA and lived in New Orleans. There she befriended Martha Gilmore Robinson who set up the Silver Thimble Fund of America which helped injured British and American soldiers during the Second World War.
This article is the last in a five-part series as The Wimbledon Society and the Wimbledon Guardian mark the centenary of the First World War.
Part 1: When Wimbledon crowds clamoured to fight for King and country
Part 2: Wimbledon led Britain in welcoming Belgian refugees
Part 3: The "Terriers" of Wimbledon fought for the British Empire
Part 4: The Specials who kept calm and carried on regardless
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.
For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.
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