Dorset’s wartime heroine – Mabel St Clair Stobart
Pete London examines the extraordinary life of Mabel St Clair Stobart
Published in January ’15
At a time when traditional roles of British women were under great challenge, in 1915, Mrs Mabel St Clair Stobart led a wholly female medical team in the war-torn Balkan state of Serbia. She championed the suffrage movement, wrote widely and developed a deep interest in spiritualism. Twice married and widowed, she travelled widely but for sizeable parts of her life lived in Dorset.
Mabel was born in February 1862, the daughter of wealthy merchant Sir Samuel Bagster Boulton and his wife Sophia. Well-positioned in society, in 1884 she married St Clair Kelburn Mulholland Stobart. Two sons came along, St Clair Eric and Lionel Forester; the family travelled to South Africa to farm, but their remote Transvaal venture failed. Mabel returned to Britain separately in 1907, settling at Dorset’s beautiful Studland Bay; sadly, during his own passage home the following year her husband died.
A vigorous feminist, Mabel came to believe passionately in the value of women in wartime, hoping that once they’d proved as capable as men, they would secure the right to vote. She joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, recently founded with female membership to assist civil and military authorities during periods of emergency. Mabel became one of the group’s leading lights but dissatisfied with its financial arrangements, she and her supporters broke away. At her home Mabel formed the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps.
By September 1910 her team of 50 women had gone on their first exercise, encamped at Studland for a week in bell-tents and marquees; happily the weather stayed dry. From well-to-do backgrounds they may have been, but these were strong and practical ladies, not just horsey do-gooders. The Convoy Corps was concerned with first aid, and the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the front-line to hospital as quickly as possible. Most unusual for women at that time, its members engaged in marching; they also wore a uniform of blue-grey divided skirt, Norfolk jacket, helmet and haversack.
Interest, at times patronising, came from the press. The Daily Mail claimed the Studland camp was ‘the first time in history, probably’ that women were ‘under canvas, military fashion.’ Word of the Convoy Corps spread: the New York Times reported Mabel’s regime: ‘The women rose at 6am, awakened by a bugler … bandaging and stretcher drill filled up the morning, when the whole corps trooped off for a swim in Studland Bay. After the midday meal … was a lecture on elementary physiology.’
Other subjects included hygiene, signalling and ambulance work. Drill also took place, everyone ‘wheeling and turning about the field under the merciless fire of pursuing photographers,’ as the newspaper loftily put it.
In March 1911 Mabel married again, her second husband retired barrister John Greenhalgh. A second Studland camp was held but during 1912 the Convoy Corps had a chance to prove itself for real. That October, war broke out in the Balkans as Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia fought the Ottoman Empire. Mabel visited the chairman of Britain’s Red Cross, Sir Frederick Treves, offering her team’s skills to help with wounded soldiers in Bulgaria.
Sir Frederick was an eminent surgeon (see Dorset Life, December 2014 issue), but was frosty toward Mabel’s approach, believing treatment of casualties was men’s work; what business did women have near a battlefield?
Mabel took direct action. Ignoring Treves’s prejudice, with her female team she travelled independently to Serbia, and later Bulgaria where she created a hospital just behind the front near Adrianople. For funding and equipment she drew on affluent friends at home. The Convoy Corps women battled against disease, filth and language problems as well as a torrent of patients, but their hospital gave vital service until the spring of 1913 when war ended.
But in August 1914 the World War 1 broke out; by then Mabel was in her early fifties. Quickly she formed a new organisation to help with casualties from the fighting: the Women’s National Service League. Again she approached Sir Frederick Treves but once more was rebuffed, women still deemed unsuitable for front-line work.
Bypassing Treves for a second time, Mabel created two field hospitals in Belgium and one in France. But the plight of beleaguered Serbia truly touched her. The small country was under attack from Austria-Hungary and Germany, soon joined by erstwhile ally Bulgaria. In April 1915 Mabel sailed to the Balkans with a group of female doctors and nurses, to provide desperately-needed medical facilities; husband John, in his sixties, joined as the team’s treasurer.
The team established a tented military hospital at Kragujevatz, south of Belgrade, together with civilian dispensaries to help combat a typhus epidemic which had broken out. That autumn Mabel’s group was appointed to run the First Serbian-English Field Hospital, near the front. Their equipment included Ford ambulances, ox-wagons, horses and carts, and a captured Austrian field kitchen. But by then, battered by its powerful enemies, the exhausted Serbian army was in retreat. In November Kragujevatz fell, and a terrible exodus began.
Mabel’s medical team became caught up in a mass evacuation to Albania, 800 miles of rough tracks over barren desolate mountains. As well as troops, thousands of civilian refugees joined the ten-week march. Given the rank of Major and put in command of a column, Mabel treated her patients without most basic medical facilities, in mud, freezing rain and driving snow-storms.
Riding a black horse she resolutely led her men, women and children to sanctuary. It’s believed a hundred thousand people died from hunger, disease or cold during the horrific journey. Mabel’s was the only column to make the trek without losses or desertions, arriving at Scutari (now Shkodër) in north-west Albania just before Christmas.
For her determination and bravery Mabel was decorated with the Serbian orders of the White Eagle and of St Sava, and also by the Bulgarian Red Cross. In June 1916 she became a Dame of Grace of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England. She wrote and lectured widely on her experiences; her fees were donated to the Serbian Red Cross.
For the rest of the war Mabel travelled widely, spreading the word on the need for front-line hospitals and organising nursing resources. But her Dorset home with John was a cottage he owned at Studland, named Knapwynd. There the couple would regroup, spending precious time together, reading, walking and enjoying a swim as Mabel recharged herself before yet another foray.
Post-war, Mabel developed an interest in spiritualism, becoming chairman and leader of the Spiritualist Community. She also joined the council of the World Congress of Faiths. At Knapwynd she held séances with her friends, who included the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; both had lost children.
In March 1928 John died aged 74; his funeral was held at Studland’s exquisite St Nicholas church. After John’s death Mabel grew ever more involved with spiritualist matters. She seems to have spent much of her time between London and Knapwynd, but also travelled overseas now and again.
At Knapwynd too she worked on her autobiography, Miracles and Adventures, published in 1936. Even into her eighties she’d go for a dip in the bay but finally frail, moved to the Cavendish nursing home in Bournemouth. After a long life, indomitable Mabel St Clair Stobart died sixty years ago on 7 December 1954. She was buried with John at St Nicholas church; her two boys also rest there. Today, although in her own country Mabel is all but forgotten, for Serbian people she’s still a hero. ◗