Curator's Choice: Hannah Agass looks through the diary of World War I nurse Veronica Nisbet

By Ben Miller | 13 August 2014

Hannah Agass, of the Museum of the Order of St John, on the moving testimonial of Veronica Nisbet, a St John Ambulance nurse who volunteered to save soldiers’ lives during the First World War

An image of a colour cartoon from the early 20th century
Extremes meet on the gangway© Museum of the Order of St John Archive, London / kind permission of the estate of Veronica Nisbet
“The book looks like it’s been very well loved and looked through quite a few times. There’s a fair bit of damage to some of the photographs in it: they’re starting to curl up at the edges.

They’ve quite clearly fallen out and been stuck in with sellotape, which I quite like – it shows how much it was loved.

A black and white photo of a female First World War nurse
Veronica Nisbet© Museum of the Order of St John Archive, London / kind permission of the estate of Veronica Nisbet
We have a lot of diaries that are just written or might contain a few black and white images, but what I really like about Veronica’s scrapbook is that she has photographs and newspaper clippings, but also her cartoons.

She’s often taking the mickey out of situations that have happened in the hospital. You can definitely see some rivalry between those nurses who were fully qualified and the voluntary detachment nurses, who had a very limited amount of training.

One cartoon, which is my favourite, has a nurse powdering her nose in a mirror while accidentally pouring water on one of the patients.

Veronica depicts herself in a lot of them. The hospital got bombed and there’s a cartoon where you can see her in one of the huts shouting to some of the other Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses who were running off: ‘oh, don’t be silly, it’s only one of my alarm clocks.’

In Étaples, in the South of France where they were positioned, they had quite a few air raids. The hospital was then bombed twice. I really like that it finds a humorous element to a pretty scary situation.

A black and white photo of a room full of hospital beds with first world war soldiers
Surgical Ward, St John Ambulance Hospital, Etaples© Museum of the Order of St John Archive, London
She formed a troupe. She obviously was the leader of this theatrical group. There are pictures of her dressed as a fairy, among various other things, carrying out performances for the hospital staff and patients.

She kept clippings, as well, from the programmes for those, and letters and notes written to her by her colleagues.

I get the impression that she wasn’t maybe the best at nursing, but they all really liked her because she kept the morale up at the hospital. She shed light on lots of the wards.

It’s a really personable scrapbook, I think – anyone looking at it can imagine what’s going on, even though there are very few words in it.

An image of a colour cartoon from the early 20th century of someone taking a bath
The Bathroom Door© Museum of the Order of St John Archive, London / kind permission of the estate of Veronica Nisbet
The hospital was one of the British Expedition Force’s base camps. It had 20 hospitals. They also housed German Prisoners of War there.

In September 1917, while Veronica was there, there was a mutiny – Vera Brittain mentions it in her Testament of Youth.

Pretty much all the women were kept locked in the hospitals because they didn’t want them to be involved. One of the people involved was a Northumberland Fusilier who was court-martialled and shot in October for inciting the mutiny, but that was all quite hushed up.

At any one time it housed 100,000 troops. It was a stopping point between France and the Front Line. The injuries were pretty serious.

The book’s got about 64 pages. Some are fuller than others.

Veronica left it to a friend in her will and her friend wrote into the museum about 20, maybe 30 years ago, to ask if we’d like it.

A black and white photo of a first world war hospital within a rural field setting
The book will be turned into a learning resource to commemorate the 45,000 St John Ambulance volunteers during World War I© Museum of the Order of St John Archive, London
The curator picked it up from Northumberland.

Veronica was born in Newcastle and brought up in the north-east. She went to live in France for a bit after the war, where she worked as an artist.

Her brother also moved to Canada, so she went to stay with him for a while, and then she went back to the north-east when she was older and sort of retired up there, although from what her family and friends say she was always drawing and sketching.”

  • A project, Volunteers in the Theatre of War, will create an interactive learning resource based on Veronica’s experiences at the museum and online, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Find out more.

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