#whitefeather diaries
Hilda Clark

About Hilda Clark

Hilda Clark grew up in an affluent Quaker family in the village of Street in Somerset. Her family had founded Clarks' Shoes in the nineteenth century. In the face of prejudice against working women, Hilda qualified as a doctor. 

Hilda was 33 when war broke out. A strong pacifist, she was firmly opposed to the war and appalled by the suffering it caused. She was instrumental in setting up the Friends War Victims Relief Committee and provided humanitarian assistance to civilians caught up in the war.

Falling out with the committee

Tuesday 22 March 2016
Hilda Clark

As Hilda struggled with the spread of typhoid in France she also faced problems from a different direction – Britain. There are hints in her letters that the tension had been building for a while and as the year went on she found herself in open conflict with the people administering the Friends War Victims Relief Committee at the Quaker central offices in London.

She wrote to her friend Edith in a letter that gives a sense of just how many problems she was dealing with and how little time she had for all her work.

Volunteers for the Friends War Victims Relief Committee pack tea to send to people displaced by the war. © 2015 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

A combination of too much work and too little certainty makes one disinclined for writing letters, but I had so much to do and I have had to leave so much undone that I really can't say I have been any busier than usual.

Things have got so wrong between us and the London Committee that if I could be sure of getting out again I should try to get back to see them as soon as the other doctors come.

We hoped our difficulties with the authorities were over but I am rather afraid they are not, and we only have a very few of the long waited-for workers back at their jobs. The London Office appears to have forgotten the existence of the two doctors for whom I was waiting so anxiously – one of whom I know was ready to start last Wednesday.

I went to Paris last Saturday to meet Dr Kerr on his way back from Samoëns and to make arrangements for the new workers coming out. On Monday I went back to see to things at Châlons and Sermaize, finally reaching Sermaize at 9.30 in the most utter darkness of black pelting rain, and found my way to La Source by a combination of good luck and country-bred eyes, which did not save me from getting very wet in the deep pools of water of which that strip of road – always one of the worst round here - is full. One could steer by the tops of the trees but it was good luck not to meet anyone coming the opposite way. I am now on my way back to Paris to see about various things.

Mr Shewell is now doing the Paris work. I also have to see the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation, Professor Sabine, about the tuberculosis question, and M. Verde Delisle, who helped us when we first came out, about our present difficulties. We are going to have a Committee, and Friday afternoon I have to see patients for Samoëns. If Dr Macphail has not come by then I shall have to go to Samoëns myself until she does. Otherwise I shall come back to Châlons and Sermaize on Saturday and go to Troyes on Sunday.

Our workers in Troyes - who are starting a scheme of selling furniture to the refugees so as to enable them to save the exorbitant prices they are now paying for furnished rooms, or for hire for furniture – find the health has suffered very much more there than anywhere else we have been, and we are arranging for a district nurse to work there as soon as she can get permission to go there. I expect to find suitable cases for Samoëns there.

Although we have only Hilda's side of the story, she seems to have been frustrated with what she perceived as inefficiency and bureaucracy. In chaotic situations it can be hard to see the bigger picture. Inadequate communication, especially in wartime, can lead to misunderstandings and internal conflict. Poor information from the field can lead to unwise decisions by distant bodies. Can you think of a modern day example of such dissonance?

Copyright: This is an extract from a letter from Hilda Clark to Edith Pye. It can be found in War and its Aftermath: Letters from Hilda Clark (Friends' Book Centre, 1956), edited by Edith Pye. 

volunteer with small children in Samoens
Tuesday 29 March 2016

As Quaker relief work in France extended, Hilda chose to move from where she had been working to Sermaize, where life was slightly calmer but facilities more basic despite increasing levels of illness in the area. In one of her last surviving letters from the war years, she said that some things are too complicated to explain in writing.

Family fleeing Oise with their belongings
Tuesday 15 March 2016

Hilda was busy working with refugee mothers and children in France. In July she wrote to her parents in Somerset to congratulate them on their golden wedding anniversary. She apologised for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely. 

Volunteers loading up mattresses for distribution
Tuesday 8 March 2016

Hilda continued to work with refugee children after her return to France. 

Maternity ward, Châlons-sur-Marne
Tuesday 1 March 2016

Hilda saw her work as a form of pacifism in action but was concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription.

children fleeing a town
Wednesday 11 November 2015

Despite rejoicing in aspects of her work, Hilda's letters from France in 1915 make several references to struggling with negative emotions. It's not only the suffering around her that gets her down – she also seems dismayed with the pro-war sentiments coming from Britain.

Furniture being distributed to refugees as soldiers pass along the road behind
Wednesday 4 November 2015

Hilda's letters from France contain almost no reference to the reactions she received as a female doctor, despite this being unusual at the time. At a time when most people had never travelled in a car, Hilda further challenged gender roles by regularly driving one. Here's one letter from May 1915, sent to her friend Edith in London.

Relief workers building a new section at Sermaize Château Hospital
Wednesday 28 October 2015

Hilda, a Quaker doctor from Somerset, was working in France with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. She had re-established the group to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the war. This humanitarian response unit worked with civilians close to the front line, offering practical support on the basis of a common humanity.

In the spring of 1915 she wrote home to her friend Edith Pye.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Hilda was seeing extreme suffering in France. Continuing to work as a doctor and to organise other pacifist volunteers, she expressed her feelings in another letter to her friend Edith.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Amidst fears of German troops reaching the town, Hilda's tasks seem to have included keeping everyone calm, as shown by an early letter to her friend Edith.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

It was October before Hilda and her comrades obtained permission from the French and British authorities to travel to France to support civilian victims of war.

Wednesday 6 August

While some Quakers sought to save lives by campaigning against the war, others wanted to help war victims directly.

Related Materials

Group of people pack tea
Tuesday 22 March 2016

Quakers were divided in various ways during World War I. Some who were sympathetic to the government and the war were critical of the behaviour of more radical Quakers. This letter appeared in The Times on 19 February 1916.

Latest Tweets

29th Mar
Illness has increased very much everywhere and the medical side of the work is getting pressed https://t.co/CC3s6Cx6NR #WW1 #whitefeather
29th Mar
Mud pervades everything but I expect I shall soon get used to it https://t.co/CC3s6Cx6NR #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
I also have to see the representative of about the tuberculosis question https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
We are arranging for a district nurse to work in Troyes as soon as she can get permission https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather
22nd Mar
Things have got so wrong between us and the London Committee https://t.co/CZpeJEugx9 #WW1 #whitefeather