On November 17th 1915 shortly after midday the hospital ship HMS Anglia en route from Calias to Dover was one mile off Folkestone Gate when it hit a mine which had been laid by a German U boat, UC – 5. The ship sank within 15 minutes.
Among the 134 people who lost their lives that day was nursing sister Mary Rodwell of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve whose name is among 100 from the parish and congregation of St Paul’s Church (St Paul Penge) in Hamlet Road off Anerley Hill who died in the First World War and are listed on its memorial board.
Born in Oakley on the Norfolk / Suffolk borders the 1881 census Mary Ann Rodwell (age five) is listed in the Hoxne (near Eye, Suffolk) household of Daniel Rodwell (62) as granddaughter of Daniel and Mary Ann Rodwell (54). Mary’s sister Laura Rodwell is also with them that evening (the rest of her family is in the neighbouring village of Brockdish, near Diss, Norfolk at the time) and is also listed as a granddaughter. Daniel was a drugman (chemist).
Mary and Laura (who was born February 29th 1880) had five other siblings: George baptised September 17th 1876; Kate Alice born February 11th 1878; Emma born November 3rd 1881; John born Brockdish November 1883 and Jane Elizabeth. (Mary’s mother died in 1887. John Rodwell remarried in 1901 to a lady named May.)
The 1901 census finds her living at the home of her uncle Robert Rodwell Eagle at 22 Palace Road, Upper Norwood (off Anerley Hill). Another niece of Robert Eagle, Rosa Lawrence is also recorded on the same census.
From 1901 to 1904 Mary Ann Rodwell trained at Hendon Infirmary. During her nursing career she worked at the Samaritan Free hospital in Marylebone and later in private nursing homes and as a private nurse. She was also a certified masseuse.
In June 1903 Mary and her sister Jane were witnesses at the wedding of her brother George to Mabel Gertrude Collier at Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, Laura’s future husband Benjamin Robert Bulwer is among the guests.
The church magazines are in a set of a bound copy of ‘From Hearth and Home’. Unfortunately the 1903 version has the parish magazines of another church in them!). In 1904 the church magazine records the birth of a George Rodwell at 7 South Vale, Upper Norwood but does not name the parents. Local directories record a George Rodwell living at 23 Palace Square, Upper Norwood between 1907 and 1915.)
When war broke out Mary Rodwell volunteered for foreign service, working on hospital trains from February to May 1915 after which she joined HMS Anglia, a ship owned by the London and North Western Railway Company which in peacetime had ferried passengers between Holyhead and Dublin and was being used as an auxiliary hospital ship.
In October 1915 Mary Rodwell was among nursing staff who attended on King George V on the Anglia when he was injured on his annual pilgrimage to France. His horse fell on him. He suffered a fractured pelvis and broken ribs but these were not diagnosed for several days.
On the day it sank HMS Anglia was carrying 166 cot cases – servicemen who had lost limbs – plus 200 ‘walking wounded’. There were also 56 crew and a ‘complement’ of doctors and nurses.
The bows of the ship sank so deep that one of the rescue vessels was able to pass under the bows of the still-racing propeller, enabling 40 men to drop onto it. Of these, two died before they reached shore.
The last the matron of the ship saw of Mary Rodwell was shortly before the explosion when she came up to fetch some warm woollies for her patients.
Mary Rodwell was in charge of 200 cot cases. The British Journal of Nursing stated: “Her last minutes were spent in caring for them as when the explosion came she was ministering to the wounded.” The Nursing Times reported that Mary Rodwell was injured and drowned.
One soldier who survived the sinking said: “I offered to help one nurse. I said ‘You come with me. I’m a very strong swimmer – you’ll be safe with me’ “But she shook her head and said she could not leave her men so she was with them to the last” (Nursing Times November 27th 1915 page 1457, reprinted in the Ahoy Mac – web log.)*
In a book by Joyce Walker – West Wickham and the Great War – there is a chapter on the sinking of HMS Anglia. It includes a letter to his parents from a Rifleman Laurence Ware who was on the Anglia when it was sunk. He tells how he grabbed one nurse but lost her when they were in the water together. The last the men saw of the ship was her mast on which the Red Cross flag was still flying.
The sinking of the Anglia was the first occasion in World War One where a hospital ship carrying wounded was sunk by enemy action.. Mary Rodwell’s body was never recovered. On November 29th a headline in The Times announced the casualties as ‘four officers, one nurse and 129 men’. Many of those rescued were the cot cases from the ship.
King George V’s private secretary wrote to Mary Rodwell’s father: “The private secretary is commanded to convey to Mr J Rodwell the true sympathy of the King and Queen with him in the grievous sorrow which has befallen him by the loss of his daughter in the sinking of the Anglia.
“At the same time their Majesties desire to express their admiration of the courage and noble self-sacrifice with which Nurse Rodwell met her death”
Among other tributes to her came from the matron (Mrs Mitchell) rescued from HMS Anglia who told Mary Rodwell’s (unnamed) relatives that she and the other sisters rescued from the Anglia could not speak too highly of her. (The matron and the two other nursing sisters who survived – Meldrum and Walton – would later receive the Royal Red Cross)
A friend of Mary Rodwell wrote: “Her patients filled her whole heart and soul. I never met a more lovable, unselfish woman.”
And in a letter to the British Journal of Nursing Miss Elma Smith, the matron at Hendon Infirmary where Mary had trained from 1901 to 1904, said: “We all knew what a keen sense of duty she possessed. Nothing was ever a trouble to her where her patients were concerned.”
An obituary in the Norwood News in December 1915 states: “So far as we know she is the first member of the Women’s Freedom League to sacrifice her life on active service…..She was a member of the Crystal Palace and Anerley branch of the Women’s Freedom League and her name will be held in honour and reverence by the whole league.” The branch ran a shop on Anerley Hill, Upper Norwood just up from the Paxton Arms.
At Hendon Mary Rodwell was regarded as one of the keenest members of the Nurses League. In her letter to the BJN Miss Smith referring to the “enthusiastic suffragist” had added: “There are many who can tell you how, in a quiet way, she did much for her fellow workers.”
In addition to the memorial board in St Paul Penge; Mary Rodwell’s name is (or was) also on memorials in the parish church at Ditchingham, Norfolk; Colindale hospital, north London (bronze plaque unveiled on July 2nd 1920 where Mary had once worked; recently demolished. whereabouts of plaque not yet known); on the Hollybrook memorial, Southampton which lists around 1,900 lost at sea during the First World War; and at All Saints church., Plumpton Green, East Sussex.
Her name also appears on the QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service) ‘Five Sisters’ memorial in York Minster.
The (very helpful) vicar at All Saints church. Plumpton Green is unable to shed any light on why Mary Rodwell’s name apopears on their memorial board.
*Robert Eagle, who was property master in the Crystal Palace Theatre which was housed inside the actual Crystal Palace. moved to Holme Lodge, 33 Cintra Park in 1904. He died in 1912. In his obituary in the Penge and Anerley Press a friend refers to him as ‘Tommy’. He is also described as an ardent follower of Crystal Palace FC. His wife Rebecca died in 1924. They are buried in Beckenham Crematorium, next to the grave of one Charlotte de la Mare.
The Penge and Anerley Press reported that among the many wreaths sent to Robert Eagle’s funeral was one ‘from his nephew and niece George and May’.
The funeral was attended by a handful of relatives including Mrs Rosa Notley and her husband Charles. Whether this is Rosa Lawrence is not yet known. Along with wreaths from many nephews and nieces there were also wreaths from members of the World’s League against Vivisection, of which he had been a member for 30 years, and staff at the Crystal Palace.
Official index to The Times
The Times November 18 1915
British Journal of Nursing December 11th 1915 and March 1916
Norwood News December 1915
Nursing Times November 27th 1915
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (see its roll of honour)
Ahoy Mac’s web log – naval, maritime, Australian history and more: includes the later history of U C – 5.
The Three Emperors (three cousins, three empires and the road to World War 1) by Miranda Carter published by Fig Tree (Penguin Books) London 2009.
West Wickham and the Great War by Joyce Walker (Hollies Publications West Wickham, Kent 1988)
‘In Remembrance’ article on Upper Norwood war memorial which can be found elsewhere on this website
Thanks to: staff at Bromley local studies library; Croydon local studies library; Hamish Hall and Andrea Hall; Melvyn Harrison.