"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: The Red Cross

With the coming of war in August 1914, most of the eligible young men in Great Village quickly signed up to go overseas. Many of them first drilled in Truro, then trained further at Aldershot or Valcartier. By early 1916, quite a few of the lads had already crossed the Atlantic to England, then the Channel to France.

Almost immediately the women of Great Village, like most of the other communities in Nova Scotia, got themselves organized to help the Red Cross,(1) which does such good work for all the boys in Europe. The overwhelming desire was to do something tangible to support the brave lads. Since the early months of 1915 the Great Village Red Cross Knitting and Sewing Society has been meeting every Monday evening.

Great Village has had a sewing club for decades. Mail order catalogues mean that some folks can order their clothes ready-made, and several village merchants offer a wide range of clothing and footwear, and the professional tailor and dressmakers have plenty to keep them busy; yet many families still must produce their own shirts and dresses and underwear. The village has some of the best seamstresses in the county. It only seemed logical and patriotic to carry over the work of the sewing club to war work. The war has swelled its ranks though, and since the first meeting a membership of over forty ladies, single and married, have been knitting and stitching at a great rate.

The Great Village Red Cross Society is only one of dozens in Nova Scotia, hundreds across the Dominion, giving thousands of women purposeful and practical work in aid of the war. To keep the boys warm, dry and clean, to bring them comfort of some kind, is an expression of patriotism its members fully endorse.

The army needs every pair of socks the members can knit and the Great Village ladies have already knit 215 pairs. But the society members do much more than knit socks. Members make surgical gowns, pyjamas, convalescent robes, pillow cases, and miles and miles of bandages and dressings. There has even been an occasional quilt. Every six months or so the members pack up the socks and bandages and ship them to headquarters in Halifax.

Each society raises all its own money to buy materials by holding suppers and sales. But there are also subscription drives for special projects. Last year a campaign was conducted by all the Red Cross Societies in Colchester County to buy machine guns for overseas. $3,000 was raised for the purchase of three Lewis guns. This local effort was part of a larger national one, which raised a large amount of money. This spring one of the guns was allotted to the 64th Battalion, Lieut. Col. J. Montgomery Campbell commanding. The other two guns went to the 40th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Great Village Society is now conducting its own subscription campaign to raise money for the purchase of another gun, a Bren gun. A number of the young ladies are out and about collecting the money, and so far they have succeeded in getting over $50. The children of the Great Village school have pitched in wholeheartedly too, and are raising money by holding a fair and sports day, which includes an auction of old toys brought in by each child. It will take several more months to raise the full amount, but the Society hopes to forward the money early in 1917.(2)

Society members knit and sew in their homes every day, but the weekly meetings give them a chance to come together for encouragement, advice and even a bit of rivalry: who can knit socks the fastest? who can knit the most pairs of socks? Meetings are always lively social occasions, each member taking a turn hosting. Since the number is large this means the burden of entertaining comes to a member only once a year. A refreshment committee ensures the tea and sweets are plentiful for the always large turn out.

Great Village women have always gathered regularly because there are so many activities to bring them together: quilting bees, missionary and church meetings, temperance and literary societies. But the war has brought a stronger incentive to congregate. The meetings are times to support each other. Nearly all the members know a lad overseas: a son, a brother, a father, a nephew, a cousin, a neighbour, a friend. The meetings are a chance to talk about the latest news in the papers and share the letters which have started to come from the boys. The recent election has also generated lively debates among the ladies about the effort of suffragists to secure the vote for women. Opinion is about evenly divided among the ladies as to the necessity and benefits of this idea. Most women feel that getting too worked up about the vote is a distraction to war work, but some in the village feel that women are contributing so much to the war effort that they have proven their ability to take charge, organize and get results. A few even suggest that women are better at this sort of thing than men. These times are also for gossip and there is always singing. So many of the Great Village ladies are musical and nearly every home has a piano or organ. The hymns and patriotic songs can be heard after the knitting and sewing is put away and the strong tea and sweet cake is served. And the evening closes around 10:00 p.m. with “God Save the King.”

Mrs. Isaac McKim, Mrs. Lucius Hill, Mrs. R. Carter, Mrs Angus Johnson, Mrs. Boyd, Mrs. L.C. Layton, Mrs. James Peppard, Mrs. Cyrus Peppard, Mrs. Dr. T.R. Johnson, Mrs. Bernard Read, Mrs. Stewart Gould, Mrs. Robert Dill, Mrs. J.A. Blaikie, Mrs. A.G. Peppard, Mrs. William Bulmer, Mrs. Rev. Francis, Mrs. Fred Hill, Mrs. Lawrence Blair, Miss Harriet Carter, Mrs. Cyrus Peppard, Mrs. Carrie Spencer, Mrs. Edward Johnson. And the list goes on and on of the good ladies who are doing good work.

Today is not a meeting day; the ladies gathered at Mrs. Donald MacLachlan’s two nights ago. This very popular and talented woman played beautifully for the appreciative audience. Her “Abide With Me” made them all misty. Still, the members are busy because they are due to ship another box of goods to Halifax and several of them meet at Mrs. Albion Kent’s in the afternoon, a roll-up-the-sleeves packing session. One of the topics of conversation is Gertrude Bulmer’s departure. The story is that Gertie has been upset about all sorts of things, including the war and the agitation for the vote. Everyone knows where she is going, knows why Grace goes with her. When William comes back from Londonderry Station alone, around noon, he looks so sad. Most folks just nod or tip their hats and let him be. Several of the ladies intend to drop in to see Elizabeth Bulmer tomorrow, for they know she is feeling just as bad as Will.

The ladies also know that Grace herself is going back to the United States soon and will take up nursing duties in New York City for the American Red Cross. They have heard that Grace and Una Layton wanted to head overseas to do nursing work in England, but Elizabeth and Will objected. With Gertrude unwell, to have Grace so far away seemed just too much. Mrs. Kent tells the assembly that she spoke with Grace earlier in the week and though she’s disappointed, she understands her parents’ concern, and says she’ll still be able to do good work wherever she is. Grace is a most sensible young woman and always makes the best of any situation. Her nursing skills will be a boon to any branch of the Red Cross.


1. The Red Cross movement was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, by Henry Dunant. He organized help for the wounded at the Battle of Solferino (1859), and wrote a book about his experiences which caused worldwide concern. Dunant’s work resulted in the signing of the First Geneva Convention (1864), which provided for the neutrality of medical personnel in war and humane treatment for wounded. The Red Cross was brought to Canada by George Sterling Ryerson, who, during the North-West Rebellion of 1885, used a red cross to protect his horse-drawn ambulance. In 1896 he organized a Canadian branch of the British Red Cross Society, which raised money during the Spanish American War and the South African War. The federal government passed the Canadian Red Cross Society Act in 1909, which established it as a corporate body. During World War I the Canadian Red Cross Society raised $35 million in relief. The society also maintained five hospitals in England and one in France. In 1927 the International Commission of the Red Cross recognized the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) as an independent national society, separate from the British organization. During World War II, the CRC contributed $80 million in goods and money. In 1986 The International Commission of the Red Cross changed its name to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. There are 175 recognized Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the world (Canadian Encyclopedia, p. 1982).

2. After the war the Great Village Red Cross Knitting and Sewing Society disbanded, but an auxiliary was set up which continued to provide comfort and support for the returning veterans. The need for the Red Cross was fully established and secured by the war, and it has been in active operation ever since, expanding its activities. During the 1920s, after her marriage to William W. Bowers, Grace Bulmer conducted many Red Cross nursing and first aid classes in Great Village and Glenholme.

[Ed. Note: Again, a reminder that you can read all the "A Day in the Life of Great Village" items by clicking on the Nova Scotia Connections link in the menu at the top.]

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this little bit of Red Cross history in Nova Scotia on your blog!

    Janice Babineau from Canadian Red Cross