Book review: Grace Vulliamy

Shining while the lamps were out: the life of Grace Vulliamy CBE, 1878-1957 by Katherine Storr (ISBN 978-1986435352) £15.30.

Given the long, rich history of Ipswich it should not surprise us that there are still interesting people to be rediscovered and their lives reinstated by researchers. Grace Vulliamy is a case in point. The surname (from French Huguenot protestant ancestry) will be known by some Ipswich folk as the family contributed to the social fabric of the Victorian town. Grace’s father, Arthur, was a solicitor, County Coroner, Liberal politician, churchgoer at St John’s and had some responsibility for the Ipswich Poor Law Union workhouse for pauper children (which became St John’s Children’s Home) in California. Her mother, Anna, was from Irish/Belgian parentage and she attended St Lawrence Church and was busy with all sorts of organisations and campaigns including the Mothers’ Union and Girls’ Friendly Society. Both appear to have championed women’s suffrage and care for refugees and the socially deprived.

At the age of four Grace was living at The Oakstead, a large house in Spring Road, the site of today’s Oakstead Close flats, off Nelson Road. Described by one of her sisters as ‘ahead of her time’, a rebel, a born leader and full of energy, she was not understood by her parents, nor by the schools to which she was sent, rejecting the restrictive double standards imposed on young Victorian women and was expelled twice. Being considered a somewhat unruly child – and needing to earn her own living – she was sent to Germany and to France for a year each as preparation for becoming a governess: a most unsuitable occupation for one of her temperament. However, on the suggestion of a friend, Grace trained at Holloway Sanatorium as a mental nurse, passing the Medico Psychological Association nursing examination and gaining her certificate and medal. In this career she earned the high opinion of others of standing in the field.

Grace’s ability with languages and mental nursing experience were vital during the First World War. She was set to work with Belgian refugees coming to Britain through Great Yarmouth & Folkestone; after a short time she was poached by the Local Government Board and sent to Holland to work still with Belgian Refugees. This led to her helping in the exchange of Prisoners Of War. It was for her work during the war that she received her CBE. After the war Grace carried on helping refugees and became a life Vice-President of the Save the Children Fund, first in Poland after the Russian Revolution where she was dealing with Russian refuges, then in 1937 she moved to South Africa and helped with the setting up of Cape Flats Development Association (CAFDA) along with Mary Attlee, reflecting the international nature of Grace’s work.

She was a forerunner in some of the tasks that it was considered impossible for women to do. She was a woman who pushed at boundaries, did not suffer fools gladly, could be caustic and reduce inefficient workers to a ‘quivering jelly’. However, she was greatly loved because she expressed love for others, not in a sentimental manner, but in one which restored their self-respect. In this book Katherine Storr has pulled a remarkable life back into the daylight.

 

Notes

‘I am immensely proud that my great-aunt Grace Vulliamy was involved with the initial arrangements for the Basque children’s arrival and that my aunts Chloe and Poppy ran some of the homes, particularly in Suffolk.’ Daniel Vulliamy. [See also Newsletter October 2017 for the unveiling of the Basque refugee blue plaque at Wherstead Park.]

There is a Grace Vulliamy Street in Cafda Village, south of Cape Town.

R.G.

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