#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.

Pacifists in action

Wednesday 6 August
Hilda Clark

While some Quakers sought to save lives by campaigning against the war, others wanted to help war victims directly. Hilda Clark from Somerset had qualified as a doctor – unusual for a woman at the time. She was 33 when the war started.

In September 1914, Hilda spoke to Meeting for Sufferings, the national committee of British Quakers. She encouraged them to appeal for volunteers to help civilian war victims. The committee agreed and she was soon sending letters home about her work in France (as we shall see next week). Hilda's friend Edith Pye later described the origins of Hilda's vision.

Hilda Clark at work with the Friends War Victims Relief CommitteeWe had thought and talked of little else during those early weeks of the first world war. Hilda Clark had always in her mind the thought of the mothers and children behind the fighting lines in France, in the knowledge that the whole of the country's energy must perforce be taken up on the military side. She had enlisted the interest of T. Edmund Harvey, and between them they had gathered together a group of young people eager to help, some of whom were deeply concerned to express their pacifism by sharing the dangers of the battlefield without bearing arms.

The Society of Friends [Quakers] accepted the concern and made it theirs, and from that moment our whole life and thought were bound up in the work.

I myself was then living with Hilda Clark, who had set up in general practice in London with a view to investigating working class ill-health. As I was at the time occupied with the organisation of trained nurses, it seemed advisable to see what was the situation in France with regard to the need for them, and on September 26th 1914, I went to Paris.

By that time, the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, with headquarters in London, had taken shape and could count on twenty young men, six nurses, some of whom fortunately were midwives also, three motor cars, and about £3,000. Before I left London, Hilda Clark asked me to be sure to find out if there was any opening for this group of pacifists behind the French lines where the Battle of the Marne was raging.

Many more strings were pulled before finally the expedition started for France on November 5th, 1914. No-one knew what work they were to do. Grim tales of the sufferings of women and children behind the lines floated about Paris, most of them exaggerated, but the little band of doctors, nurses and orderlies were prepared for anything and expected the worse.

The head of the expedition was Mr T. Edmund Harvey. There were three doctors, including Dr Hilda Clark, who was responsible for the medical organisation, eleven trained nurses, of whom several were midwives in addition to their training; one medical student, two qualified chemists, one sanitary inspector, and fourteen men with various qualifications as chauffeurs and orderlies. Very few of these were members of the Society of Friends, but all were united in the keen desire to help mitigate the suffering caused by war, and the men at any rate felt themselves debarred by conscience from taking part in any military organisation.

It is clear that Hilda regarded their mission as a pacifist one. People often infer that pacifists are passive. How would you define the word?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Christine Ball on
So pleased to see the work of the FWVRC highlighted in this entry. The French civilian population suffered greatly; women, children and the elderly were left to their own devices in areas devastated by shell fire, just beyond the front line. My grandmother, Dr Margaret J Maclachlan, who qualified as a physician & surgeon in Glasgow in Oct. 1915, went out to Sermaize les Bains in January 1917. There, she attended to women in labour & treated nursing mothers, sick children and the elderly in conditions that would daunt us. She was only 24. Still today, the Mayor of Sermaize gives thanks for the work of the "War Vics" and wonders how different things would have been without them.

Submitted by LollyO on
The story of Hilda Clark that Edith Pye tells here is one of great courage and conviction, and a great inspiration for our own time. Hilda had not only a strong sense of calling, she acted on that calling. She was a pacifist in the best sense of that word--not passive, which is not what a pacifist is or does, but active on behalf of helping others. As a pacifist she acted on her belief--deeply committed, thoughtful, and willing to put her own life on the line. She rejected the usual norms of her day; she placed others first; and behind it all was a belief in that of God in each of us.

Submitted by Meg Hill on
My grandfather, John Porter Rodwell, was in this first party - he was one of the two chemists.
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.

A group of people pack tea
Tuesday 22 March 2016

As the year went on Hilda found herself in open conflict with the people administering the Friends War Victims Relief Committee at the Quaker central offices in London.

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.

Related Materials

Hilda and Edith were willing to suffer while helping the victims of war. For them, this was a natural result of their Quaker faith.

Today, many Quakers and other nonviolent activists are following in Hilda's footsteps by travelling to war zones and other areas of conflict to relieve suffering and challenge violence.

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