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.
How selfish I have been
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 took the opportunity to apologise for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely. This is her letter.
Departure of a family of evacuaees. Oise, France. © The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain 2016.
Dear Father and Mother,
Letters take such a varying time that I had better post tonight. I have been able to secure a little free time this afternoon, thanks to the car which is at present devoted to my needs having broken its back axle yesterday morning. Fortunately only four miles from home, and we had a very pleasant walk back.
Well, that is a digression, and I don't know what one is supposed to write about to one's parents for their golden wedding. But I have it very much in my mind to try to tell you how constantly and deeply grateful I am to you for the possibility of independent development that you have given me, as free as you could make it from material restrictions, and not only that but your unselfishness has always given us your love in its fullest measure, overflowing our measure to receive, and yet without that artificial sentiment that one sees, in some families, act in fact on the children so that they cannot develop their own individualities or fulfil the work in the world that they otherwise might.
I am awfully conscious of how selfish I have often been – and inconsiderate – but since I have been old enough to realise how much more I owe you than the simple love and care in childhood and the start in life which one might call the simple duty of parents to children, so the love of the child for its parents, which may be called a simple law of nature, has grown into a much greater force which helps me in everything I try to do, and keeps on helping me through failure and success – you always help me to remember that there is something to cling to that never fails.
I wish I could express myself better – I feel so much more than it looks in words – when things are difficult and especially when one is unhappy and cannot satisfy one's personal longings.
I could never make you realise how the thought of you helps me every time. But you do know that's true, don't you, even though I can't come home to be with you very often, and even though I don't write very easily? Dear creatures, and you write me such dear letters. I always feel you very near me.
The early twentieth century was a pivotal period of time for women’s rights. As a single woman working as a doctor overseas, Hilda was one of many women who challenged societal norms. It is likely that she would nevertheless have felt pressure to conform to those expectations, particularly those regarding family life. She also clearly feels guilty about not seeing her own parents more often.
Hilda describes herself as “selfish” and “inconsiderate”, despite having giving up general practice in London to work with refugees in a war zone. Is there a tension between caring for those closest to us and showing love for strangers? Can a brave mission to help others be a selfish act if it means we see less of those who love us?
This is an extract from a letter from Hilda Clark to her parents. It can be found in War and its Aftermath: Letters from Hilda Clark (Friends' Book Centre, 1956), edited by Edith Pye.
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.
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.
Hilda continued to work with refugee children after her return to France.
Hilda saw her work as a form of pacifism in action but was concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pacifist principles were put into practice when a pro-war mob tried to invade an anti-conscription rally at Devonshire House, which was then the London central offices of British Quakers.