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.
I will get used to it
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 volunteer with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, working with children in Samoëns. © 2014 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.
Here I am back at Sermaize at last, very well and pleased to be so, and very hopeful of getting home the end of the month. I had a welcome letter from Alice from Havre and one from Margaret of the 2nd. It was nice to hear about your doings.
It seems very much in the wilds and uncivilised here after Samoëns, and I found my bed rather hard last night, and the hut very wet and muddy. Mud pervades everything. I expect I shall soon get used to it – but it lacks the excitement of novelty now.
Illness has increased very much everywhere and the medical side of the work here is getting very much pressed, and arrangements for it are more difficult than ever owing to a variety of circumstances which one cannot describe in writing.
Hilda did indeed “get used to it”. She spent the rest of her life doing medical work in war zones and countries recovering from war. They included Austria and Poland in the years after World War I, followed by Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey. She worked in Spain after the civil war and in France during the Second World War.
Hilda's friend Edith Pye said, “She talked little about her beliefs, but she lived her Quaker faith”. Hilda died in 1955, aged 73.
Copyright: This is an extract from a letter from Hilda Clark to Edith Pye. It can be found in War and its Aftermath: Letters from Hilda Clark (Friends' Book Centre, 1956), edited by Edith Pye.
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 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.
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.
Quakers often received a hostile press during the war, but at times there was surprisingly positive coverage. In these cases, the reports tended to focus on the Friends Ambulance Unit and sometimes the Friends War Victims Relief Committee.
In 1947 Quaker work was recognised in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize. It honoured the relief work during and after the two world wars. Helen Drewery, General Secretary of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, discusses the ongoing responsibilities of those awarded it.