I am a very firm believer in the power of an inanimate object’s ability to bring with it a story from the past. Now take this wonderful pair of lorgnettes – I wish you could hold the faded green leather case in your hands – take out the lorgnettes – unwind the grosgrain ribbon – unfold the lenses from within the handle and then I defy you not to hold them against the end of your nose and try them for yourself. Next you may wonder who would have peered through these lorgnettes in the past and on closer examination of the case you will see the name of the previous owner – Miss Rawson, Brecon House, Sherborne, Dorset. Who was Miss Rawson and how did I come to hold the lorgnettes amongst my family treasures? The answer to the second question is yet again to be found in my grandparents’ house in Nether Compton near Sherborne as they were in the back of a drawer when we cleared the house in 1974 when granny died. The lorgnettes were then forgotten again for nearly forty years until they returned to Sherborne when my husband and I moved here in 2011. I photographed the house in Long Street, an imposing Ham stone house and, while volunteering at the museum, I discovered the existence of Rawson’s Hall in Westbury, Sherborne.
These days it is possible to view old newspapers on line and by ‘searching’ through back copies of the Western Gazette (in the date category 1900-1949) for ‘Miss Rawson’ nearly 500 reports containing the name Rawson appear and, surprisingly, practically all of them are relevant to the family. This is a fascinating, if time consuming, way of tracking a person through their life. By taking a ‘screen shot’ with the iPad these collected reports can be retained in the photographs app until I was ready to check through to see what I had found and then it is possible to begin to build up a picture. As I tap out this ‘story’ on my iPad I can refer back to the newspaper reports stored in the photo app and I can also refer to the family tree I have created in the Ancestry app and I do not need to have any traditional pieces of paper at all to shuffle through. I had to visit Yeovil library to check the microfiched copies of the Western Gazette to try to find Miss Rawson’s obituary as she died in 1953 and the cut-off point for the old newspapers online is 1949 but sadly one did not appear and so despite a life lived full of public service, which I will come to later, she seems suddenly and quietly to have slipped away. Perhaps her obituary appeared in a national newspaper and I will try to check this out.
So let us go back to 1905 and see what could be found out about the family. It would appear that they were settling into life here in Sherborne with Barbara’s father taking an active part in the Blackmore Vale Hunt and all that goes with membership. By joining the hunt it would seem that the family passed immediately into the higher echelons of Dorset society. The annual hunt ball was held in Sherborne with dancing from ten at night to five the next morning. The newspaper reports run to several columns with all those who attended listed by name. Mr Rawson went on to become a magistrate, chairman of the Urban District Council and a master of the Almshouse. His chief delight was in furthering the work of the Church Lads’ Brigade Cadet Corps and he purchased a hall where they could undertake their activities. This hall, known as Rawson’s Hall, though sadly dilapidated is still standing today.
With the outbreak of war there were many changes to both family and local life. Barbara’s brother Philip joined the 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, at around the time of his nineteenth birthday, in June 1915. He was reported missing in France just over three months later. He is remembered on one of the panels at the Loos War Memorial. This devastating news for the family would later also prove to unite Miss Rawson in tragedy with my grandfather’s family as his first cousin Bertie Brooks went missing around the same time and is also remembered on the Loos Memorial. He was twenty. Barely two years later in April 1917 Barbara’s father also died, aged only 53, and according to his obituary he had ‘sustained a severe blow with the death of his only son who had been reported missing for many months and was only declared dead earlier this year’. Barbara was 24 and her mother was in her very early 50s. Life had to go on and it would appear that she would continue with the local public service that her father had given his life in Sherborne to. Although I have no evidence at the moment I strongly believe she worked at the VAD hospital here. Like her father she became a magistrate (many of the newspaper reports concern the cases that would have come before her) and a governor of Foster’s and Lord Digby’s Schools. Newspaper reports show that she was on the Parochial Church Council, she helped with the organisation of the Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Red Cross, renovations of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey (where she made the communicants kneeling mats), the Conservative Association, opening bazaars, judging baby competitions, presenting prizes and crowning May queens. She continued her associations with the Blackmore Vale Hunt and she kept her horses in Long Street. Her mother died when Miss Rawson was only 34 and she never married and of course it is tempting to speculate that she might have been one of the many young women, at the time, who did not marry because so many of the young men had been killed. I believe it was my granny who knew Miss Rawson originally as she was a nurse in WW1 and although I know she nursed in Belgium she most likely ended the war volunteering here in Sherborne. Harriet Rose Winch met my widowed grandfather and married him when she was nearly 50 and although it looks from this distance like a marriage of convenience – she needed the stability of a home and a husband and he certainly needed a wife – I know otherwise as they would go on to enjoy 25 years of happily married life together. Barbara Rawson, I believe, became a friend to both of them. How Miss Rawson’s lorgnettes came to end up in the back of a drawer in their house is still a mystery I will probably never solve but I feel privileged to ‘own’ them and to have been able to find out a little more of the story they carry with them. The work of the VAD nurses in WW1 is slowly unfolding as more information appears on line. Do you know of anyone who may have taken part in the Sherborne Pageant of 1905? If so, do check here for a list of known participants on the website of the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society. If you can add any information about participants, the Society would love to hear from you.
In researching Miss Rawson I have used my subscription to Ancestry and my subscription to British Newspaper Archive. I have also found the library at the Somerset & Dorset Family History Centre in Sherborne invaluable. Access to Ancestry and old newspapers and much more is available at the centre to members and to visitors on payment of a small fee. There are also helpful volunteers to help you get started should you wish to undertake research on someone from your past – do give it a try as you will have no idea, just like me, of what you might find as you set out.
12 June 2016