As I continue my research into various aspects of Toc H, from time to time I unearth some interesting works by other people that relate to the Movement. Recently I ended up on a website largely dedicated to the men from the UK who served with General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn where I came across an incredibly detailed and enlightening article about Toc H’s presence in the Orkney Islands during the Second World War. The original article was written for The Orkney View magazine in 1995 but subsequently appeared on the Men With Custer website. You can find out how a Toc H article appears on such a website and read a lot more fascinating non-Toc H pieces here www.menwithcuster.com
The author of the piece and webmaster for Men With Custer – Peter Russell – has kindly given permission for me to reproduce his article on my One Hundred Years of Toc H site and it appears below. I am very grateful for Peter’s generosity. I hope that it will be the first of several other guest articles as this site builds up a collection of insights into the long history of Toc H.
A SYMBOL OF HOME AND FRIENDSHIP
Toc H was born in the conflict of the Great War a hundred years ago and its work of reconciliation and service has continued to the present day. Now as we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, it seems particularly appropriate to pay tribute to a small band of dedicated men and women who served with this Christian organisation in Orkney and created a unique ‘home from home’ environment for so many members of the armed services in their time of need.
Of all the places where Toc H provided at least some of the comforts and atmosphere of home for service personnel far away there can have been few where these were more appreciated than the bases and stations in Orkney. For the men from ships, at any rate, these bare windswept distant islands can have displayed little charm and provided no more than a godforsaken base with few amenities. The real Orkney was hidden away behind the hills surrounding Scapa Flow, while the treacherous Pentland Firth lay like a great gulf between them and all they loved best.
Toc H was involved in many activities during this period. One of these was a direct result of talks which its founder padre, the Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, had with survivors of HMS Royal Oak on the day following the tragedy of its sinking at anchor in Scapa Flow, with such a heavy loss of life, in the early morning of 14 October 1939. He immediately realised the enormous need there was in so remote an area for some place of rest and recuperation for men who were suffering from shock, shipwreck or exposure, or who were not so seriously ill as to be sent south and yet were not well enough for duty.
Woodwick House today
The idea met with approval of the naval authorities and Admiralty recognition was soon granted with facilities for transport and obtaining supplies, and the promise of a Sick Berth Attendant to assist in the work. A search was on the main island (actually called ‘Mainland’) and among the big country houses not yet requisitioned by the military, Woodwick House, in the parish of Evie, set in the most beautiful surroundings, was considered perfect for the purpose of a convalescent and rest home. There, were flower beds and a vegetable garden, and very pleasant woods which in the springtime were filled with daffodils and bluebells, and were home to many nesting birds. A trout burn, overhung with rowans and willows, cascaded down to the sea into a secluded bay.
Woodwick House was rented, furnished, for the duration of the war, and was equipped mainly through the generosity of the Pilgrim Trust, which also made an annual grant for as long as the house was open. In recognition of this timely and constant assistance in the inception of the scheme, it was officially called The Pilgrim House of Toc H. The Canadian Red Cross, together with allowances from all three services and the invaluable help from Toc H branches, all made a significant contribution to its outstanding success. By March 1940 it was fully equipped and ready to receive its first ‘patients’.
The length of stay varied, according to the nature of each one’s illness or injury, and it is difficult say in a few words just what Woodwick House meant to the servicemen in Orkney. It was the only convalescent home in the islands, it was in the depths of the countryside with no cinema, no public house within easy reach, and only oil lamps and candles to illuminate the dark winter days. In fact, it was as a complete a contrast to ship or shore establishment as can be imagined. The original number of beds, twenty-six, was later increased to thirty-four to accommodate the brave men of the Northern Patrol of the Atlantic and Russian convoys. In all, over 3,500 patients were to enjoy a break at Woodwick.
Alison Bland Scott Macfie, the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool-based sugar refiner, who would soon become affectionately known as ‘Matron’, was appointed as the Warden. Miss Macfie, a devout Christian, was a founder member Toc H and first met Tubby Clayton in Poperinge. Belgium, at Easter 1917, when she was serving with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the Ypres Salient. In a quiet determined way she got her ‘boys’, the patients, to do what she wanted them to do. New arrivals were often greeted with the words: “Act as if you were at home.” To those who did not live up to the expected standards, she would say: “If you act like this at home, then act as if you were at someone else’s.” Her kindly manner, shy wit, sense of fun and natural reserve did not entirely disguise signs of a strong and forceful personality, and she held very definite opinions on most matters. Like many others during the war, Alison Macfie proved beyond doubt that she was the right person in the right place at the right time.
This gentle ‘saint’ was ably assisted by a Royal Navy Sick Berth Attendant, a cook, four housemaids-cum-general assistants and a gardener/handyman, who were soon hard at work providing hospitality for men and women from all the armed and nursing services. For this large family of many nationalities Alison Macfie and her staff created an ‘away from it all’ environment, with rest, good food and healthy recreation which was much needed at the time.
Matron ran a very tight ship and the patients were actively encouraged to go for a walk before lunch. One particularly chilly morning several of the men were engaged in a game of pontoon in the lounge and were decidedly reluctant to leave the warm and comfortable surroundings. In her characteristic way she opened all the windows, insisting that they get some fresh air into their lungs, and it was not long before the through draft forced them out. Assuming they were going for a walk, she asked them to take her dog, Magnus, along them, to which the patients agreed, and they set off for the shore. However, they only got as far as an old boathouse and then proceeded to continue with their game of cards. Poor Magnus was tied to a post, and when lunch time arrived it dawned on the card players that the dog, which had been lying down for most of the two-hour session, was not the least bit tired. In order to conceal their deception they took it in turns to run the little dog round and round the boathouse. Arriving back at the house they were greeted by a delighted Matron who was pleased to see Magnus panting for breath, and clearly well and truly exercised! Magnus, a mixed Shetland collie was, in fact, a bitch, and no-one knew why she was given such a noble and masculine name. This constant and faithful companion of Miss Macfie died at Woodwick House in the last year of the war and was buried in the woods where a small white marble headstone marks the spot. The simple epitaph reads: “Magnus/Good friend for 13½ years/1945.”
For a time whist drives were held in the lounge and were well attended by local people. Unfortunately the staff seemed to be winning most of the prizes, which displeased the Matron, who ruled that in future only patients and guests would be allowed to hand in cards. Not surprisingly, the staff soon lost interest.
There was no mains gas or electricity at Woodwick House and lighting was provided by Tilley (paraffin) lamps and candles. Lighting the lamps was a job for an expert and it invariably fell to the female members of the staff. For safety reasons the patients were forbidden to light the Tilley lamps as applying too much pressure could be very dangerous. Edith Harvey (the future Mrs Sinclair) and Ina Yorston (the future Mrs Greenwood), two of the housemaids, remembered this task well. First the lamp was heated with methylated spirits, and then carefully pumped to pressurise the paraffin. They gave out heat as well as light. Sometimes candles were placed in front of mirrors to provided extra light and on one occasion, during a spell of exceptionally cold weather, the small amount of heat generated actually cracked a large mirror. In time of war an extra seven years’ bad luck is something that they could have well done without!
Although most of the naval patients were from the lower deck, at least one high-ranking officer spent some time at Woodwick House. An Engineer Commander of a famous battleship, often in Scapa Flow, having been brought low by a minor illness, was recommended by his medical officer to try a few days’ change at Woodwick. Rather reluctantly he agreed and duly found himself being transported in a state of some astonishment, and at great speed, in a drafty Ford V8 to a far corner of the Orkney Mainland. “What sort of place is this I’m going to?” he asked the driver’s Navy SBA: “It’s nothing like you’ve known before, sir,” was the reply. On returning to his ship a week later the Commander confirmed the rating’s view, and felt quite honestly “refreshed both physically and mentally and ….possessed with greater determination and energy in pursuit of my definite objectives.”
The first SBA, 25 year-old Denis Truslove, from the West Midlands, arrived in April 1940. On returning to Naval Sick Quarters in Kirkwall (the Masonic Hall), from leave, he was advised that “he had been volunteered to work at Woodwick House for two weeks or until more permanent arrangements could be made” – in the event he remained there until January 1943! Truslove remembered his time at Woodwick House with a great deal of affection and had a wealth of interesting stories about the happy days he spent there.
Many of his most amusing anecdotes centred on the heavy, wooden-bodied Ford V8 shooting brake, which was the chief mode of transport. According to Truslove, the tyres were the smoothest parts of this remarkable old vehicle, which nevertheless was capable of reaching 80 miles per hour along the stretch of straight road between Finstown and Woodwick.
There was little actual nursing to be done at Woodwick and much of the SBA’s time was spent in collecting ‘bodies’ from, and returning them to, Scapa Pier and running errands for the Matron. When other duties permitted he would take patients out for a run to visit various places of interest, often using Matron’s own car. On one of these occasions an airman asked Truslove if he would make a short detour and drive him to his station so that he could pick up some long-awaited mail from home. On arriving at the camp the SBA was invited into the canteen for a cup of tea, while the airman took his leave on the pretext of collecting his post. The following morning Matron informed Truslove that she would be driving into Kirkwall to fill up with petrol. However, as the tank was now virtually full, with the ‘compliments’ of the RAF, he politely explained that her journey would not be necessary and recounted the events of the previous day. Matron’s reaction was somewhat severe, though not entirely unexpected: “Petrol is brought into this country at great danger to help the war effort, not for dashing around the place sightseeing!”
On another day Truslove was given the job of getting the wife of an army officer, who was helping out at Woodwick House, to the bank in Kirkwall before it closed at 2:00 pm, and as it was already close on half-past one there was no alternative but to ‘put his foot down’. As they were approaching Finstown he noticed what he assumed to be bags or sacks dumped on the grass verge, To his astonishment one of these ‘objects’ suddenly stood up and began to walk slowly across the road. A collision was unavoidable but thankfully – for the occupants that is – the old V8 was fitted with a sturdy pair of bumpers and the unfortunate sheep was impaled on one of the curve-shaped overriders, which prevented a potentially serious accident. Needless to say the ewe was killed. The badly-shaken officer’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, scolded the poor SBA with the words: “If my baby is born with a sheep’s head, I’ll blame you!” Truslove duly reported the incident to the police who took no further action as apparently accidents involving straying livestock were fairly frequent occurrences.
Several years after the war while on holiday in Orkney, Denis Truslove was enjoying a quiet pint in the bar of the Pomona Inn in Finstown when his brother-in-law introduced him to a local farmer as: “The man who ran over your sheep.” Before Truslove had a chance to offer a single word of explanation, the aggrieved man snapped: “I never did get paid for it and sheep were £4 in those days.” Clearly some Orcadians are blessed with very long memories!
While wondering around the garden one day Truslove stumbled across deep trench, measuring about four-feet wide. He mentioned his discovery to Miss Macfie who decided it could come in useful to store tin food and other non-perishable goods in readiness for a German invasion. She even went as far as to arrange for this hole-in-the-ground to be covered with sheets of corrugated iron and also chose plants to provide the best camouflage. Fortunately its usefulness was never put to the test. The nearest that they ever came to having direct contact with the enemy was the time they were involved in a very hush-hush operation of washing salt water out of a ‘captured’ German parachute in the Woodwick Burn.
No account of Woodwick House during the war years would be complete without reference to the near-legendary Dolly Dickson, the cook, who worked like a slave for the princely sum of £1 a week, plus board. In fact, Dolly was much more than a cook; she was a miracle worker, who produced the most tempting dishes out of the meagre collection of wartime rations. All the cooking at Woodwick was done on a large coal-burning range in the main kitchen. Dolly’s wonderful baking was done without any modern aids: she simply put her in the oven and somehow or other gauged the correct temperature and kept building the fire to maintain an even heat. A sailor from a destroyer wrote: “As to your cook, we are only awaiting her arrival on board before disposing of ours.” Dolly Dickson’s fame was spread through the Home Fleet, and far beyond.
The ever-willing Denis Truslove came to her aid at the time she suspected a rat was getting into her kitchen through the bottom of a rotten window frame. “I’ll soon stop his little game” boasted the confident SBA. His plan of action was, indeed, a simple one. Several glass bottles were broken into small pieces and then forced into the offending gap. “That’ll cut his corns,” he exclaimed. Alas, it was not to be, for the very next morning the floor of Dolly’s scullery was littered with hundreds of shards of broken glass. Clearly the ‘rodent proof’ defences had been breached. Mercifully – for Denis that is – he suddenly found himself on an unscheduled trip to Kirkwall and was, therefore, not on hand to witness Dolly’s initial reaction to his failed attempt to rid her kitchen of this most unwelcome intruder. Soon after, the window frame was repaired and the much relieved cook was able once more to concentrate on her culinary duties.
Unlike the Royal Navy, the other services did not make a direct financial contribution to the cost of running Woodwick House but, instead, supplied foodstuffs from their own sick quarters. The job of collecting these rations fell to the SBA, who would always ask Dolly Dickson if there was anything special she wanted. Arriving at the Army Hospital Centre on one particular occasion, Truslove told the sergeant cook that “We have some of your squaddies at Woodwick and they need feeding.” The NCO duly provided every item he had that was on Dolly’s list plus a few others to make up for those he hadn’t. Cook was delighted, Matron less so. “Truslove,” she sighed, “you should have only brought those things which were official!”
Two of the greatest friends to the staff at Woodwick House were Davie and Bella Rendall, from the neighbouring farm of Walkerhouse. They supplied fresh eggs, milk, cheese, fowls for the table, vegetables and more. Many was the time that they gave a lift into town, which were much appreciated when the local bus only ran twice a week. Tubby Clayton, who was chaplain to the oil tanker fleet, often stayed with the Rendalls during his frequent visits to Orkney. His dog, Billy of Badminton, a beautiful brown pedigree spaniel, was presented to Toc H, Orkney, by H.M. Queen Mary (the Queen Mother) and spent a lot of time at Woodwick House.
Another good friend was Mrs Mary Wood who did the laundry for the patients in her own home. It was a marathon task, all done by hand, as there was no electricity in any of the country districts at that time. The local Church of Scotland minister, Dr Alexander Campbell, regularly came for tea on Saturday afternoons. He was an accomplished storyteller and held his audience spellbound with his depth of knowledge of Orcadian and Scottish history, always referring to the early Norse inhabitants of these islands as ‘Vik-kings’, which was the cause of some amusement. The reverend gentleman was a most popular and welcome visitor: as a result, church attendance was usually quite high the following day.
Every so often a Navy chaplain would come out to conduct a communion service. On one occasion his chauffeuse, a Wren, had driven off before the good man realised that the communion set was still in the boot of the car. In the event there was no need for concern as the resourceful Matron was on hand to help and quickly produced a sufficient number of small cream jugs and a bottle of Beaune to enable him to administer the sacrament.
The Fleet Air Arm was stationed at Hatston and pilots honed their skills by flying Swordfish, nicknamed ‘flying bedsteads’, over the sea in the area between Evie and the island of Rousay. One morning a knock on the door of Woodwick House was answered to two airmen who enquired: “If it was possible to get a cup of tea and ring up Hatston?” They apologised profusely for their feet being wet which was due to the fact that they had just scrambled ashore, having ditched their aeroplane in the sea!
Woodwick House possessed a greenhouse, which was a great asset to staff and patients alike. True, it faced the wrong ‘airt’ (direction), and was suffering from old age, decay and a lack of paint but nonetheless, it served a useful purpose. Being built against the dining-room wall it provided the first line of defence against blizzards and other inclemencies from the east; better still, thanks to Dolly Dickson’s ‘green fingers’, it was filled with a profusion of blooming geraniums and pelargonium’s, and clematis massed in one corner, and a genista to fill the other end with its sweet-smelling golden sprays all year round. And as the geraniums flourished so did the tomatoes, and the plant which seeds are noted for survival under even the most adverse conditions, was persuaded ‘to do its stuff’. It thus supplied some of the missing vitamins which an anxious Minister of Food had urged everyone to seek in a land where the turnip and the potato graced the table without rivals from November to May.
With much encouragement, not altogether disinterested, from various medical officers of the Fleet Air Arm, tomatoes were planted in orange-boxes, which were still obtainable in greengrocers’ shops. At the end of the first summer the net result of all the care and attention was some very good chutney, and the Principal Medical Officer was duly grateful for a small jar of it and the promise of something better next season, should he still be in the area.
The following winters were fierce ones, even for Orkney, and in a full gale on 12 February 1943, the crash finally came: the whole greenhouse collapsing with much noise of splitting timber and breaking glass. However, with admirable promptness and resource the crew of HMS Kingston Amber, just returned that morning from a tour of duty with the Northern Patrol, flung themselves into action under the direction of SBA Harry Greenwood, from Barrowford, Lancashire (who had recently replaced Denis Truslove), with old ladders, planks, oars, and bits and pieces picked up at random in the garden, pushed the fragments together, propped then up, and lashed them more or less securely in place with a new clothes-line just purchased for hanging out the washing on the drying green. In this hazardous engagement tin hats were worn by those who had them as a protection against falling glass, and all felt a sense of successful achievement, though somewhat dishevelled, when the job was done!
For many weeks thereafter the whole company shivered grimly at mealtimes, the bitterly-cold east wind making its way all to easily through the wreckage of the ill-fitting door to the dining-room. They also thought longingly of tomatoes. So an appeal was made to the Royal Navy and the Army for help. For a month or more they were in suspense – who would come to the rescue? The Navy! The Army! Both? Or (horrible thought) neither! Then the GOC Orkney and Shetland went to see for himself, and quick on his heels came the Garrison Engineer, who was followed by Andrew Kirkness, a local man, who did odd jobs around the place, and the Royal Engineers. Andrew was an uncle of Mary Spence, one of the assistants, which made it a pleasant family concern.
First, a day was spent contemplating the wreck, with the aid of cigarettes and cups of tea administered at regular intervals by Mary. Next came an army truck laden with ladders and trestles, paint, glass, putty and wood, and within a week the miracle was completed. The restored greenhouse was stronger than it had ever been.
At the last came an unforeseen problem. A pair of linnets had built a nest in the clematis just under the roof, and a pair of blackbirds had settled in the upper branches of the genista, each nicely sheltered from the Orkney blasts. Both couples were expecting families in the near future and had serenely sat on their eggs, quite undisturbed by the work which went on around them. At the completion of the job, the workmen, in a dilemma, therefore decided to leave out a pane of glass at each end of the greenhouse for the convenience of the birds’ entry and exit. Andrew Kirkness would return later and put them in.
A new difficulty arose when it was found that although the blackbirds would use the exit provided, they would not come home except through the open door, and much distress was caused if it was shut. Of course, the birds won the day, and the tomato plants had to do with cold feet until the time came when the fledglings gained their wings and flew out into the garden. Despite the early set back, that year produced a bumper harvest of tomatoes to brighten the bacon and embellish the salads.
Germany surrendered in May 1945 and, happily, the services being provided by Woodwick House were no longer required. That summer Matron returned to London where in 1952 she became Founder Pilot of the Toc H Women’s Association. Following a short illness, Alison Bland Scott Macfie died on 12 September 1963, aged 76 years, at the County Hospital, Swaffham, Norfolk, and after cremation at Norwich, her remains were deposited in the crypt of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, London, EC3. A small oval-shaped, wooden plaque, depicting the Toc H lamp of the Women’s Association is inscribed:
Loved and Served this Church
My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord
The words of the popular wartime song ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor‘ were certainly true as far as two of the staff at Woodwick House were concerned. Jean “Neen” Harvey, one the four original assistants, from the parish of Evie, married SBA Denis Truslove. The wedding was conducted by Dr Campbell, who happened to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at the time which, as far as Denis was concerned, is the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury! Denis and Jean lived near Coventry, in the West Midlands. Ina Yorston, from the neighbouring parish of Rendall, married SBA Harry Greenwood in 1945, also in Orkney. Harry later became ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland, and he and Ina spent their twilight years in Perthshire.
What happened to the other members of staff? Edith Harvey, sister of Jean, became Mrs Sinclair; Mary Spence, from Costa in Evie married Gordon Linklater, a local man, and like Edith Harvey and many others named a daughter, Alison, in honour of Miss Macfie, Neither Dolly Dickson, from Rendall, or Willie Scott, the gardener/handyman ever married. Denis and Jean, and Dolly and Willie, passed away many years ago. The fate of the others is not known to this writer.
The noble motto of Toc H is ‘Bringing People Together’ and for five long years Alison Macfie and her devoted team did just that. To thousands of men and women from many nationalities Woodwick House, Evie, Orkney, was indeed A SYMBOL OF HOME AND FRIENDSHIP.
Peter Groundwater Russell
Note: This story is based on a two-part contribution that was published in The Orkney View magazine (No. 60 June/July 1995 and No. 61 Aug/Sep 1995). An acknowledgement at that time was given to Mike Lyddiard, Director of Toc H, for kindly allowing me to quote freely from Alison Macfie’s memoirs and also to Ina Yorston Greenwood, Ann Herdman, Gordon and Leonard Linklater, Hazel Scarlett, Edith Harvey Sinclair, and Denis Truslove, who provided information and valuable assistance in the preparation of this article.