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Silvertown war nurse remembered century after dying aged 23

PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 March 2016

The commemoration service for VAD nurse Edith Hilda Munro at the Plashet Jewish Cemetery, with a service led by Rabbi Ruben Livingstone

The commemoration service for VAD nurse Edith Hilda Munro at the Plashet Jewish Cemetery, with a service led by Rabbi Ruben Livingstone

Archant

One man’s determination to tell the story of a nurse who died nearly a century ago has brought together dozens of people – and changed one family forever.

Edith's new headstone, which Stan Kaye unexpectedly found shortly after it was laid in placeEdith's new headstone, which Stan Kaye unexpectedly found shortly after it was laid in place

That man is historian Stan Kaye, the nurse was 23-year-old Edith Hilda Munro – and the scene of the tale was, and remains, Newham.

The story began when Stan, raised in Mile End, discussed with a woman her project to research all the British nurses that died in the First World War.

“She had a few Jewish ones in there and, being Jewish myself, I said, ‘I’ll do them’,” Stan says.

One of those nurses was Edith, who was part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) – “dogsbodies, basically,” Stan says – which immediately struck him as unusual.

Stan Kaye (fourth from right) was among attendees at the serviceStan Kaye (fourth from right) was among attendees at the service

“There weren’t many Jewish VADs,” he says. “It just wasn’t something that happened. She was from a well-off background and the VADs were doing things like washing patients and cooking.”

The Red Cross believes around 90,000 VADs worked at home and abroad during the war, and among their number were the likes of Agatha Christie, Vera Brittain and Enid Bagnold.

After two years of chasing leads, Stan coloured in a picture of the life of Edith – born in Hackney to a Scottish engineer father and an English Jewish mother.

She enlisted in the VADs at the start of the war and worked in the Albert Dock Seamen’s Hospital in Silvertown for two years before dying, in the same hospital, in December 1916 from pneumonia.

The Last Post was played for Edith, who died in Silvertown while nursing seamenThe Last Post was played for Edith, who died in Silvertown while nursing seamen

Stan, having learned all this, went to Plashet Cemetery in East Ham in 2014 fully expecting to see a private headstone – but was surprised to see an official War Graves Commission memorial.

“I found out it had been replaced two months before I visited,” he says. “But it was too late for a ceremony – so we settled on the 100th anniversary of her death, and also International Women’s Day.”

That ceremony was attended by dozens of dignitaries, including Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, senior Jewish chaplain to the Armed Forces, and representatives from St John’s Ambulance and Newham Council.

“It was a very emotional service,” Stan says. “A few people were tearful.

Edith's Great great-great nephew Dr Fraser Ian Munro Wiggins and great niece Lesley WigginsEdith's Great great-great nephew Dr Fraser Ian Munro Wiggins and great niece Lesley Wiggins

“I kept thinking what it must have been like 100 years ago when she was buried in this cemetery – cold, and in the middle of the war.”

Also in attendance were three members of the Wiggins family, who are distant relatives of Edith.

They had recently learned not only that they had a war heroine ancestor but also that they were Jewish – and Stan says Fraser, Edith’s great-great nephew, spoke “beautifully and emotively” at the ceremony.

For Helen Style, a member of the executive committee of the United Synagogue Women, her story is one worthy of retelling.

“It made me think, ‘What was I doing when I was that age?’,” she says. “Not saving lives, anyway.

“The work she did was incredible – she died for her country and it was very fitting to honour her.

“It reminds us also that behind every fighter on the front there were 10 or more people behind them.”


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