Finding a First World War nurse via her Vest Pocket Kodak camera
Collectors of all kinds dream of finding a long desired item at a giveaway price. At car boot sales, flea markets and online auction sites that dream occasionally comes true. Among the millions of old orphaned cameras that exist in the world, some still sit snugly in their original cases, protecting them from decades of dormancy and adverse conditions in dry attics or damp sheds.
All things must pass, and sooner or later these forgotten about cameras are rediscovered in house clearances and sometimes loved all over again; reused or restored by new owners. Some sensible original owners will have written their name and address onto the inside of the case, in case they lost their beloved snapper, giving it a chance of being found and returned. Some owners meticulously kept original packaging and purchase receipts. It is here that I find another pleasure from camera collecting other than ticking off one from the wish list. It’s the joy of finding a connection to an original owner of a camera.
This photographic provenance adds emotional value. A name can be enough. An address is better. A date as well is the cherry.
This is the story of a camera I acquired via an online auction which lead to the discovery of a courageous woman’s contribution to the war effort during the Great War.
Searching for a Vest Pocket Kodak
For some time I had been looking for an original Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) to add to my collection. The first VPK was made from 1912 to 1914 and is easily differentiated from later models by not having the autographic film feature on the back. I would occasionally find one on eBay, but bidding was always competitive, and well, I set my financial limits and stick to them.
So I turned to auction houses and started looking at photographica sales. I spied a lot on Flints website. The lot consisted of a cardboard box full of mostly cheap post-war to 1990s snapshot cameras. However, I spotted what looked like an original VPK amongst the rust, plastic and cases with broken straps.
On the day of the auction I decided to bid on the lot. I unexpectedly won and soon afterwards the lot arrived while I was at home having my lunch. When the doorbell rang, I opened the door and the courier plonked a sizeable cardboard box down on the doormat in front of me. I carried it through to the kitchen table and sat it down next to my cooling soup.
An intriguing discovery
I decided to find out straight away if I had been right about the camera I had spotted and opened the box before finishing my lunch. All lot items were neatly wrapped in paper. Having a gentle rummage I found a VPK sized paper wrapped package and opened it. Yes, I had been correct. I now had an original Vest Pocket Kodak in excellent condition save for somewhat rough bellows. I gave a triumphant punch of the air and continued to open other parcels and assessed the contents. There were some nice cameras, a few for resale and the rest for a charity shop donation.
An unexpected item
However, amongst the weighty parcels was a light and soft to the touch paper wrapped item. I had no idea what was inside as there seemed to be no such item in the lot photograph or description. Anyway, I carefully removed the paper to reveal a delicate soft leather green case, clearly meant for the Vest Pocket Kodak. I opened the clasp on the case and slipped in the camera. They were definitely made for each other. Then, on the inside of the top of the case I noticed an inscription in elegant handwriting. I fetched my film loupe and read at first pass what appeared to be:
Fra. h. Kitchyn
Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital
These days, this kind of discovery is what sets my pulse racing. I think I said ‘Wow!’ a few times and walked over to my dormant laptop to do a quick search for the hospital in the inscription. Finding information about ‘The Casino’ and the Duchess of Westminster was not difficult. Deciphering the name took a while longer, but it all started to come together when I deduced the owner was female and not male. The major clue to this was the case itself; it was out the ordinary. The usual cases that accompany VPKs are of black seal grain leather with a press stud fastener. As soon as I opened this particular case I noticed it was soft to the touch and quite delicate. The colour, clasp style and material all pointed to a case designed to look feminine.
I was fortunate to source an original Kodak Ltd catalogue from 1913 and page 63 detailing camera cases confirmed by assumption. Carrying an image of the case, the marketing description is for ‘Finest crushed Morocco de Luxe double strap wrist bag (gusseted) or purse shape, in turquoise blue, heliotrope, or moss green’. It cost 10 shillings and sixpence, but could be bought with the camera for one pound and 16 shillings.
So now I knew I wasn’t looking for a ‘Frank’. I pored over the name and tried to work out the first and middle names. Another breakthrough occurred when I realised the surname was ‘Kitchin’. With a little help from a historian I know rather well, we eventually cracked the name. I was able to then do some research and the story I am now going to tell fell into place.
Eva h. Kitchin
Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital
Le Touquet Paris Plage
We Remember Evaline Kitchin
Evaline Louise Kitchin was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire on 2 October 1881. She was the daughter of a timber merchant and was educated at Birkenhead High School.
The High Schools Company opened Birkenhead High School for Girls in 1884. In 1901 it was purchased by the Girls’ Public Day School Company (GPDSC) for the Girls’ Day School Trust.
The GDST was founded in 1872 by four pioneering women, Mrs Maria Grey, her sister Miss Emily Shirreff, Lady Stanley of Alderley and Miss Mary Gurney. They believed that girls should be entitled to the same academic education as boys and followed the principles of “breadth, fearlessness, inclusiveness and a focus on developing the individual to fulfil their potential”.
From April 1902-1905, Miss Kitchin trained to be a nurse at Chester Infirmary before moving to London to work as a Sister on maternity wards in several hospitals between 1907 and 1912. I surmise during this time she met and married her husband Dr G.A. Hayman, keeping her surname whilst adding his behind her maiden name. On 29th September 1914 she volunteered and was engaged as a Nursing Sister, assigned to the Duchess of Westminster War Hospital in France. In fact, she was one of the original members of staff that set up the hospital in a former casino at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage.
The Duchess of Westminster
Constance Edwina Cornwallis-West married Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster in 1901 and became the Duchess of Westminster. The Duchess of Westminster was a high profile figure in Edwardian Britain. She won a bronze medal in sailing at the 1908 Summer Olympics as owner and extra crewmember of the 8-metre yacht Sorais.
The initial happy marriage to the Duke turned sour. In-laws seeking financial gain, the tragic death of their son, and rumours of affairs by both parties resulted in the Duke requesting a separation in 1913. However, the war intervened. The Duke joined his regiment and volunteered for the front line. The Duchess launched a well publicised funding campaign for a proposed military hospital in France.
Articles appeared in newspapers throughout Britain asking for funds to maintain and equip the hospital. Published figures suggest six thousand pounds was needed to equip the hospital and £1,400 each month to support the proposed 200 beds.
Perhaps Evaline read one of these appeals and felt the call of duty? Her decision to volunteer as a nurse might have been also partly motivated by her marital situation. On the inscription on the camera case she identifies herself by her maiden name. Her married surname is relegated to a lower case ‘h’. On official paperwork I have read from 1915, after her return from France, notes indicate she wishes to be known by her maiden name.
The voyage to France
So it looks like both women put the English Channel between themselves and their estranged husbands, sailing over to le Havre on board Sir Thomas Lipton’s private steam yacht Erin, along with 17 other nurses as part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). They were both accepted onto the initial staff of the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital by the British Red Cross, who insisted on fully trained staff.
The nursing staff were joined in France by fifty-six members of St. John Ambulance volunteers of the City of Bristol Corps. In overall charge of the hospital was Major Henry E.M. Douglas, RAMC , VC, DSO. Overseeing the medical operations was Major C. Gordon Watson.
I don’t know where Evaline bought her Vest Pocket Kodak and case, but my best guess is she bought it in Le Havre rather than London and signed and dated the case on arrival at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, 3 days after her service officially began.
They would have arrived at Le Touquet after the Battle of Marne, when the rapid German advance which brought the Central Powers within reach of Paris was halted and reversed a distance of 40 to 50 miles. The effect on Allied morale was incalculable and Marne is often regarded as the most important land battle of the twentieth century.
Following Marne, the Allies and Central powers raced northward towards the English Channel. In Mid October they clashed at Ypres. Winter descended on Flanders and the theatre of the war mired into the attritional hell of trench warfare we know today as the Western Front.
‘The Casino’ became an operational hospital in November 1914 and began receiving wounded from both sides. As an experienced nurse, Evaline would have had the constitution and professionalism to deal with whatever turned up in the ambulances, but I expect she would have seen suffering that would challenge the strongest and most courageous.
I have nothing but admiration for these women, the trained life savers caring for the trained like takers, but in true nature nearly all decent human beings caught in a situation not of their making.
Writing in the Evening Star of 23rd December 1914, Sir Frederick Treves is quoted from a report to the British Red Cross Society, in which he states,
The efficiency of the voluntary hospital depends upon the suitability of the building for hospital purposes, the qualifications of the senior medical officer and matron, and freedom from lay interference. According to these criteria I venture to give first place to the Duchess of Westminster’s hospital at Le Touquet. The hospital occupies the Casino. The baccarat-room makes a splendid ward; the American bar is the dispensary, while the well-kept linen store occupies a room in which the tango was taught. An admirable ray-room has been fashioned out of the garden store-house, while the dark-room is a large bathing machine.Sir Frederick Treves, report to the British Red Cross Society, Evening Star of 23rd December 1914
A study at The Casino contributed to the understanding of shell shock. Three soldiers who came to the hospital with loss of memory, vision, smell, and taste were examined and observed by Charles S. Myers, who published his findings in The Lancet in 1915.
Evaline served at the hospital until 3rd March 1915 when she returned to England, but that was not the end of her war service. Later that year on 4th September she joined army service and was sent to St. George’s Hospital Malta where she stayed until receiving orders for Italy in December 1917.
I have a bit more of her story, but it is patchy at the moment, so I will omit this from the article for now. I wanted to publish this piece on Remembrance Day, so I am pleased to be able to do so. Thank you Evaline. Thank you for your camera and thank you for your service. You are remembered.
Intriguingly, I still have two outstanding questions. How did her identifiable camera end up in an auction with many lesser items and what happened to the photographs she took with the Vest Pocket Kodak? If anyone reads this and knew Evaline, it would be wonderful to hear from you.