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Part of a special feature marking the centenary of the First World War and highlighting Memorial’s status as a living memorial that in freedom of learning their cause and sacrifice might not be forgotten.” This feature supports WW100, Memorial’s Commemoration Program.    

By Janet Harron

One hundred years ago, 28-year-old Sybil Johnson enlisted as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).

Sybil Johnson, 1887-1973
Sybil Johnson
Photo: Newfoundland Quarterly Vol. 17 (1917-18)

Born in St. John’s and the daughter of a Supreme Court judge, Ms. Johnson was a young woman of privilege who had attended finishing schools and music conservatories in Europe and was involved in local charities before war broke out in 1914. Her brother and at least 15 of her cousins were all overseas and, according to her letters, she felt compelled to serve, too.

“She had a very strong sense of duty,” said history professor Terry Bishop-Stirling who, along with Dr. Heidi Coombs-Thorne, plans to edit and publish a collection of Ms. Johnson’s war letters. The working title of the collection uses a quote from one of her letters: “I could not bear to be a slacker.”

“There was a certain amount of control that went with her privileged life,” Prof. Bishop Stirling continued. “I think in a sense joining up was a sort of last rebellion for her.”

Prolific correspondent

Engaged to an up-and-coming young lawyer, Ms. Johnson joined the VAD in 1916 and went on to serve for 19 months at a military hospital in Liverpool. During that time, she wrote more than 300 letters; on some days she wrote separately to both her mother and father. Her dedicated correspondence has since proved to be an invaluable record of what life was like for First World War VADs and nurses.

“She would be heartbroken about the patients.” –Dr. Heidi Coombs-Thorne

Although aides were primarily used for domestic work such as cooking, changing beds and cleaning surgical instruments, they also dealt directly with patients by bandaging wounds, writing letters and taking them for walks in the hospital grounds. The work affected Ms. Johnson deeply.

“She would be heartbroken about the patients,” said Dr. Coombs-Thorne, who is a research assistant in the Faculty of Medicine’s Medical Education Scholarship Centre. Dr. Coombs-Thorne completed her honours thesis on Ms. Johnson’s letters and VAD Frances Cluett 20 years ago; Prof. Bishop Stirling was her supervisor.

Research themes

Among the themes Prof. Bishop-Stirling and Dr. Coombs-Thorne have identified in the letters are the nature of the work and the relationship between staff members, class and professionalism. The war was also a major force in advancing women’s suffrage.

“[Nursing is] so fascinating and has been divisive every step of the way.” –Prof. Terry Bishop-Stirling

“Nursing history is interesting from so many perspectives,” said Prof. Bishop-Stirling. “It’s the epitome of what was considered women’s ‘natural’ innate qualities … how you went from there to one of the toughest unions in the province is a whole other project! It’s labour history, it’s social history—it’s so fascinating and has been divisive every step of the way.”

Dr. Coombs-Thorne agrees.

“Nursing is one of those areas that stand out in terms of women’s history in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Unique collection

The Archives and Special Collections division at Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library became the stewards of Ms. Johnson’s letters when her daughter Dorothy Dunfield gave them to the university in 1992. Archivist Linda White has a unique relationship to the project.

“As a nurse for many years, I have a special affinity for nursing history in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said. “Of course, as an archivist, my job is to preserve records such as Sybil Johnson’s letters and to make them accessible for everyone. The letters are part of the Johnson Family Collection.”

Ms. White hopes to eventually have the letters digitized and placed on the Digital Archives Initiative (DAI). The finding aid to the Johnson Family collection can be found online.

The research team received funding from the Living Memorial Commemoration Fund to scan the letters; some have also been transcribed. It’s a painstaking process as some of the letters are difficult to decipher although the paper itself has held up surprisingly well.

From left, research partners Terry Bishop Stirling and Heidi Coombs-Thorne.
From left, research partners Terry Bishop-Stirling and Dr. Heidi Coombs-Thorne.
Photo: Chris Hammond

As historians, Prof. Bishop-Stirling and Dr. Coombs-Thorne feel that with the ephemeral nature of digital communications, as blogs replace diaries and email replaces letters, something tangible is being lost.

“When email first came out, I remember writing long messages to friends,” said Dr. Coombs-Thorne. “I don’t do that anymore, I don’t take the time to write out my thoughts. It’s a personal view that we aren’t going to get in the future.”

Possible connections

The research team is very interested in hearing from anyone who might remember Ms. Johnson in her later years, as they have been unable to find any descendants in the province. After returning from the war, Ms. Johnson married her fiancé Brian Dunfield, had three children and, after her husband was knighted, became Lady Dunfield. She died in 1973.

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