Dorothy Pearson Twist

Dorothy Pearson Twist. Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives. #2014.7.5.1.

An immigrant from the U.K. who lived but a few years in and around Victoria, Dorothy Pearson Twist became a caregiver for wounded British troops in an English hospital, and that was where she died at the age of thirty-three. Twist’s sacrifice, a life given in service to England, earned honour and high esteem in her native land. She was, besides, the first Victoria resident known to die of the pandemic influenza.

Dorothy Twist was born in 1884 in Prescot, near Liverpool, in Lancashire, U.K., the second of five children of Julia Payne and Pearson Gill Twist. Their father was a potter, as his father Edward had been. The family pottery, founded by Dorothy’s great grandfather John Twist on Kemble Street, went out of business in 1893, “bringing an end to pottery manufacture in the town” (“Prescot Pottery”). When Pearson next appears, in the 1901 census, he was a woollen manufacturer’s agent. Dorothy, 16, is identified there as a “Pupil (Student) Teacher” (a teacher in training?) In Kelly’s 1905 Directory, Pearson is listed as a commercial traveller. In the 1911 census, Dorothy is a Shorthand & Type Writing Clerk at the University of Liverpool. Then 26, she was living with her Aunt Maude.

Why the Twist family left their ancestral haunts to settle on Vancouver Island is not clear. They followed the common practise of chain migration. Early in 1911, Dorothy’s brother Hugh Pearson Twist, 22, immigrated via the SS Canada from Liverpool to Halifax. A mechanic by occupation, he was bound for Victoria. Hugh appears in the 1912 Victoria city directory as a machinist working for Victoria Machinery Depot. Dorothy followed him out in September 1912. In the 1913 directory she is listed as a stenographer with the Imperial Bank, living at 86 Dallas Road in Victoria, while Hugh lived on Topaz Avenue. In April of the same year, the rest of the family, including Aunt Maude, immigrated to Vancouver Island and at some point settled at Shawnigan Lake. Their intended occupation was farming; Pearson was “retired.” In 1914, Dorothy was living in Colquitz; she held her job as a steno with the Imperial Bank into 1915.

How Dorothy Twist became committed to war service has not come to light, but her decision to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) was one shared by some 2,000 Canadians, mostly women, who served as “VADs” during the Great War. (Only a select few were invited to work in England.) The V.A.D. was, writes historian Linda J. Quiney, a route young women could take into war service that did not involve years of training to become a nurse. Like many others, Twist took the St. John Ambulance Association short-courses in First Aid and Home Nursing. The St. John Ambulance Association was “the Ambulance Department of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England.” The Order of St John dates from the eleventh century. It is likewise a parent of the Red Cross movement. The Canadian branch was organized in 1910. (Spring 1918 War Work) By 1915 St John Ambulance associations (for VADs) and brigades (for trained nurses) had sprung up in many Canadian centres. Their common mission was to support the difficult process of removing wounded soldiers from the battleground (safe passage guaranteed by the Geneva Convention) and caring for them along the way to treatment and, hopefully, recovery.

Many graduates of the St. John courses signed up as VADs through their local St John Ambulance association. If, like Dorothy Twist, they completed the courses in the winter of 1915-16, they waited until the summer of 1916 to participate in the first “draft” of VADs to work in English hospitals, competing for sixty positions. The successful VADs left Montreal for England on September 16.

(“Bravely and Loyally They Answered the Call”)

(The Canadian VAD Unit by Mrs Henderson. First Aid & the St John Ambulance Gazette, November 1916, p 89)

Twist must have had the fire in her belly, and likely also the wits to navigate wartime England; she may have balked at the idea of serving in a Canadian hospital. For whatever reason, she crossed the pond again as a passenger on the SS California, sailing from New York to Glasgow in April 1916, months before her peers. Twist was in London on May 31. That was the day she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the London Paddington Division of the Red Cross Society and St. John Ambulance. Her division’s identity code, “V.A.D. L/268,” was stamped on Twist’s service card.

Twist’s first posting as a VAD had little to do with nursing but involved a vital activity near the war zone. Her clerkly skills were evidently snapped up. Her service card reads, “Sec[retary] to Lady Grant Duff Berne Bureau. Posted by Devonshire Ho[use]. 1916 till January 1917.” Devonshire House was the headquarters of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John in London. On the surface, it is puzzling that Twist’s assignment was given at the headquarters level. The St. John system was based on local divisions that decentralized the demanding task of assigning VADs to hospitals or other facilities. “Sec. to Lady Grant Duff” — Was she Grant-Duff’s personal secretary? Possibly, but probably not. The famous Berne Bread Bureau had a whole constellation of staff, and one of its eight labour pools was Secretarial. But if perhaps Twist had a sterling letter of introduction from her employer, the Imperial Bank, who knows? Nothing else comes to light connecting Twist and Grant-Duff. As well, nothing appears that puts Twist in Bern(e), but it’s reasonable to suppose she worked there.

The so-called Berne Bureau supplied bread to British prisoners of war in Germany. Its founder and head was Edith Grant-Duff, the wife of Evelyn Grant-Duff, U.K. minister to the Swiss Confederation. (His title, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, was a rank lower than Ambassador.) He was a career diplomat, soon to be Sir Evelyn. Mrs. Grant-Duff — even sooner to become a Lady — was to the embassy born; she was the daughter of another career diplomat, Sir George Bonham. The Grant-Duffs had lived in Berne, the Swiss capital city, barely a year when war broke out in August 1914. Mrs. Grant-Duff soon followed the French lead in organizing food shipments to prisoners of war behind enemy lines, pleading the 1907 Hague Convention that guaranteed the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Berne was well-situated in the German-speaking part of Switzerland for shipping bread to German POW camps. Attempts to supply food to POWs from England were not successful. At first Grant-Duff operated the Bread Bureau out of the British legation, as the diplomatic residence (a degree lower than an embassy) was called. By mid-1916 the Bread Bureau had separate quarters and a daily output of …

they baked the bread with flour from ___