Mary Jane (1885-1957)

Mary was born in Batley, Yorkshire, on 16 May 1885, the 8th of 10 children. Her parents were Joseph and Betsy, nee Pickering. Her grandfather was George Tattersfield (1822-1887), about whom a separate article is shown on this Website. Mary was a younger sister of my grandfather Charles Pickering Tattersfield.

Little is known of her early life. She had major surgery as a girl, which might have interfered with her schooling. She was with her parents and siblings in Ravensthorpe in the 1891 Census, and in Thornhill in 1901, when, aged 16, she was doing household duties. She was never to marry.

No details have been found about her schooling. It is believed she did her nursing training at a northern hospital.

Records show that in October 1914 she joined the British Expeditionary Force, and disembarked in Europe in November. Knowledge of her early war is sketchy. She was a Nursing Sister in the British Red Cross Society, employed in the United Allies Wounded Nursing Area. In this role she was awarded the British Medal and the Victory Medal.

At an unknown date she was transferred to the French Red Cross (FRX), and worked in Salonika and Serbia, under the Serbian Relief Committee.

An undated letter written by Mary to her older sister Mrs. Nellie Himsworth, was published in a Dewsbury newspaper. It describes her as a Red Cross Nurse, who went to France soon after the outbreak of war, under the auspices of the Ebenezer Church, Dewsbury. She was now doing Red Cross work in Salonika (today Thessaloniki in northern Greece). The letter is chatty and informal, talking about the delayed arrival of letters, the glorious scenery with snow-capped mountains, the anticipation of receiving a food parcel, a dance held in the mess room over Christmas, and whether she might get some local leave. She was working with a Serbian doctor, a British relief worker, six Serbian RAMC orderlies, and a number of Bulgarian prisoners who helped. She said she had to speak “Macedonski, Serbski, French and English”! She added “…..for the civil population I have two Scottish lady doctors, so there’s lots to do, and I like it.” Mary wrote the letter in her kitchen, which was “just a little over two yards wide and three or four long-nothing on the floor except earth”.

The horrors of her situation were passed over lightly in this description: “Every two or three days we have visitors in the sky, and if one wishes to see star-shells, etc., well, we only have to wander a few yards behind our huts and you get as many fireworks as you want. It is an interesting change from doing base-work. If any soldiers or civilians are taken ill or wounded it is one of my duties to do the first dressing and then send them along to hospital for the military part of the programme………Have come across all nationalities fighting in this wretched war, so wonder when it will be over………My tent is built on a battlefield of a year ago, and there are many relics, though much too big for me to carry, am sorry to say.”

Mary Tattersfield (left), nursing sister in or near Serbia in WW1

Towards the end of the war, and after it was over, there are references to Mary in Reports by a Mr. R.C.Grey to the Committee of the Serbian Relief Fund, Salonika, kept in the Imperial War Museum, London. On 3 Dec 1917 he reported “It has been arranged that Miss Tattersfield should go up country for a time at least, as there was no prospect of utilising her services in Salonika for the present, nor was there anywhere for her to live.” Presumably she had just arrived, and “up country” was a reference to the battle zone in Macedonia or Serbia.

In a report on 5 Mar 1918, Mr. Grey stated “….at Skochivir Sister Tattersfield and Miss Middlemore are on the best of terms with the villagers and the children, which is more than half the battle”. (Skochivir is in the south of Macedonia, until recently in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).

On 14 January 1919, Mary herself wrote a private report for the Committee of the Serbian Relief Fund, written from Kumanavo, in northern Macedonia, near the Serbian Border. It is quoted in full below:-

“Private- for the Committee only.
From Sister Tattersfield.


14th January 1919.

Work was begun by myself and Miss Middlemore in Kavardar on October 12th 1918, when a dispensary was opened for the civilian population, however as there was no doctor there, military patients were also treated by us.

There was a great deal of sickness in the town, there being a population of approximately 5,000 people, who had received very little treatment during the time of enemy occupation- a period of about three years – hence there was a good deal of medical work to be done, both in the Dispensary and in the homes of the people.

During our nine weeks’ stay there were no less than 3,296 patients treated, most of them being Malarial, Dysentery, Influenza and wounded, many of the latter having come down to us from the frontier villages, almost a day’s journey in many instances. Clothing, etc. was also distributed, both in the town itself and surrounding villages, many families being entirely without; their gratitude being unspeakable for anything that was done for them. There were also patients that were retained by us, most of them severely wounded, whom it was impossible to nurse or attend to in any other way, the condition in the town being much too bad, also there was no food of any description to be bought, sanitary conditions were nil; therefore it was thought best to keep these patients until some means of transport, etc, could be found.

The outpost was closed on December 9th, the Serbian doctor arriving the following day.”

Perhaps the most telling account of Mary’s WW1 record is given in a note, added to the above report, by Dr. Chenow as follows:-

Note from Dr. Chenow.

“This report really gives no idea of the fine work done by Sister Tattersfield and Miss Middlemore, under exceedingly trying conditions. Moreover both suffered from illness during that time, Sister Tattersfield from a severe attack of gripps, and Miss Middlemore from recurrent attacks of malaria yet this was not allowed to interfere in any way with their work. I regard them both as among the very best and most valuable of our workers.

Miss Tattersfield and Miss Middlemore are now at Kumanova, where I have no doubt they will do an equally fine work.”

MARY’s Certificate Number as a trained nurse was 14512. Her service as a British Red Cross Society volunteer ended on 11th April 1919. It is believed that Mary was decorated by the French and Serbian Governments, as well as the British, but details have not been found. Sadly, her decorations were later stolen.

Mary’s niece Dorothy Tattersfield (later Cooke) wearing Serbian dress brought home by Mary

After the war it is known that Mary spent some time in the Dewsbury area as a private nurse to a Lady Oldroyd. She also ran a clinic at Bourneville. She also worked for a time in Birmingham and may have become head of public health for the City.

In 1946, after she retired, Mary went to live with her brother James Percival for a year, when his wife Annie was in hospital, incapacitated by a stroke. Later, when her elder, unmarried, sister Edith Hannah had a heart condition, Mary went to look after her in Bradford. Edith Hannah was secretary to Tattersfield and Co. in Bradford. Mary died there about May 1957, and Edith some three months later.

Mary Jane Tattersfield’s VAD Card
Header Image: Part of a poster that was used to recruit civilians into the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Dubbed "the fairest force" and numbering 70,000-80,000 personnel, the VADs were an extraordinary volunteer movement and a magnificent expression of support by civilians, mostly women, for the war effort. By 1916 there were about 4,000 VAD nurses deployed outside the UK. Mary Jane Tattersfield was probably one of these, although as a "trained nurse" her status may have been somewhat different from that of some other VADs. In fact, there were 4 Tattersfield VADs during WW1: the others were not overseas medical staff but volunteered in England as orderlies and general assistants.   Public Domain.