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Avis Hodgson: from actress to nurse

On Remembrance Day in 2010 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections received a package containing two scrapbooks showing photographs of soldiers hospitalised at Clopton House during the First World War.

Mareike Doleschal
Talbot Clopton House scrapbook
DR1281 Kathleen Talbot's scrapbook

The scrapbooks belonged to a nurse called Kathleen Talbot who worked at Clopton House when it was used as a hospital.

Clopton House has a long and fascinating history: Shakespeare was supposed to have visited it, priests were hidden in its secret chambers during the gunpowder plot and during the First World War it was turned into a hospital. The family who lived there at the time of the First World War were the Hodgsons, and the daughter of the house Avis, worked as a nurse alongside Kathleen Talbot and many other young women, whose lives were changed by the war.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to Jandy Spurway, Avis Hodgson’s daughter, about Avis’ life before, during and after the First World War. Clopton House must have been an exciting place to grow up. Avis adored Clopton House: she played hide and seek in her childhood home and organised guinea pig races on the lawn. Anybody interesting who turned up in Stratford-upon-Avon visited Clopton House and Avis showed around some of those famous people, including George Bernard Shaw. She seemed to have been a sickly child; suffering from pneumonia several times and her mother couldn’t bear the thought of sending her to school. Avis was educated together with her cousin Alice de Grey by a governess. The two young women shared a great love for Shakespeare and did a lot of acting together and of course wanted to become actresses. Jandy showed me photographs of Avis, her family and friends dressed up in beautiful hand made costumes made especially for the Shakespeare ball. Unlike her sisters, who went off in horse drawn vehicles to attend parties, races and to play tennis, Avis was determined that she was going to have a job. 

Avis Hodgson in scrap book
Hodgson with patients and nurses

When Clopton House was turned into a hospital and Avis worked as a nurse, she found her true calling. Aged only seventeen, Avis looked after soldiers who came straight from the front with the most terrible gun shot wounds. “She was a wonderful bandager”, Jandy told me, “Avis dressed and bandaged four times a day”. Having no previous training, Avis learned quickly and excelled in her work as a nurse. After World War One, Avis continued working as a nurse at St Dunstan in London looking after blinded ex-service men. There she was known as the “sports sister” organising races and acting as a cox at the St Dunstan regattas. 

Hodgson in Talbot scrapbook
May 31st 1917

All her energies had gone into looking after soldiers, and after the war Avis found her talent for acting had gone. However, the soldiers in Avis’s care did not forget the sister who looked after them. The letters written by soldiers to Avis (also in our archive collection) express their gratitude but rarely reveal the real horrors of what they went through. “Never ask them where they were wounded” Avis used to say to her daughter. Attitudes towards showing emotion still seemed to have been very Victorian.

Changing her career plans from actress to nurse wasn’t the only turning point in Avis’s life. The Hodgson family lost so much by the time of the beginning of the Second World War; Clopton House had to be sold. The time of travels, parties, and races was long gone and Avis was now a vicar’s wife with no money at all.

Avis lived her life to the full, experienced all its ups and downs and was there for people suffering great trauma. She experienced a world now gone forever and witnessed the end of an era. In her life we might recognise the words Shakespeare gives to King Henry VI in Henry VI Part 1 when addressing the Duke of Gloucester:

“Long since we were resolved of your truth,

Your faithful service and your toil on war”

 Stories such as these can be found through researching our collections in the Reading Room and searching our online catalogue.

Avis Hodgson and Talbot
Avis Hodgson and Kathleen Talbot in the Clopton House scrap book

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