Monthly Archives: December 2019

British medical aid for Crete.

In April 1897, Mrs Ormiston Chant journeyed to Crete from Britain to offer aid to the Greek forces on the island. In her rationale for going to Crete, Mrs Ormiston Chant stated that one of her reasons was that she had heard that “…the sisters of the Greek Red Cross brigade had been unable to effect a landing in Crete owing to the blockade.”

In fact, Mrs. Ormiston Chant’s information on the situation in Crete was wrong in one vital aspect: While the European embargo on Crete did indeed prevent Greek, and Ottoman, vessels landing for the purposes of assisting either side in the fighting, it did not prevent the landing of either Doctors or medical supplies under the flag of the Red Cross, as British naval records show.[1]

The offer of European medical assistance to the Cretan Christian insurgents was also reported in the Penny Illustrated Newspaper which stated that that “ On the 11th March three doctors – English, French and Russian – paid a visit to the “insurgent” position, and operated on a badly wounded “insurgent,” giving medical treatment to others wounded.”[2]

This was followed two weeks later by a more detailed report: “Our Doctors labour to alleviate physical pain in the darkest slums of London, our philanthropic readers are well aware. British naval surgeons, with the same splendid devotion to duty, have, we rejoice to learn, landed at various stations in the Island of Crete, not without considerable risk to their lives, braving the danger of being shot at, as plucky Admiral Harris was in Suda Bay; and those valiant disciples of Esculapius have been fortunately enabled to dress the wounds of the “insurgents” particularly after the much-to be regretted engagement at Akrotiri, which was followed by the prompt disarming of the Bashi-Bazouks, we were glad to learn.”[3]

British naval surgeons offering aid to Cretan Christian insurgents. Penny Illustrated Paper. 17 April 1897.

On a less specific and more general level, British forces were active throughout their stay in Crete in promoting the welfare of the local population; albeit mostly as a by-product of maintaining and improving the health of British troops. (However, there were other occasions when British naval surgeons were more interested in describing ailments than curing them!)

[1] ADM 116/89 Despatch dated 19 March 1897. Inclosure No.59. Captain Coustance to Rear Admiral Harris, 28 February 1897.

[2] The Penny Illustrated Paper 3 April 1897.

[3] Ibid. 17 April 1897.

British Nursing aid for Crete – The (brief) visit of Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant

In April 1897 the Greek Government was desperate to distract attention from its failed economic and social policies. One method of doing so was to ferment an external dispute. Eventually, by both accident and design, spurred on by an almost wholly bankrupt and incompetent Ottoman regime, a revolution in Crete and incursions by Greek Government-supported fighters raiding across the northern Greek borders into the Ottoman territories, war broke out between Greece and the Ottoman Empire.

The British government were in a dilemma. While not wanting to be seen to support a Muslim country against a Christian one, particularly given the public outcry over the recent atrocities committed by the Ottomans in the ‘pacification’ of their Balkan territories, British treaty obligations required them to maintain the existing boundaries of the Greek state. Furthermore, given the agitation in Ireland and India for independence, self-determination and freedom from the rule of a foreign empire, the British Government were reluctant to set the precedent of supporting such movements elsewhere lest they encourage rebellion within their own empire. On top of all that, there was the ever present reluctance to upset the status quo with respect to the Ottoman Empire for fear that the Russians might take advantage of Ottoman instability and seized Constantinople, thus gaining access to the Mediterranean and posing a potential threat to the Suez Canal and the British lifeline to India. [1]

For the most part, the British public did not share the concerns of their government, generally supporting the Greek cause, and various groups sprang up to provide aid to Greece; aid in both terms of money and personnel. One newspaper, The Daily Chronicle,

perceiving the value of trained nursing and medical help to the Greek nation at the present crisis, organised the now historic National Fund which has rendered such splendid assistance, and has at present a staff in Greece of twenty-nine nurses, working under, the superintendence of Mrs. Bedford Fenwick, two hospitals fully equipped, and a medical staff of four English surgeons.”[2]

Individuals also offered their assistance. The Nursing Record and Hospital World announced that on 27th March 1897 “…the Editor had been approached during the past week by a lady concerning the organisation of a corps of volunteer nurses for service in Crete and elsewhere, should war break out between Greece and Turkey.”[3]

The lady concerned was Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant. Born in Wollaston, Gloucestershire, in 1848 she had been disowned by her family when she moved to London and trained as a nurse. She was a noted suffragist, a campaigner for women’s rights, a hymn writer, a composer of children’s books, a temperance and non-smoking advocate.

Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant

Speaking to an unnamed reporter Mrs. Ormiston Chant had outlined her reasons for wishing to take some action:

“I received letters from Greece and Crete giving me a frightful description of the condition of the wounded on the island, and stating that the sisters of the Greek Red Cross brigade had been unable to effect a landing in Crete owing to the blockade. These tales took such an effect on me that I determined to take action at once. [ I despatched] a telegram to a lady in Athens, who is the chief of the nursing sisterhood, and also the editor of one of the papers, offering to send out some English nurses if they could be of any use. The rely received made us hasten our preparations. On my return to London I saw Mrs. Barker […] and told her of my plan. She at once fell in with it, and consented to act as hon. treasurer to the fund we determined to raise to defray our expenses. The result of our begging -for we have begged- has brought us in a fair amount of money, but still we want more. Our expenses will be heavy and although I go as a volunteer the six trained nurses have to be paid. For three months’ service I estimate we shall want at least £900. The railway and boat expenses will cost for the single journey £17 per head; hotel bills, meals en-route. Luggage &c., £25 per head; and outfits for each of the nurses £15 per head; and then the salaries. Added to these items are our medical stores, instruments &c., all of which we shall take with us from this country. The outfit for the nurses consists of a dark blue dress trimmed with red, two washing dresses, and other necessary articles of apparel.

Directly money began to come in […] I went to Mrs. Fenwick, the president of the British Nurses’ Association, and asked her to select me six sisters who might be willing to go to Crete, and who understood surgical cases. Mrs. Fenwick took great care to get me the kind of nurses I wanted. We are taking ‘no sides,’ and are prepared to nurse with equal care Greeks, Turks, Christians and anybody who is so unfortunate as to be wounded.”[4]

In June, the Nursing Record and Hospital World reported that on 8th April 1897, Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant and six English nurses left Charing Cross for Athens, intent on being on the spot to give aid to the Greeks. [5]

Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant and companions en-route for Greece.                     The Sketch 14 April 1897

According to the Penny Illustrated Paper, other members of the party consisted of Miss Lillian Lees of Lewisham Infirmary, Miss Emma Curtise, of the London Association of Nurses, Miss Lavinia Fawkes, Miss Charlotte Flannigan, and Miss Beatrix Warriner – all registered nurses. (Another newspaper reoprted that the group was to be joined by Mdme. Parrens and other ladies of the Red Cross Society.[6]) They were described as being dressed in blue, and wearing the badge of the Red Cross Society.[7]

Mrs. Laura Ormiston Chant in Uniform. Freeman’s Exmouth Journal 17 April 1897.

In a detailed interview with Mrs. Ormiston Chant, The Nursing Record and Hospital World described how after her arrival in Greece, four of the nurses remained in Athens while Mrs. Chant and Sister Lillian Lees, along with their medical stores, moved down to Crete, arriving in Canea early in the morning of Easter Day, 18th April. Their intention was to offer their services to the Greek forces which, under Colonel Timoleon Vassos, had landed in Crete early in February; the bulk of which were located to the west of the town.

Arriving in Canea Mrs. Ormiston Chant and her companion apparently found the town ruined and deserted (except, one presumes, for the thousands of Muslim refugees packed into it) and suitable accommodation unavailable. Eventually they were offered hospitality by the officers of HMS Revenge and later that day found a hotel deserted by all but the local insect population. In due course, a pass was issued by the six European admirals permitting the two women to cross the Ottoman lines and to journey to Col. Vassos. Flying a white flag for protection against the Cretan Christians who “…had suffered so much from the treachery of those who professed friendship, that they are now inclined to suspect all comers”[8], they eventually reached the Colonel’s camp. Handing in their letters of introduction they complained that they then had to wait and hour and a half (!) before the Colonel found time to see them. The meeting turned out to moderately agreeable although food was so scarce that Mrs. Chant offered to return to Canea and return with a cargo of flour. This offer was declined by Colonel Vassos – one might speculate on the grounds that he knew it would be an exercise in futility since one of the objects of the Admirals was to force the Colonel’s withdrawal from the island by denying him and his troops food.

As to the attainment of the principle aim of the mission, “… [f]inding the wounded in Colonel Vassos’ camp either well, dead or on the high road to recovery, Mrs. Chant determined to return to Athens…”[9]

On returning to Athens, Mrs. Ormiston Chant decided that her services could be best utilised by returning to England and seeing to the recruiting and despatch of more nurses. However, on reaching England she discovered that the matter was in hand and thus she gave up her plan of returning to Athens, remaining instead in England.

The Greco-Turkish War lasted 30 days and rather than sweeping triumphantly into Constantinople, the Greek army was comprehensively beaten; only diplomatic intervention by the European Powers preventing the Turks from capturing Athens.

While highly regarded in many in some quarters, Mrs. Ormiston Chant was not universally lauded for her trip Greece and Crete. In an undated despatch, published on 22nd May 1897, an unnamed correspondent for the Graphic who travelled to Greece out with another group of nurses who were journeying at the invitation of the Crown Princess of Greece,[10] described an encounter with Mrs. Ormiston Chant as the latter returned to England.

“During our stay in Corfu a steamship bound for Brindisi anchored in the harbour, and presently a frantic waving of a handkerchief from her deck attracted our attention, and by the aid of glasses Mrs. Ormiston Chant was observed behind it. A party of nurses went off to her in a small boat. Mrs. Chant was excited: she began one sentence and when half way through started another. As far as I could make out the sum total of her news was this: The war was over, the nurses would find nothing to do, and ‘had better retire as gracefully as possible’ (her own words. The Greek lady nurses knew nothing, nothing; there was no organisation whatever, and therefore she was returning to London. This was all interlarded with graphic descriptions of how she carried supplies to Vassos, under fire from the Turkish guns, etc., etc. All this was very discouraging and snubbing to the nurses going out, but it subsequently appeared that her main reason for considering the war to be at an end was the fact that she herself was returning to London. Mrs. Chant’s boat only stayed ten minutes…”[11]

Further evidence of the distain in which Mrs. Ormiston Chant was held, at least in some quarters, comes in the form of an excerpt from ‘Justice’ on 1 May 1897. This newspaper was the journal of the Social Democratic Federation, an extreme left-wing political movement which, contrary to the overwhelming majority of British newspapers of the day, took a strongly anti-Greek stance. Their view was that:

“The defeat of the Greeks may also compel the Greeks to withdraw their troops from Crete, and then we shall discover that the Cretans are not so anxious, after all, to become Greeks. It will also be evident that the Ottoman troops are not so effete nor so barbarous as it pleases Christian fanatics to pourtray[sic] them. But one thing more is needed to complete this object lesson – namely, that Mrs. Ormiston Chant and the English Christian nurses, together with some other English fanatics, should be made prisoners of the Turks. Mrs. Ormiston Chant enjoying the hospitality of the Turkish harem would constitute a picture fit for the gods. This well-known advocate of social purity would then learn the very good reasons which the Turks can give to prove that it is much more indecent and indecorous for a lady to show her face than to display her legs. We may therefore look forward to a movement, when Mrs. Ormiston Chant returns, in favour of veiling the faces of every woman who ventures to grace the promenade of the Empire or the Alhambra.”[12]

The particular references in the above article to Mrs. Ormiston Chant’s advocating ‘social purity’ were because prior to her trip to Crete, she was not unknown to the British public. She had been the spokesperson for the National Vigilance Association during their 1894 campaign against the renewal of the licence of the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square. At the time the Empire was infamous for its second tier Promenade. Here, for half a crown, a sum which ensured only the relatively well to do would be admitted,  members of the audience could wander around, view the stage, make use of the American Bar with its one shilling cocktails and pick up one of the many high class prostitutes that frequented the area. The Empire was also renowned for its ‘Living Picture’ representations of famous scenes or paintings, most of which involved half naked women, and this in particular appears to have drawn the wrath of the National Vigilance Association

Chant wrote that: “We have no right to sanction on the stage that which if it were done in the street would compel a policeman to lock the offender up…The whole question would be solved if men, and not women, were at stake. Men would refuse to exhibit their bodies nightly in this way.”, this in spite of the fact that the first tier promenade was renowned for being one of the main gay pick up places in London.[13] The result of the campaign, Prudes on the Prowl as one newspaper put it, was that the London County Council insisted that a screen be erected between around the promenade and the bar be shut. However, on the first night the canvas and wood screen was put up, a group of wealthy young men among them Winston Churchill, tore it down and distributed the pieces as souvenirs.

“Did you see the papers about the riot at the Empire last Saturday? It was I who led the rioters – and made a speech to the crowd – “Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!” Churchill wrote to his brother describing his part in the riot.[14] Their triumph was short lived though, the London County Council shut the theatre, insisting that the screen be replaced in brick as a condition of the theatre’s eventual re-opening.

Satire of Mrs. Ormiston Chant.

Laura Ormiston Chant died in Banbury in 1926.

[1] Most of the European Powers also had seriously large financial investments in both Greece and the Ottoman Empire. However, the role of such investments in determining the political decisions made by the Powers at this time is beyond the scope of this article.

[2] The Nursing Record and Hospital World. June 5 1897. p.454 at:

[3] The Nursing Record and Hospital World. June 5 1897. p.454 at:

[4] Freeman’s Exmouth Journal 17 April 1897.

[5] The Nursing Record and Hospital World. June 5 1897. p.455

[6] Freeman’s Exmouth Journal. 17 April 1897.

[7] The Penny Illustrated Paper. 17 April 1897, p.246.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Nursing Record and Hospital World. June 5 1897. p.455

[10] Possibly the group, or one of the groups, organised by the Chronicle, which might account for the dismissive attitude of the reporter.

[11] The Graphic 22 May 1897

[12] Justice. 1 May 1897.


[14] Ibid.