Today’s post comes from Adrian Farmer, Heritage Coordinator at Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and Chairman of the Belper Historical Society, who has been helping us to identify photographs in our D3638 collection for the English Sewing Cotton Company Limited.
Whilst looking through some Belper-related photographs in the Record Office, we came across some of Mary Vincent – one of the town’s best-known names during the 1914-18 war.
Mary was the Belper-born wife of the Organist and Choirmaster of the British Embassy Church in Paris, where they had lived for over 40 years by the time war broke out. In the years that followed, Mary’s aid for Belper soldiers was immense, and they loved her for it.
Her story begins in December 1914, when she was visiting a Paris military hospital and came across a Belper soldier recovering from frostbite. On finding he was from Belper, where she had lived until she was 12, she visited him regularly until his departure.
This meeting set Mary thinking on how else she could help the Belper men who were in France. She wrote to the soldier’s mother to tell her of his recovery, and asked for the names of Belper boys serving in France. By April, she had a list of Belper men at the Front, and written to 46 names, asking them what they would like in a parcel.
The Derbyshire Times reported at this stage that Mary “is most anxious to help in every way the Belper Boys at the Front, and to send them the little comforts they need, of either eatables or clothing. Her address is Mrs Vincent, Site Traviso, Paris, and she will be happy to receive any names of local men who have not yet been made known to her.”
By June, she had written to nearly 100 men, and sent off parcels to 23. Six months later she had increased her work, sending packages to Belper men who were Prisoners of War in Germany.
At Mary’s request, the people of Belper began fund-raising and donating towards her efforts. By September, she was asking for more names of Belper boys arriving in France, in order that she could provide more parcels of comforts.
All food for prisoners of war in Germany was sent by the British Government, and no other agency, from March 1917 onwards. This meant a change of tack for Mary, who had packed and sent 705 parcels to Belper men incarcerated in Germany, before this change in policy. She continued to send letters and parcels, but now only containing undergarments, boots and other non-edible gifts.
By November 1917, Mary had sent over 1,030 parcels and written over 3,000 letters to individual soldiers. She was reported as saying: ‘One can never do too much for the poor fellows, and their grateful letters more than repay one for any trouble or expense’. By this stage, she was encouraging soldiers fighting in France to write to her for what they needed as she could get items to the soldiers within three days, whereas a letter home to Belper and parcel back could take a month.
Efforts to support Mary’s work were stepped up at the start of 1918. A committee was formed in the town, and a whist drive and dance organised. Tickets sold rapidly, and concerns grew in the days leading up to the event that the pavilion in the River Gardens wouldn’t be big enough to host such a popular occasion – in all there were 106 tables for whist. There wasn’t a ticket to be had in the last two weeks before it took place – it was a sell-out.
On hearing of the efforts to raise funds to support her work, Mary wrote to the people of Belper: ‘I cannot express how much I feel and appreciate the splendid effort Belper people of all classes are making for the benefit of my soldier boys. It is encouraging to know that they are taking such a keen interest in my war work. I wish to tender to them my grateful thanks on behalf of the Belper men who are so bravely fighting for their country, and for whom it is such a pleasure to work and care for. The tremendous sacrifice they are making in this terrible struggle surely calls for all the help and encouragement we can possibly give them.’ In all, £52 10s was raised to support Mary’s work.
Mary nearly died in an air-raid on Paris in March 1918. She reported back to a friend in Belper that she had avoided a bomb by a fraction of a second, but was back to normal and able to send off eight parcels to Belper men in the trenches the following day. Her work continued until the war was finally over.
After the war, Mary and her husband visited Belper, and were met by a crowd at the station, and presented with flowers by local children. The following day a carriage was brought to the house where they were staying, and the horses unharnessed. Then over 50 Belper soldiers, all decorated with their medals, pulled the carriage, with the Vincents sat in it, around the town, the town band playing behind. At intervals the carriage stopped and children gave Mary flowers, and women came up to shake hands, thanking Mary for what she had done for their son or husband.
Whilst in Belper, Mary was invited to unveil the new war memorial at the Methodist Church. The church was crowded and many people were standing outside in the street. On the pulpit were two large vases full of flowers. Mary sat underneath the pulpit facing the congregation, ready to say a few words after the unveiling ceremony, when one of the vases fell from the pulpit on her head, the water running down her back. She was saturated, but stoic Mary carried on and played her part as if nothing had happened.
In 1935, Mary visited Belper again, and was invited to crown the town’s Carnival Queen and sit on the main platform with her for the festivities – the Belper people never forgot all she had done for them.
Images courtesy of Adrian Farmer.