Wartime nursing bravery has been revealed by the discovery of an MBE awarded to a woman who risked her life to help others.
Annie Elizabeth Thornley, known as Betty, who was born in Burton, Staffs, in 1900 became matron of Jersey Maternity Hospital in 1941 when the Channels Islands were under German occupation during the Second World War.
According to her family, she braved the wrath of enemy occupiers by smuggling out food from hospital stores to help needy people on the island. She was also forced to deliver babies by candlelight as the Germans ordered lights out at 11pm.
Her niece, Valerie Deaville, 77, a retired nurse from Burton, said: “My aunt disobeyed the Germans and joined other islanders to thwart the enemy occupation. For example, she put sugar in German fuel tanks to stop vehicles running well and arranged for the hospital’s DIY man to turn back the dials on the electricity meter as the Germans strictly monitored usage.
“She did everything she could to help the islanders and her patients. She was so kind. She even sent food parcels back to Burton to help my mum as I was one of four children. All of our family are very proud of what she achieved.”
Betty’s strength of character was plain to see early on. She started nursing at the age of 16 during the First World War and cycled every day from her family home in St Peter’s Terrace, Stapenhill, Burton, to reach Derby for her SRN training – a 28-mile round trip.
Her devotion to duty continued during turbulent war years in Jersey and led to her being awarded an MBE in 1955 for services to nursing.
Now her MBE and letters relating to it from 10 Downing Street and well-wishers, including the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey, are set to go under the hammer in Hansons Auctioneers’ October 13 Library Auction with a guide price of £200-300.
Jim Spencer, Hansons’ works on paper expert, said: “This wonderful find, made at our Derbyshire auction centre, reminds me of the bravery and dedication shown by nurses through the generations – something we’ve been made acutely aware of this year.
“When Betty was matron of Jersey Maternity Hospital she became known for taking risks in difficult circumstances. German forces occupied Jersey from 1940 to 1945 and senior German officers moved into the hospital. They had strict rules which made life incredibly difficult for Betty and her fellow midwives. Their story is surely worthy of an episode of period drama Call The Midwife.”
The archive includes a letter from 10 Downing Street, dated November 26, 1954, on behalf of the Prime Minister, notifying Betty that she had been recommended for the New Year Honours list. There is also a letter from the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, dated February 21, 1955, inviting her to the Investiture at Buckingham Palace on March 15, 1955.
The treasure trove of memories also includes a newspaper cutting, nursing and midwifery certificates, a photo of Betty meeting Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Statutes of the Order of the British Empire 1948, a programme from a 1959 Jersey charity ball attended by Princess Margaret and letters and telegrams from well-wishers congratulating Betty on her MBE. As well as hearing from the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey, Betty was contacted by the secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, the editor of the Nursing Mirror and the editor of the Nursing Times.
Betty, who retired at the age of 70 after a 54-year nursing career, never married. She devoted her life to caring for others. She moved back to Staffordshire in 1990 and lived in Rolleston, near Burton, until her death at the age of 95 in 1995. Her family hope her MBE and archive may be purchased by a museum.
The MBE archive will be sold in Hansons’ Library Auction on October 13. More entries invited. To find out more or arrange a free valuation, email: [email protected]. Free valuations are also available at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, DE65 6SL, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, Wednesday, 5-7.30pm, Saturday, 9am-noon. Jim Spencer is available at our Etwall Auction Centre on Wednesdays, 10am-4pm. You can also see him at Bishton Hall, Wolseley Bridge, Staffs, ST17 0XN, on Mondays, 10am-4pm. If you are making a special journey, please email him in advance to book an appointment or check his availability.