Discover Your Ancestors

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When Drama Meets Reality

Several actresses in BBC drama The Crimson Field have World War One roots of their own...

The new BBC drama series The Crimson Field, which runs until 11 May and forms part of the broadcaster's World War One Centenary Season, explores life from a nurses' viewpoint through the horrors of the war.  A high profile, talented cast has been recruited by writer Sarah Phelps and it turns out that a number of the cast playing roles in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) have surprising connections to the actual war itself. The research team at leading website TheGenealogist.co.uk has looked through the site's extensive military records collection and found a number of direct nursing ancestral links to The Great War.

Flora (Alice St Clair-Erskine)

Alice St Clair-Erskine, who plays Flora, has a particularly relevant story.  Her great grandfather, Francis Edward Scudamore St Clair-Erskine was wounded in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915.  Also known as Lord Loughborough, he was part of the Royal Naval Division's 'Motor Maxim Squadron' of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.  This squadron used the first Rolls Royce armoured cars.

He met Sheila Chisholm, a socialite from Australia, who was helping as a voluntary nurse at a military hospital.  She married him later that year after a whirlwind romance.  Sheila (the great grandmother of Alice) would have performed a similar role to Flora!

Rosalie (Marianne Oldham)

The role of Rosalie Berwick, unmarried and fearing 'being left on the shelf', is played by Marianne Oldham. Marianne herself has a great grandfather and great uncle who both saw active service in World War One.  Redvers Oldham, her great grandfather, was a stock exchange clerk, a family line of business which extends to this day to Marianne's father, Gavin David Redvers Oldham in the 1911 census, in Reigate in Surrey, as a visitor in the Waley House, a family of stockbrokers.

Once joining the army at the start of the Great War, he worked his way up to Captain in the Royal Artillery.  He fought in the Egypt campaign and was awarded the 1914-15 Star Medal.

His brother, Eustace Alfred Skinner Oldham (Marianne's great-great uncle) fought with the Seaforth Highlanders.  He was a junior officer who gained promotion from Lieutenant to Captain.  He was attached to the 7th Battalion and was wounded in France on the 4th December 1915.  He was awarded the 1915 Star.  His casualty record can be seen at TheGenealogist.  Both Oldham brothers survived the war.

Marianne's other great grandfather, Sir Lancelot Royle, left Harrow School and joined The Royal Artillery in 1916 as a young officer aged just 18 and remained in France until the armistice.  He later became one of Britain's leading retail businessmen.

Marianne is also descended from ancestors involved in the medical profession.  Her grandmother (on her father's side) Penelope Royle is descended from Peter Royle, a surgeon in the 1880's, whose brothers were also involved in the medical profession.

Marianne's mother, Virginia Russell also has ancestors in the medical profession.  Samuel Hutchinson (Marianne's great-great uncle) was a medical student in the 1911 census, potentially learning skills that may be sadly in great demand a few years later.

We can find him in a copy of the census record at TheGenealogist.

Matron Grace (Hermione Norris)

Hermione Norris plays the kind, stern and efficient matron, Grace Carter. Her grandfather, Charles William Norris, was an army regular before the war in the 9th Lancers and was wounded in December 1914 as the British Army retreated from Mons.  He suffered from shrapnel wounds to his legs and, like the story of Corporal Prentiss in the first episode of the TV drama, the traumatic experience of battle left him with severe shell shock.  Again we can see Sergeant Charles Norris in the casualty lists at TheGenealogist.

Hermione's grandfather had three other brothers who also served their country.  The family are all found in the 1911 census.  As well as Charles William, there was George Edward Sherman, Frank Baker and Albert Henry Norris.  George Edward Norris served in the Royal Army Medical Corps to add further coincidence to the role Hermione now plays in the drama.

Kitty (Oona Chaplin)

Finally, there is Oona Chaplin, who plays VAD Kitty Trevelyan. Oona Castilla Chaplin is the grand-daughter of legendary British comedian and film star, Charlie Chaplin. Charlie lived in mostly poverty in his early years.  His parents were musical hall artistes and at TheGenealogist we find Charlie living with his mother Hannah and half-brother Sydney, in Walworth, South London in the 1891 census.  By 1911 Charlie had got into the world of show business, lodging with some fellow music hall artistes, still in South London.  By the outbreak of WW1, Charlie was living and working in America having entered the world of films.  As his popularity grew, he was regarded with disdain by the British media for not joining the armed forces.  His response was he would have but he was never asked.

However, Charlie enjoyed immense popularity with the troops serving at the front and did contribute to the war effort in his own unique way.  He toured the United States raising funds for the war effort as part of a Liberty Bonds campaign.  He also produced a short propaganda film called The Bond which was donated to the US government for fund raising.  His next film release was a comedy about life in the trenches entitled Shoulder Arms which, although a gamble as it made light of the war itself, became a great success when released in 1918 and set Charlie Chaplin further on the road to legendary status.


Casualty records of Francis St Clair-Erskine and Charles Norris, and the 1911 census record for Redvers Oldham.