As the debate over PPE and the risks facing NHS doctors and nurses caring for Covid 19 patients intensifies, Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, remembers a brave nurse who died fighting the 1918 flu pandemic
Wedged between a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross, John George Pattison, and the famed educational pioneers the McMillan sisters on the Old Deptford Town Hall Board of Honour (unveiled in 1919) is the name of Sister Sophie Hilling A.R.R.C. Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Reserve.
Sophie, a lifelong resident of the Borough of Deptford was awarded the Royal Red Cross (Second Class) for bravery, coolness and devotion to duty whilst on active service in 1917.
She died aged 34 of pneumonia in Number 72, General Hospital, Trouville, France on October 12 1918.
Sophie was born Sophia Hilling in Deptford in 1884 the middle child of Samuel and Sarah Anne Hilling, who was from Suffolk. She trained as a Nurse in Birmingham between 1908 and 1912 before joining the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) during WW1.
Sophie was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal, first established by Queen Victoria in 1883, in October 1917 when she was working at the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital in Cardiff. Hence the post-nominal after her name – Associate Royal Red Cross.
Sophie served overseas in TrouvIlle, located on the Normandy coast, France. British military hospitals were often situated on the coast so that casualties could be evacuated for longer term treatment in Britain.
In the summer of 1918 she was given an excellent report from the Matron of 72 General Hospital where she had been working as a Home Sister.
On October 10 1918 she was admitted to 72 General Hospital with influenza pneumonia on the ‘dangerously ill’ list and sadly died at 22.30 on October 12 after four years of war service.
She died during the second more virulent wave of the Spanish flu pandemic which was to cost the lives of an estimated 7,500 members of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) during 1918.
The Matron -in-chief , BEF, Dame Maud McCarthy, recorded Sophie’s illness and subsequent death in her war diary.
These have now been transcribed and are available to view on line. Her Matron , Eva Cicely Fox, wrote a letter to Maud McCarthy a few days later regarding Sister Hilling’s funeral, which is the subject of a moving reading by Mark Farmer now available on You Tube – Letters from the Front Line: Death of Sister Sophie Hilling, October 1918.
On the September 27 1919, at a special meeting of the Deptford Borough Council, the Mayor Councillor, W. Wayland, unveiled in the Council Chamber an Honours Board erected to the memory of Sister Sophie Hilling, “a native of Deptford, who died in France in October from pneumonia at the age of 34 while acting as a nurse with the forces”.
Her mother Sarah choose these words to be added to her daughter’s CWGC headstone – (no doubt with the late War poet Rupert Brooke ‘s timeless epitaph in mind).
IN FOREIGN SOIL SHE LAYS
AND IN THAT RICH EARTH
A RICHER DUST CONCEALS.
Lovingly immortalised in the 1916 trench song The Rose of No-Man’s Land, as “the one red rose the soldier knows”, Sister Sophie Hilling paid the ultimate price and is now rightly remembered for her bravery and devotion in the service of her country. Sophie’s parents are buried in Brockley cemetery.