Women’s role in the life of Cumnock can sometimes be overlooked. Here we try to redress this.
Nan Hardie Hughes, socialist, political activist and Provost of Cumnock was born Agnes Paterson Hardie in Cumnock on 5th October 1885, the eldest daughter of James Keir Hardie, socialist and politician, and his wife, Lillias (Lillie) Wilson. Keir Hardie had two sons, James and Duncan, but it was Agnes who became his political heir. She developed an unusual political awareness and insight into labour politics and socialism, augmented by contact with many of her father`s associates.
On 8 August 1924 Nan married Emrys Hughes (1894–1969) acting editor of Forward and a well-known journalist. He was active in the labour movement and an advocate of Keir Hardie`s attitudes towards pacifism and socialism. Nan placed herself mainly at his disposal, acting as housewife in Cumnock and supporting her husband`s ambitions in the Labour Party. She was involved in Hughes`s successful attempt to become Provost of Cumnock.
In the 1930s, however, Nan became more active in municipal politics, with a particular interest in housing and welfare provision. In 1933 she was elected to Cumnock Town Council, and she became Convenor of Cumnock Public Health Committee the following year. In 1935 she succeeded her husband as Provost and the two of them initiated a major programme of slum clearance and council-house building. Opposition from the chief landlord in the area, Lord Bute, was eventually overcome, with the result that by the start of the Second World War three-quarters of Cumnock`s population had been rehoused in low-rent, partially furnished accommodation. Nan`s also helped to make improvements in the leisure and welfare facilities in Cumnock – these included an open-air swimming-pool and park. As a magistrate of the juvenile court in the late 1930s, she was able to encourage the participation of youth within the community through sports activities rather than imposing draconian sentences. A measure of her popularity in the area was her appointment during the war as joint chairman of the Cumnock Red Cross and War Work party. This enabled her to officiate at all public meetings and to help to alleviate the wartime exigencies imposed on the inhabitants.
In 1946 Emrys Hughes was elected as Labour MP for South Ayrshire, with Nan having relinquished her council duties during the campaign tour. When he became ill soon afterwards, Nan again absented herself from duties, only then to fall seriously ill herself. This illness ended her public career. She had served unopposed on Cumnock town council for more than 11 years, playing a part in the transformation of the area`s welfare and housing facilities.
She was described as having a distinctive and well-defined bone structure and her face had a forthright and warm expression. In later years her white, wavy hair was offset by broad, dark eyebrows. Nan died in Ballochmyle Hospital, Mauchline, Ayrshire, on 27 June 1947, and her funeral took place in Cumnock, attended by many prominent members of various local government bodies in Ayrshire; she was buried at the New Cemetery, Cumnock. Emrys Hughes continued his career as a journalist and an MP. They had no children.
Elsie Menzies, MBE and Justice of the Peace
Cumnock Chronicle 21st June 1996
Menzies – peacefully at home on 18th June 1996, Elsie Lily Hill Menzies M.B.E., J.P., aged 70 years, beloved wife of the late William and dearly loved cousin of Cath and all the family.
Town is rocked by Elsie’s death
One of Cumnock’s most well-known and best-loved residents, Elsie Menzies, MBE, passed away on Tuesday morning at her Glaisnock Street home. Elsie’s death has come as a great shock to her family and all who knew her through her tireless dedication to helping various community organizations. She was at 70-years-old, still very active in her work within and around Cumnock including collecting doe Bosnia and distributing EC free foods.
Elsie lived in Glaisnock Street for about 20 years, latterly with her cousin Cath McFarlane. Born and brought up in Cumnock, Elsie previously lived in Hearth Place.
In June 1992 Elsie was granted an audience with the Queen to be presented with the Member of the British Empire award for her community service. She was also honoured by the former Cumnock and Doon Valley District Council in April this year for outstanding community service over the past 20 years. Elsie’s various projects and involvement were not confined to charities. She served on the last Old Cumnock Burgh Council and was also a Justice of the Peace.
East Ayrshire Council leader David Sneller was a personal friend of Elsie and her family and he said “It was a great shock for me today to hear of the death of Elsie Menzies. I had known Elsie for many years and her death has hit me as severely as the loss of a family member, so highly was she regarded not only by myself but by everyone who knew her. Elsie was an active and tireless worker for many local causes throughout her life. Among the many organizations which benefited immensely from her involvement were Age Concern, the Women’s Guild and the local Twinning Association to name but a few. It is hard to imagine Cumnock without Elsie. When I first thought of standing for the council she was one of the first people I came to see and she always supported me. I would like to extend my condolences both personal and on behalf of East Ayrshire Council to her family at this sad time. Elsie was loved and respected by a huge number of people and her passing will be felt by everyone – not only in her home town of Cumnock but throughout the whole of Ayrshire”.
Elsie’s cousin Cath said she will be best remembered for her work around the town and added “She was called Mrs. Cumnock and will be remembered by people for everything she did for the community. It would be hard to narrow her interests down to one thing – there was so much”.
Elsie was District Commissioner for the Guides, was named Citizen of the Year in 1982, was the first appeals organiser for the Ayrshire Hospice, secretary of Cumnock Age Concern for 40 years and was also a past matron of the Eastern Star. Elsie was a member of Cumnock Old Parish Church where Rev. John Paterson says she was a stalwart of the parish. Her husband William was church treasurer up until his death and Elsie took up the post through his illness and for some time afterwards.
Mr. Paterson said “She has raised all sorts of monies and always been there in many ways to take the church out into the community. I am personally very grateful to Elsie as she introduced me to many people in the community when I first came to Cumnock and made my settling in much easier. You couldn’t know how much she actually did unless you stood beside her because she did so much in so many ways. She was breathtaking.”
Elsie was also involved with Cumnock Congregational Church through her work with the elderly in the community and Rev. Matt Sullivan said “She was a terrific worker with a terrific concern for a wide range of people in Cumnock. She did so much for individuals and her house was always full of people and she had real concern for everyone. Elsie’s work was incredible and she was always helping people and trying to see them through their problems – that was her real strength. She will be sadly missed by the community. She did all the extra things that were needed – and went that extra mile so often. Her death is a tremendous loss to the community and to the town”
Elsie’s funeral will take place at Cumnock Old Parish Church at 11 am on Friday and then at Masonhill Crematorium at 1pm
27th June 1996
The Provost referred to the recent sad and untimely death of one of the area`s foremost citizens and supporters, Mrs. Elsie Menzies MBE who had passed away last week. The Provost described Mrs. Menzies as someone who was the very backbone of her community and had been closely involved in a number of organisations both local and national which had brought benefits to so many. Mrs. Menzies had served as a Councillor with the Burgh of Cumnock until she retired from Local Government in 1975, and thereafter continued to serve as a Justice of the Peace. The Provost referred to just a few of the local groups such as Age Concern, the Women`s Guild and the local Twinning Association which had gained from her involvement; and such service to her community had resulted in the award of an MBE in 1992.
The Provost commented on the attendance at Mrs Menzies` funeral last Friday which in his opinion summed up her popularity and the respect in which she was held far better than the he could. The Provost stated that he was sure that all Members and Officers would wish to join with him in recording deep sadness at Mrs. Menzies` passing and in sending condolences to her family. As a mark of respect for the contribution which Mrs. Menzies had made to the community the Provost asked everyone to join with him in standing to observe one minute`s silence.
Agnes Kerr Earl was born on the 31st of March 1886 in Townhead, Cumnock. Her father William Earl was a joiner. Agnes's mother Jane Purdie passed away early in her life and she was brought up by her father. At the age of 25 she was living in Loudoun Street, Mauchline with her father.
On December 1916 she joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals as a nurse and set sail from Southampton to Salonika (Thessaloniki), a two week journey in those days and fraught with dangers from submarines, mines and Zeppelins over head. She joined the American unit. The unit's name was a result of the donations that had poured in from over the Atlantic Ocean. The unit was made up of 60 women, not just from Scotland but England, Wales and Australia. Agnes's Chief Medical Officer was the brilliant Dr Agnes Bennett from Australia. Their main objective was to support the 2nd Serbian Army who were fighting the Bulgarians in the Moglena mountains. The bigger picture was to support a huge force of Serbians, French and British to reclaim Serbia and push back the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians. From 1916-1918 Agnes would have worked often day and night and all under canvas. The conditions were very hard going. Cases of malaria, gas gangrene, amputations were all a common sight. At times it was quiet, then hundreds of injured men poured in. There were very hot summers and cold winters and they were on the move as the front line moved back and forth. Agnes worked for periods at Salonika, Lake Ostrovo, Mikra Bay and a number of small field dressing hospitals. By November 1918 the Serbs were on the march home and Agnes moved to Vranje in Serbia working this time under Dr Isobel Emslie. The hospital at Vranje was a large ex army barracks packed with hundreds of patients with a whole manner of appalling conditions; pneumonia, pleurisy and serious surgical cases. Sadder still was one woman's account of the children "The injuries are terrible. We have had several poor little hands to amputate and often they have terrible abdominal wounds".
Cold weather came to Vranje and with it typhus, Agnes by this time was the sister in charge and had being doing a fantastic job and the death rates were very low. However while dressing a gangrenous limb she got a scratch which turned septic and two days later she was dead. Mary Green remarked "she had done heroic work in the typhus ward, never sparing herself in any way, a handsome girl, tall and strong and with a splendid character".
The Serbs were very sad at the news and rich and poor came bringing flowers. It was noted that vast crowds lined the streets for her funeral. British tommies formed the firing party and sounded the last post. A monument was erected by the Serbs as she was a favourite with them all.
Today Agnes's remains are buried in Nis in Serbia along with 5 other SWH members. I am happy to say the grave and cemetery are well looked after and she is not forgotten among the Serbian people.
She was awarded The Serbian Cross For Mercy and Silver Medal For Devoted Service In War.
We are indebted to Alan Cumming of Scottish Women's Hospitals for the information below.
Alan recently visited Agnes's actual grave in Serbia at much the same time we found her family grave in Cumnock old cemetery.
The Scottish Women's Hospitals was founded in 1914 by Dr Elsie Inglis and other like-minded women who wanted to serve as doctors and nurses on the front line during WW1. The War Office was very much against the idea of women serving on the front line and declined their offer. Undeterred by the rejection the women returned to Edinburgh and hatched a plan to form all women hospitals; doctors, surgeons, nurses, orderlies, cooks, ambulance drivers and administrators. And by the end of WW1 there had been no shortages of requests for help among Britain's allies. France, Belgium, Serbia, Russia and Greece had all benefited from their work. Tens of thousands of lives had been saved. The impact they had in Serbia was remarkable, Serbia was not only fighting for its very life but faced huge typhus outbreaks. Often these hospitals were the only ones left in the field of battle.
Alan continues: As part of this year's WW1 centenary I felt that these brave women's stories, largely forgotten in their home land, should be told and we plan to take a presentation into schools, museums and community groups over the next four years. There were many women from Ayrshire and so far I have found one from Cumnock.
More about Agnes on our Soldiers Blog HERE
Top photo from Alan Cumming.
Alan recently gave a very informative talk to CHG. Thank you Alan!