Berkhamsted School for Girls During World War I

An investigation into the lives of three girls from that time

by Louise Gent

Spanning two centuries The Chronicle of The Berkhamsted School for Girls is a fascinating record of social history documenting as it does the changing aspirations and expectations of girls and young women from the late 19th century onwards. For the years 1914 – 1918 it contains detailed accounts of the many activities undertaken by the girls and Old Girls to help with the “War Effort”.

Using the Chronicles as a guide it is possible to trace something of the lives of three girls whose destinies were to be shaped by the events of the First World War. In the Editorial of December 1914 Miss Beatrice Harris, the Headmistress at that time, wrote –

The War has this term dominated our thoughts and activities. It is right that we should realise, right that we should sympathise, right we should help; yet right too we should first and foremost do well all the daily work and duties allotted to us, and make our School able to take place “at the front” if needs be.

Further on in the account of the Meeting of the Old Girls’ Guild an “Old Girl” wrote

The many letters telling of the doings of those who could not attend the meeting showed that this activity ( the War Effort ) is great. The School is well represented by eager nurses and by those whose languages are helping them deal with the numerous refugees now in England.

It is through accounts such as these we can begin to trace the paths of the three concerned – Kathleen Ling, Dorothea Bolus and Lorna Hamilton. Two were nurses with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, one a schoolgirl. Two were to lose their lives in the conflict.

We begin with Kathleen Oliver Ling. She was born on 19th August 1891. The School Admission Book lists her address as “The Braes” Berkhamsted. She is first mentioned in the Chronicle of December 1900 for helping go plant an acacia tree named “Baden-Powell” in the grounds of the “Old School” on the High Street to celebrate Mafeking Day. Her name appears frequently on the Prize Lists and in Sports Teams. She left in 1908, but seems have maintained contact with the School through her involvement with the United Girls’ School Mission in Southwark, a charitable institution supported by Berkhamsted School for Girls for several decades. In December 1913 she is recorded as the contact name for those wishing to help make overalls for the children at the Mission Settlement.

Ashridge House today
In the early months of the War “News of Old Girls” from December 1914 has a letter from “A Member of The Voluntary Aid Detachment” at Ashridge House, part of which had been converted for use as a VAD Hospital. Perhaps Kathleen Ling was one of those VADs, she may even have been involved in the writing of this piece. Here are some excerpts –

… as quite a large number of Berkhamsted Old Girls are members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, some account of their doings in the past few weeks might be of interest…

… our one aim and ambition has been to make ourselves efficient, in case of our ever being called upon for” active service …

I think we are all thoroughly enjoying the work, and the more strenuous it is the more we like it.

In 1916 a Register of War Workers appeared in the Chronicle listing the names and activities of Old Girls and in the July edition is recorded –

K Ling, Nurse in a Military Hospital , Bagthorpe, Notts.

In the Editorial of December 1916 there is more news of her. Miss Harris wrote –

Not one of us but thrilled at the thought of K O Ling as one of the heroic nurses on the Britannic, and doubtless with her were many other Public School Girls who carried from School out to life just such a record as hers for good work and influence.

A digital image of HMHS Britannic. The image is provided by Corbitt Design
(His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic was the sister ship of the Titanic. It was requisitioned as a hospital ship in November 1915. At 8.12 am on 21 November 1916 it struck a mine in the Aegean Sea off the Greek island of Kea and within 55 minutes had sunk.)

The Register of War Workers in this edition records her as “Nurse on a Hospital Ship” and next to her name in the Admission Book it is recorded that she was “Commended for work on the Britannic”.

Kathleen Ling married A. Ross Thompson on August 9 1917. She was for a time Honorary Secretary of the Old Girls Guild. The Chronicle records the birth of a son in 1918, followed by a daughter in 1919 and two more sons in 1927 and 1931. In July 1931 “News of Old Girls” touchingly mentions –

Mrs Thompson (nee K Ling) writes a happy letter of her busy life with her family of four and her husband’s School at Solihull,Warwickshire.

Her death on 1st October 1967 aged 76 is recorded in the 80th birthday edition of the Chronicle in December 1968. Kathleen Ling’s life, seemingly long and happy, saw a world changed beyond recognition from that of her early life as a schoolgirl who helped plant a tree to celebrate Mafeking Day.

The next two lives we can trace through the Chronicle were not so long. Neither would see that changing world. The first is Lorna Mary Hamilton. She was born on 19th October 1903. She came from Allahabad, India, where her parents lived. She is the most shadowy of the of the three lives, entering the School aged 12 in 1916 and leaving in July 1918. There is no trace of her in the pages of the Chronicle during the years she attended the until the last page of the edition from December 1918 when this appears –

On September 1st, Lorna Mary Hamilton, only daughter of Captain and Mrs Hamilton, went down of the Galway Castle, aged 14 years.

(The date of death in the Chronicle must be wrong as the Galway Castle was torpedoed on 12th September 1918) Next to her name in the Admission Book is entered –

July 1918, left to join her father in India . Drowned at sea by the torpedoing of the Galway Castle by a German Submarine.

Lorna Hamilton’s death seems particularly sad not only because of her age but also because it came only two months before the end of the War on 11th November 1918.

The last of our lives, one that was also lost close to the end of the conflict, is that of Dorothea Kathleen Mary Bolus. She was born on 3rd February 1888 – the same year that Berkhamsted School for Girls was founded. She came to Berkhamsted from her home in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1903 aged 14 and was a boarder in School House. Records show that there were a number of girls from South Africa attending the School at that time. She left in July 1905 to return to South Africa. During her time here she would probably have known, or at least known of, Kathleen Ling.

In November 1905 the Chronicle tells of her participation in an evening of Theatricals. Her role as Lady Corrina, a Lady in Waiting in “The Seven Dwarfs” was described as being “capably taken”. She is also listed as a member of the 2nd 11 Hockey Team and played tennis for Form V. In “Gifts to the School” she is listed as having given a picture.

An earlier Chronicle of 1904 contains an interesting account of a visit to Madeira by “DKB”. Madeira would have been a logical port of call on a journey to or from South Africa, so perhaps this article may have been written by her.

The next reference to her in the Chronicle is very different. On the last page of the December 1918 edition, along with the death of Lorna Mary Hamilton, is recorded –

Dorothea Bolus,VAD Probationer,drowned at sea on her way to nurse at the Front.

Efford Cemetery in Plymouth
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site gives her Date of Death as 04/06/1918. Her grave is in Plymouth (Efford) Cemetery. The Grave/Memorial reference is Church C4785. At the time of writing the actual circumstances of her death are unknown but it is hoped that at some point there will be an opportunity to try to discover more.

Unlike the entries for Kathleen Ling and Lorna Hamilton in the Admission Book her entry records only her return to South Africa in 1905. There is nothing about what happened to her in World War I.

Whilst researching this article there came to light some now rather telling words from Miss Harris. On Speech Day 1906 she spoke thus of her vision for the School –

…the idea of the School was to fit girls to serve their fellows in their generation.

With what we now know was to come, perhaps her words can be seen to take on a new significance.

For us today World War 1 is on the far edge of living memory, but nevertheless there seems to be a renewed interest in those years. A brief glance at the pages of the Chronicle and the Admission Books can link us directly to those times and give us a powerful and often moving insight into the lives of some of those concerned.

We have seen something of three of those lives and destinies. One, that of Lorna Mary Hamilton, ended at the age of 14 as a child victim of the War. The two other lives, one long, one cut short, bear testament to the words of Miss Harris, their Headmistress. As VAD nurses Kathleen Ling and Dorothea Bolus “took place at the front” and by their actions in so doing they did indeed follow her exhortation to “serve their fellows in their generation”.


  • The Chronicle of the Berkhamsted School For Girls
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (
  • Berkhamsted Collegiate School Remembrance

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