As part of the national and local commemoration of WW1, Cheltenham Ladies College is hosting “A Chronicle of War Work” exhibition at the Parabola Arts Centre, which tells the story of pupils and staff and their support of the war effort. The exhibition is open until the 25th May, and we’ve asked Cheltenham Ladies College to talk to us about the unique story of the four Bowen-Davies Sisters…

In 2016, the Archive at Cheltenham Ladies’ College received a donation from the Bowen-Davies family which included a wealth of photographs, letters, documents, clothing and personal effects relating to the lives of four Welsh sisters, Essylt, Dora,

Gwladys and Olwen, who were students at the College from 1895 to 1918. The collection centres on the story of Gwladys, whose ambition was to become a surgeon. Sadly she was prevented from achieving her goal when she was called home from College early to care for her mother. However, her enthusiasm for Red Cross work is shown by the certificates in Red Cross training which were among the items the College received.

Upon the outbreak of the First World War, the Bowen-Davies sisters were involved in Red Cross nursing activities. Gwladys worked as a VAD at the West of England Electrical Treatment Centre at Exmouth, and her original Red Cross uniform, including apron, hats and great coat, are on display as part of the exhibition. We believe that Essylt and Olwen were also involved in work at the Exmouth Centre.

Letters and photographs from the sisters during this period tell the story of their experiences. The letters include notes of thanks from soldier patients Gwladys treated. In return, she forwarded them images of football matches played at the hospital. All were keen to tell her how they were doing and thank her and her fellow nurses for their care. Among the photographs are informal images of Essylt in training, which allow a view of the training nurses received for the demanding roles they were to play.

The letters written between the sisters provide a colourful insight to their lives during this period; the fun they found in helping patients to put on fundraising performances, and their concern for each other during such a demanding time.

The donated items also tell the story of the sisters after the war, notably of Olwen’s success as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but also that Gwladys’ contribution to the VAD war effort has been commemorated in France. 

This collection allows us to see the development of four bright girls from their school days of hockey, house plays and homework, through the harrowing experience of war and finally into their rewarding civilian lives. As a whole, the collection provides an inspiring account of their dynamic lives.

It is this unique perspective, afforded by the collection and display of these unique personal items which allow us to fully understand that which we are lucky enough not to have experienced. It offers a very personal account of the war, and despite being a local story, offers a unique historical insight into the life and times during WW1.

Anyone interested in visiting the exhibition can do so at the Parabola Arts Centre between now and the 25th May. The exhibition has various opening times and full details are available here…

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Parabola Arts Centre

Parabola Arts Centre’s mission is to support emerging artists from across the UK and inspire young audiences in Gloucestershire.

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